Updated: Jun 23
With Easter only a week away, Jesus’ resurrection has been on my mind. I don’t need to tell you that Jesus’ resurrection is one of the most difficult propositions for people living in the 21st century. The idea of a man dying and coming back to life after three days feels scientifically unlikely, and yet, this event is at the core of the Christian faith. A lot of modern people simply dismiss the resurrection as utter fiction, but I would like to suggest that perhaps there’s something more at play than meets the eye.
The Story You Know
Let’s begin with a short synopsis of Jesus’ resurrection as presented in the New Testament. Jesus is placed on trial for treason. After being convicted, Jesus is sentenced to death by crucifixion. According to the gospels, after Jesus’ crucifixion, he is removed from the cross and placed in a tomb. There he lays unattended Friday night, all day Saturday (because of the Sabbath) and then, on Sunday morning at sunrise, women loyal to Jesus come to perform the Jewish rites of burial on Jesus’ body with spices and oils.
When the women arrive, they discover that Jesus’ body is gone. Eventually, the disciples are informed that Jesus is alive. He has been resurrected, brought back to life. According to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, this was not an isolated event. Numerous people witnessed Jesus’ resurrected body at different times:
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, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, 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. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1Co. 15:3-8)
Based on the fact that the early church formed not long after these resurrection appearances, we can rightfully assume that something profound happened. I think we can accurately make the leap that everyone saw something. The question becomes: What exactly did they see? To answer this question, we first need to spend a little bit of time discussing how crucifixion was performed by the Roman Empire.
The Science of Crucifixion
Crucifixion was used by many different nations as a means of capital punishment because it was cheap and public. All you needed to crucify someone was a plank of wood and some rope or nails. Often, the executioner was given discretion as to how the accused was to be attached to the plank. Some were hung right side up, others upside-down. Sometimes they would be hooded, but it was common to have the accused stripped naked for maximum shame.
Unlike what we see in the gospels, the accused would often be executed before being nailed to the cross. This makes sense given how hard it could be to hold someone down to affix their body to the wooden beams. In this way, the cross was more like a display case rather than a torture machine. The Romans became famous for crucifixion because they were the first to make the process uniform by requiring the executioner to nail the hands to the cross beam.
Historically, the purpose of this type of execution was quite simple—the government wanted to demonstrate to the public that, under no circumstances will rebellion in any form be tolerated. Crucifixion was always performed in a public place where lots of people could see the results. For example, imagine going to the market to purchase food and, off in the distance, you would see a person being crucified for some crime. The entire idea of hoisting someone up in the air was to deter other people from engaging in the same behavior.
This is why Jesus was led to a hillside outside of Jerusalem to be crucified. This hillside was public enough that it would be hard for anyone to miss as they went about their daily activities. This hillside was nicknamed Golgotha, otherwise known as the place of the skull. Although some people have suggested that the reason it was called Golgotha is because there is a rockface outside of Jerusalem that looks like skull, this is historically unlikely.
The reason it was called the place of the skull is because the hillside was literally littered with skulls from other people who had been crucified. The way those skulls got there is because the bodies of the crucified were left on the cross to decompose after they had died. The whole point of crucifixion was to leave the body on the cross to serve as a reminder for as long as possible that you don’t want to be like this person.
The Gospel Fallacy
This isn’t what happens in the gospels. The gospels tell us that, after Jesus is convicted of treason and crucified, he was taken down off of the cross and placed in a tomb. What many Christians don’t realize is that the removal of an executed individual from the cross for burial was extraordinarily rare. This is because pulling the body down for burial would defeat the entire purpose of being crucified. Why go through all that trouble to hoist them up in the air if you were going to take them down as soon as they were dead?
The gospel authors knew how uncommon it was to be taken down off of the cross and this is why they portray Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man with political connections, stepping in to procure Jesus’ body for burial. Although this is exactly what would need to happen for Jesus to be removed from the cross, historically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Jesus, a poor Jewish peasant from Nazareth, would be shown such treatment.
The reason why is because the person who would have granted permission for the burial of the body is Pontius Pilate, a cruel man who hated his Jewish subjects with every fiber of his being. An example of this disdain would be Pilate’s reputation for signing death warrants without providing a trial for the accused. He would just send them straight to the cross. In fact, Pilate was removed from his post in Judea by the Emperor in 36 C.E. for giving the orders to slaughter nearly 100 Samaritans who had made a religious pilgrimage up a mountain. Given this track record, it seems highly unlikely to me that Pilate would grant permission for Jesus’ body to be removed from the cross, even for someone who had political connections.
