Did the Resurrection Actually Happen?

by Robert Perry

There is no question that the resurrection of Jesus is an inspiring story. Whose heart is not lifted by seeing life triumph over death? A Course in Miracles speaks of the resurrection and gives it what I feel is a particularly profound interpretation:

The resurrection demonstrated that nothing can destroy truth. Good can withstand any form of evil, because light abolishes all forms of darkness. The Atonement is thus the perfect lesson. It is the final demonstration that all of the other lessons which I taught are true. You are released from all errors if you believe in this. The deductive approach to teaching accepts the generalization which is applicable to all single instances, rather than building up the generalization after analyzing numerous single instances separately. If you can accept the One Generalization now, there will be no need to learn from many smaller lessons. (Original wording of T-31.I.7)

This is very different from the traditional interpretation, in which the resurrection is primarily a statement about Jesus himself, being God’s stamp of approval on him. Here, it is a “demonstration” of a larger truth. What is a demonstration? It is something you do that establishes something as true. Think about a commercial where someone demonstrates that a certain detergent can get stains out better than its competitor. You have an act that is performed (stain-removal demonstration) that establishes the truth of some claim (superiority of that detergent).

In our case, the demonstration is the resurrection, and the truth it establishes is “that nothing can destroy truth. Good can withstand any form of evil, because light abolishes all forms of darkness.” In other words, the resurrection establishes the core truth of the Course, that no illusion of the world can compromise the pristine reality that God created. That is the basis of forgiveness—and of everything else in the Course.

If you can accept this demonstration, then in your mind that core truth has been established. There is no longer a question about whether it is true. It has been proven. The matter is settled. And with that truth established in your mind, you now can take the fast track to God. You can go the deductive route, in which you simply apply that “One Generalization” to every specific situation you encounter. This is in contrast to the slow way—the inductive route—in which you learn lots of little lessons, and then finally piece them together to arrive at the One Generalization.

But notice that this completely depends on the resurrection having actually happened. As I said, a demonstration is something you really do that establishes something as really true. There is no such thing as a fictional demonstration. You can’t say “I made up a story in which I used that detergent to get a stain out, and thus I have now proven the superiority of that detergent.”

So now we are forced to do history. We are forced to ask the question, “Did the resurrection actually happen?”

Most Christians, of course, believe in the resurrection, but they typically take it on faith. It is part of the total package of their Christian faith. But are there grounds for believing it based on solid evidence?

The problem with this, of course, is that, so far as we know, things like the resurrection just don’t happen. If someone told you that a deceased relative of yours had left his or her grave and was now appearing to various individuals and groups—appearing and then disappearing—would you believe it?

This understandable skepticism is what we see in New Testament scholars when they weigh in on the resurrection. Although there is a wing of conservative scholarship that accepts the resurrection on faith and then goes about trying to prove it, it seems to me that most mainstream scholars fall somewhere in between extreme skepticism and flat denial.

Skepticism in contemporary scholarship

The Jesus Seminar, for instance, was a group of liberal scholars who attracted a huge amount of media attention, as well as controversy, when in the 1980s and 1990s they voted on the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings and deeds as recorded in the gospels. Here is what they voted about the resurrection:

  • “The resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse.”
  • “Belief in Jesus’ resurrection did not depend on what happened to his body.”
  • “The body of Jesus decayed as do other corpses.”
  • “The resurrection was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been recorded by a video camera.”
  • “Since the earliest strata of the New Testament contain no appearance stories, it does not seem necessary for Christian faith to believe the literal veracity of any of the later narratives.” (The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? by Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, pp. 461-462)

Bart Ehrman is a high-profile Jesus scholar, of a very different stripe than the Jesus Seminar, yet he too believes the resurrection didn’t happen. Here are his remarks from a debate on the resurrection with conservative scholar William Lane Craig:

Miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works….No one on the face of this Earth can walk on lukewarm water….

What about the resurrection of Jesus? I’m not saying it didn’t happen; but if it did happen, it would be a miracle. The resurrection claims are claims that not only that Jesus’ body came back alive; it came back alive never to die again. That’s a violation of what naturally happens, every day, time after time, millions of times a year. What are the chances of that happening? Well, it’d be a miracle. In other words, it’d be so highly improbable that we can’t account for it by natural means….Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did.

Note that for Ehrman, the evidence is irrelevant. In fact, he says in his next paragraph that the “four pieces of evidence” put forward by his debate partner “are completely irrelevant.” The whole matter gets decided “by definition.” “By definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence.” We don’t have to look at the evidence. We can—and must—decide the matter by simply applying the philosophical definitions we came with.

