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Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

To answer this question it is necessary to be sure in the first place whether he was really dead, and in the second place whether he was genuinely and uniquely alive again afterwards. Accounts of people being raised from the dead are found elsewhere in the Bible, including three by Jesus himself, but in each case they returned to life in a way exactly similar to that of their former life, and had subsequently died. They were resuscitated rather than resurrected.

The  Biblical claim is that Jesus was fully human not only in his life on earth, but also in the fact that he died physical death, and that he did ‘taste death of every man’ (Heb 2:9), and that he became alive again by a unique and miraculous event which left him with a body that made him, in a sense, more alive than those miraculously raised from the dead before, a body freed from many physical limitations, and which, above all, was  not subject to illness or death, although it bore the scars of wounds inflicted in his earthly life. This was a ‘first,’ a unique event. He was the ‘first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor 15:20).

Was he really dead?

If Jesus was not in fact physically dead, (i.e. dead in the ordinary everyday medical sense), there are several possible explanations of what subsequently happened, although there is no evidence whatever to enable us to assess their  various values. We may dismiss the phenomenon of catalepsy, an exceedingly rare condition in which the subject is in a coma and appears to be dead, a condition discussed in a celebrated short story by Edgar Allan Poe in his Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and savouring of the second of these two elements rather than the first!

Worthy of more serious consideration, at least on prima facie examination, is a suggestion made by an American doctor in 1908, that Jesus’ apparent death was really  a faint induced by the sufferings of the cross and that he subsequently  recovered.

This idea has been revived recently by an anaesthetist (Sunday Times, 24 January 1965) who, in investigating the revival of patients after dental anaesthesia, found that some patients might be comatose for hours after anaesthesia, in the upright posture, though usually subsequently recovering. He postulated that the upright position of the body on the cross was similar to that of the patient in the dental chair, and that Jesus suffered from a cerebral anoxia  which was not irreversible, and recovered in the tomb.

There are serious medical objections to such a view, and a professor of anaesthetics has in fact answered this proposal from a specialist point of view. The general medical objections are that even a fit young man, after several hours nailed to a cross in great heat, with infected lacerations of the hands and feet, and an open wound of the thorax made (no doubt far from gently) with a spear, placed in a cold tomb wrapped in heavy grave clothes, would be unlikely to survive unaided. The tomb was guarded, and his followers could not easily have fooled or overpowered the guards, and carried away their seriously-ill and badly-wounded leader.

In any case, the really serious objection here is a moral and theological one, rather than a medical and scientific one. There are , if this theory is correct, grave objections to the veracity of the whole New Testament account. Even worse, the Christianity which the apostles preached is based upon a lie. And what subsequently  happened to Jesus? Did he go into hiding, live out his life in obscurity, condone the lies about him, being preached in his name? One thing is certain, it invalidates his repeated claim throughout his ministry that he was divine in as real a sense as he was human, that he was indeed the Son of God.

Was he really alive again?

Assuming that Jesus was in fact really dead, what are the possible alternatives to the New Testament claim that he rose again, that he was ‘alive after his passion’? First, it has been suggested that those who purported to see him were the victims of an hallucination, partly because they were in a highly  emotional state, partly because they wished and expected to see him alive again. It seems most unlikely that so many different individuals would all be victims of the same hallucination, or that some 500 people would all have the same hallucination at the same time (see 1 Cor 15:6). Besides this, the reality and objectivity of the events are borne out in the fact that Thomas could actually see and feel the wounds in his master’s body.

In any case, it appears that the disciples were not expecting the resurrection. Peter and John were surprised and incredulous. The women at the tomb on the first Easter morning were dumbfounded. The disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus were rebuked for their being ‘slow of heart’ Lk 24:25).

Again, assuming that Jesus was in fact dead, it has been suggested that the body was stolen and concealed, either by his enemies (i.e. the Jewish authorities) or by his followers. The suggestion that the Jewish authorities (or the Roman administration, even) would wish to remove the body is an unlikely one. Such a device would open the door to the rumour of his resurrection, which is just what they would wish to prevent.  A guard had been posted at the door of the tomb and this, together with the fact that the ‘door’ was in fact a huge stone or rock, would have made it very difficult for the disciples to steal the body, even had they wished to. A group of frightened and dispirited men, such as they were, is hardly likely to have run the gauntlet of the guards. However, as with the suggestion that Jesus was not really dead, the objection to this theory is the serious moral and theological issue which it raises. If correct, it implies that the whole of Christianity is based upon a lie, because the existence of a risen, living and glorified Christ is an integral and essential part of New Testament Christianity. Not only would it lack this essential, but even the remaining moral teaching would be a mockery if its central premise were founded upon a cunning and contrived falsehood.

The only valid answer

This leads on to what is the only valid answer, namely, that Jesus was in fact ‘alive after his passion.’ This fits best with documents and the facts. It alone can explain why and how the disciples, earlier defeated and broken as a group, became bold, confident, and successful in launching the infant Church in a hostile world. They became men who preached Christ, crucified and risen. A  concealed subterfuge, however successful as a deception, could not have brought this about: nothing but the conviction of the reality of the return of their lost leader, and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, after Pentecost; because if Jesus had still been dead, the giving of the Holy Spirit would have been impossible.

In the last analysis, it is the testimony of countless Christians who have known ‘him and the power of his resurrection’ (Philippians 3:10) throughout [2000] years which looms largest as proof that Jesus rose from the dead and lives today as a risen Saviour. A teacher long since deceased, however good, however great, however inspiring would have been no substitute.

(A.P. Waterson)


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