At the age of 50, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy had an existential crisis. He admited to being on the verge of suicide, wrestling with a question that all of us must find an answer to:
"'What will come of what I am doing today or tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?' It can also be expressed thus: Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?" – A Confession.
Most of us are not as eloquent or as existentially expressive as Tolstoy, but I believe all of us are driven at times to exclaim in frustration or puzzlement in the middle of all sorts of crises: "What's the point?!" Life often makes no sense to us, and death is even more confusing.
Christians claim that the Easter story provides a powerful answer to the painful problem of the finality of death and the search for a meaning to life. Easter is the epicenter of the Christian hope where death and life are tackled head on. It is the beginning point for faith that can transform our lives and the world in which we live.
Jesus was executed on Good Friday, pronounced dead by expert military opinion and then on the first Easter Sunday was seen alive again by his followers. It showed that Jesus is more than just a man, more than just a Messianic pretender executed by the authorities of the time, more than an innocent victim murdered on a Roman cross. If Jesus really died and came back to life then this clearly demonstrates that he is who he claimed to be – the God-man, God in human form, conqueror of death, Saviour of the world, giver of life and hope for everyone.
Since the very day of the resurrection, Jesus' followers have argued that this is not a myth, a fairy tale, a legend, or even a twisted semi-true account, but actual reliable historical truth. Here are 10 reasons that demonstrate, not beyond all possible doubt, but beyond reasonable doubt, that Jesus really did die and then resurrect to life – offering hope to all our existential anxieties.
1. Jesus really was dead
There can be no resurrection without a dead person. Some argue that Jesus did not really rise from the dead because he wasn't dead in the first place – instead he merely recovered in the tomb. Could Jesus have really survived the scourging and crucifixion and entombment? First of all, we should note that the fact of the historical execution of Jesus was corroborated by both Josephus, a Jewish historian, and Tacitus, a Roman historian.
"Christus, the founder of the name was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also." – Josephus Annals XV.44.
"Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly. He was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders." – Tacitus Antiquities xviii, 33 (The conservatively translated Arabic text).
Crucifixion was sadly a common execution method for the brutal Roman empire. The ancient philosopher Cicero described it as "the most cruel and hideous of tortures." It was a horrendously effective way of killing people in a very public and protracted way. Victims died from exhaustion leading to asphyxiation. To survive crucifixion was unheard of. Jesus – having been severely tortured beforehand, and impaled with a spear in his side afterwards – was clearly killed, checked by the guard, and witnessed by the crowd.
2. The eye witnesses
According to the New Testament recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 there were over 500 witnesses of the resurrection over a period of 50 days. These eye witnesses were most likely still alive by the time that Paul wrote about them and they could have been questioned about what they saw. In other words, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead was not a myth or legend that developed slowly over a period of time long after the death of Jesus. It was the eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus that started making their claims immediately. These eyewitness events took place in a variety of different settings: by a beach, in a locked room, on the road to Emmaus and on the Mount of Olives. Some question whether they could have been hallucinating, but only certain people are susceptible to hallucinations – such as those with a mental health condition like schizophrenia or who have taken mind-altering substances. There are such a wide variety of people that saw Jesus and in such diverse circumstances, none of which involved the use of psychotropic drugs. Secondly, hallucinations are personal. Josh McDowell observes they are "linked to an individual's subconscious and to his particular past experiences, making it very unlikely that two persons could have the same hallucination at the same time." The New Testament claims many hundreds of people saw Jesus, which would counter all that we know about the nature of hallucinations. There was no reason for the eye-witnesses to invent their story – in fact their claims at that time were highly dangerous.
3. The women as witnesses
First century Palestine was not an egalitarian western democracy. Women were often treated as second class citizens:
"A woman was a minor all her life, she could only get divorced at her husband's request. Her legal position was inferior. She was not taught the Torah along with her brothers... a man was forbidden to be alone with a woman unless they were married... Jewish religious leaders would have been defiled by looking on a woman." – Elaine Storkey, 'What's Right with Feminism'.
The fact that all of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection (Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-11, Matthew 28:1-10, John 20:1-18) show that women were the first to witness the resurrection makes little sense if the whole story was fabricated. If you were trying to fool people into believing the resurrection in the first century you would have made your witnesses male because their testimony would carry far more weight. The fact the Gospels record women discovering the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus and then persuading the male disciples to believe makes best sense if the Gospels are recording history, not legend.
4. No one was expecting a personal resurrection
The Old Testament view of the afterlife is difficult to ascertain and the idea of resurrection was a relatively peripheral subject, such that in Jesus' day there were a number of different Jewish sects with radically different views on life after death. For example, the Pharisees believed that there was life beyond which involved a day of judgement, while the Sadduccees believed death was the end. But celebrated New Testament scholar NT Wright notes that no one was expecting the resurrection to mean one person dying and then to resurrect. If resurrection was discussed within Judaism, it was supposed to involve the final vindication of the nation of Israel when God's victory would be experienced over all the earth and all the dead would be raised to life. So when the first Christians, who were all Jewish, began proclaiming the resurrection had taken place because Jesus had risen from the dead this was highly controversial and unexpected. The Christians were clear in their understanding of what would happen after death: there would be a resurrection of the dead and then a final judgment. They also made the resurrection a central part of the core message of the Christian faith and no longer a peripheral doctrine. These significant and unexpected changes from Judaism so quickly after the death of Jesus make best sense if Jesus really did rise from the dead and reform everyone's expectations.
5. The missing body
The public claim made a few weeks after the death of Jesus that he was not dead anymore but had conquered death and ascended up to heaven could have been quickly and decisively quashed by simply producing the dead body of Jesus. As Tim Keller writes in his New York Times bestselling book The Reason for God:
"No one in Jerusalem would have believed the preaching for a minute if the tomb was not empty. Skeptics could have easily produced Jesus' rotted corpse. Also, Paul could not be telling people in a public document that there were scores of eyewitnesses alive if there were not."