However, if we haven’t defined miracles as by definition the least likely explanation in any situation, if we are open to where the evidence might lead us, then I think the evidence is surprisingly strong. Let me review what have for me become the main pieces of evidence.

William Lane Craig’s argument

William Lane Craig is a conservative Christian historian and philosopher who has put together a very simple and tight argument for the reality of the resurrection. It is composed of four “facts.” I personally don’t think he should call them facts, simply because there isn’t a historical consensus behind them. While many historians accept them, many do not. However, I accept them because in my view you have to do some intellectual contortions not to.

Fact #1: After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
Fact #2: On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
Fact #3: On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
Fact #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

Once you accept these four pieces of evidence, you are pretty well locked into accepting the resurrection. You can’t have the disciples stealing the body—that contradicts #4. You can’t have the appearances being hallucinations, because group appearances are part of #3 and group hallucinations don’t happen. Once you accept these four pieces of evidence, you have to come up with some wildly implausible account to avoid drawing the conclusion of the resurrection. This argument has therefore been very influential for me. It was what initially opened my mind to the idea that the evidence for the resurrection, rather than being lost in the mists of time, is actually quite strong.

The gospel stories are not as different as is often claimed

Skeptical scholars will frequently point out that the accounts of the resurrection in the various gospels are disconcertingly different. And there is a great deal of truth in that. Mark tells no actual appearance stories. Matthew has the main appearance take place in Galilee. Luke has them all take place in Jerusalem, and all on Easter Sunday. John has them occur in both Jerusalem and in Galilee. One could easily conclude that everyone is just making up whatever he likes.

However, as I read the gospel accounts, they are not as different as is often claimed. If we allow ourselves to entertain a gray area, in which the gospel writers are not giving us word-for-word, eyewitness accounts but are passing on stories anchored in some kind of historical reminiscence, then the gospel accounts can easily seem to trace back to a fairly cohesive original scenario. To begin with, there are a number of key features all four gospels agree on. Moreover, if we include any feature that shows up in at least two accounts, we get a surprisingly coherent picture.

Here is what you get if you construct a story out of agreements between at least two of our five key sources—the four gospel accounts and Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15): Near dawn on the first day of the week (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), on the third day after the crucifixion (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Paul), Mary Magdalene (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), with one or two others goes go to the tomb (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) with spices to anoint the body (Mark, Luke). She (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), and the others (Mark, Matthew, Luke) see the stone rolled away and the body gone (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John). She and the others see a heavenly messenger (maybe two heavenly messengers), who says that Jesus has been raised (Mark, Matthew, Luke), that they should tell the disciples, and that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee, where they will see him (Mark, Matthew). On leaving the tomb, Mary has an encounter with the risen Jesus, who tells her to go and tell the disciples (Matthew, John). Then Peter, with at least one other, runs to the tomb, finds it empty and sees the burial cloths lying by themselves (Luke, John). Peter also sees Jesus, apparently on that first day (Luke, Paul). The evening of that first day, the disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem and Jesus appears to them, saying, “Peace be with you,” and shows them his wounds (Luke, John). They then travel to Galilee, where they also see Jesus (Matthew, John). During these appearances, Jesus gives them (John), or promises they will receive (Luke), the Holy Spirit. He tells them to bring forgiveness to the world (Luke, John). And he commissions them to take his message to the world (Matthew, John).

I suspect that this gets us in the ballpark of what really happened.

There is also what N. T. Wright has called “transphysicality.” This refers to the fact that in all the gospels that report resurrection appearances, Jesus’ body has highly unusual physical characteristics. It can appear and disappear, and it is often not recognized, or not fully recognized, by those who know him. Wright labels these “strange features, unique in ancient literature whether Jewish or Pagan” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 647-648). If they are unique in all literature of the time, where did they come from?

The gospel accounts sound restrained, not developed, not embellished

In telling the story of the resurrection, the gospels are relating an event so incredible that it could understandably be classed as legendary or mythological. Yet the stories themselves display a kind of restraint that one simply does not associate with legend and mythology.

