If Jesus Rose from the Dead, then (#20) Jesus Was and Is Alive

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Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:27-28

One of the fundamental and critical aspects of the resurrection of Jesus is that it was a real resurrection. It wasn’t a sham. It wasn’t a hoax. It wasn’t the machinations of a devious conspiracy. It wasn’t a vision or hallucination. Nor was it merely a spiritual resurrection. 

The physical body of Jesus was raised from the dead.

We now come to the last of the most significant charges in our day—that Jesus didn’t “physically” rise from the dead. Before we look at them, let’s review the evidence we have examined so far that points to the reality of the resurrection:

  • The real death of Jesus and the real wrapping and burial in a tomb.
  • The sealing of the stone and the contingent of soldiers posted at the tomb.
  • The earthquake, the angel, the rolling away of the stone.
  • The terror of the guards and subsequent fleeing their post.
  • The women seeing the empty tomb and angels declaring the resurrection.
  • Peter and John examining the empty tomb and the empty grave wrappings.
  • The soldiers reporting that the tomb was empty and the rise of the polemic.

However, it is the appearances of a risen Jesus that truly cements the reality of the resurrection. Although we have mentioned those appearances before, it is now time to detail them and their significance. Jesus didn’t just appear to one or two and therefore leave us with some credible doubt, He appeared to many:

  • To Magdalene at the tomb
  • To the other women
  • To Cleopas and companion on the road to Emmaus
  • To Peter
  • To the Eleven in a locked room that first night
  • To the Twelve in a locked room eight days later
  • To seven of the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias
  • To the Twelve on a mountain in Galilee
  • To over 500 at one time
  • To James
  • To the Twelve in Jerusalem/Bethany
  • To the Twelve on Olivet
  • These are just the appearances that are recorded for us. Luke states that Jesus appeared to the disciples over a 40-day period, which implies it was much more than five or six times in our list. 

With all of this, let’s now look at the accusations concerning the appearances of Jesus after His resurrection. There are four that are prominent:

OneThe appearances were merely hallucinations.

When my dad began having strokes near the end of his life, he would sit in our dining room and, on occasions, ask who was walking around in the forest behind our house. Of course, in the beginning, we would look as well, and find no one. This happened enough that we eventually came to realize he was suffering from some form of hallucination. But only my dad experienced them. I loved him dearly, and I longed to look outside and see someone, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the reality of what was happening to him. But I never saw anyone. Never.

Hallucinations, by nature, are confined to an individual. And, by nature, they are not perceived by others. You may have a hallucination and might be able to tell me about it, but I wouldn’t be able to see it with you nor personally experience it with you. There is no such thing as “group” hallucinations that we are, by this charge, led to believe happened to the Twelve and to over 500 at one time. I remember when I first heard this theory and was struck by how irrational it was. Nevertheless, it still floats around.

Another answer to this charge is that not all who saw Jesus were “believers” and subject to the accusation that this was some "wish fulfillment" . Thomas was a skeptic; James was a brother who for his whole life had rejected Jesus as anything but a mere mortal; Paul was a persecutor of the Way when He met Jesus on the road to Damascus. They saw the risen Jesus and were radically and dramatically changed.

TwoThe appearances were mistaken identity.

Schoenfeld, in his Passover Plot, asserts that the disciples were simply mistaken about the appearances. They were so yearning for this to be true that they misinterpreted regular folks as being Jesus. He points to Magdalene thinking He was a gardener and especially the strange thing we find with Cleopas and his companion on the way to Emmaus when they didn’t recognize Jesus until He broke the bread. For Magdalene, she was sobbing, and had therefore not recognized the angels as such, and it wasn’t until she finally turned toward Jesus and heard Him speak that she recognized him.

