The details of the Resurrection as found in the Gospels are presented in such a way that throughout the centuries believers and unbelievers alike have recognized their cogency; and skeptics have generally found that the only way to undermine this testimony to His bodily resurrection is not to deny that Jesus was seen alive after the Crucifixion, but that He never actually died on the cross in the first place.
This ancient argument has been so often discredited by critical analysis of the resurrection scenes presented in the Gospels that one might suppose no one would think of reviving the argument any more.
Nevertheless, it was reported by Associated Press in 1970 that a German scholar, Kurt Berna, (2)
after careful re-examination of the famous shroud which is believed to have been wrapped about the Lord's body in the grave, satisfied himself that blood stains on it prove that Christ was still alive when He was taken down from the cross.
He apparently presented his evidence to certain Vatican authorities who are persuaded that the shroud is a genuine "relic" of the occasion, but Vatican authorities have rejected Berna's arguments.
The incident suggests that tremendous importance is still attached to the Resurrection. And for those who may not be aware of the background of this particular aspect of the controversy, it may be said very briefly that the theory is that Jesus passed into a deep coma on the Cross and that the authorities were deceived into believing He was actually dead. The spear wound is treated as superficial. It is then argued that in the coolness of the tomb Jesus recovered consciousness and that the disciples subsequently nursed Him back to a measure of health so that He survived the ordeal for some 40 days or so. Presumably at the end of this time He really did die and the whole episode was reconstituted into a victorious resurrection and a glorious ascension at the end, the body being disposed of secretly to prevent any discovery of the fraud.
The difficulties which face anyone who seriously holds such a view are overwhelming, and the more so as they are the more carefully examined. It is difficult indeed to suppose, for example, that One who had suffered the appalling strains and stresses of the previous hours, both physical and emotional, could be nailed to the Cross, receive a severe wound in the chest, be laid in a cold tomb; and there revive and find energy enough with such wounds in hands, feet, and chest to brace Himself from inside the tomb against a stone which almost certainly could only be rolled back from the outside and which was far too heavy for the women themselves to move -- and roll it right back out of the way so far clear of the opening that later on, while John stood looking in, Peter could run right on past into the tomb (John 20:4-6); and could do this, apparently, without the soldiers on guard being awakened. Moreover, Pilate had given explicit instructions that the tomb was to be sealed against being broken open (Matt. 27:62-66), a measure which would almost certainly make it impossible to open it from the inside no matter how much strength the supposed dead man might have.
Only a few hours later this figure, so mutilated according to Scripture as to be scarcely recognizable as human (Isaiah 52:14), presented Himself before Mary, who was overwhelmed with the joy of recognition when He made Himself known to her. Shortly afterward He walked for miles without manifest tiredness or evidence of mental anguish with two disciples whose attention would surely at least have been attracted to Him by the marks of utter exhaustion and physical hurt but who apparently treated Him as simply a fellow traveller, inviting Him in at the end of the journey and only recognizing Him when He performed a simple familiar act, the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30f). There is no evidence of any desperate need for rest, food, or drink. There is every evidence that when their clouded vision suddenly cleared they recognized Him because He had reappeared to them in the same vital form they had known of Him before the events of those last terrible days.
There is nothing in the resurrection scenes to give the slightest hint that He was the one who needed ministering to, which must certainly have been the case were He a mutilated invalid verging on the border of total collapse. As a matter of fact, one has precisely the opposite impression. He was ministering rather to them, assuring them of His well-being and encouraging them in every way in the belief that what He had just passed through was not a near disaster, but a mighty triumph. That they were convinced of this is the only way of explaining how a loosely knit group of men with little or no courage and at the moment of crisis with even less cohesion as a group were suddenly turned into a band of courageous men, who were fearless of death, imprisonment, ridicule, or the threatenings of the authorities, and ended by turning the Roman world upside down. Such a transformation requires a sufficient cause and, historically, those who, like Sir Robert Anderson, have set themselves with an open mind to examine the evidence thoroughly, have either been as thoroughly convinced of the truth of the bodily resurrection of the Lord or, like Renan, have confessed that the invention of such a story would be a greater miracle than the mere recording of it, if it were sober fact, even though personally unable to believe it.
Years ago, C. A. Row wrote this: (3)
Now it is evident that His public execution must have utterly extinguished the disciples' hopes that He could ever fulfil the expectations which they had formed of Him.