  • There are not a lot of clearly mythological elements. The worst it gets is Matthew’s story of saints coming out of their tombs and walking around Jerusalem (Matthew 27:52-53). This frankly does sound purely legendary, but it stands out in the gospel accounts.
  • In many ways we read a very human story: everyone is caught off guard, women are afraid, disciples doubt. The growing realization of what has occurred tumbles and stumbles through the group in a piecemeal, almost chaotic way.
  • There is no account of the resurrection itself. If you’re making the story up, why leave out the best part, the very core of it?
  • There is no theological elaboration in the gospels about what the resurrection means for our life after death, or about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body—elaboration typical of Paul, for instance (The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N. T. Wright, pp. 602-607). It’s just “Here is what happened.”
  • There are almost no allusions to scripture in the resurrection stories (The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N. T. Wright, pp. 599-602). And this is right after the crucifixion stories that are chock-full of direct references and subtle allusions to scripture. If you’re going to make up a story at that time, you would naturally weave a quilt out of various scraps of scripture. Why didn’t the gospel writers do anything like that?

To show you what I mean about how unembellished the gospel stories are, first read Mark’s account of Easter. These are the last eight verses of his gospel:

Mark 16:1-8 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Notice how restrained the whole thing is. The most fantastical element is the young man, but even he is not labeled an angel. He is just described as is: “a young man, dressed in a white robe.”

Now read this account from the much later Gospel of Peter, probably written in the second century. Try to get a feel for how realistic vs. legendary it sounds:

But during the night before the Lord’s day dawned, while the soldiers were on guard, two by two during each watch, a loud noise came from the sky, and they saw the skies open up and two men come down from there in a burst of light and approach the tomb. The stone that had been pushed against the entrance began to roll by itself and moved away to one side; then the tomb opened up and both young men went inside. Now when these soldiers saw this, they roused the centurion from his sleep, along with the elders. (Remember, they were also keeping watch.) While they were explaining what they had seen, again they see three men leaving the tomb, two supporting the third, and a cross was following them. The heads of the two reached up to the sky, while the head of the third, whom they led by the hand, reached beyond the skies. And they heard a voice from the skies that said, “Have you preached to those who sleep?” And an answer was heard from the cross: “Yes!” (as translated in The Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller, editor, p. 405)

Now that’s how to do mythology! We have voices from the heavens, stones rolling by themselves, beings appearing in a burst of light. We have men whose heads reach up to the sky and even “beyond the skies.” And we have a walking cross that actually speaks! Why didn’t the New Testament gospel writers knock themselves out like this? Could it be that they were constrained by actual events? Could it be that the truly sensational thing was the simple, unadorned reality of what happened?

The very early tradition in 1 Corinthians 15

Skeptical scholars point out that the resurrection story as we all know it is very late, first appearing in Mark at about 70 AD. Since the crucifixion happened around 30 AD, this allows for forty years in which a whopper of a fish tale could get started and grow.

The problem with this is that Paul reports what is clearly a thumbnail sketch of the same basic story in 1 Corinthians, written much earlier, in the mid-50s. This brief passage is in fact the most important historical information we have about the resurrection:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)

Why is this so important? It is not only because it is written much closer to the actual events. It is also because Paul is, as he says, handing on a tradition, a confessional formula, that he “had received.” Scholars universally acknowledge this because the language used in this formula is non-Pauline. So this tradition does not come from Paul; it precedes Paul.

And this is hugely significant because Paul did not come on the scene in the 50s. He had been around since near the beginning. Paul probably had his “Damascus Road” experience—in which he himself had a life-changing experience of the risen Jesus—between one and six years after the crucifixion. Paul then tells us that “after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days” (Galatians 1:18-19). During that stay he also visited with James, the brother of Jesus. He therefore spoke with two men who were both purported witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, in the very city in which the resurrection was said to occur. This means that we can probably trace the tradition Paul has received to the mid-30s—just a few years after the events he relates. And it means that this tradition, if not coming directly from Peter and James in Jerusalem, is at least in harmony with what he learned from them.

In other words, we have the core of the resurrection story originating not with Mark in 70 AD from wherever he was writing. Rather, Paul learns it in Jerusalem in the 30s, while visiting with men who were eyewitnesses to and central players in the events themselves. It is beginning to look not like a story that grew in the telling, but one that was full-grown from the very beginning.

Paul did believe in an empty tomb

Scholars are of course well aware of this passage in 1 Corinthians. But liberal scholars will point out that there is no empty tomb in his account, and that without that all we have are the appearances, which could well be mere subjective visions.

This lack of reference to the empty tomb then seems to connect with Paul’s description in that same chapter of Jesus’ resurrected body. He calls it a “spiritual body” and contrasts it with Jesus’ physical body: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44).

