Did Jesus really die -- or was he resuscitated after being taken from the cross? Was His body stolen from the tomb? Jesus' life and death have been the subject of many recent publications. Some "scholars" dispute Jesus' resurrection, although no archaeological, historical or scientific evidence has ever been presented to disprove that it occurred. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was observed by hundreds of eyewitnesses. The events were recorded in a proven reliable record, the Bible.

This article considers some common arguments against the resurrection of Jesus and provides evidence which substantiates His resurrection.

 

The death, burial and physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the most significant event in history. It is also one of the most powerful testimonies of the reality of God. Man's salvation depends upon the Messiah's resurrection, as stated by Paul

"And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man." 1 Corinthians 15:17-21

Did Jesus Die?

A common argument against the resurrection is that Jesus wasn't really dead when He was taken from the cross and that He was later revived. Nowhere in the Jewish or Roman historical record is there any evidence that testifies that Jesus was not dead. Roman crucifixion was a cruel form of punishment that resulted in certain death. Three separate groups of people verified that Jesus was physically dead: the Roman soldiers, Pilate and the Centurion, and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.

Crucifixion Resulted in Death

The Romans were experts at torture and used crucifixion to terrorize their subjects. Crucifixion was the extreme form of punishment, reserved primarily for slaves and political prisoners. Roman crucifixion guaranteed that death was painful and certain.

The flagrum was used to beat prisoners. The sharp pieces of bone and lead on the leather thongs would cut into the back and shoulders of the prisoners with each stroke, eventually opening the back to expose the interior organs.

To comprehend the certainty of death by Roman crucifixion, it is important to understand the method of crucifixion. Jesus was beaten prior to His crucifixion, as was the common practice. He was tied to a post and beaten nearly to death using a short whip called a flagrum. The flagrum was made using leather thongs into which were woven sharp pieces of bone and lead. The pieces of bone and lead would cut into the back and shoulders of the prisoner with each stroke, eventually opening the back to expose the interior organs. The Jews were limited by their law to 40 lashes. The Romans, however, had no limits. The beating of Jesus is described in the following Scriptures:

...He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified -- Mark 15:15

Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, "Prophesy to us, Christ. Who hit you?" -- Matthew 26:67-68

They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. -- Matthew 27:30

Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. -- Mark 15:15-19

...And they struck him in the face. -- John 19:3

Isaiah prophesied the Messiah's torture: "... his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness -- Isaiah 52:14

Roman crucifixion entailed nailing the wrists and feet of the victim to a cross. The victim's arms were stretched horizontally and each wrist was affixed to the cross with a nail. The victim's feet were transfixed with a single nail piercing through both feet. The cross was then raised so the victim was suspended vertically by the nails in his wrists and feet. The Romans desired death to take days to occur, so that passers by would be frightened and therefore obey. Beaten nearly to death, their strength gone, victims slowly died from suffocation being too weak to push themselves up with their legs to breathe. As an act of mercy to hasten death, the legs of the victim were broken so they could no longer push themselves up to breathe.

Soldiers Verify Jesus' Death

The Jews didn't want the bodies on the cross during their special Sabbath (Passover), so they asked Pilate to have their legs broken to hasten death. When the soldiers came to Jesus, they realized He was already dead. To ensure that He was dead the soldiers thrust a spear into His side.

But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water...These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: "Not one of his bones will be broken," and, as another Scripture says: "They will look on the one they have pierced." John 19:33-37

The flow of blood and water from Jesus' side is another factor that substantiates His death. Medical experts have stated that the flow of blood and water indicates a possible ruptured heart.1

Pilate and the Centurion

Certify Jesus' Death

Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. -- Mark 15:44-45

Joseph and Nicodemus

Prepare Jesus for Burial

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took Jesus' body to prepare it for burial.

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. -- John 19:38-39

People of ancient Israel washed, then wrapped the bodies of their dead using linen strips of clothing sewn together. Between the wraps of cloth they placed spices. During the burial preparation process, Joseph and Nicodemus would have had close contact with Jesus while they handled and turned His body to wash it. They would likely be able to note life signs were there any.

A Roman Guard Unit was highly disciplined. Simply to leave your post or fall asleep on duty was punishable by death.


Was Jesus' Body Stolen?

Although some theorize that Jesus' body was stolen from the tomb, this was highly unlikely. The tomb was totally secured for the following reasons:

  • it was hewn from solid rock
  • the tomb entrance was enclosed with a one-to-two ton bolder1
  • a Roman seal was placed on the entrance
  • a Roman guard unit was posted to secure the tomb

Solid Rock Tomb with Two Ton Door

Jesus was buried in a solid rock tomb. This solid enclosure would make robbery impossible without notice. The entrance to the tomb was enclosed with a large disc-shaped rock that could roll along a sloped groove to rest in front of the entrance. It has been estimated that a stone large enough to adequately cover this entrance would weigh approximately one to two tons.1

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. -- Matthew 27:57-60 also see Mark 15:46

The women who came to complete the burial of Jesus the following morning were also impressed by the size and weight of the entrance stone.

