for the Resurrection*
M.A., LL. D.
Easter is not primarily a comfort, but a
challenge. Its message is either the supreme fact in history or else a
gigantic hoax. This seems to have been realized in the days of the
early Church. On the one side there was a little company of men and
women who turned the world upside down by their passionate proclamation
of that miracle which had transformed their lives: on the other, those
who vehemently denounced the whole story as arrant blasphemy. We
ourselves find it hard to see the issue so clear-cut, for ours is a
tolerant age and one suspicious of all fanaticism. Most people have not
the slightest desire to attack the Easter message; and yet they only
half believe it. To them it is a beautiful story, full of spiritual
meaning: why worry, then, whether it is literal fact?
But we miss the point. Either it is infinitely
more than a beautiful story, or else it is infinitely less. If it is
true, then it is the supreme fact of history; and to fail to adjust
one's life to its implications means irreparable loss. But if it is not
true, if Christ be not risen, then the whole of Christianity is a
fraud, foisted on the world by a company of consummate liars, or, at
best, deluded simpletons. St. Paul himself realized this when he wrote,
'If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching meaningless, and your
faith worthless. More, we ourselves are found to be false witnesses'.l
So that is the issue, and it is vital for us
to come to a decision about it one way or the other But how can we,
when it all happened so long ago? How can we sift the evidence?
This is not really quite so impracticable as
it sounds, for there are at least two ways of setting about it. We can
examine the historical evidence and try to determine whether it is
contemporary, honest and convincing, and whether it is susceptible to
any naturalistic interpretation. Alternatively, or in addition, we can
apply the test of experience, and put the risen Christ to the proof in
our own lives and those of others. In this paper we are primarily
concerned with the first of these alternatives.
On what documents, then, is the Easter story
based? Primarily, on the written testimony of six witnesses (Matthew,
Mark, Luke, John, Paul and Peter), supported by the testimony of the
whole primitive Church.
Now it is not sufficiently realized what
strides modern research has made in determining the date and authorship
of these written records. In the nineteenth century a number of
unbelievers, equipped with considerable scholarship, made the most
strenuous efforts to prove that the Gospels were written in the middle
of the second century, A.D. (or about a hundred years after the events
described), when legend and imagination could have played their part.
But this attempt has failed, crushed under the weight of historical
proof which grows in strength with the passage of the years.
The written testimony, then, is
extraordinarily early. Let us concentrate attention on three examples.
(1) Paul, in the fifteenth chapter
his Epistle to the Corinthians,2 gives a detailed list of
several resurrection appearances. Now there is scarcely a scholar who
has doubted the genuineness of 1 Corinthians, and its date is generally
accepted as about 56 A.D. But the apostle writes that he had not only
previously given his readers this information orally (i.e., in
49 A.D..), but had himself 'received' it. presumably from those who
were apostles before him.3 This may take us back to 40 A.D.
or to within some ten years of the crucifixion.
(2) Mark, in his Gospel, gives us
another account of the resurrection appearances, preceded by the story
of the empty tomb. Now it is generally accepted that Mark's Gospel
represents Peter's oral teaching, and that it was written at a very
early date. Some modern scholars believe that an Aramaic version was in
existence as early as 44 A.D.
(3) Luke is our third witness, and
adds considerably to our knowledge both of the visit to the tomb and of
the subsequent appearances, as well as providing the fullest account we
have of the early apostolic preaching. And not only have the third
Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles been widely accepted as the genuine
composition of Luke, the 'beloved physician', but Sir William Ramsay
and others have shown how minutely accurate an historian he was.
Such, then, are our first three witnesses,
selected because their testimony is such as no unbiased critic can
disregard, either from the point of view of authorship or early date.
But we must also remember the testimony of Matthew, John and Peter,
equally authoritative as we believe it to be.
Now what of this evidence? It is certainly
extremely early, much of it going back to the very first decade of the
Christian era. This means it is contemporary, and must be accepted, at
the least,4 as substantially the record of eye-witnesses.
How, then, can we avoid its implications? A number of different
attempts have been made, the leading examples
of which we shall now briefly examine.
The most radical theory of all is to dismiss
the whole story as deliberate invention. But there is scarcely
a single intelligent critic who would go so far. The adverse evidence
is overwhelming. Think, first, of the number of witnesses. Paul tells
us that in 56 A.D. the majority of some 500 original witnesses were
still alive; and we must remember that most of the early records went
out, as it were, with the collective authority of the primitive Church.