There is intense debate about the physicality or non-physicality of what Paul meant by “spiritual body.” Many scholars use that term to conclude that back in the early days the resurrected Jesus was conceived of as a ghost, a spirit, and that this spirit then gradually developed, in the fertile imaginations of believers, into a solid body that could be touched and could even eat fish. Here, it seems, is clear evidence that the story grew in the telling.

There is, however, incontrovertible evidence that Paul believed in the empty tomb. To begin with, his discussion of the spiritual body in 1 Corinthians 15 sounds as if the physical body transforms into the spiritual body (“It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body”). And if this is true, then that spiritual body certainly can’t be occupying the tomb while it is appearing to Peter, the five hundred, and Paul.

However, what really cements this idea is that throughout Paul’s writings he tells us that what happened to Jesus’ body will happen to ours, and also tells us what will happen to ours: it will be transformed into a glorified body. Here are three such passages (as translated by scholars from the Jesus Seminar in The Authentic Letters of Paul):

He will transform our weak and mortal body into a body as glorious as his, by the power he has to make everything subject to his will. (Philippians 3:21)

And if the power of the One who raised Jesus from among the dead resides in you, the One who raised the Anointed from among the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through the power and presence of God that resides in you. (Romans 8:11)

In any case, the body is not intended for sexual indulgence, but is intended for the lord, and the lord is intended for the body. God raised up the lord and God will raise us up by divine power. (I Corinthians 6:13-14)

In these passages and several others we see two points repeatedly affirmed:

1. What happened to Jesus in the resurrection will happen to us.
2. What will happen to us is that our mortal body will be transformed into a glorified body.

The conclusion is inescapable. At this point, is there any doubt as to what Paul believes happened to Jesus’ body? Paul clearly believed in a body that transformed and left the tomb. Again we see that the core of the resurrection story does not begin with Mark. It goes back before Paul to sometime in the 30s.

This explains a great deal about early Christianity

Once we posit that there was a real resurrection, a number of things about early Christianity make perfect sense:

  • We can now explain the explosion of early Christianity. Once the leader of the early movement was executed in disgrace by the Romans, the movement should have naturally died along with him. Yet something changed Jesus’ followers from hiding in fear after the crucifixion to fearlessly going out and establishing the new faith throughout the known world. How, for example, does a simple fisherman from Galilee like Peter end up being executed decades later in the capital of the world, Rome? What force launched him so far from his beginnings?
  • If the resurrection story truly began with Mark forty years later, why was early Christianity united in belief in it? Early Christianity was a diverse movement, yet everyone (apart from some later Gnostic groups) agreed on the resurrection. How on earth could Mark—writing decades later—have gotten all the various groups on board? Competing traditions would have had time to become deeply entrenched by then.
  • How do we explain the holy day switching from the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening) to Sunday, a work day? Given how hallowed and basic to that culture the Sabbath was, that is a big change. Imagine founding a Christian sect today and deciding to change the holy day from Sunday to Wednesday. Why did the early Christians make such a change? Without the resurrection, we have no lever to move this boulder. With the resurrection, it makes complete sense.
  • Jesus’ followers began early on to think of him as the Messiah. Yet N. T. Wright points out that when messianic claimants were killed, their messianic pretenses had thereby been disproved and so their followers moved on. Why did Jesus’ followers continue in his movement even when their “Messiah” had been executed?
  • Jesus’ own focus was on what he called “the kingdom of God.” He seemed to view himself as a pivotal figure, but that was not the focus of his teachings. Yet the focus of early Christianity for some reason switched to Jesus himself, who was then elevated to divine status. And this didn’t take much time. Already in Paul—the earliest New Testament writer—we see this very switch. What caused this? What convinced his followers that the real story was not Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom, but this unparalleled man himself? The resurrection obviously provides us with a ready explanation.

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin is the purported burial cloth of Jesus. It is arguably the most remarkable, and definitely the most investigated, artifact in the world. It bears the faint image of a crucified man, with bloodstains corresponding to various wounds on his body. The scientific study of the Shroud was launched in 1898 when a photograph was taken and it was discovered that, while the Shroud itself does not look particularly lifelike, a photographic negative of it does. In other words, the Shroud itself seems to be analogous to a photographic negative, such that a negative of it yields a positive.

The scientific study of the Shroud then went into high gear when it was discovered in the 1970s that the image contains three-dimensional information. This apparently results from the image being darker where the body would have been closer to the cloth draping it, and lighter where the body would have been farther away.

