The resurrection is that defining moment in history that both asserts the deity of Jesus Christ and certifies the efficacy of His ministry and death. Not surprisingly it is one of the best documented and attested yet most disputed aspects of the Lord's work. If fully comprehended and accepted it becomes the categorical distinction between Christianity and other religions and forms the basis of a Christian life that should be categorically distinct from those that are not believers.
In the essay that follows I shall attempt first to establish the biblical information that forms the basis of the resurrection claim. Then I will show the centrality of the resurrection claim in the minds of the participants of the crucifixion and resurrection. Next follows a study of the broader theological significance of the resurrection then finally a consideration of the implications facing the believer today.
The simplest yet most telling basis for the veracity of the resurrection is the empty tomb. Further, one of the most telling indicators that the bible deems the empty tomb to be significant is the great length and detail that it goes to in order to prevent alternative explanations for the missing body. It is worth considering some of these details individually to see the avenues of explanation they shut down.
The tomb was new. In older buildings and artifacts there is always the possibility of discovering some secret compartment, chamber or tunnel devised for unknown reason. This tomb was brand new and the Joseph, original builder, was still present.
The tomb was cut from rock. A building that had been constructed from stones could obviously be compromised from behind or above and then the wall repaired. Alternatively there could be weaknesses or cracks through which someone may slip. Here we are told that 5 of the six sides were solid rock; there could not have been any unseen ingress or egress.
The tomb was cut from rock. Natural cave systems are typically irregular and may have passages and pot-holes that extend into other cave systems and potentially lead to other methods of escape. However this tomb was not modeled upon a natural cave, instead it had been cut out and may therefore be presumed to have a regular and known shape.
There was only one body in the tomb. In a busy mass grave it might have been possible for the bodies to get 'mixed up' somehow. Here there was one and only one body; it would have been impossible for confusion to have resulted in the body going missing.
The tomb was guarded. It is interesting that both the disciples and the Jewish leaders were concerned that the body should be left unmolested. Presumably the disciples were concerned that the body should be desecrated, the Jews however were specifically trying to prevent a claim of the resurrection.
The resurrection was predicted. Whilst this subject is interesting in its' own right it is apposite at this point too. Had these guards simply been on guard duty one might assume a certain laxness and lack of concern for a 'dead body'. However Pilate knew the issues involved and knew the body only had to be guarded for three days and he himself had told the soldiers to make sure this sepulcher was sealed. One can imagine that if our President had personally called in a set of soldiers and told them to "guard a body for 3 days or else" then that would be a very well guarded body.
Having thus established that the tomb was empty the bible progresses to establish strong eye witness evidence of the Lord's presence; again many subtle details are provided to push the claims significantly beyond any level of proof that would be required by a court today.
Weight of numbers: The account given by Paul in 1 Corinthians is very important to understanding the strength of eye witness testimony available. The Corinthian church was attempting to deny the resurrection to at least some extent. Paul was offering up the bulk of 500 living eyewitnesses to testify that they had seen the Lord. This cannot reasonably be treated as a possible collusion; with the importance of this matter if it had been a conspiracy then one of the 500 would have cracked and told the truth. In fact we are even told that some of the five hundred had died and yet there had been no death-bed confessions of some deceit. We must believe that all 500 considered that they had seen the Lord after His death.
Closeness of witnesses: It could perhaps be argued that the 500 people were not all first hand intimates of the Lord; perhaps the 'risen' Christ was an imposter. However, at least twelve of the witnesses were His disciples. They had been with Him every day for the previous 3 years and would not easily have been fooled.
Preparedness of witnesses: There is a possibility in any extreme moment that human faculties will falter and the mind be deluded. The normal way to avoid this is to warn people what to expect so that their mind is ready to process information rationally. In the case of the disciples they each saw the Lord on at least three occasions and Peter saw Him on at least four. They therefore had every opportunity to approach at least two sightings with a completely clear and expectant mind.
Skeptical witnesses: Astonishingly the disciples were not predisposed to believe the resurrection which makes mass hallucination highly improbable. Of course, the most famous skeptic is 'doubting Thomas' who refused to believe the report of the other ten and instead insisted upon physical identification of the Lord which he then received. However Mark's gospel tells us that all of the disciples disbelieved the report of Mary and then the two on the road to Emmaus. They were later upbraided for this disbelief. This shows quite clearly that the disciples were not seeing something through their own 'willpower'.
Duration of witnessing: Even despite the above there may be some that would claim that a period of depression or possibly even euphoria could delude the mind. But such delusions cannot stand in the face of reality indefinitely. Yet in Acts 1:3 we are clearly told that He was witnessed over a period of forty days. Forty is obviously symbolic in the bible for a period of testing but it is also just a long time. With well over a month for people to 'come to their senses' and 'assess the facts' the conclusion they had undoubtedly come to was that Jesus was alive and well.