Think, too, of the character of the witnesses. Not only did they give
the world the highest moral and ethical teaching it has ever known, but
they lived it out, as even their opponents were forced to admit. Again,
think of the phenomenal change which these men underwent because of
this alleged invention. Is it conceivable that a deliberate lie would
change a company of cowards into heroes, and inspire them to a life of
sacrifice, often ending only in martyrdom? Surely psychology teaches
that nothing makes a man more prone to cowardice than a lie which preys
on his conscience? Is it likely, moreover, that even in disillusionment
or agony not a single one of these conspirators would ever have
divulged the secret?
Others would use a somewhat kinder term and
describe the accounts as legends. But this is equally
impossible, for we have already seen that the records were too early to
allow time for their growth: 'legends' put in circulation and recorded
by the original eye-witnesses are scarcely distinguishable from
deliberate inventions. But besides the reasons we have already seen for
rejecting this suggestion, the intrinsic evidence of the stories
themselves emphatically contradicts the theory. Such episodes as
legend-mongers could scarcely resist describing (such as the scene of
the resurrection itself, or an appearance of
Christ to confound His enemies) are conspicuous by their absence - as
is also any attempt to describe His appearance to James and others.
What forger, moreover, would depict the first appearance as being
granted to Mary Magdalene, a woman of no great standing in the Church?
Would he not rather give this honour to Peter, or to John the beloved,
or to Mary the Lord's own mother? Who, too, can read the story of the
walk to Emmaus, or of the appearance to the Magdalene, or of Peter and
John running to the tomb, without being profoundly conscious that these
are no legends? The accounts are too dignified and restrained, the
details too true to life. Finally, both these theories break down
hopelessly before the fact of the empty tomb.
Very few scholars have any use for the above
theories. On the contrary, the only rationalistic interpretations of
any weight are such as admit the sincerity of the records but try to
explain them without recourse to the miraculous. All such attempts,
moreover, are characterized by a sharp distinction between the records
of the visits to the tomb and the records of the actual appearances:
first the former are explained in a variety of ingenious ways, and then
the latter are regarded as psychological or psychic phenomena.
First, then, we must deal with the records of
(1) The earliest explanation of the empty
was that the disciples stole the body.5
This,however, has now been completely abandoned. The suggestion is
impossible both psychologically and ethically. The disciples were not
the sort of people who could have carried through such an enterprise,
by any stretch of imagination: nor can such a deliberate fraud be
with their characters and subsequent
behaviour. Even if a few had originally acted alone it is inconceivable
that they would never have told the others. Is it reasonable to
suppose, moreover, that none of them, even under torture or at
martyrdom, would ever have 'split'; that no whisper of any such rumour
from within the Church would ever have come down to us?
(2) More feasible is the suggestion that
either the authorities, Jewish or Roman, or else Joseph of Arimathea,
removed the body. But why? The more one studies the possible reasons
put forward for this removal, together with the suggested occasions and
circumstances, the less likely they appear. But there is a far more
decisive consideration. If the authorities moved the body why did they
not say so and nip the preaching of the resurrection in the bud? It
must be remembered that within seven weeks Jerusalem was seething with
this preaching, and that not only did the authorities long to crush
this dangerous heresy, but they even complained that the apostles were
seeking to 'bring this man's blood upon us'.6 They were
publicly accused of nothing less than denying the Holy One and the Just
and killing the Prince of Life. 7 Why, then, did not the
High Priest make a solemn declaration that the body had been moved at
his own orders, or on instructions from the Romans? Why did the
authorities not call as witnesses those who had taken part in the
removal? Why did they not indicate the true grave, or, in the last
resource, produce its mouldering remains? Why, instead, this feeble
story about the disciples?
As for Joseph of Arimathea, the critic must
clearly make up his mind whether to accept the Gospel statement that he
was a secret disciple who provided the tomb out of reverence for his
or whether to accept the alternative suggestion that he was a pious
Jew, anxious to ensure the interment of the body (but why that
body only, as it seems?) before the Sabbath. On the former view it
seems most unlikely he would ever have wanted to move the body at all
and incredible that he would not have informed the apostles if he had
in fact done so — which brings us back to the theory of deception
discussed in (1) above. On the alternative view it is equally unlikely
that he would have acted without the prior knowledge of the authorities
and inconceivable that he would not have informed them subsequently,
when Jerusalem was ringing with the preaching of the resurrection: and
this brings us back to the objection already discussed in this section.
