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.
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…
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.
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…
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…
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…
This seems to suggest that the body of Jesus after the resurrection is very different to how it had been before.
Back to top.
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.
Back to top.
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…
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…
Back to the top
Bookmark this page:
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
Rejesus is looking for new content contributors: artists, writers, thinkers, coders, film makers, creatives. If you have a great proposal get in contact.
I never cease to be amazed at the wisdom which politicians seem to be able to draw on after they… more
Horse chestnut seeds, high vis jacket, goggles, gardening gloves - it means just one thing: the conker season is here.… more
What is your first thought when a stranger comes towards you? Is it friendly or fearful, hostile or welcoming? Do… more