Chapter 1.
Historical Aspect

Chapter 2.
Theological Aspect

Three Days and
Three Nights

Mary Magdelane
at the Tomb

Chapter 3.
Experiental Aspect

Also by
Arthur Custance

How Did Jesus Die?

by Arthur C. Custance, Ph.D.

Theologically, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is, as R. A. Torrey put it, "the cornerstone of Christian doctrine." As he points out, it is mentioned 104 times or more in the New Testament and was the most prominent and cardinal point in the apostolic testimony: (12)

When the apostolic company, after the apostasy of Judas Iscariot, felt it necessary to complete their number again by the addition of one to take the place of Judas, it was in order that he might be "a witness with us of the resurrection" (Acts 1:21,22). The resurrection of Jesus Christ was the one point that Peter emphasized in his great sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Its keynote was, "this Jesus hath God raised up whereof we are all witnesses" (Acts 2:32).

When the apostles were again filled with the Holy Spirit some days later, the result was that with great power they gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 4:10). When Paul went to Athens, the burden of his message was the supreme importance of the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:15). At the same time Paul says, "If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain and your faith is also vain" (1 Corinthians 15:14). And later on he adds, "If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17).

There is no doubt that Torrey was perfectly correct when he said: (13)

The crucifixion loses its meaning without the resurrection. Without the resurrection, the death of Christ was only the heroic death of a noble martyr. With the resurrection it is the atoning death of the Son of God. . . .

Disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christian faith is vain.

Why does it make such a difference from the theological point of view? I think that if the Lord Jesus had died and not been raised again, it would have implied that God saw His death as having been justified on his own account. The fact of the Resurrection was God's seal of approval on a death which He thereby declared to have been purely a substitutional one. When a man dies, sinful man, he remains dead and God does nothing about it because it is the appointed terminus of the kind of life he has lived. True, he will be raised again, but it will be a resurrection unto judgment if he has died unredeemed and only a resurrection unto life if he has been redeemed. The silence of God in the presence of the grave is His seal upon the fact that an inevitable law has been fulfilled for fallen man.

But the Lord Jesus Christ was not fallen man; He was unfallen, sinless man. When He died, His death was not the consequence of His life, as it is for all other men; and to allow Him to remain in the tomb would have been to assent to a conclusion which in relation to Him was totally false.

I believe that God might have raised the Lord Jesus from the grave the very moment He was laid within it, or perhaps even the very moment He died. But there were certain reasons why this would not have been appropriate. These reasons are made clear enough by careful attention to certain incidents recorded in the Gospels and by relating these to some beliefs regarding the process of dying which are still surprisingly widely held and were shared by the Jewish people in our Lord's time.

I'm not suggesting that there is any firm basis for these beliefs or that Jesus Himself actually shared them. It is rather that, wishing to communicate something of fundamental importance about His mission, He accommodated His actions to these beliefs in order that there should never be any doubt in their minds as to the reality of His sacrifice and its meaning. I have in mind, first of all, the fact that constant reference is made in Scripture to the circumstance of His having arisen the third day. The Lord Himself emphasized this point on a number of occasions, as Paul did, for example, in I Corinthians 15:1, 3, 4. What, then, is the significance of the fact that He spent three days in the tomb?

There was, and is, a very widespread belief that the spirit of man does not immediately leave his body when he dies. Various cultures account for this in different ways. The Tasmanians held that the spirit did not leave the body until the sun went down, even though death had occurred first thing in the morning. (14) In the Bronze Age the Greeks believed that the spirit remained in or about the body until the body began to decay. (15) The Aztecs held that the spirit remained for four days in or about the body, (16) a belief which was shared also by the Northwest Coast Indians. Herodotus tells us that in his day embalming was never undertaken until three days after death. (17) The Dobuans, (18) a people from Oceania, put seed yams near the corpse and did not believe that the soul or spirit had really left until there was no further evidence of nibbling.