(3) Another suggestion is that the women
mistook the tomb. Comparative strangers to Jerusalem, and coming in the
uncertain light of early morning, they missed their way; but a young
man who was lurking around realized their purpose and said, 'Ye seek
Jesus… He is not here… Behold (pointing to another tomb) the place
where they laid Him'. But the women were terrified and ran away: and
they subsequently came to believe that the young man must have been an
angel and his words an announcement that their Lord had risen from the
This is very ingenious; although it
of course, arbitrarily omitting the phrase, 'He is risen', from the
middle of the young man's words. It is significant, however, that even
the leading protagonists of this theory realize that it is not so easy
as all that, and feel forced to introduce complications. They commonly
inform us, for instance, that the women, when they fled from the tomb,
did not immediately inform the apostles of what had happened, for
otherwise why did not the latter either check up on the facts or
begin to preach the resurrection at once, without that seven weeks'
delay? This lack of contact between the women and the apostles they
then proceed to explain by the assumption that all the latter had
already fled from Jerusalem to Galilee, whence they did not return
until some three weeks later with the account of the Galilean
appearances. Only then did the women tell the story of their visit to
the tomb: and the apostles, obsessed by the mystic or psychic
experiences they had themselves enjoyed, proceeded to put two and two
together and make at least five.
But why should all the apostles have fled so
soon? No doubt Jerusalem was somewhat unhealthy for them just then, but
why in that case should they leave all their womenfolk behind? Surely
such an action would be more than ordinarily cowardly and unchivalrous?
And why, anyway, did not the women follow? Why did they stay alone for
three long weeks, contrary to their usual custom, in what were
apparently regarded as dangerous circumstances? It is all very
difficult and obscure.
And this theory finally breaks down just
the former did. Why, if such were the facts, did not the priests
produce this young man and explode the whole delusion? Why, again, did
they not point to the true tomb, or produce the body itself? Why, too,
do we hear no whisper in antiquity of any other possible tomb as a
place of pilgrimage or reverence? There seems only one answer. It was
because all, friends and enemies alike, knew the true tomb and knew
that it was empty.
(4) There is one more suggested explanation
the phenomena. This was first propounded by Venturini at the end of the
eighteenth century, and may be expressed somewhat as follows. We read
in the Gospels that Christ was reported to be
dead somewhat sooner than was usual in such cases: it apparently
surprised Pilate that He was 'dead already'.9 In reality, of
course, He was not dead, but had only swooned from exhaustion, caused
by the agony of crucifixion and loss of blood. It was in this condition
that He was buried: but the cool restfulness of the tomb revived Him,
and He issued forth and showed Himself to His disciples. These ignorant
men, however, believed that He was risen from the dead.
This again sounds ingenious, but is quite
untenable. To begin with, the early accounts are emphatic about the
fact of His death: the Romans, the Jews, and the disciples would all be
concerned. Among all the insinuations against Christianity that have
come down from antiquity, no whisper of this sort has ever been heard.
But let us postulate for a moment that
was in fact so buried - swooning from sheer exhaustion. We are then,
presumably, asked to believe that three days in a cold tomb, without
food and attention, would so far revive Him that, instead of proving
the inevitable finale to His flickering life, He was able to set
Himself free from the spice-laden grave clothes which swathed Him
round, roll away a stone which three women felt unable to tackle,
terrify the Roman guards, and walk miles on pierced and wounded feet?
On this point let us listen to the sceptic Strauss: 'It is impossible
that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept
about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging,
strengthening, and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his
sufferings, could have given the disciples the impression that he was a
conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life: an impression
which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a
resuscitation could… by no possibility have changed their sorrow into
enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship'.
More, such a Christ would Himself have been
party to a gross deception; and this, we imagine, no intelligent critic
Three further points concerning the tomb
remain to be noticed.
(1) Why do we find no mention of the women's
story in the early apostolic preaching, as recorded in the book of the
Acts and some of the Epistles? Peter and the others insisted repeatedly
in their apologetic and evangelistic preaching on the fact of the
resurrection: that it was a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy; that
it proved the One so raised to have been sent of God and to be now
exalted as a Prince and a Saviour; that they themselves were
eye-witnesses of what they said. But we find no reference whatever to
the tomb in all their public preaching: only in those records, the
Gospels, which were written for the instruction of the new converts who
came flocking into the Church, are the stories found. Surely there can
be only one explanation of this singular omission: that the fact of the
empty tomb was common knowledge, on which no insistence was necessary;
the only controversy concerned not the facts but their explanation. It
was upon this alone, then, that the apostles concentrated.
(2) How can we explain the complete
with which the tomb seems to have been treated in apostolic days? There
is no evidence that it became a place of pilgrimage, or even of
reverence and interest. Even if this is understandable on the part of
the little band of men and women who were convinced believers in the
resurrection, what of all that multitude of Jews who, while not
professed Christians, must have
been profoundly influenced by the Galilean prophet, and some of whom
had even felt His healing touch?