"and they[the women] asked each other, 'Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?' But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away." -- Mark 16:3-4

Roman Seal Warned Potential Thieves

The official Roman Seal was placed upon the tomb of Jesus to authenticate it and secure it. The seal could only be placed on the entrance to the tomb in the presence of the Roman guards who would be responsible for securing it.

To break this seal would cause the power and authority of Rome to fall upon you. When caught, you would be punished by being crucified upside down! Someone would knowingly be risking severe torture and their life to attempt to steal Jesus' body.

"Take a guard," Pilate answered. "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how." So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. Matthew 27:65-66

The Roman Seal probably consisted of a cord suspended across the entrance affixed by a waxy seal at each end into which the official would stamp an insignia identifying their authority and warning potential thieves who dared break it.

Disciplined Guard Unit Secured Tomb

There is division among Bible commentators as to what guard unit secured the tomb where Jesus lay. Some say that a Temple guard unit was used, others say it was most likely a Roman guard unit. The Temple guard and the Roman guard were both highly disciplined.

For example, a Roman guard unit consisted of four to sixteen highly disciplined men. Simply to leave your post or fall asleep on duty was punishable by death!2 Roman guards would make certain no one disturbed the tomb. No Roman guard would dare fall asleep while on duty.

The Temple guards were also highly disciplined. If a captain found a guard asleep, he would be beaten and burned with his own clothes.

Undisturbed Grave Clothes Evidence of Resurrection

Bible commentators state that close examination of the text describing the body linen suggests the grave clothes were undisturbed. Not only did the grave clothes not leave the tomb, as would be expected if Jesus' body were stolen, but they were actually undisturbed!

John 20:5-8 gives a graphic description of Peter and John discovering the grave clothes and head cloth:

"he bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. the cloth folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed."

The disciple "saw and believed." The detailed description by John and the reaction by the disciples to the positioning of the grave clothes suggests the disposition of the grave clothes was significant to their believing in the resurrection.

What did they see to make them believe? Bible commentators relate that by layering spices and myrrh between strips of linen, a type of cast would be formed. This encasement would tend to hold its shape and not become limp. If Jesus miraculously passed through the grave clothes an empty shell would likely remain. Upon seeing this empty shell, the disciples would no doubt be awestruck as to what had occurred. If this is accurate, it would suggest that the body of Jesus was not tampered with in any manner and therefore not stolen. If His body were stolen, the grave clothes would be disturbed. That the material was in the exact position in which it was placed by Joseph and Nicodemus may suggest that the body of Jesus passed miraculously through the grave clothes.

Another interesting fact that supports the resurrection is the disposition of the face cloth used to cover the head of Jesus.

"...The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen." John 20:7

Bible commentators relate that the Greek word describing the disposition of the face cloth, translated as folded-up, actually means to twist or to roll. The face cloth was neatly rolled and separate from the grave clothes. This suggests that there was no hurry during this event. That would preclude grave robbery, as grave robbers certainly wouldn't waste time arranging clothing. It would also suggest that Jesus was purposeful in His placement of the face cloth as another testament of His physical resurrection.


Eyewitness Accounts Attest to Resurrection

Multiple eyewitness accounts do not guarantee reliability, but they do add extremely powerful evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, it would be unreasonable to conclude that hundreds of eyewitnesses to Jesus' appearances during the forty day period following His resurrection were lying or were all experiencing the same illusion.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome Witness the Empty Tomb

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. ...As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him." -- Mark 16:1-6

"When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons." - Mark 16:9

Guards Witness the Opening of the Tomb by an Angel

Matthew 28:1-6 clearly states that the guards witnessed the rolling back of the stone, were frightened and became like dead men.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Matthew 28:1-6

The Jewish priests had a problem. The Roman guards had witnessed the angel roll back the stone and had seen the empty tomb. If word were to spread of this event, the Jewish power structure might fall. To correct this problem, the Jewish authorities (chief priests) bribed the Roman guards to circulate a false story to explain the empty tomb of Jesus.

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. Matthew 28:11-15

Some Bible commentators suggest that the Roman guards went to the priests to save themselves since they would be punished severely for letting the tomb be opened. If that is so, why would the priests have to bribe the guards? It would seem reasonable that if the guards were running for their lives, they would be willing to pay the priests to save themselves. It seems likely that the priests were at a disadvantage because they had to bribe the guards. Further, the priests had to offer the guards a large sum of money to lie, probably because the guards would be risking their lives by saying they fell asleep on duty.

The priests were not fools. If the guards returned to their officers and demonstrated their story with physical evidence and eyewitness testimonies, the Roman officers might believe them. The likely result would be that people would believe that Jesus truly was the Messiah and the authority of the priests would greatly diminish.