There is a veritable mountain of concrete evidence concerning the Shroud from dozens of scientific disciplines, all of it supporting the Shroud’s authenticity—all of it, that is, except one piece. The 1988 carbon-dating concluded that the Shroud dated to the Middle Ages, somewhere between 1260 and 1390. That one test was popularly viewed as overruling the mountain of evidence arguing in favor of the Shroud. It was then widely assumed that the Shroud was a medieval forgery, even though the carbon-dating brought us no closer to explaining how someone could have forged it (we still don’t know). How do you create a 3D-encoded photographic negative of a crucified man—anatomically realistic in every respect—in the Middle Ages?

Since then, however, the 1988 carbon-dating has been called into question so thoroughly that it cannot be considered a definitive test. In 2005, renowned chemist Ray Rogers published findings in the scientific journal Thermochimica Acta that the threads from the corner that was dated are unlike the rest of the Shroud in key respects. This supports the “invisible reweave” theory, which claims that particular corner had been cut off and then rewoven in the 16th century, so expertly that it is visible only to the trained eye.

Does the Shroud support the resurrection? In my view, it does, in two ways. First, it contains a record of every possible detail of what the gospels say happened to Jesus in his crucifixion and burial. The scourging, the carrying of the cross, the crown of thorns, the nail wounds in the hands and feet, the spear wound in his side, the linen burial cloth—all of it is reflected on the Shroud. If the Shroud is genuine, then that means the gospel records closely match the actual events of the crucifixion and burial, and if we can trust those records with the beginning of the story—crucifixion and burial—we can probably trust them with the end.

Second, the image on the Shroud is considered by many to be a direct result of the resurrection. We cannot be certain of this and there are serious competing theories, but think about it. We have an image that no one can explain. It is not the product of any foreign agent applied to the cloth. Rather, it is some kind of change in the cloth itself. The 1978 investigation by STURP, a team of scientists, concluded that the image was the result of the “oxidation, dehydration and conjugation of the…microfibrils of the linen itself.” Ray Rogers (a member of STURP) later concluded that the image was the result of the browning of a thin starch coating on the fibrils, similar to the browning of toast.

Either way, we have something emanating from the body that colored the cloth it was wrapped in, such that the closer the cloth was to the body the more “dose” it got. The result was a body imprinting on its burial shroud a remarkably crisp and lifelike image of itself, centuries before photography and computer-based 3D technology came along. It is not hard to understand why many researchers believe that what emanated from the body was the energy of the resurrection. (For a summary of evidence about the Shroud, along with an evaluation of its implications for historical Jesus scholarship, see “The Shroud and the ‘Historical Jesus’: Challenging the Disciplinary Divide,” by Simon Joseph.)

Conclusion

We do not have to take the resurrection on faith. There is real evidence that, in my view, is very difficult to explain away. Skeptical scholars tell us a different story, but it seems clear to me that they are merely voting along party lines. They have a philosophical commitment to the idea that bodies cannot resurrect, and as a result they appear to have made up their minds prior to the evidence. In the words of Bart Ehrman, the evidence is “completely irrelevant.”

I, on the other hand, am not so convinced of my worldview that the evidence is irrelevant for me. This is an issue that must be decided by the evidence, not by prior philosophical commitments. And if I come to the table with openness in those commitments, then the evidence speaks to me with a surprisingly clear voice.

That evidence suggests that, in spite of its evident impossibility, the resurrection actually happened. Jesus’ body really did transform, and this then transformed the minds of his followers, giving them the strength to go out and transform the world. Without the resurrection, Jesus would probably have at best been relegated to being a historical footnote, a Galilean holy man like Hanina Ben Dosa, mentioned briefly in a few historical sources. With the resurrection, Christian churches dot every skyline, serving as spiritual home to two billion followers. I can look through my window right now and see the tower of a thousand-year-old church, and on Easter Sunday I will hear its bells ringing all morning. The evidence of the resurrection is not hard to find. It is all around us, reverberating to this day.

This means that for us as students of A Course in Miracles, we don’t have to back away from the resurrection as a “Christian thing.” We can believe it based on historical evidence and then claim it as our own. For us, it can be the decisive demonstration that establishes the most important principle there is: that nothing can destroy truth, that good can withstand any form of evil, that light abolishes all forms of darkness. It can be the definitive proof that all of the lessons Jesus taught—and still teaches—are true.

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