(3) The phrase repeatedly used above, the empty
tomb, is not strictly accurate. In a passage so vivid yet restrained
that it bears the hall-mark of the account of an eye witness, the
fourth Gospel records the visit of Peter and John to the tomb. 'So
Peter set out, and the other disciple; and they were coming to the
tomb; and they began to run, the two of them together; and the other
disciple ran on in front, quicker than Peter, and came first to the
tomb and, peeping in, seeth lying there the linen clothes, yet he did
not go in. So Simon Peter cometh also, following him, and went into the
tomb; he taketh note of the linen clothes lying, and the napkin, which
was on His head, not lying with the linen clothes but apart, wrapped
into one place. So the other disciple also went in - he who came first
to the tomb - and saw and believed'.10 So the grave clothes
and the napkin were still there, not unwound or disarranged, but lying
just as they would if the body had simply been withdrawn or passed
through them, the upper layer fallen on the lower, separated from each
other by the brief space where the neck had been. But the body had gone.
The empty tomb, then, forms a veritable rock
on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves
But neither can the actual appearances of the
risen Lord be ignored or explained away. We have already seen that they
cannot be discarded as lies or legends, but were reported by
eye-witnesses who were profoundly convinced of their truth. So much is
generally admitted by all competent scholars. How, then, can their
implication be avoided? The only feasible suggestion seems to be that
they were some form
of hallucination, of pathological or psychic phenomena.
But modern medicine has shown that even
psychological phenomena obey certain laws and may be subjected to
certain tests. Let us, then, look more closely at these phenomena in
the light of some of these principles.
(1) Only certain types of persons are
liable to such experiences - the more highly-strung and imaginative
types. But here on one occasion a crowd of five hundred people all
claimed these hallucinations, and smaller numbers made that claim on a
number of different occasions. And not only did this company include a
possibly psychic Mary Magdalene, but a hard-headed tax collector, a
number of prosaic fishermen, and persons of a wide variety of
(2) Hallucinations, again, are highly
individualistic, for their true source is the subconscious mind of the
recipient. No two persons, therefore, will experience exactly the same
phenomena. But here the five hundred all claimed to have experienced
exactly the same hallucinations, at one and the same time and place.
And exactly similar hallucinations were experienced by other companies
of several persons together.
(3) Such phenomena, too, usually concern
expected event, long meditated and desired. A lonely mother, for
instance, may have so longed for the return of her runaway son that she
believes she actually sees him. But everything goes to show that the
disciples were not expecting these appearances: they were sad and
defeated, and hope seemed to have died.
(4) Psychic experiences, again, usually
at suitable times and places: the evening, night or early morning, for
instance, and in characteristic surroundings. But these hallucinations
happened at all sorts of times and places: an upper room at evening;
the tomb in the early morning; an afternoon's walk in the country; a
morning's fishing on the lake; a mountain in Galilee.
(5) Finally, such obsessions usually recur
over a long period with some degree of regularity, either increasing or
decreasing in frequency as time goes by. But all the phenomena we are
considering occurred during a short period of forty days and then
stopped for ever. And not one of the subjects ever again claimed to
have experienced a single repetition.
Nor can these phenomena be explained by the
alleged results of modern spiritualism, for several of the necessary
conditions seem to have been absent. The resurrection appearances were
clearly not dependent on the presence of any one medium, nor on any
group of seekers after the supernatural, nor yet on any other
ascertainable conditions. The One who appeared, moreover, was no mere
spirit-emanation. He could be clearly seen and distinctly heard; He
could be touched and handled;11 He could walk into the
country,12 cook fish,13 and even eat it;14
and the marks of His suffering: could be seen and felt.15
The more carefully the point is studied, the
more impossible does it seem to explain these appearances as any form
of hallucination. Nor will any theory suffice which attempts to explain
the phenomena as a mere survival of the Spirit of Jesus. The point at
issue is something far more definite. The records are unanimous that
His deathless Spirit returned to His mutilated human body which was
instantly and miraculously changed into a new and spiritual body,
different indeed from His mortal flesh and blood, but recognizable none
Much more could be said, although it can be
summarized here only in barest outline.
(1) A great company exists in every quarter
the world called the Christian Church. This company or association can
be traced back in history to Palestine in the year 30 A.D. (circ.).
To what did it owe its origin? Its papers of association clearly state
that its origin dates from the resurrection of its Founder from the
tomb. What other suggestion covers the facts?