For the Emmaus incident, it is true that it has some strangeness to it. But let's do this first. Let’s look at the totality of the evidence in all of the other appearances again. If all of these were mistaken identity, then a lot of people had to, somehow, not only be fully complicit, but in some cases they had to “appear” and “vanish”. Revisit the clarity of the record: the person Magdalene encountered at the tomb sure acted and spoke as if He were Jesus, telling her He was ascending to His father. So, too, the person the other women encountered. They grasped His feet and worshipped Him and He told them to go tell His brothers that He would meet them in Galilee. These encounters, nor the others, meet the criteria for a "mistaken identity". Is it reasonable to think that not only Magdalene and the other women were mistakenly interacting with an unknown, complicit phony, but Peter and the Eleven and over 500 were also fooled? What about His brother, James? Are we to believe that James, who grew up with Jesus, mistook him for someone else? James' life was radically changed by this encounter. We are surely way beyond common sense to think they were all mistaken or deceived. 

Plus, there appears to be something miraculous in how Jesus first appeared to the disciples, even though the doors were locked. What common complicit Joe could do that? And why would he do that?

Maybe, returning to something more rational and plausible, it was just as the record declares—it was just as those who saw Him were convinced, even to their deaths—they really saw Jesus alive. They heard Him. They touched Him. They ate with Him.

So, let’s talk about the strangeness of the Emmaus event. Do we let this trump all the other evidence? No. We simply try to understand it in light of that evidence. Does Jesus, in His resurrected body, have the power to enter a locked room? Sure. It appears He did. He had the power to walk on water even before the resurrection. Could He, for His own purposes, hide His identity from Cleopas until He had gone through the Old Testament with him? Sure. Is it possible God could blind them to His identity for a short time? Surely that is possible. It is even possible Jesus hid His face from them... behind a veil or deep within a hood. Any of this is reasonable.

So, in the face of the overwhelming evidence in all of the other appearances where Jesus was clearly seen, the Emmaus event is not hard to reconcile. The bottom line, however, is that in the end, even Cleopas recognized Him as Jesus. And then, He “vanished from their sight.” This is hard to pull off by a “mistaken identity” person. In fact, this encounter caused them to immediately drop their plans and hustle seven miles back to Jerusalem.

Seeing the risen Jesus has changed many a person’s plans. 

Three. The resurrection was spiritual and therefore the appearances were only spiritual.

This is the notion that Jesus didn’t physically rise but, instead, was raised spiritually. This theory has lots of tentacles and various forms. When it was first offered, some began to ask the reasonable question about the empty tomb. If Jesus were raised spiritually, then the body would still be there. In later forms, then, the theory necessarily evolved to include God destroying the physical body while raising the "spiritual" Jesus. Jehovah’s Witnesses follow a form like this. I personally know several who do as well. In their case, Jesus has become more of a “force” or a “thought” than a real person. This is what often happens as a consequence of this theory. The reality of Jesus fades into something metaphysical, something found more in our spiritual contemplations and meditations than in the reality of a risen Lord.

It seems as if Jesus were specifically destroying this notion when He asked the disciples that first night for some fish. He ate it in their presence, not because He was hungry, but to assure them He was not a ghost or a figment of their combined imaginations. Luke even begins that encounter by saying that the disciples “thought they were seeing a spirit”. Jesus made sure they knew He was physically present with them. The physical body of Jesus has risen from the dead. The physical body of Jesus was fully alive again before their very eyes.

Four. The appearances are all part of the resurrection myth/legend.

We’ve dealt this this charge multiple times. A. N. Sherwin-White, professor at Oxford University and famous historian, declared that even after two generations there is still too much historical truth embedded in people for a legend to commence forming. In 1844, theologian Julius Muller issued a challenge for anyone to find a legend that had developed within this timeframe and to this day his challenge still stands unmet. Declaring that the resurrection appearances are nothing more than legend is an easy charge to make, but it has no valid basis. This, again, is why understanding the early nature of the resurrection creed and polemic is so very important in our defense for the reason for the hope that is in us. (1 Peter 3:15)  

We have seen a number of desperate attempts to explain away the resurrection, from “the disciples stole the body” to “the disciples were hallucinating”. All of them are found deeply wanting. Keep this in mind, however... we are not dealing with a lack of evidence for the resurrection of Christ here, we are dealing with a lack of “want to” in the heart. 

