The Jesus FAQs

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What about the resurrection


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 An icon of the risen Jesus by Gregory Kroug

Christians believe that three days after he was put to death, Jesus rose again from the dead. These questions look at the issues surrounding the resurrection of Jesus.

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian faith, so this question is hugely important.

The Gospels contain four accounts, drawn from different sources, of Jesus’ various disciples meeting him after his resurrection. They all agree that the tomb of Jesus was found empty on the Sunday morning after his crucifixion, to the absolute consternation of the disciples. None of them had been prepared for Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and it seems that none of them were now prepared for his body to go missing from the tomb.

In fact, the Gospels tell us that the disciples were traumatised and fearful that they might “be next” and had gone into hiding. The likelihood that they had a any sort of plan to fake Jesus’ resurrection seems extremely remote.

The Gospels conclude with many different appearances by Jesus to his disciples, either individually or in groups. These reports have a genuine feel to them, with down-to-earth details and authentically raw human emotions. The encounters with Jesus initially produce shock, fear, surprise, terror and confusion. The group of disciples reject the first sighting of Jesus as “nonsense”, and one of the disciples – Thomas – pours scorn on the idea even when all the others tell him they have seen Christ for themselves. These negative first impressions immediately fall away, though, as the witnesses encounter Jesus for themselves. They are then filled with joy and amazement.

The book of Acts picks up the story from the end of the Gospel of Luke. It tells us that forty days after the crucifixion, the disciples were a transformed group. They had come out of hiding and were now preaching the resurrection publicly in Jerusalem – and were being beaten and imprisoned for doing so. What could explain this turnaround, so soon after the trauma of seeing Jesus crucified? Clearly, they had been through a powerful event which had transformed them as a group, and their own explanation for it was the resurrection of Jesus.

The earliest written reports of the resurrection in the New Testament are in the letters of Paul, who said he had met the risen Jesus for himself. Paul was a leading opponent and persecutor of Christians before meeting Jesus, so his conversion is hard to explain if this meeting never happened. Similarly, Jesus’ own brother James did not follow him when he was alive, but was converted when he encountered the risen Jesus later.

In the thinking of the time, the crucifixion of a supposed Messiah immediately discredited his cause and claims, and made it dangerous to be one of his followers. In every case other than that of Jesus, it was the end of the movement.

But in the case of Jesus, we know that many of his followers were put to death for preaching the resurrection (Stephen, James the disciple, James the brother of Jesus, Paul and Peter), and only one of those first followers is known to have lived to old age (John). If they knew the resurrection was a fake, this would show an incredible degree of commitment against the facts.

The report of a sermon of Peter, given 40 days after the first Easter, gives the flavour of the first Christians’ transformation by the resurrection. It was preached to a crowd in Jerusalem…

Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Acts 2:22-24

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Who were the key witnesses?

According to the Gospels, the first person Jesus appeared to was Mary Magdalene – alone, according to John, or with other women. This seems an unlikely fabrication, incidentally, in a society where women’s testimony was inadmissible in court.

Then Jesus appeared to all the disciples together. John’s Gospel tells us that Thomas was not present on this occasion. and that he didn’t believe the others until Jesus came to them all a week later.

Luke’s Gospel also has a story of Jesus appearing to two disciples as they walked to a village outside Jerusalem called Emmaus. John’s Gospel adds another story of Jesus appearing to seven disciples as they were fishing on Lake Tiberias.

Paul’s encounter with Jesus, and his conversion, came a few years after the first Easter. Some twenty years after that, he wrote the following famous summary of resurrection appearances, which is important as being the oldest testimony we have to the resurrection.

He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Corinthians 15:5-8

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Was the resurrection physical or spiritual?

The traditional Christian understanding is that Jesus came back to life in solid, recognisable human flesh. Today, Christians vary in their view of this question. Some prefer to see the resurrection as spiritual rather than physical. What the Bible itself says about it is not exactly clear-cut.

The earliest writer on the resurrection is Paul. He talks about Jesus being raised bodily. But he also insists that this is a very different kind of body. It is more perfect, more glorious, more powerful. He says…

It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. 1 Corinthians 15:44

The Gospels, each in their own way, present an equally two-sided picture. The resurrection is physical enough for Jesus to appear in specific locations, for Mary to mistake him for a gardener, for others to think him a fellow traveller on the road, and for him to cook breakfast and eat it with the disciples. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus talks about this directly…

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. Luke 24:37-40

On the other hand, the disciples repeatedly fail to recognise Jesus, and on two occasions, according to the Gospel of John, he appears among them despite the doors to the room being locked…

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” John 20:26

This seems to suggest that the body of Jesus after the resurrection is very different to how it had been before.
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Is the resurrection story of Jesus unique?

Yes. People often say that the first Christians took the idea of resurrection from other religions of the time. The problem with that idea is that these resurrections were something that happened to gods, not to religious teachers.

It happened to the gods Osiris (in Egypt) and Tammuz (in Babylon), but not to the philosopher Socrates in Athens. Before the first Easter, no mere human hero in Jewish or pagan legends had ever returned to their body after death. And certainly no recently killed teacher. In this, the resurrection of Jesus is unprecedented.

Many Jews believed that true believers would be raised from the dead at the coming of the Messiah at the end of time. But they had no idea that anyone might jump the gun and have an individual resurrection.
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What is the significance of the resurrection?

For the first Christians, the greatest significance of the resurrection was that it turned the verdict about Jesus on its head. Without it, he was just another failed guru, strung up naked on a pagan gibbet, punished by God for his false teachings and claims about himself. But by raising him from the dead, God instead set his seal of approval on him, vindicating his teachings and claims.

As they reflected further, though, the early Christians saw more and more in it. In fact, it could be said that most of the New Testament is about unpacking the meaning of the resurrection.

Essentially, the realisation they came to was this: Because Christ rose from the dead, those who belong to him and are united with him will rise from the dead, too, and share in his power and glory…

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you. 1 Peter 1:3-4

And not only is that a promise for beyond the grave, but that same resurrection power is at work in believers even now, transforming their lives and changing them to be more like Jesus…

Since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him… In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Romans 6:9 and 11

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About this module

Is there reliable evidence that Jesus ever lived? Was he a great religious teacher… or an alien? Read our Jesus FAQs pages here. If you have a question about the life or teaching of Jesus, check here first to see what’s been posted about it.

Written by Steve Tomkins

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Module contents

arrow Introduction

arrow Some definitions

arrow What's the evidence

arrow Who was Jesus

arrow What did Jesus teach

arrow What did Jesus say about

arrow How did Jesus live

arrow How and why did Jesus die

arrow What about the resurrection

arrow What about Jesus today

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