But the body of Jesus is missing. According to the Gospels there was a guard placed on the tomb of Jesus to prevent anyone stealing the body, in an attempt to silence rumours that Jesus was God. The disciples had no motive to steal the body – is was their confession that Jesus rose from the dead that resulted in them being persecuted by both the Roman and the Jewish authorities of the day. As the 18th century philosopher William Paley argued:
"Would men in such circumstances pretend to have seen what they never saw; assert facts which they had not knowledge of; go about lying to teach virtue; and though not only convinced of Christ's being an imposter... bring upon themselves, for nothing, and with full knowledge of the consequences, enmity and hatred, danger and death."
The most obvious explanation of the missing body of Jesus is that he did, as people claimed they saw, rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.
6. The level of detail
It used to be argued that because the death and resurrection story of Jesus so closely parallels the death and resurrection stories in Pagan and Gnostic myths that it must be fabricated. But Oxford professor Alister McGrath argues: "The parallels between the pagan myths of dying and rising gods and the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are now regarded as remote, to say the least." C.S. Lewis explains that the gnostic redeemer myths – allegedly reapplied to Christ by Christians – actually date from later than the New Testament so if anyone borrowed any ideas from anyone, it was the gnostics who took up Christian ideas. The most significant difference, though, is that the New Testament accounts give very precise historical and geographical information. We are told the exact time and day of the week Jesus was crucified and then seen alive again. We are told where this took place, who ordered it, who removed the body and the names of people who witnessed the resurrection. All of this was publically proclaimed shortly after the events and then written and disseminated during the lifetime of the many eyewitnesses. This does not sound anything like a myth or a legend.
7. The changed lives of the disciples
According to expectations of the time, the promised Messiah would rescue the Jewish nation from their captivity to Roman rule. Hence the rapturous reception Jesus received when he fulfilled ancient prophecies by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) on the first Palm Sunday. But when just a few days later Jesus was captured, tried by the Romans and then offered to the crowd to be released by Pontius Pilate, the same crowd that celebrated Jesus' triumphal entry to Jerusalem then changed their tune demanding that he be crucified. This was a public verdict that Jesus had not measured up to the kind of Messiah they were waiting for. The disciples seemed to be equally disappointed at the events surrounding the death of Jesus. Many went into hiding, fearing for their own lives. Yet three days later they were transformed into men and women who were willing to risk life and limb to let the world know that Jesus is the Messiah who had come not just to rescue Israel from the Romans but the whole world from injustice, sin, evil and death. In fact, the Church that exists today around the world with some 2.4 billion people only exists because of the radical change in the lives of the disciples, where frightened followers became fearless founders of Christianity. This is further evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and it was the physical encounter those first disciples had with Jesus that changed their lives – and our world – forever.
8. The way history works
Some objectors to the resurrection argue that because it is scientifically impossible for someone to rise from the dead, an insurmountable degree of evidence is needed in order to justify such a claim. They believe that science proves that resurrection cannot take place. The problem with this is that it is based on a dislocated view of the nature of science and of history. Science is based on empirical research and so makes tentative projections based on a finite number of observations. Science can describe the way the world normally works – it cannot dictate the way the world must work. But Christians are not claiming that the resurrection is normal – in fact they are agreeing that it is not normal. The Easter story is extraordinary because Jesus broke the norm – he was really dead and then three days later rose to life. The challenge of the resurrection is to humbly follow the evidence trail of history and accept the norms of science and to remain open-minded to consider what it means if Jesus did really rise from the dead. In fact this is how good science operates; it tenaciously follows the evidence even if it means rethinking and reimagining what was previously known.
9. The Sunday service
The first disciples of Jesus were all law-abiding Jewish believers. Observing the Sabbath was one of the most important and defining marks of Jewish religious and cultural identity. The concept that the Sabbath was the last day of the week, running from Friday evening to Saturday afternoon, and was to be set apart for rest and worship goes back all the way to the book of Genesis and is enshrined in the 10 commandments. Throughout centuries of history, Jewish believers have observed the Sabbath even when facing personal loss and persecution. Yet after the resurrection of Jesus 'on the first day of the week', a new day was launched for Christians to gather and celebrate together in worship. To have the confidence to change such a deeply held conviction and universally observed institution as the Sabbath to the Sunday is further evidence of the historical resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection changed history – not just in how the early church reshaped the weekly calendar, but even how we explain the which year we are in.
10. The hope of life
From its very beginning Christianity has been a religion that faced tremendous challenge and persecution. To become a Christian was not a decision to be made easily or lightly. Indeed, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." This was literally true for many of the earliest Christians. Yet Christianity grew and flourished, starting in Jerusalem and travelling to the ends of the earth as Christians confidently shared their newfound hope. Wherever Christianity went, the church cared for the poor, the needy and fought against injustice. The reason they did this was because of the conviction of the resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus physically rose from the dead Christians were convinced that the body mattered to God; not just our souls or our spirits but the body too. Because there is hope beyond death, Christians are convinced that whether living or dying, there is love and hope to be shown in caring for people's mind, body and soul.
Leo Tolstoy asked: "What will come of what I am doing today or tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?' It can also be expressed thus: Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?" – A Confession.
Paul recognised the same quandary of the futility of life and faith without reference to the resurrection:
"And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
But then Paul says: "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." (1 Corinthians 15:20)
This is the hope we have for life and death, and the hope we can offer to others.
Recommendations for further reading:
The Resurrection Factor, Josh McDowell (entry level)
The Reason for God, Timothy Keller (intermediate)
The Resurrection of the Son of God, NT Wright (advanced)