So, what does the physical resurrection of Jesus mean for us believers? Well, the answer to that is plentiful and we will deal with those in the coming days. However, for now, contemplate that the physical resurrection of Jesus, as the first-fruits, is the basis for our hope that one day, you and I will be physically resurrected as well. Second, contemplate that Jesus was not only alive on that first day, but He is alive today. He hears you, just as He heard Magdalene. He sees you just as He saw Thomas and Thomas saw Him and touched Him. He is just alive today as He was when he cooked fish by the sea after His resurrection. And thirdly, recognize that when Jesus makes Himself known to people, they are radically and forever changed. As Thomas cried, "My Lord, and my God!", and as in one of my favorite musicals "Then Came the Morning", Magdalene sings, "I've just seen Jesus, and I'll never be the same again!", so, too, you and I are changed people. For, by faith, we have also seen the risen Savior.

And we will never be the same again. 

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If Jesus Rose from the Dead, then (#1) the Seal Was Broken
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If Jesus Rose from the Dead, then (#3) the Guards Knew It
When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, it should come as no surprise to anyone that it is here we find a focus of critique and skepticism. Yes, there is also critique regarding other aspects of Jesus’ life, primarily wherever there are miraculous events, like the virgin birth, walking on water or healing a man born blind. But, because the death, burial and resurrection are the foundational historical events for Christianity, without which there is no Christianity, they draw the heaviest fire.  We now arrive at one of those as we deal with the record of the guard at the tomb. Let’s look briefly at the critique before we move on. 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Come, see the place where he lay. Matthew 28:1-6 And, finally, the end of the guard’s story:  While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So, they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. Matthew 28:11-15 Here is the sum total of what we know about the guards at the tomb. And it is because of this that we find the first of the two key arguments launched against the story of the guards: it sits alone in Matthew and is not found in the other gospels. 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John 21:25 If this is true, then how are we to demand that gospels of a mere forty pages in length, give or take, should all select the same small percentage of events?  And, importantly, each gospel is written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for a particular audience, using selective events for that purpose. Who is to determine what “key” events are needed to support that purpose other than the Author? Who are we to determine an event to be “key” and demand that it be found in other gospels as well? It appears that it is only Matthew who was interested in answering the charge that the disciples stole the body from the tomb. He then moves directly to the “Great Commission” (only in Matthew) and then ends. The others treat the empty tomb as obvious fact and move on, some to emphasize more of Jesus being alive and interacting with people after His resurrection. 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Here is one:  "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again" Mark 8:31 (See also Luke 9:22) Clearly, Jesus openly taught this and it isn’t unreasonable that the Jewish leaders would have gotten knowledge of it, even if they didn't hear it directly. (Though they might have and it was simply not recorded for us.) They were almost obsessed with knowing what Jesus was teaching and doing... not for good, but for evil. It is also very important here to keep in mind that the Pharisees weren’t emotionally involved with Jesus and the disciples were. It would be easy for the disciples to hear Jesus say all of this, but then rationalize it away or suppress it. In fact, that is what we see in the next verse after Jesus clearly states He will be killed and rise in three days (above). Peter immediately takes Jesus aside to rebuke Him. We see the exact same thing later in Mark 9:9-10. The Pharisees, however, had no such emotional attachment. Rather, they hung on His every word, not for its spiritual truth, but to find ways to get rid of Him. So, it is more than reasonable that the Pharisees knew of Jesus’ prediction and the disciples had suppressed it or rationalized it into some fuzzy eschatological future. So, it seems to me that the two key critiques are easily handled and the record of the guards remains quite plausible. But it is Matthew’s reference to a then current controversy that adds great substantiation to all of this. At the end of our text, Matthew states that the story of the disciples stealing the body while the guards slept “has been spread among the Jews to this day.” Matthew could not write this if it were not true. Remember, He was writing primarily to Jews, and the Jews could readily deny this assertion if it were false. Therefore, that rumor must have been currently circulating among the Jews and the rumor rests squarely upon the fact that there was a guard posted at the tomb. Now, there is a proper disagreement over this account and it has to do with whether the guards were Roman soldiers or the Temple Guard. Let’s look at this: First, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate requesting a guard and he responded: “you have a guard”. This can be taken that he was supplying one to them, had already supplied one to them, or that he was referring to their own Temple Guard. