The Resurrection of Jesus is the very crux of Christianity as we know it. If Jesus never rose from the dead, but died on the cross, Christianity collapses like a house of cards.
Without the resurrection he couldn’t be the son of god as he claimed to be, and his life becomes pointless together with the central dogmas of Christianity ((St.Paul)1 Cor 15, 17-18). A dead saviour is not the best basis for founding a living religion.
The sources for the resurrection miracle are only the four anonymous gospels and their stories about this remarkable achievement. First and foremost the resurrection is a question of faith, a dogma far beyond reason, common sense and logic. Still, let’s take a closer look at this dogma and investigate its background:
In the real world we do not know of any cases of people surviving death. If you’re dead, you’re dead. The heart stops beating and without a steady supply of fresh blood bringing oxygen to the brain, the brain cells dies within minutes. Without a functioning brain, no senses, no bodily functions, no personality, no life. That is the real world.
Up through the centuries different theories have been presented to explain the resurrection wonder. One theory suggest that the resurrection was a sort of subjective or collective visions. That Jesus never rose from the dead in the flesh but came to the disciples only as a hallucination or vision. This theory emerges already in very early Christendom.
Another popular theory was the theory of Jesus just apparently being dead, suggesting that Jesus didn’t actually die, but only appeared to be dead and came around again after three days. The historian Josephus tells us of several cases where crucified woke up again after being taken down from the cross. This is probably plausible since it could go days before the crucified finally died. Before they finally died they usually fell unconscious because of dehydration, pain and exhaustion. According to St. Mark Jesus hung on the cross for no more than six hours (Mk 15,25f), something the supporters of this theory emphasize. St. Mark also tells us that Pontius Pilate found it suspicious that Jesus already should have died, when ask for releasing the body (Mk 15,44). This theory is of course the most plausible, if we seek a rational explanation of the resurrection. The gospels, however, are not dealing with visions or a only apperently dead Christ.
"Flesh and bone"
In the gospels it is clear that Jesus rose from the dead, in corpus, in a bodily fashion. To explain the resurrection with visions or that only Jesu soul or spirit rose from the grave, is denied by the man himself: “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." Jesus wears a robe, and he eats fried fish (Lk 24,42-43), and he lets the disciples touch his feet and poke their fingers in his open wounds (!) (Mt 28,9; Joh 20,27). It is clearly a corporal Jesus who visits the disciples in the gospels. Still, this bodily Jesus can go right through locked doors and suddenly emerge from thin air, change his appearance, become invisible and fly to heaven. Jesus gives the phrase “flesh and bone” a completely new meaning here.
To rise from the dead is not something particular for Jesus.
Among gods this is a rather common thing to do. Gods are usually immortal for the most part, that is usually the main advantage of being a god. All religions have stories of gods, semi gods or heroes who conquer death. Among godmen who have risen again from the dead we can list Hercules, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Baal (Bel-Marduk), Mithra, Zarathustra, Odin (Wodan), Dionysos and Buddha.
By the way, the Egyptian Osiris rose from his tomb ”on the third day” and Attis ”after three days”. In the gospels you find that the resurrection of Jesus happened “on the third day” but also “after three days”. And all these older pagan gods also ascended to heaven.
Also celebrities like Cæsar (100 – 44 BC), the philosopher Pythagoras (ca 500 BC) and the poet Homer (ca 750 BC) ascended to heaven according to myth.
Buddha, Cæsar, Pythagoras and Homer were real historical mortals, and the myths around them shows that bodily ascension was not exclusively for gods or their sons in Antiquity. The suffering, dying, resurrected godman, who finally ascends to the heavens, was a quite common character in the mystery religions of Antiquity.
The ability to conquer death and rise from the dead is the foremost sign of divinity. The resurrected deity brings hope to his worshippers that they also can conquer death and have a life after death through the deity. The fear of dying is universal, and the promise of an afterlife is a central aspect of all religions.
The Empty Grave
Anyhow, back to Jesus. The four narratives of the resurrection of Jesus in the gospels are not entirely consistent and are partly contradictory in several instances. None of the gospels stories are actual eyewitness accounts of the events they describe, but are probably referring an oral tradition and maybe unknown secondary sources generations later. The last part of St.Mark’s version of the story where Jesus appears for his disciples before he ascends to heaven (Mk 16,9-20) is missing in the oldest versions of the manuscript.