Having established that the tomb was empty and that the Lord was undoubtedly alive the final question to be answered is simply: Did the Lord actually die? Again the bible provides some vital details:
The witness of scripture: Whilst not particularly a proof to the non-believer it should still be noted that the specific claim of the bible is that the Lord Jesus died upon the cross.
The opinion of the roman soldiers: Remembering that these men killed people for a living it is to be presumed that they knew death when they saw it: and they judged this man to be dead. It should also be noted that just to make sure one of the soldiers thrust the Lord through with His sword. Surely we must assume that even if the soldier did not know how to diagnose death he at least knew how to inflict it.
The witness of medicine: There are a number of beautiful typical points that can be made from blood and water flowing from the Lord's side. However there is also the essential practical point to be made that the sword must have punctured the pericardium releasing the water from around the heart. This wound would have been fatal even had He not been dead already.
The opinion of the disciples: Both Joseph and Nicodemus had access to the body for an extended period of time whilst they wrapped it in linen; any sign of stirring or motion would have been visible to them.
Having established beyond any normal level of legal proof that the Lord rose from the dead we need to differentiate His resurrection from the other resurrections in the bible. We have already looked in depth at the level of biblical attestation but I believe the biggest single distinctive is that the Lord deliberately and repeatedly based His credibility and authority upon His ability to rise from the dead. Specifically when the Lord had cleared the temple He was asked for a sign and responded that He would rise from the dead. When attacking the religious hierarchy He was asked for a sign and responded that the only sign given would be that He would rise from the dead. This is significant as it suggests that He did not consider His other signs and wonders to be adequate proof of His authority. Clearly the Lord's basis of authority was well understood by those He was challenging as they remembered it both at His trial and afterwards.
We see also that the Lord took great pains to emphasize the resurrection in His teaching. From the point that Peter identified Him as the Christ He began to teach of the need for the resurrection and then did so repeatedly. Additionally the Lord insisted that certain facts about Him, specifically the transfiguration, should not be announced until after the resurrection.
With regard to the apostles we see that they considered their primary focus to be witnessing to the resurrection, this is what they did and this is what they were persecuted for. We see that Paul too focused on the issue of the resurrection and considered it to be a cornerstone of his evangelistic work. However it is really in his doctrine delivered to churches that the stakes are raised significantly. In both Romans and Corinthians we see the resurrection of the Lord Jesus used as proof and justification of our own resurrection and are told in 1 Peter that this is the basis of our future hope.
Whilst the resurrection of Christ as proof of our resurrection seems reasonable Paul actually takes the centrality of the resurrection a step further and makes it the basis of our faith and salvation. This latter may seem a little extreme yet it is reiterated in Romans 4:25 where we are told He was raised for our justification.
This is puzzling as it would suggest that the crucifixion was not an adequate sacrifice for sin. And indeed the death of Jesus would not have been an adequate sacrifice for sin had he not himself been sinless. Put simply the efficacy of the Lord's death requires Him to be God; and it is the resurrection from the dead that proved the Lord's deity. Further, the Lord's position as a perfect High Priest is also based upon His immunity to death. In fact the bible even goes as far as to make the resurrection of the Lord Jesus a basis for faith in God himself.
Having seen the vast scope and centrality of the resurrection it is almost possible to see it as a remote theological axiom; this however is a mistake. The resurrection is supposed to be the basis upon which we live our Christian lives today. Firstly it is the basis of the promise of the indwelling Spirit and is thus supposed to induce spiritual behavior. In fact our hope of the resurrection is supposed to drive us to focus upon heaven instead of earth even today. Secondly it removes us from fear of death. Christ was a full human being; men could do their worst and yet He was raised from the dead. We can therefore have confidence that our own fragile human bodies are immune to death as they too well be raised some day. Finally the resurrection promises permanence to our labors which should motivate us to persevere in them.
It is almost impossible to summarize the significance of the resurrection. The Lord stated that He should be judged by it and the bible expends hundreds of verses testifying to it. The disciples were clearly obsessed by it, were prepared to die by it and staked their hope for the future upon it. The crucifixion is validated by it. We are even told that the characters of Christ and God could be judged based, at least in part, upon it.
I will thus switch momentarily to a slightly different focus. Probably the staunchest and most thorough defense and explanation of the resurrection is given by Paul in 1 Co 15; he tackles many of the points I have covered and with the aid of divine inspiration. He closes the chapter with a typical Pauline 'therefore' which I shall use to close this essay:
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.(1 Co 15:58, KJV)