(2) There is the institution of the
Sunday - which can also be traced back to much the same place and date.
To what does this owe its inception? The Jews were fanatically attached
to their Sabbath, and the early Church was almost exclusively Jewish.
It must have required some event of the deepest and most startling
significance to make them change to the first day of the week. It did:
it was nothing less than the resurrection. And the same line of
reasoning can be applied to the festival of Easter.
(3) What, too, of the success of the early
Church? The very substance and basis of the apostolic preaching was the
resurrection, preached within a few minutes' walk of Joseph's tomb. How
then can we explain the thousands who believed - in spite of fierce
opposition - and the large number of priests who 'became obedient to
the faith'?16 The answer seems decisive: because the basic
fact of the empty tomb was incontrovertible.
(4) How, again, can we explain that awkward
interval of seven weeks between the event and its first proclamation?
No fabricator of false evidence nor dreamer of dreams would so arrange
the story. The only adequate explanation of this interval is that
provided by the records themselves: that the disciples spent the first
forty days in intermittent
fellowship with their risen Lord,17 and the next ten in
waiting, at His command, for the 'promise of the Father' that they
would be endued with power.18
(5) Again, it seems incontrovertible that
Christ Himself foretold His crucifixion and resurrection. Even if the
critic should try to explain the definiteness of some of the
predictions as ex post facto reminiscences, the accusation at
His trial that He had said, 'I am able to destroy this temple of God,
and to build it in three days'19, can scarcely have been
other than a mutilated version of a prediction of His passion and
(6) What, too, of the apostles themselves?
What can have changed a little company of sad and defeated cowards into
a band of irresistible missionaries who turned the world upside down
and whom no opposition could deter? What changed Peter from a weakling
who denied his Lord before a servant girl's questionings into a man who
could not be silenced by the whole Sanhedrin? Paul and the evangelists
give us part of the explanation: 'He appeared unto Peter'.20
What changed James, the Lord's human and by no means sympathetic
brother, into the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem Church, all in
the space of a few short years? We are told, 'He appeared unto James'.21
What else would have induced this erstwhile critic to write his Brother
as 'the Lord of glory'?22 And what of Paul the persecutor
(who must have known all the facts about Joseph's tomb), and Stephen
the martyr, and a multitude of other witnesses?
(7) And what of Christian experience all
the ages? There is a positive multitude of men and women, high and low,
learned and ignorant,
civilized and savage, reprobate and respectable, who have found in the
risen, living Christ their salvation and their joy. And their
transformed lives have testified to the reality of their experience.
(8) Finally, what of the One who rose? It
indeed be objected by some critic that a resurrection from the dead is
so incredible that no amount of evidence would suffice. Such an
attitude seems prejudiced and unscientific, but let that pass. Let us
assume that the resurrection of an ordinary man is indeed incredible.
But such a line of reasoning cannot apply to the One whom we are
considering. He was unique in all He did; in all He said; in all He
was. Whichever way one looks at Him, He is in a class by Himself. Even
apart from the resurrection, there are excellent and convincing reasons
for believing that He was 'God manifest in the flesh'. Is it, then, so
incredible that such a One should rise from the dead? It would have
been far more incredible if He had not. It is, indeed, the profoundest
of mysteries that He should ever have died 'for us men and for our
salvation': but, having died, it is no mystery that He should have
But the ultimate proof of the resurrection for
each individual lies in his own knowledge of the risen Christ, for in
this matter the evidence of experience can supplement that of history.
Happily the promise of the risen Saviour still stands: 'Behold, I stand
at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I
will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me'.23
1 1 Cor. xv. 14, 15.
2 1 Cor. xv. 3-7.
3 See Gal. i. 18,
4 The author is
here concerned to take nothing for granted, although he himself fully
accepts the divine inspiration of these records.
5 Mt. xxviii. 11-15.
6 Acts v. 28.
7 Acts iii. 14, 15.
8 Mt. xxvii. 57ff.
9 Mk. xv. 44.
10 From Dr.
Temple's Readings in St. John, p. 376.
11 Lk. xxiv. 39.
12 Lk. xxiv. 15.
13 Jn. xxi. 9.
14 Lk. xxiv. 41-43.
15 Jn. xx. 27.
16 Acts vi. 7.
17 Acts i. 3.
18 Acts i. 4-8.
19 Mt. xxvi. 61.
20 1 Cor. xv. 5;
Lk. xxiv. 34.
21 1 Cor. xv. 7.
22 Jas. ii. 1.
23 Rev. iii. 20.