This part of the story was added sometimes around 200 AD, which means that originally the gospel of St. Mark ended with verse 16:8 with the two women coming to anoint the corpse finding the grave open and seeing the young man in a white robe (angel?) telling them that Jesus was resurrected and had disappeared. Probably the writer or editor of the St.Mark gospel felt its necessary to add a new ending to strengthen the claim that Jesus really was resurrected and thus really was the Son of God.
After seeing the angel the two Marys flee from the grave in verse 8 and do not dare to tell any of the disciples what have happened, in spite of the angel specifically instructed them to do this. In verse 10, however, after seeing the presumably dead Jesus in person (something which one should think would be an even greater shock for them), Mary Magdalene had no problems of telling this to the disciples.
According to St. Mark the resurrected Jesus showed himself for two of the disciples, but ”in another form”. How the two disciples should know that this person actually was Jesus, in not entirely clear here. If the very point of showing himself for his followers was to prove that he really was resurrected from the dead, this seems rather stupid. It is also not strange that the other apostles did not believe that the two had actually seen Jesus if their description of the resurrected Jesus didn’t resemble the Jesus they knew. Later, Jesus still criticizes the apostles for this (Mk 16,14).
St. Matthew tells largely the same story of the two women at the grave, but he has jazzed up the story a bit compared to St.Mark. St. Matthew can tell us that a major earthquake happened as the Lord’s angel appeared, and the angel rolled away the huge stone in front of the grave and scared the Roman guards senseless before he told the two Marys that Jesus had resurrected. St. Luke informs us that there were not just one, but actually two angels in shining robes in the grave, who told the news of the resurrected Jesus. And he also can inform us that it was actually at least five, not just two, women at the grave when this happened and who then could tell the apostles of this shocking news (It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.” (Lk 24,10)). St.Luke also is the only evangelist who knows that the resurrected Jesus also showed himself before two of the apostles on their way to Emmaus.
For whom and when the resurrected Jesus first appeared is not entirely clear either. In the later added part of St.Mark gospel and in the St.John account of the events, the reanimated Jesus first appears for Maria Magdalene alone. According to St.Matthew Jesus first appears for both of the Marys, but St.Luke tells us that he first showed himself for the two apostles on their way to Emmaus.
Anyway, Mary Magdalene is a central witness in the case of the resurrection of Jesus. Her credibility as a witness in this case, can be questioned. According to the same gospels this is the woman Jesus had to exorcise no less than seven evil demons, something indicating that this was a woman not always in mental balance. This is a point noted already in the second century by the pagan philosopher Celsos who in his criticism of Christianity says: “Who has seen this [the resurrected Jesus]? A half-witted semi-deranged woman!”.
In the gospel of St. John Jesus appears for Mary Magdalene just after she has seen the two angels in his grave, but she does not recognize Jesus. She thinks he is the gardener (!). As the author of some of the oldest parts of the New Testament, St. Paul does not know of the story of the empty grave. However, in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter 15 St.Paul seem to know that Jesus, after having an more private appearance for Peter and the rest of his 12 disciples, also appeared before 500 brothers at the same time, and then for James and the apostles again, and finally for St.Paul himself.*
We can suspect St.Paul to having something of a fairly free interpretation of the truth here.
Moreover, there were only 11 disciples left, since Judas hardly could qualify as a bonafide disciple after his unfortunate betrayal, and since he had left to hang himself. St. Matthew’s information of two guards by the empty grave is something the older St.Mark does not seem to know anything of.
As a curiosity we can add that in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter we find a somewhat different story of the Empty grave. Here, the cross (!) follows Jesus out of the grave and even answers “Yes” on behalf of Jesus to a questing roaring from the sky asking if he had fulfilled his mission among the dead ones (preaching to those who sleep). (Hmmm. well, a talking and walking wooden cross is actually not particularly more unbelievable than rising people from the dead or walking on water, is it? Why this gospel didn’t make it into the Bible, we will never know).
