May 25th, 1997
by Dr. Phil Fernandes
A chapter from his doctoral dissertation
© 1997, Institute of Biblical Defense, All Rights Reserved
The importance of Christ’s resurrection should not be overlooked. The apostle Paul considered belief in Christ’s resurrection to be necessary for salvation (Romans 10:9). Paul also stated:
. . . and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain . . . and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17).
Paul was quick to point out that if Christ could not raise Himself from the dead, then faith in Him would be worthless. Therefore, Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ. If the resurrection really happened, then Christianity is true and Jesus is the only Savior. However, if the resurrection never occurred, then Christianity is just another false religion, promoting a false messiah.
CHRIST’S RESURRECTION WAS BODILY
Before examining the evidence for Christ’s resurrection, the nature of that resurrection must be discussed. Throughout the centuries the Christian Church has recognized that Christ’s resurrection was bodily.1 Despite this fact, many today deny that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a non-Christian cult which denies Christ’s bodily resurrection. Their literature states:
On the third day of his being dead in the grave his immortal Father Jehovah God raised him from the dead, not as a human Son, but as a mighty immortal spirit Son, with all power in heaven and earth under the Most High God.2
Jesus was the first one to rise from the dead. . . This firstborn one from the dead was not raised out of the grave a human creature, but was raised a spirit.3
Unfortunately, the denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ is no longer limited solely to non-Christian cults. Even evangelical scholar Murray Harris has denied that Jesus rose in the body which was crucified.4 To make matters worse, many evangelical scholars, rather than refuting his heresy, have come to Harris’ defense when he was confronted by Christian apologist Norman Geisler.5
If Christ did not rise bodily, then there would be no way to verify the truth of the resurrection. Presumably, His corpse would have been rotting in the tomb when the apostles were proclaiming Him as the risen Savior. Although those who hold to a spiritual resurrection of Christ usually invent an additional miracle through which Christ’s corpse dissappears, it seems more reasonable to conclude that either Jesus rose bodily or His corpse remained in the tomb. Since the New Testament records that the tomb was empty, it implies that the resurrection was bodily. A few passages of Scripture will suffice to show that Christ’s resurrection, according to the apostles, was bodily:
He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying (Matthew 28:6).
Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” . . . But He was speaking of the temple of His body (John 2:19, 21).
And after eight days again His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:26-27).
And while they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst. But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. And while they still could not believe it for joy and were marveling, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” And they gave Him a piece of broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them (Luke 24:36-43).
The apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances. Their testimony revealed several important points. First, the tomb was empty. Second, Christ appeared to them on several occasions. Third, they thought He was a spirit. Fourth, Jesus proved to them that He was physical by inviting them to touch His body and by eating with them. Fifth, His pierced side, hands, and feet showed that His resurrection body was the body which was crucified. Therefore, it is clear that the apostles taught that Christ rose bodily. The debate about whether Christ’s resurrection was bodily is usually based upon this passage:
So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. . . (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
THE SPIRITUAL BODY
Many people misunderstand the phrase “spiritual body.” They mistake this phrase for signifying some type of immaterial spirit. However, this is not the case. In the Greek, the phrase is “soma pneumatikon.” The word soma almost always refers to a physical body. Still, in this passage this physical body is somehow described as being “spiritual” (pneumatikon). But, the spiritual body is contrasted with the natural body. The natural body refers to the physical body before physical death. The Greek words for natural body are “soma psuchikon.” Literally, this phrase means a “soulish body.” The word soul usually carries with it the idea of immateriality, but, in this passage, it cannot. It is referring to the human body before death, and, the human body is of course physical, despite the adjective “soulish.” Therefore, if the “soulish body” is physical, then there should be no difficulty viewing the “spiritual body” as also being physical. The soulish body is sown (buried) at death, but, this same body is raised as a spiritual body; it receives new powers. It is no longer a natural body; it is a supernatural body. The body is changed, but it is still the same body. For, the body that was sown (buried) is the same body that will be raised. Gary Habermas discussed Christ’s spiritual body in the following words:
. . . the Gospels and Paul agree on an important fact: the resurrected Jesus had a new spiritual body. The Gospels never present Jesus walking out of the tomb. . . when the stone is rolled away, Jesus does not walk out the way He does in apocryphal literature. He’s already gone, so He presumably exited through the rock. Later He appears in buildings and then disappears at will. The Gospels clearly say that Jesus was raised in a spiritual body. It was His real body, but it was changed, including new, spiritual qualities.6
Paul is using the term spiritual body to contrast it with the natural body. He is making the point that Christ’s body after the Resurrection (and ours too) has different characteristics to it than it did before. . . But the point is made very clearly that what is being talked about is the same body, the contrast here is not between physical body and spiritual body, but rather between the same body in different states or with different characteristics.7
Walter Martin, the foremost authority on non-Christian cults during his lifetime, also discussed Christ’s spiritual body in his greatest work, Kingdom of the Cults:
However, Christ had a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:50, 53) in His glorified state, identical in form to His earthly body, but immortal, and thus capable of entering the dimension of earth or heaven with no violation to the laws of either one.8
Therefore, Christ rose in the same body in which He lived and died. However, His body had been changed in the “twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:50-53) so that His mortal body (a body capable of death) was glorified and became immortal (incapable of death). In His spiritual body, He can apparently travel at the speed of thought, unhindered by distance. The Bible teaches that in the first resurrection all believers will receive glorified bodies. Believers’ bodies will be changed into glorified and immortal bodies. The presence of sin will be totally removed from them (1 Corinthians 15:50-53).