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, It is apparent by the word “cohort” used to describe the soldiers, that Roman soldiers were already involved. This offers support to the thought that those soldiers had previously been assigned to the Jewish authorities. This was not unusual for Rome to do so. In this case, a Roman “cohort” was about 600 men. That gives a vivid picture of what that arrest scene looked like. And, importantly, John states that is was a combination of both a Roman “cohort” and “some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees”. This most likely was a contingent from the Temple Guard. Second, “some of the guards reported to the chief priests” what had happened at the tomb. This also doesn’t tell us one way or the other, for if they were Roman, and they had been assigned to the Jewish authorities, they could have naturally reported back to them. If it were the Temple Guard, this would be expected. If it were a combination, then the word “some” also has meaning in that only the Temple Guard contingent reported back. This is also plausible because a Roman guard who failed in his mission was subject to a horrible death and wouldn’t want to report it to Pilate.  Third, we have the complicating statement by the Jewish leaders to the guards who reported back to them:  “…if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” One might rightly think this tips in favor of the guard being Roman. I agree. But, on the other hand, Matthew tells us that the guards were bribed to say that the disciples had come and stolen Jesus body while they were asleep. No money would be enough for a Roman guard to confess to falling asleep on duty, for he would be executed (some say crucified upside down). The Temple Guard, however, if found asleep, were merely beaten and their clothes burned. (I know, but it's better than what the Roman soldier would get.) So, we can’t be absolutely sure. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The Temple Guard were professionals as well, armed and trained. I’m not sure that anyone would want to bet on who would win if you pitted a Roman guard against a Temple guard. (Think of David's mighty men, like Benaiah, who slew a lion in a pit on a snowy day) The point here is that there was an armed, professional unit assigned to guard the tomb of Jesus. Now, try to imagine what this would have been like for these men. If they were Roman guards, they each had a designated, small area of ground to defend and they were stationed in a line to defend their charge. They remained diligent in position until relieved by a fresh guard. The morning was about to break, all was calm and then the earth begins to roll beneath their feet. Matthew calls it a “severe earthquake”. This in itself is disarming to anyone. But as the ground begins to return to normal, they see an angel descending whose appearance “was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow”. Encounters of finite man and angelic beings almost always result in the finite on their knees in fear. Which the guards did and “became as dead men”… in other words, frozen with fear. Not unconscious, though, for they reported it all. The guards obviously knew something big had happened.  We now come to our final question. Did they know that Jesus had risen from the dead? Here we must speculate a little, but not much, because when they reported everything to the Jewish leaders, that report had to include that the tomb was empty. Otherwise, there would have been no bribery for them to lie that the disciples had stolen the body.  Here is the speculation, however. The guard had been ordered to secure the tomb because of the prediction that Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day. They were charged to make sure the disciples did not come and steal the body. I believe they must have been counting off the days. When the morning of the third day was about to break, my guess is there had to be some anxiety. It is not impossible that what had happened during the crucifixion had already spread through the ranks. When Jesus was crucified and the sky grew dark for three hours and the earth quaked and the Roman centurion declared, “Truly this man was the Son of God”, this had to be in their minds. In fact, it is also plausible, that the Roman soldiers that were assigned to arrest Jesus were still on assignment at the cross and they saw all of this and they were now guarding His tomb. And, for three days, they were pondering all that they had seen and heard about Him. And now the earth begins to shake again, fiercely. No man can remain fearless when the earth beneath him turns liquid. But, on top of that, the heart-stopping lightning of an angel appears. Did they overhear the angels speaking to the women? Did they examine the tomb after the angel left? That would certainly seem reasonable. Either way, the guards had to have known the tomb was empty. And, when they were able to flee, they had to have known that they had witnessed something beyond extraordinary. In reality, these men had been privileged to be present at the greatest historical event in the history of man. I’ve often wondered if some of the guards became early converts. That wouldn’t surprise me.  Because they knew. [previous] [next] (If you are interested in reading more of a detailed apologetic regarding the guard, William Lane Craig has done a masterful job of defending this to the literary critics and I would commend you to that if you desire: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/scholarly-writings/historical-jesus/the-guard-at-the-tomb/)