Such being the case, the community which He attempted to found must have gone to pieces, unless a new leader could be discovered who was capable of occupying His place.
But as its continued existence proves that it did not perish, it is certain that it must have made a fresh start of some kind -- something must have happened which was not only capable of holding it together but which imparted to it a new vitality. . . .
Whether this belief was founded on fact, or was the result of a delusion, it is evident that it could not have occupied many years in growing, for while this [sorting out] was taking place, the original community founded by Jesus would have perished from want of a bond of cohesion adequate to maintain it in existence.
Subsequently in his paper Row concluded: (4)
A Messiah who crept out of His grave, took refuge in retirement, and afterwards died from exhaustion, was not One who could satisfy the requirements of a community which had been crushed by His crucifixion.
His followers had fully expected that He was going speedily to reign.. . . .
Yet it is the most certain of historical facts that the Christian community commenced a new life immediately after its basic conviction that Jesus was
the Messiah of popular Jewish expectation had been totally destroyed by His crucifixion.
Nothing but a resurrection could have served the purpose.
Some years ago, A. T. Schofield (5)
in England pointed out how, as far as we can learn from early Christian history, the resurrection of the Lord was not only established against the initial skepticism of the disciples themselves, but in the teeth of the most determined opposition on the part of the Jewish authorities. He points out, in fact, that so far as it is recorded it was never publicly denied by these Jewish authorities. The very worst they could do was to explain it away by saying that the body of Jesus had been stolen by the disciples. The truth had to be concealed by every possible means.
The picture which one has in Acts of the effects of the Resurrection upon the disciples themselves leaves no doubt as to the transformation which had taken place in their own attitude toward the Jewish authorities. For example, in Acts 4, Peter's preaching before the Sanhedrin was so utterly different from his trembling denial of any knowledge of the Lord before a young girl, who may very well have been only a curious bystander and not actually accusing him of anything (Luke 22:56,57). It is necessary to seek an adequate cause for such a transformation, and it will not be found in any panic inspired or despairing deception regarding the reality of the Lord's resurrection. In Acts 4:13 we are told, "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marveled. . . . " Later on, the same religious authorities, exasperated by what must have seemed to other people as reckless folly in the behaviour of the disciples, rebuked them saying (Acts 5:28), "Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? And, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine."
What we read in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection is so simple, so artless, and so unlikely, as to be impossible of invention. Consider just a few of the scenes which Luke portrays, for example. In Luke 24 we have that wonderful story of the two, perhaps Cleopas and his wife Mary (not the sister of Jesus' mother, John 19:25), who made a memorable journey to Emmaus. As they walked on their way and talked in a subdued voice of all their shattered hopes because of the Crucifixion, Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But they didn't recognize Him; He somehow clouded their vision; He asked them why they were so sad and why they were talking so earnestly with one another. Cleopas asked the Lord if He was a stranger in Jerusalem that He should be so unaware of what everyone was talking about, and he recounted to Jesus the events of the past few days. Then he explained the most surprising element of all, namely, that certain women of their company had visited the tomb and there been told by angels that Jesus was still alive.
The Lord proceeded to explain to them that nothing had happened which was not implied by all that the prophets had said: that the great problem which the Jews had had in the past in reconciling the fact that the Messiah was to be both King and Suffering Servant found its resolution in the fact that the Suffering Servant was to be raised again from the dead in order to assume His position as anointed King.
We are not told in any great detail what He said to them as they walked along, only that beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. What extraordinary restraint there is on the part of the disciples that they did not leave a record of what He said! As Wright put it: (6)
With what singular indifference to apparent effect did these men throw away the brush the moment His form was sufficiently outlined for those in distant ages to see!
The utmost effect seems to have been produced with the smallest amount of material.
How extraordinary is the effect achieved. In the passage we are reading in Luke, we are told that by the time He had finished His expounding, they were nearing home. And the text continues:
He made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is towards evening and the day is far spent.
And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him!
And he vanished out of their sight.
Almost immediately, even though it must have been dark by now, they went back to Jerusalem where they found the eleven disciples and others who were with them, and they told them of their wonderful experience and how He had revealed Himself to them in the breaking of bread.