Therefore, the apostles claimed that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Since the resurrection occurred in the physical realm it could be verified; it could be proven true or false. In reference to Christ’s resurrection, only four options exist: 1) the resurrection accounts may be legends, 2) the accounts may be lies, 3) the apostles may have been sincere but deceived, or 4) the apostles were telling the truth. The remainder of this chapter will determine, by process of elimination,which of these four options best explains the available evidence.
THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS WERE NOT LEGENDS
The resurrection accounts were not legends. The evidence presented in the last chapter clearly shows that the resurrection accounts predate even the New Testament itself. Legends usually take centuries to evolve.9 But, as chapter twenty-five has shown, the earliest known written resurrection accounts date back to less than twenty years after Christ’s death. These accounts were ancient creeds and hymns of the first generation church (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Romans 10:9; etc.). There is simply no way that a resurrection legend could receive universal acceptance (in order to become a hymn or creed) in the church while the apostles themselves led the church. If the resurrection account was merely a legend, the apostles would have refuted it. If the apostles chose not to refute a fictitious resurrection story, then they would have purposely perpetrated a falsehood. In that case, however, the resurrection accounts would not be legends; instead, the apostles would be liars.
The apostles knew Jesus personally. They were eyewitnesses of the events of His life and the things He taught. The apostles also led the early church. They were the authoritative witnesses to the facts concerning Christian doctrine, history, and practice. No legend could gain wide acceptance in the first generation church with the apostles in positions of authority. Since it can be shown that the resurrection accounts were not legends, some have concluded that the apostles were liars.
THE APOSTLES WERE NOT LIARS
Skeptics sometimes accuse the apostles of fabricating the resurrection accounts. One theory suggests that the apostles stole the body of Jesus from the tomb.10 In fact, this was the first attempted refutation of Christ’s resurrection (Matthew 28:11-15).
Though it would be ludicrous to suggest that the apostles overpowered the Roman soldiers who guarded Jesus’ tomb, this point will not be argued here. For many skeptics reject the apostolic witness concerning the guards at the tomb. Apart from the debate over whether or not the tomb was guarded, it can still be shown that the apostles were not liars. The apostles claimed that they saw Jesus risen from the dead, and, they were willing to suffer and die for for their testimony. It is clearly against human nature for men to die for what they know to be a hoax.