In the Old Testament a man defiled by contact with a corpse was to purify himself on the third day (Numbers 19:11,12), and the flesh of the peace offering was not to be kept beyond the third day. Whether it was because of their rather extraordinary ways of interpreting the Scriptures, particularly such Scriptures as these, or whether it was because they shared the feeling of many other people that it is dangerous to assume too quickly that a man really is dead, but yet believing that evidence of physical decay could be taken as adequate evidence (and such decay would normally occur within three days), we cannot be sure. But the fact is that they believed quite widely that the spirit could be persuaded back into the body and the individual revived under certain circumstances up to but not beyond the third day. Talmudic tradition held that mourning for the dead should culminate "on the third day," because after that the spirit would not return. In his classic work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edersheim has a valuable section on this matter: (19)

It is at least a curious coincidence that the relatives and friends of the deceased were in the habit of going to the grave up to the third day so as to make sure that those laid there were really dead. The Rabbis were in the habit of referring to Hos. 6:2 in this connection, where it is written, "After two days will He revive us: in the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live in His sight."

At the present time in medical circles there is considerable uncertainty as to the actual time of death, if by "death" is meant the point of no return. For in recent years many people have been brought back to life by various heroic measures, who in previous days would have been counted irretrievably lost. In fact, so difficult has it become to be legally or clinically sure that an individual really is dead that medical conferences have been devoted simply to this issue, and the general consensus of opinion at the present moment is that the only realistic way of determining death is to accept a qualified medical opinion about the matter in each case. (20)

The fact is, therefore, that if God had raised up Jesus Christ any sooner, the Jewish people as a whole might have argued that He was never really dead. And it seems likely that even in the minds of the disciples themselves there would have been some doubt. The Jews never did argue that Jesus was not dead -- perhaps on this account. All that they pretended to believe was that someone had stolen His body (Matthew 28:12,13).

I think the most striking proof of the importance of preventing such uncertainty is beautifully borne out if we follow carefully four incidents in our Lord's ministry which have been recorded in different Gospels, but which can be set in their chronological order with the help of any good Harmony of the Gospels.

The first of these incidents is found in John 4:46-53 in which the Lord restored to health a young child who was "at the point of death." Jesus healed him, and he did not die.

The second instance is found in Mark 5:21-24, 35-43. In this case a child died while the Lord was on the way, and although the Lord was delayed for perhaps a few minutes by the events which transpired between verses 24 and 35, it does not seem that the child can have been dead for more than a very short time before He arrived at the home. Here, taking the child by the hand, He raised. her from death and restored her alive to her parents. The third incident is recorded in Luke 7:11-17, and this is the story of the raising of the widow of Nain's only son. In this case the young man was being carried out to be buried. The Lord approached the bier and touched it to signify that they who were carrying it should put it down. And then He said, "Young man, I say unto thee, Arise." And he who was dead sat up and began to speak.

A careful reading of each of these accounts shows the growing impression which was made upon those who were witnesses to these events or who heard about them subsequently, as in each successive event the individual restored was, as it were, "more completely dead." In John 4:53 we are merely told that the immediate household was so impressed that they believed on Jesus. In the second instance (Mark 5:43) the people "were astonished with great astonishment." It was remarkable enough to restore someone on the point of death just by a spoken word; it was more remarkable still when somebody, who was to all intents and purposes dead, was restored to life with equal ease. In the third case the young man had been dead long enough that he was being carried out for burial and the impression made by his restoration to life was even greater still. As the account says (verse 16f.), "And there came a great fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and That God hath visited his people. And this rumour of him went forth throughout all Judea, and throughout all the region round about."

Nevertheless, in each of these instances it might always be argued, by some of the Jews at least, that in no case were these individuals really dead. It was wonderful enough, but not conclusive evidence that Jesus had absolute power over death. What was yet required was one instance in which the dead was dead by all the standards of their traditional faith, that is, a restoration to life of somebody who was known to have been dead for at least three days. And so we come to the fourth incident; namely, the raising of Lazarus.