Jesus Appears to the Eleven Disciples

After His resurrection, Jesus appeared several times to the eleven disciples. What is striking about these appearances is that although He travels through solid objects and appears and disappears at will seemingly independent of geographic location and physical objects, He states that He is flesh. He invites the disciples to touch Him and prove to themselves that it is He in the flesh.

"Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" -- Matthew 28:16-19

"Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating;..." -- Mark 16:14

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. -- Luke 24:30-31

"They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.... While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet." -- Luke 24:33-40

"A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 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 20:26-29

Jesus Appears to The Women

"When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons." -- Mark 16:9

"So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him." -- Matthew 28:8-9

Jesus Appears to Hundreds of People

It is logical to assume that if Jesus' disciples were fabricating a false resurrection story, they would attest to seeing Jesus, however, hundreds of people witnessed Jesus in the flesh following His resurrection.

"After that, he [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep." -- 1 Corinthians 15:6

Jesus Resurrected Others

Jesus resurrected many others. Following Jesus' resurrection these resurrected people went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people. Their resurrections also testify of Jesus' resurrection and deity.

It is no accident that Jesus rose on the feast of First Fruits because He fulfilled the Spring Feasts of Israel with His life.5 On the feast of First Fruits, it was the obligation of every Jew to offer the first of their harvest to the Lord. Jesus fulfilled this obligation by resurrecting people as His offering.

The tombs broke open and the bodies of many people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people -- Matthew 27:52-53


 

Resurrection Transformed People's Lives

The reaction of people to the resurrection provides profound evidence that the resurrection did indeed occur. After the resurrection, the disciples, former cowards, were now ready to die for Jesus. Saul (Paul), a former persecutor of Christians became a strong defender of the faith.

Cowards to Champions: Resurrection Causes Profound Change in Disciples

One of the most powerful pieces of evidence supporting Jesus' resurrection is the profound change of character in His disciples. The disciples were so frightened prior to the resurrection they would not acknowledge that they even knew Jesus. However, following Jesus' resurrection, the apostles, former cowards, chose to die rather than deny the resurrection and deity of Jesus. It is ridiculous to conclude that these cowards would within a few days, transform into fearless men capable of withstanding torture to their deaths rather than deny Jesus.

It is rightly argued that people will be willing to die for what they believe to be right, but will not submit to death to preserve a lie3. This principle can be seen in the disciples' lives. Only the authenticity of the events would transform these cowards into champions. Their deaths are permanent testimonies to the authenticity of Jesus' resurrection and deity. More than this, eleven of the apostles and many others were tortured and killed by extremely cruel and gruesome methods.4

Saul -- From Persecutor to Defender

Saul (Paul) hated Christians. Saul had been hunting down Christians and having them killed when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Saul underwent a miraculous conversion and began to preach about Jesus' resurrection and His Deity.

Saul provides an overview of himself in Acts 22:3-5 "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way[Christians] to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished."

Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus and is transformed.

"As he [Saul] neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do..." -- Acts 9:3-6

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord -- Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here -- has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. -- Acts 9:17-22

Following Jesus' resurrection, the apostles, former cowards, chose to die rather than deny the resurrection and deity of Jesus.

The apostle Saul summarizes the significance of Jesus' resurrection to our lives:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them -- yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. -- 1 Corinthians 15:3-2


The Resurrection of Jesus -- Fact!

The resurrection of Jesus is the most dramatic event in human history! Logical analysis of the evidence presented here bears witness that an actual resurrection event occurred.

The following is a summary of the significant evidence:
  • Jesus physically died on the cross, as collaborated by three groups of witnesses
  • Roman soldiers tremble with fear and freeze like dead men when they see the angel open Jesus' empty tomb.
  • Jesus was physically examined by His disciples following His resurrection
  • Jesus was witnessed by over 500 people following His resurrection
  • The amazing character change of the cowardly disciples into fearless witnesses of Jesus willing to endure torture and death rather than deny Jesus
  • Saul's encounter and radical change from prosecutor of Christians to proclaimer and defender of the faith
  • Jesus resurrected many others as a First Fruits offering and testament of His deity. Following His resurrection, these people went into Jerusalem and witnessed about Jesus.

References

References for this article and excellent sources for further study include:

1 McDowell, Josh The Resurrection Factor, Here's Life Publishers Inc., 1981.

2 McDowell, Josh More Than a Carpenter, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 1977

3 Story, Dan Defending Your Faith -- How To Answer The Tough Questions, Thomas Nelson Inc., 1992

4 Gentet King, Marie, Editor, Foxes Book of Martyrs, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1968, 1987

5 Return To God magazine Volume 1 Number 1 and Number 2, Return To God, 1994

Other excellent sources:

McDowell, Josh Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Here's Life Publishers Inc., 1990.

McDowell, Josh A Ready DEFENSE, Here's Life Publishers Inc., 1990.

 

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