Death by martyrdom is probably a more accurate way to determine if someone is telling the truth than even modern lie-detector tests. William Lane Craig describes the horrible sufferings that the first generation Christians endured for their faith:
One of the most popular arguments against this theory is the obvious sincerity of the disciples as attested by their suffering and death . . . Writing seventy years after Jesus’ death, Tacitus narrates Nero’s persecution about thirty years after Christ, how the Christians were clothed with the skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs, how others were smeared with pitch and used as human torches to illuminate the night while Nero rode about Rome in the dress of a charioteer, viewing the spectacle. The testimonies of Suetonius and Juvenal confirm the fact that within thirty-one years after Jesus’ death, Christians were dying for their faith. From the writings of Pliny the Younger, Martial, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, it is clear that believers were voluntarily submitting to torture and death rather than renounce their religion. This suffering is abundantly attested in Christian writings as well.11
Fox’s Book of Martyrs lists the deaths of eight of the twelve original apostles. James (John’s brother) was put to death with the sword by order of Herod Agrippa I. The apostle Philip was crucified. Matthew (who wrote one of the Gospels) was beaten to death with an axe-shaped weapon. Andrew (Peter’s brother) was crucified on an X—shaped cross. Peter (author of two epistles) was crucified upside down by order of Nero. Bartholomew was crucified. Thomas was killed when a spear was thrust through him. Simon the Zealot was crucified.12
Fox’s Book of Martyrs also discusses the deaths of other New Testament authors. James (a half-brother of Christ and author of the epistle bearing his name) was beaten and stoned to death. Jude (another half-brother of Jesus and author of the epistle bearing his name) was crucified. Mark (author of the Gospel bearing his name) was dragged to pieces in Alexandria. Paul (who wrote thirteen or fourteen epistles) was beheaded in Rome. Luke (who wrote the Gospel named after him and Acts) was hanged on an olive tree.13
The apostles claimed to have seen Christ risen from the dead. They were willing to suffer and die for this claim. It is against human nature for one to die for what one knows to be a lie. Therefore, the apostles did not steal the body. They were not lying. They were sincere. They believed that they had really seen the resurrected Lord. Hence, they were either sincere but deceived, or they were telling the truth.
THE APOSTLES WERE NOT DECEIVED
Most of today’s New Testament scholars recognize that the apostles were sincere in their belief that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. Therefore, in an attempt to explain away the resurrection, some of these scholars accept one of several theories devised to explain how the apostles were decieved into thinking they had seen the risen Lord. It is interesting to note that these theories have all been refuted by other skeptics.14
The swoon theory suggests that Christ never actually died on the cross. Instead, He only passed out but was mistaken for dead. Christ then, according to this view, revived in the tomb. When He visited the apostles, they mistakenly proclaimed Him as risen from the dead.15 The swoon theory is easily refuted. The apostle John recorded in his Gospel strong evidence for Christ’s death on the cross:
The Jews therefore, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for the Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs; but one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water (John 19:31-34).
Death by crucifixion was a horrible ordeal. To prolong the sufferings of the crucified person, a wooden block was placed under the feet to give him leverage to straighten up in order to breathe. When the Jewish authorities wanted to quicken the deaths of the victims so that they would not be on the cross during their feast days, they would have the Roman soldiers break the legs of the crucified victims. Being unable to straighten up in order to breathe, the victim would quickly die.16
In Christ’s case, the Roman soldier saw that He was already dead. Still, being a good soldier who was conscientious about his job, he confirmed his view that Christ was dead by thrusting his spear into Christ’s side. In this way, if the soldier was mistaken and Christ was actually alive, the spear wound would be fatal. The soldier, an expert in mortal combat, was surely trained in how to deliver a death blow to an enemy. Therefore, if Christ had been alive, the piercing of His side would have certainly killed Him.
Another detail in this passage provides evidence that Christ did in fact die. The apostle John reported a flow of “blood and water” coming from Christ’s side as a result of the spear wound. Today, medical science has shown that this phenomenon proves that Christ was dead prior to the spear wound.17 The flow of “blood and water” could only occur if the wound was inflicted upon a corpse. It should also be noted that this medical knowledge was unknown in John’s day. Therefore, he had no knowledge that his reporting of this detail was irrefutable proof of death. Hence, he could not have fabricated this event in an attempt to prove Christ’s death.18
The evidence, therefore, clearly indicates that Jesus died on the cross. Still, even if He did survive the cross, imminent death would follow due to His injuries from the scourging and crucifixion. Furthermore, even if He survived these injuries, there is no way in His battered condition He would have been able to convince His disciples that He had conquered death for all mankind.19 The evidence declares that Jesus did die.