We have the details of this event set forth in John, chapter 11, more elaborately than in any of the other accounts -- and for good reasons. For it is here and nowhere else that Jesus finally demonstrated that He was Lord of Life indeed. The story is too familiar to require quoting at length but certain verses must be underscored in the present context. His companions, knowing that Jesus had learned that a beloved friend, Lazarus, was very ill, naturally expected that He would immediately make the journey to the home of Martha and Mary where the sick man lay. In verse 5 this expectation is reinforced by the words, "Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus." It seems as though the writer was trying to make it quite clear that from the human point of view, Jesus ought to have left at once. But in verse 6 it is written, "When He had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was." The "therefore" in this sentence seems a contradiction, for it would not be normal, in our experience, to delay going to the help of a friend for the very reason that we loved that friend. One might expect quite the opposite. In any case it transpired as a consequence of this delay that Lazarus died and was buried, and had actually lain in the grave for more than three days (verse 17) by the time Jesus had arrived.

Not unnaturally, in spite of her great love for the Lord and her faith in His compassion, Mary could not help giving expression to a kind of rebuke for the Lord's delay. She said (verse 32), "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." I think the Lord accepted her rebuke and thereby took any bitterness out of it which might have been there, for He did not reply to her, but only openly shared her grief. Then He asked her where Lazarus was laid, and coming to the grave He commanded them to take away the stone. Martha, ever the practical one, immediately said, "Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days."

One wonders what might have happened if the Lord had simply said in a loud voice, "Come forth." He is yet to say this, and the dead will rise, the dead in Christ of all the centuries, in every part of the world. But here He called to Lazarus only, and in some way He must have used even that name in a singular manner, for I'm quite certain that there were others named Lazarus who might also have responded -- perhaps even the Lazarus in Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:20). The effect of this upon those who witnessed it and upon those who soon heard about it from others was, to use a modern term, absolutely stunning. Curiously enough, John is silent about the matter in this particular part of the narrative, but the real effect is witnessed by the Pharisees' confession (John 12:19): "Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing: behold, the world is gone after him." And it will be noted that this exclamation had direct reference to the fact that Lazarus had been raised from the dead.

The raising of Jairus' daughter was wonderful enough: the raising of the widow of Nain's son was even more extraordinary. But the raising of Lazarus was the last straw, the final proof. And that these events took place in this order is surely not an accident. They serve to demonstrate unequivocally that the Lord remained for three days in the tomb for a very good reason indeed, to circumvent entirely any challenge which might have legitimately been raised by the Jewish authorities to the effect that Jesus could never be counted as the sacrificial Lamb of God with any certainty because it was not certain that He ever really died.

Next Page - Three Days and Three Nights

12. Torrey, R. A., "The Certainty and Importance of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead," The Fundamentalist, vol.2, Bible Institute of Los Angeles, 1917, p.298.
Sir Kenneth Clark in his book Civilization, which covers the subject of his BBC lectures that received worldwide acclaim, wrote: "We have grown so used to the idea that the crucifixion is the supreme symbol of Christianity that it is a shock to realize how late in the story of Christian art its power was recognized. In the first art of Christianity it hardly appears. . . . Early Christian art is concerned with miracles, healings, and hopeful aspects of the faith like the Ascension and the Resurrection" (published by BBC and John Murray, London, 1969, p.29).
13. Torrey, R. A., ref.12, p.299.
14. Tasmanians: G. P. Murdock, Our Primitive Contemporaries, Macmillan, New York, 1934, p.10.
15. Greeks: George E. Mylonas, "The Cult of the Dead in Hellenic Times," being one paper in Studies Presented to David Moore Robinson, Washington Univeresity Press, no date, reprint, p.92.
16. Aztecs: G. P. Murdock, ref.14. p.387.
17. Herodotus, History in Everyman's Library, vol.2, New York, 1936, p.3.
18. Dobuans: quoted by I. McIlwraith, from Reo Fortune, "Sorcerers of Dobu" in a lecture at University of Toronto, 1953.
19. Edersheim, Alfred, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol.2, 8th edition, Longmans Green, New York, 1896, p.630. In this work Edersheim has listed a number of references from rabbinical sources.
20. "If Adam Had Not Died", Part III (especially chapter 2) in The Virgin Birth and The Incarnation, vol,5 in The Doorway Papers Series.