More than likely, Jesus was left on the cross like everyone else who was executed by crucified. When Jesus’ remains had fallen to the ground, he would have been buried in a mass grave along with all the other criminals who had been crucified alongside him. One piece of evidence in the Bible that supports this point of view are the letters written by the Apostle Paul.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he says: 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, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures… (1Cor. 15:3-4)
Notice that Paul does not say that Jesus was buried in a tomb. In fact, Paul never mentions a tomb in any of his letters. This omission is important for a number of reasons. First, Paul’s letters predate the gospels. More importantly, Paul is the only author in the New Testament who personally witnessed Jesus’ resurrection and who personally knew Jesus’ disciples. So even though Paul was not present for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, he was regularly in contact with people who were. If Jesus was buried in a tomb, I think Paul would have heard about it. Yet, Paul never discusses how Jesus was buried.
This likely means that Paul assumed that Jesus was left to decompose on the cross and was buried in the manner of all criminals who had been crucified, which creates a bit of a problem. We have two competing narratives. One narrative is found in the gospels where Jesus is removed from the cross and placed in a tomb. The second narrative is the science of crucifixion where the Roman government left the crucified on the cross. How are we to deal with this inconsistency?
To decode this problem, it helps to understand that there is not just one version of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament. In fact, there are three different types of resurrection. One type can be found in portions of John’s gospel where Jesus is portrayed as a ghost or spirit who can walk through walls: When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." (Jn. 20:19)
As you can see, John’s portrays the resurrected Jesus as having the ability to randomly appear and disappear in the presence of his disciples, like a ghost. For this reason, John’s version of the resurrection seems to be the least likely for me because the people writing John’s gospel are three generations removed from Jesus’ lifetime. More importantly, John’s version of events has the least in common with the other portrayals of Jesus’ resurrection.
If you know your Bible well, you might be thinking: Doesn’t Jesus literally eat breakfast with his disciples on the shore of Galilee in John chapter 21? How can he be a ghost if he’s eating breakfast?” You would be correct. A ghost can’t eat breakfast. But what we know is that chapter 21 in John was added later, likely because people were uncomfortable with the implications that Jesus was portrayed like a ghost in the previous chapter. The author of chapter 21 wanted to make it crystal clear that Jesus’ resurrection was physical, which is why Jesus is portrayed as eating breakfast, the most bodily thing you can do.
The second way that Jesus’ resurrection is portrayed is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke when they portray Jesus as physically coming back from the dead and being placed in a tomb. Of course, the problem with this assertion is the science of crucifixion, which makes the historical validity of tomb burial highly suspect.
Therefore, this leads me to believe that Jesus’ physical resurrection (at least the way it’s portrayed in the synoptic gospels) is also highly suspect. Which means that if the physical resurrection lacks credibility, then so does the ascension. (Sidenote: Only Luke was smart enough to realize that if Jesus physically came back to life, but is no longer present on earth, then his body had to go somewhere…hence the ascension.)
This leads to the final, and most probable, version of the resurrection: Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection as a vision. In 1Thessalonians, Paul describes Jesus’ return by saying: For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1Th. 4:16-17)
Paul speaks of Jesus being seen in the sky, which is consistent with the descriptions of many mass visions that have been recorded throughout the centuries. Based on this description and what we read about Paul’s conversion in Acts, Paul’s encounter with Jesus is consistent with a vision. While many modern people struggle with the physical resurrection, visions are common and incredibly well documented. They happen all the time and have even been filmed. Sometimes these visions have rational explanations, sometimes they do not.
What Does It All Mean?
Regardless of which version of the resurrection you prefer: 1) Spirit/Ghost [John] 2) Bodily [Matthew, Mark, Luke] or 3) Vision [Paul’s Letters] It’s clear that whatever happened was profound enough to completely change the life trajectory of the people who witnessed this event. They dropped everything they were doing to keep Jesus’ movement alive. And what’s crazy to me is that they did it!
Here we are 2000 years later, still talking about Jesus of Nazareth. There are not many things in this world that are able to stand the test of time and last 2000 years. What’s even more amazing to me is that, even though the next generation hadn’t seen Jesus’ resurrection firsthand, they believed what they heard. And the same is true with each subsequent generation because there is something about this story that deeply resonates with people.
Personally, I find the event of Jesus’ resurrection a beautiful metaphor for the cycle of death and rebirth in the universe. Whenever a living being dies, all of the atoms that constitute the body of that organism (the average human adult has 6.5 octillion atoms that comprise their body—that’s 6.5 with 25 zeros after it) are reconstituted by the earth and become part of plants, animals, and bacteria. Those atoms, which are eternal and can never be destroyed, will end up being resurrected over and over and over again.
Indeed, our atoms will exist perpetually until the universe itself collapses and starts anew. In this way, the resurrection is a story that captures the fundamental nature of all life. It reminds us of something we all know intuitively, but struggle to articulate: We have been here before and we will be here again. This life we are living now is simply the latest manifestation of our existence and there will be many more.
For me, this reality is reassuring and reminds me that I need not fear death. So on this Easter, I hope that you will know the reassurance of the resurrection. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.” Truer words have never been spoken. We simply have to read between the lines. Happy Easter!