Some skeptics have proposed the wrong tomb theory. This view holds that everyone went to the wrong tomb and thus proclaimed Christ as risen.20 However, this theory also has many problems. It offers no explanation for the apostles’ claim to have seen the risen Christ on several occasions, and the apostles’ willingness to die for their testimony. Also, the Jewish religious authorities would have searched every tomb in the Jerusalem area in an attempt to produce the rotting corpse of Christ. They had both the means and the desire to do so. Had they produced the corpse, Christianity would have been dealt a death blow while still in its infancy. The fact that the Jews did not produce the corpse of Christ is itself evidence of the empty tomb.21 Again, any claim that the disciples stole the body offers no explanation as to how they could have been willing to die for what they knew to be a hoax.
Other skeptics have proposed the hallucination theory. This theory states that the apostles did not really see the resurrected Christ; instead, they only hallucinated and thought they saw the risen Lord.22 However, psychologists say that hallucinations occur inside a person’s mind. It is therefore impossible for two people—not to mention 500—to have had the same hallucination at the same time. Since many of the reported appearances of the risen Christ were to groups of people, the hallucination theory fails to explain the resurrection accounts.23
Another attempt to explain away the resurrection is the hypnotic theory. This highly speculative view suggests that the witnesses of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances were all hypnotized. They did not actually see the risen Lord. Today, modern hypnotists deny this possibility.24 Christian scholar Gary Habermas sums up the failure of skeptics to explain away the resurrection of Christ:
One interesting illustration of this failure of the naturalistic theories is that they were disproven by the nineteenth-century older liberals themselves, by whom these views were popularized. These scholars refuted each other’s theories, leaving no viable naturalistic hypotheses. For instance, Albert Schweitzer dismissed Reimaru’s fraud theory and listed no proponents of this view since 1768. David Strauss delivered the historical death blow to the swoon theory held by Karl Venturini, Heinrich Paulus, and others. On the other hand, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Paulus pointed out errors in Strauss’s hallucination theory. The major decimation of the hallucination theory, however, came at the hands of Theodor Keim. Otto Pfleiderer was critical of the legendary or mythological theory, even admitting that it did not explain Jesus’ resurrection. By these critiques such scholars pointed out that each of these theories was disproven by the historical facts.25
CONCLUSION: THE APOSTLES WERE TELLING THE TRUTH
The failure of these theories shows that the apostles told the truth. Jesus did rise from the dead. Four facts of history add further support to the case for the resurrection of Christ from the dead. First, the apostles, who were devout Jews, changed the sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday in honor of the Lord’s resurrection. Only a miracle such as the resurrection (which occurred on a Sunday) would lead them to change their sacred day of rest (a fifteen-hundred-year-old religious tradition).26 Second, the Jewish religious leaders during the time of Christ remained silent as far as written records are concerned. Accusing the apostles of stealing the body was a failure. The punishment for Roman guards sleeping on post was death.27 Thus, it is unlikely that well-trained Roman guards would allow a small group of Galilean fishermen to overpower them. The Jewish religious leaders, seeing the failure of their alternative explanation of the resurrection, chose not to record it in writing. The silence of the Jews provides strong evidence for the fact of the empty tomb. The Jewish religious leaders had every reason to refute the resurrection. They did not; therefore, it is safe to conclude that they could not. Third, despite the fact that the resurrection was being proclaimed right in Jerusalem (near the tomb of Christ), the new church grew rapidly. All that had to be done to disprove Christianity (which was the intention of the Jewish religious leaders) was to produce the rotting corpse of Christ. Yet, the church grew rapidly. The only explanation for this is that no one could refute the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Christ.28 Last, the conversion of both James and the apostle Paul can only be adequately understood as a direct consequence of the resurrection.29 James was one of the half-brothers of Jesus. He was very skeptical about His brother’s claim to be the Jewish Messiah (John 7:1-5). Anything short of seeing His brother risen from the dead would fail to explain his dramatic conversion and subsequent rise to leadership in the early church (1 Corinthians 15:7; Acts 15:13-21; Galatians 1:18-19; 2:9). Paul was originally a Pharisee and apparently the leading enemy of the church (Philippians 3:4-6; Acts 8:1-3). If one rejects the post-resurrection appearance of Christ to him on the road to Damascus, then the reason for his conversion is a mystery (Acts 9:1-9).
The evidence for Christ’s resurrection is overwhelming. The empty tomb stands as a monument to Christ’s victory over death, a monument that, though attacked throughout the ages, remains standing and unmoved. The empty tomb is not a silent witness: the echoing of the angel’s voice can still be heard coming from it, “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying” (Matthew 28:6).