The Gospel of Mark ends with the shocking news of an empty tomb and the claim that ‘[Jesus] has risen! He is not here’ (Mark 16:6). Most people’s first reaction to this claim is disbelief – dead people don’t come back to life days later. It seems laughable to believe that Jesus really died and rose again. How can anyone be expected to believe this?
A matter of history
The question of whether Jesus really rose from the dead is not simply a matter of ‘faith’ that you either believe or you don’t. It’s a matter of history. The Gospels are historical documents making a historical claim. They aren’t just stories told to teach moral or spiritual truths. Mark and the other Gospel writers are saying this really happened.
This means that we need to examine the evidence of these accounts carefully and decide what is the best explanation of the events they record. In particular, any good explanation needs to account for at least three key facts:
Over the years, various theories have been put forward to either explain these facts or argue against them. Here are some of the strongest suggestions, and some of the issues with them.
1. The wrong tomb theory
Some people think that the women who discovered the empty tomb accidentally visited the wrong tomb. Finding it empty, they (or perhaps others) invented the resurrection to explain the disappearance of the body.
This theory is hard to back up. For one thing it gives very little credit to the women. There’s no real reason to think they wouldn’t remember where their friend and teacher was buried. Also, the Gospels tell us the tomb was owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a well-known public figure. Surely he would know where his tomb was, and would be able to check whether the body was still there or not?
It seems very odd to suggest that rather than realising their error and looking for the real tomb, they would come up with such a far-fetched explanation. It’s even harder to believe that no-one located the right tomb when the disciples started teaching that Jesus had risen from the dead. Especially because this began in Jerusalem – the very place where Jesus had just been executed and buried. If the tomb wasn’t really empty, people would have been able to show this, and the claim would have quickly been proven false.
2. The hallucination theory
Some people suggest that the disciples, stricken with grief at the loss of their friend, imagined or hallucinated the appearances of Jesus. While this seems plausible, there are lots of reasons to doubt this explanation.
For one thing, as we read Mark’s Gospel we see that the disciples were repeatedly confused by Jesus when he said he would rise from the dead. We read that they ‘did not understand what he meant’ (Mark 9:32) and ‘they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” might mean’ (Mark 9:9). The reason for this is that at the time, the Jewish belief was that ‘rising from the dead’ meant the rising of all the righteous at the end of time. The idea of one individual being resurrected in the course of human history wasn’t part of their thinking. It would be very unlikely that they later hallucinated something they couldn’t imagine happening.
The accounts of the resurrection appearances report that the disciples were initially sceptical. In one case they assumed they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:37), and so they took steps to confirm that Jesus was really, physically present in front of them. They not only saw Jesus, they touched him and gave him food to eat in front of them to confirm what they were seeing (e.g. Luke 24:39–43; John 20:26–27). The hallucination theory can’t account for the physical nature of these experiences, nor for the fact they occurred in many different places at different times, with different people present.
This theory also doesn’t account for the absence of the body in the tomb. If the appearances were simply the imagined product of grief-stricken or hysterical minds, what happened to the body?
3. The survival theory
This idea (also called the ‘swoon theory’) says that Jesus wasn’t really dead when he was put in the tomb. Again, this theory sounds possible until we think through the evidence.
The Romans carrying out the execution were no amateurs. They knew how to execute people. Crucifixion was carefully crafted to be extremely painful (hence our word ‘excruciating’) and always fatal. Dying could take days, but the Gospels record that Jesus died within a matter of hours. Given the brutal beating and whipping Jesus experienced before being crucified perhaps this is not surprising. In any case, a Roman soldier made sure he was dead by thrusting a spear into his side (John 19:34).
If Jesus did somehow survive the cross, he still would have had to figure out how to move the stone sealing his tomb. Mark tells us that three healthy adult women wondered ‘who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’ (Mark 16:3). So it seems unbelievable that Jesus in his bloody, bruised and beaten state would be able to do it, let alone head into town and convince people that he was the saviour of the world who had conquered death.
4. The stolen body theory
Some people think that Jesus’ body was stolen from the tomb, either by his disciples or by the authorities. Both suggestions have problems that make them hard to believe.
If the disciples stole the body, an accusation the Gospel of Matthew says was going round (Matthew 28:11–15), we need to explain another fact. We know from later accounts that many of the first disciples were executed or exiled for preaching about Jesus. If they stole the body, we need to explain why they would be willing to die to protect something they had made up. Obviously, someone might die for a belief they hold sincerely. But surely no one willingly faces execution for something they know to be an outright lie? The first disciples had everything to lose and nothing to gain from maintaining a lie.
If the authorities stole the body (perhaps to keep the tomb from becoming a shrine), why did they not reveal the body when people started to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead? That would be a sure-fire way to stop this new religion getting off the ground. But this never happened.
A better explanation
All the alternative theories fail to account for the death of Jesus, the empty tomb and the reported appearances of Jesus. Of all the available explanations, the resurrection is the strongest. The only problem is that it involves a miracle taking place, which is understandably hard to swallow! But we shouldn’t write it off for this reason alone. We need to take the evidence seriously and weigh it up for ourselves. If only one explanation fits, we should at least take it seriously before rejecting it.
So read the Gospels for yourself, consider the possible explanations and come to your own conclusion. What we make of the resurrection matters, because if Jesus rose from the dead, that changes everything. A central Christian belief is that Jesus ‘has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light’ (2 Timothy 1:10). If Jesus rose from the dead, then with him comes the offer of life to us all.