In spite of the fact that their testimony fully corroborated what others had been telling the disciples (verse 34), and the fact that the Lord had appeared to Simon, they were all very frightened indeed (verse 7) when, after Cleopas and his wife had just told of their experience, the Lord Himself suddenly stood in their midst. Knowing that many of them would suppose He had not really risen from the dead, but was only a ghost of His former self, He quietly invited them to examine Him, to see the wounds in His hands and feet, to handle Him and discover for themselves that He had a real corporeal existence (verse 39). Apparently they were so amazed and overcome half with joy, yet mingled with doubt, that He sought to give to them the final proof of the reality of His presence by eating food. He said, "Have ye here any meat?" And when they gave Him a piece of broiled fish and a honeycomb, He took it and ate it then and there before their very eyes.
Thus in this one chapter, in some 30 short verses, we are given a series of kaleidoscopic cameos of the drama of those hours which surely could not be improved upon. And together these provide absolute proof that it was the Lord Himself, identified by the wounds on His body, by His overall presence, by His voice when calling Mary Magdalene by name, and by His behaviour at the table. What possible additional means would contribute to such a demonstration? And at the same time, unequivocal evidence is provided that He possessed a real body and yet a new kind of body, a body perfectly capable of transcending time, space, and matter. These accounts have none of the qualities of visions or hallucinations, as Rendle Short pointed out: (7)
Even such intangible phenomena as visions have laws well known to students of modern psychological medicine, and unless the appearances after the resurrection correspond to these laws, the "explanation" of them (as visionary) is a meaningless term.
Visions are intensely individualistic; they are only seen at all by a special minority of mankind with a special nervous temperament. . . . Every person's visions are peculiar to himself or herself alone, being evolved out of the conceptions of their self-conscious minds.
A vision may be thought to speak, but rarely if ever is a conversation carried on. It is intangible and does not alter material things. They are likely to recur at very irregular intervals, for years, in a susceptible individual.
These points are well taken, for the resurrection appearances do indeed break every known law of visions. Even in this one chapter of Luke alone, did we not have the testimony of the other Gospels, we have the following: long conversations, protracted appearances over what must have been a considerable period of time, appearing to two people on the journey to Emmaus, then unexpectedly to perhaps 20 people (the disciples and others), along with a clear demonstration of materialization in a familiar form which invited not only handling, but also the eating of real food before them all. 1 Corinthians 15.6 records that the Lord even appeared before over 500 people at one time, and it should constantly be borne in mind that these people were for the most part unprepared and still unconvinced at the time. Even "Doubting" Thomas was only completely convinced when he was invited (John 20:27,28) to examine the proofs of the reality of the Lord's body for himself. Matthew 28:9 tells us that they actually held Him by the feet.
There is another kind of realism, or perhaps one ought to say veracity, in these records. J. O. F. Murray pointed out: (8)
There is a delicate accuracy in their psychology.
Read, for instance, St. John's account of the appearance to Mary Magdalene. . . . Let a scholar like Westcott, in his Revelation of the Risen Lord, make the narratives live before you not by reading anything into them, but simply by helping you to realize what a scholarly grasp of language shows to be already there.
Then, again, mark the conflict of emotion in the hearts of one group of disciples after another as they find themselves in the presence of One who has come back to them from the dead.
Is this subtle interplay of doubt and joy and awe-ful reverence consummate art, or is it a simple transcript of actual experience?
The fact is that we do not have the slightest change in the personal identity of this same Lord who has already walked through the Gospels during His earthly ministry. What changes there are in His power to materialize at will do not in any way mask His identity as the same real living Person that we have known before. The identity is total, resurrection has only increased His potential in certain directions. As we have noted in another Doorway Paper, (9)
the ghosts created by literary artists of later generations were very insubstantial and unimpressive creatures. They are failures, really -- ghosts of ghosts only, as William Alexander put it. Equally amazing in these accounts is the restraint of these writers, as Alexander himself pointed out: (10)
If the story had been of human invention, all we know of literature tells us how it would have been.
At the time of His birth there would have been silence, and a sky as hushed as a frozen sea.
At the Ascension the air would have quivered with the melody, and the mountain have been shaken by the storm, the triumph.
But because the narrative is true, the liturgical instincts of the evangelists are kept in check.
The Church is supplied with no song for the Ascension-tide to form a counterpart to the Gloria in Excelsis of His birth.
