Unbelievers have often said that Jesus could not have survived death on the cross. Let’s see if that’s so or not—and why the right answer to the question is of utmost importance.
Objections to a Physical Resurrection
Typical of those objecting to Jesus’ physical resurrection was a German theologian, Karl Venturini, who, early in the 19th century, said that Jesus had not really died on the cross, but had “swooned.” According to this “swoon theory,” the disciples thought that Jesus had been resurrected, but, really, he had just fainted and later woke up.
What do you think? My view is that if you can believe that, you shouldn’t have any problem believing in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, since such a “swoon” would have been more miraculous than the resurrection!
Why? Here are just a few reasons: (1) The Roman soldiers crucifying Jesus knew their business: they had conducted many, many crucifixions in that cruel time of history. (2) According to the accounts, the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear after taking the body down from the cross–to make sure that he was dead–and out came blood and water (lymph), showing that he was no longer living. (3) Would the disciples not have known the difference between a gloriously risen Christ and someone who had been subjected to torture for hours and nailed to a cross? (4) What would have happened to Jesus afterwards? Would he have hid himself away somewhere? Gone into retirement? In fact, Jesus was the last person to lie about himself or deceive others about himself. (By the way, you might like to read the most careful medical study of Jesus’ death, as published some years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, where the authors conclude that “Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross” [JAMA, Vol. 255, pp. 1455-63 (1986)].)
Let the Historical Records Make the Decision
Venturini is a very good (or very bad!) example of what happens when people do not pay attention to the firsthand, historical reports of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. All we know about Jesus comes from the New Testament records, and if a person ignores them, he or she no longer does history. One substitutes speculation for history and the results are of no value whatsoever.
Suppose we were to do the same thing with other historical figures. A fine biblical theologian of the 19th century, Richard Whately—who had a great sense of humor—wrote a book titled, Historic Doubts relative to Napoleon Buonaparte. Skeptics had said that you couldn’t believe the New Testament accounts of Jesus because everyone has prejudices—either they loved Jesus or they hated him. Whately used their own argument to show (as a joke) that Napoleon had never existed—since everyone writing about him either loved him or hated him! This shows that if you use bad reasoning about Jesus, you’ll mess up history in general!
But How Good Are the Gospel Records?
Suppose we compare the New Testament books with other writings of the ancient world. What do we find?
In the case of the New Testament, the existing manuscripts are far closer in time to their authors than in the case of any other books of the Greco-Roman world. Two among numerous examples: Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Tacitus’ Annals: 1,000 years between their composition and our first complete copies. When I was at university, I spent a semester studying the Latin poetry of Catullus. We have that poetry in only three manuscripts, and they are 1,600 years later than the original writings! But for the New Testament, we have thousands of manuscripts, including ones that go back to less than a century after the events described. Two virtually complete texts of the Gospels exist from as early as the 4th century (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus). There is a fragment of the Gospel of John that must be dated before John’s death–around A.D. 95. Because the biblical books were regarded as sacred, they were copied with the greatest of care and we can be sure that what we have today is substantially what the Apostolic writers or their associates actually wrote.
When some years ago I successfully debated a philosophy professor on the subject at the University of British Columbia, I showed that if you throw out the New Testament, you must at the same time discard virtually your entire knowledge of the classical world. My opponent then said (but no one believed him): “All right. I shall throw out my knowledge of the classical world.” A classics professor in the audience jumped up and cried, “Good Lord! Not that.”
And How Reliable Are the Gospel Witnesses?
Of course, good documents could convey bad testimony. How good are the witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ?
As a lawyer, I am to assume that witnesses, just like the person or persons on trial, are innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, the “burden of proof”—the responsibility for proving that the testimony is unreliable and the witnesses are not to be trusted–must fall on the critic. Can critics of the life of Christ show that the witnesses—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, etc.—should not be trusted?
One technique employed by lawyers to see if a witness is reliable or not is to look first at the witness and then at what he or she says. The witness and what the witness says are considered from the standpoint of their basic nature and in terms of what might have influenced them.
If we do this with the Gospel writers, what do we find? In terms of character, they had no criminal records or psychological problems, and so cannot be dismissed as unreliable. They were clearly not influenced by their Jewish society to present Jesus as the Son of God (since the Jewish leadership did not believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah).
As for their writings, they have, as translator J. B. Phillips nicely put it, “the ring of truth.” A New Testament Gospel does not always present the same information as another Gospel, yet they do not contradict, but instead complement, each other. A lawyer just loves to have two opposing witnesses say exactly the same thing: he knows that they have “colluded” with each other and cannot be trusted.
Not so with the New Testament materials.
And archeology backs up what the Gospel witnesses declare. For example, we have an inscription dated about A.D. 30 that confirms what the Gospels say about Pontius Pilate—that he was prefect (governor) of Judaea at the time of Jesus’ trial and death.
