The Christian festival of Easter centres on two great events: the crucifixion of a man, Jesus Christ, and his subsequent resurrection. Good Friday marks the crucifixion, Easter Sunday the resurrection. We all know that one day we shall die, though, God willing, not the appalling death of public execution with our bodies strung up on a wooden cross for all to see, but coming back to life a few days later is something else!

Yet this is what Christians believe really happened. Did it? What is the evidence?

First, the Bible affirms it unequivocally. All four gospels record the events of the resurrection. Every other book in the New Testament, the Book of Acts, the letters of Paul, James, John, Peter and Jude and the book of Revelation take the resurrection as fact. So if the Bible is so insistent, there needs to be some really sound arguments if we are to believe that the story was simply made up. We will look at the main ones in a moment.

The second key point is that Jesus himself clearly and specifically stated that he would be killed and would then rise again. See his words in Mark's gospel (Mark 9 vs 31) or Luke's very similar, equally explicit account (Luke 18 vss 31-33), while John records another time Jesus told his disciples to expect this (John 16 vs 16 and the verses which follow) and, to be inclusive, see the clear statement in Matthew's gospel (Matthew 16 vs 21).

But what are the explanations people have put forward? There are four main ones:

  1. Jesus didn't really die

    This is the 'swoon' theory that when he was taken from the cross he was not quite dead, though greatly weakened from flogging and loss of blood, and in the cool and with rest in the tomb he recovered. He would have had no food or drink nor anyone to nurse him even if his life did flicker on. The whole idea defies the accounts of his vitality after the resurrection, it suggests that professional Roman soldiers didn't know a dead person when they saw one ' they had after all carried out the execution and driven a spear into his side actually to make sure he was dead, and it is difficult to believe that his followers would themselves, within weeks, start preaching with great conviction and certainty and even suffer martyrdom because someone had just managed to survive a Roman crucifixion. The theory, though popularised in the 1960s in the book 'The Passover Plot', doesn't stand up to examination.

  2. The disciples stole Jesus' body

    Matthew records in his gospel that this is the explanation spread about at the time. But can it really be the case? Again would Jesus' followers have begun proclaiming the gospel and the fact of a risen Jesus Christ if they knew it to be a lie? Similarly, why didn't the Roman or Jewish authorities scour Jerusalem to find the body and display the corpse for all to see that Jesus was still dead? And we need to remember that the tomb where Jesus was laid had an armed guard placed next to it explicitly to prevent such a thing happening because they knew he said he would rise.

  3. It was made up to add a happy ending after the 'tragedy' of the crucifixion

    Like the other explanations it quickly falls down from what we know of the reaction of Jesus' followers. If it was simply a 'story' you wouldn't be willing to die for something just made up? Incidentally, the Bible never describes the crucifixion as a tragedy, but part of God's plan to save people from their sin - remember the day that is commemorated is called 'Good Friday'!

  4. The tomb really was empty, he really had risen

    This is the Bible's account, it squares with the evidence, it satisfies the logic, and explains why the church began to grow within weeks of these events. In less than two months there were more than 3000 converts just in Jerusalem; today Christians number more than one billion.

Finally, it is worth recording that writers outside the Bible who lived in the first century AD, such as Pliny and Josephus, refer to Christians and to their belief in a leader who was claimed to have risen from the dead.

Jesus was killed, he really did die, and he did rise again. For me the resurrection is a fact of history. It is not a myth with meaning, it was a real event. As a scientist my reaching this unshakable conclusion, was a key step in my becoming a committed Christian. We can't sit on the fence. Either Jesus died like everyone else and that is the end of the matter, or he died like everyone else and then He rose to new life. The evidence is overwhelming that the latter happened. My hope and my life are established on this fact.

Julian Evans
April 2006