Furthermore, such was the effect of those 40 days upon the disciples that when the time came to "say good-bye" in terms of visual contact, there were no tears, no expressions of disappointment, no lingering at the point of departure, but rather an immediate return to Jerusalem "with great joy" (Luke 24:52). What an extraordinary thing this is. Only once in the long history of separations -- which are expected to be, visually at least, permanent -- has there resulted such an effect as Luke describes here. Something very wonderful and very unusual had been transpiring during those 40 days of constantly recurring yet quite unpredictable personal appearances in their company. At the time of the Ascension they seemed to have realized that those days were over, that the Lord's presence would continue to be with them, but not visually as before. Yet, this knowledge brought no sadness with it! Was there ever such a parting?
We have already drawn attention to the artlessness of these accounts. In spite of all the opposition, there is no evidence that any of the writers were attempting consciously to counteract the arguments of those who refused to believe them. They did acknowledge that the Jews tried to circulate a story to the effect that the Lord's body had been stolen. But in any of the narratives of events there is no "Therefore," followed by a summary of the argument. Yet if we were to ask, What would be the best way of refuting the accusation of forgery or fraud? we might set forth such requirements as follows:
1. The Lord's death must be public.
2. It must be witnessed by people who were used to seeing that kind of death.
3. It must be certified by experts that death had really occurred.
4. Some specific steps must be taken by someone in authority to make death doubly sure.
5. The responsibility for securing the body must be left, ultimately, with enemies, not with friends.
6. The tomb should be sealed after burial and guards placed near it who were in no way involved.
7. If resurrection has occurred in spite of all these precautions, it must be testified by many witnesses, and they must be witnesses who honestly did not believe such a thing would occur.
8. These witnesses must give clear evidence by their actions that they had no such expectations.
9. Some of the witnesses to His resurrection must be intimate friends who could neither have mistaken somebody else for Him and would only have been convinced of His identity by rather subtle and characteristic personal forms of behaviour.
10. The proofs which He Himself would supply must be such as to completely convince the most skeptical amongst His followers.
All these requirements were met by what appear to be almost incidental observations made by the writers. There is nowhere the slightest indication that they had formulated such a list of requirements and were deliberately setting out to satisfy them.
In considering these requirements briefly, nothing need be said of (1), except that even Roman records support the reality of the event. (11)
In connection with (2), it need only be said that crucifixion was well known to the Romans; and even Pilate was quite familiar with the fact that it was a slow death, hence his surprise that Jesus was so soon dead (Mark 15:44). The fulfillment of (3) and (4) is certified by the action of the centurion (John 19:34) and the eyewitness account of what happened (John 19:35). In connection with (5) and (6), we note only that the Jewish people themselves received permission to have the grave secured and guards placed nearby. In regard to (7) we are told there were many witnesses to His resurrection and the great majority of them were surprised. It seems that not a single soul among the disciples really anticipated it; not even Mary Magdalene, who thought somebody had taken the Lord away (John 20:2), nor Cleopas and his wife who "had hoped . . .but . . ." (Luke 24:21). With respect to (8), we note that the leader of the small band of disciples said, "I'm going fishing," clearly declaring his intention to try to forget all his disappointments. And his decision was shared by those who said, "We go, too" (John 21: 3). In connection with (9), we find that Mary Magdalene was the first to be absolutely persuaded, and she of all those who were not actually relatives was perhaps the one who was most completely devoted in her own soul to the Lord's Person as witnessed by her willingness to anoint His feet with oil at such a cost to herself (Luke 7:37). She undoubtedly recognized Him first by the way in which he pronounced her name.
How subtle this is, but how completely convincing. Cleopas and his wife had their eyes opened by His simple act of breaking bread. So run all the accounts -- without artifice. Here, then, is no studied attempt to win by force of argument. And finally, as though in the providence of God, the intimate circle of disciples included among its number one who was inherently skeptical about anything of which he did not have adequate firsthand experience. And so the Lord was provided with an occasion for satisfying this requirement also, that a man virtually unconvinced should be converted to an unhesitating faith, not only in the identity of the resurrected One as the same Lord whom he had known before, but as to the claims that the Lord had made for Himself as God (John 20:27).What more could be asked of a written record? By what other standard could one assess whether these events are romance or history?