The reason for the two Marys visit to the grave was, according to St. Mark, to anoint the corpse after three days. I view of the climate of the area; this seems kind of strange since the body probably would have started to decompose quite rapidly after three days. According to St.John’s version of the story, the women’s anointment was unnecessary, since Jesus already was anointed before he was put in the grave (Joh 19,40). It is also peculiar that the two women don’t earlier realize they will need help to remove the big stone closing the entrance (Mk 16,3).
We find a remarkable parallel story in the story of the Egyptian God Osiris resurrection where also two women come to his tomb with balsam.
In addition there is a discrepancy in the gospels of where Jesus appears before his followers after the resurrection. According to St.Mark and St. Matthew he appears in Galilee, but St.Luke tells us this happened in Jerusalem in Judah. Here Jesus specifically tells his followers to stay in the city until they were blessed by the Holy Ghost. Lk 24,49; Acts 1,4 (Acts is also written by the same writer who wrote the gospel of St. Luke, but this text is also heavily edited later).
One of the most central questions here, formulated by the philosopher Celsos in the second century AD is: Why did Jesus only appear before people who already believed in him as the Son of God?
Why didn’t he appear before his opponents, his prosecutors or his judges? Or before all the people for that matter? Jesu resurrection from the dead is the very “proof “that Jesus really was the Son of God, therefore it is very strange indeed that he didn’t use this golden opportunity to convince the world of this. Instead, all we are left with is some unverified stories and testimony of his, not exactly unbiased, followers, written down by anonymous writers generations later. The story has all the tell tale signs of an elaborate lie.
According to the gospels Jesus knew he would die, and he deliberately let himself be killed. He wasn’t too happy about it, but he sought his own death, - usually we call this to commit suicide. Who is to blame, the Jews who condemned him, Pilate who washed his hands, Jesus himself or his “almighty” father who sent him to earth just to be executed? We are told that the very point of Jesu dying painfully on the cross was to be sacrificed for all the sins of humankind. God Almighty had observed from heaven that his own favourite creation, man, was full of sin all day long. When man then commits the ultimate sin, namely killing Gods only son, - then God suddenly can forgive man!! The benign, pure and pristine son of God, Jesus, is executed for the sins of mankind. You might call this to make the innocent suffer for the guilty. Why couldn’t the ”almighty” God just forgive mankind? I mean, he is GOD isn’t he, - he can do anything he wants?
The point of sacrifices is to give up something valuable in exchange of a divine favour, good luck, blessings etc. It is not a sacrifice to give someone something valuable, if you get it back afterwards. That’s not a sacrifice, that’s a loan. According to the resurrection myth Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, he came around again and ascended to heaven. And life in heaven is claimed (by the same source) to be much, much better than the earthly life he left behind. So what is the loss her, what is the sacrifice? If Jesus didn’t really die, and he went to a better place according to the Bible, he actually gained something. If we take the gospels for their face value, and that Jesus really rose from the dead and went to heaven, then his death wasn’t really a sacrifice at all.
If Jesus took on all the sins of man on the cross, why is the world just as full of sin after his death? Since people are just as sinful (in God’s opinion that is) as before Jesu unfortunate crucifixion experience, the point of the whole crucifixion and resurrection project seems a bit unclear. And since the Church teaches that everyone (also rascals like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao) can and will be forgiven for their sins as long as they regret and believe in the Christian God, one should think this also would be sufficient for the sinners before Jesus visited our planet.
Besides the original sin, the bizarre idea of collective sin we all inherited after Eve (a purely fictional character) was smooth-talked into eating an apple in the garden of Eden, every believer is only responsible for his or her own personal sins. And salvation is according to both Jesus and the Holy Evangelical Church based solely on personal faith and repentance. In you just believe in Jesus, you are saved. So again, the whole crucifixion and resurrection affair does not make sense, - oh well, religious dogmas never do anyway.
By the way, according to the Bible Jesus is not alone of this ascension feat, even though St. John claims “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man” (Joh 3:13). The Bible can tell us that both Elijah and Enoch had ascended to heaven earlier (2 King 2:11; Heb 12:47).