I am also a certified International Fraud Examiner. Fraud examination generally tries to determine whether the three standard characteristics of alleged fraud are present: opportunity, motive, and low moral character.
The Gospel writers and the authors of the other New Testament books did not display those marks of fraud. They had no motive to lie about Jesus—quite the opposite–since the religious leadership of the country was dead set against the idea that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament, come to earth as Messiah and King of the Jews. Indeed, most of them died for their beliefs in Jesus’ divinity.
They had been taught by Jesus that lying was of the devil (John 8: 44-45), so they would not have lied even in his behalf.
And, had they attempted to do so, they would not have been able to get away with it anyway, since hostile witnesses were present throughout Jesus’ ministry—the Jewish religious leaders—and they would have blown the whistle had the Gospel witnesses given false testimony concerning him. If they were willing to crucify Jesus, they certainly would have had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to show that the New Testament writers were presenting false testimony. They did not do so—because they could not.
The Miracles Issue
But what is the real source of arguments against the resurrection of Jesus? How can the critics ignore his appearances to a host of people–and not just believers–over a forty day period before he publicly ascended to heaven? How can anyone deny this, when we know that over 500 people saw the risen Christ (I Corinthians 15)? The answer is that many people simply refuse to believe that miracles ever happen.
How, logically, could anyone maintain that miracles never occur? You would have to look under every rock in the universe—past, present, and future—to make sure there wasn’t a miracle going on there! No one can do that.
If we want to be scientific, we need to check out the evidence for or against any miracle claim. Of course, there will be “miracles” for which the evidence is so poor or non-existent that we shall reject the supposed event. But if the evidence is good, we have no choice but to go with it. We don’t know the universe so well that we can say that this or that event is impossible.
However, isn’t a resurrection so strange that we would need to have an infinite amount of evidence in favor of it? Hardly. A celebrated 18th-century pastor to lawyers in England (Thomas Sherlock) pointed out that a resurrection is simply someone dead now and alive later. We have plenty of information about the reverse: people alive now, and dead later. But the evidence needed in both instances is exactly the same: being able to distinguish dead people from live people! Those living at the time of Christ were just as able to do this as we are. If they (or we) couldn’t tell the difference between the live ones and the dead ones, we would be burying the wrong people!
Go into a funeral parlor and offer someone present a Macdonald’s fish burger. If he eats it, he is alive. After the resurrection, Jesus ate with his disciples (Luke 24).
Can’t We Just Substitute a “Spiritual” Resurrection?
But why not avoid all this by believing in a “spiritual” resurrection of Jesus, not a physical, bodily one? Wouldn’t that keep us from having to defend a real miracle? Maybe, but at much too high a cost.
There is no evidence for a “spiritual” resurrection. Remember: after Easter morning, Jesus eats with the disciples. And doubting Thomas touches the nail prints in the resurrected Jesus’ hands and thrusts his hand into the wound in his side made by the soldiers who crucified him (John 20). And if Jesus had risen only “spiritually,” there would be no assurance that believers in him would (as he promised) be raised physically at the Last Judgment.
In this regard, a wee philosophical point is worth mentioning. Evidence is possible for a physical event—but what evidence could ever exist for something purely “spiritual”? The people who go for naked spirituality are talking about things that no one could ever show to be true. Look at all the cults and isms that maintain (mutually contradictory) “spiritual truths.” Christianity must not fall into that pit. Christian faith begins with a physical virgin birth, attests to physical—historical—fulfillments of prophecies and actual miracles, and sees its Lord physically ascend into heaven with the promise of returning in the same manner at the end of time (Acts 1:11). Let’s not change Christianity from fact to some kind of unprovable mysticism.
A Final Word About the Importance of All This
But why is all this important? Answer: because salvation depends on it. Jesus himself said: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). And the Apostle Paul, writing under divine inspiration, told us specifically the nature of the saving gospel (1 Corinthians 15):
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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.
Thus, the physical resurrection of our Lord is essential to eternal life. It is the foundation of our life after death with Christ and a central pillar of Christian faith. To deny it is to deny the truth of Christianity—and to cut us off personally from the wondrous gift that that resurrection provides to everyone who believes in the One whom God raised from the dead for our salvation.
John Warwick Montgomery
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In today’s secular world, demon possession is generally regarded as nothing but medieval superstition. Modern western man has forgotten C. S. Lewis’s sage account of the devilish strategy (The Screwtape Letters, 7): “Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course, this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When human beings disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us we cannot make them materialists and sceptics.”
The present issue of the Global Journal features selections from a learned symposium on the subject recently made available for our republication by the kind permission of The Journal of Mind and Behavior (editor: Dr Raymond Russ, University of Maine). The main article by Mark Crooks is followed by commentaries by Craig Keener and your Editor. The Montgomery inclusion is perhaps justified by my books Principalities and Powers: The World of the Occult and Demon Possession: Christian Medical Association Essays.