The Resurrection of Jesus Christ


The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the defining event of Christianity. Paul went so far as to say that "...if Christ be not risen...your faith is also vain." (I Corinthians 15:14).

The Resurrection is, of course, an extraordinary event. It is an event which is very much out of out normal human experience. We are all too aware of our own mortality, and an incident such as this would certainly be earth-shaking. The skeptic's adage should be applied in this case - "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". Is there sufficient reason to believe that such an event ever took place? When asked for proof, believers will invariably point to the Resurrection narratives as recorded in the Gospels. This, in itself, is problematic, since there is no compelling reason to think that the Gospels are historically accurate. In fact, when we closely compare the various Resurrection stories, it quickly becomes evident that it is very difficult to form a cohesive, single narrative from the Gospels.

The contradictions and inconsistencies in the reports are indicative of the process of mythmaking that is so prevalent in all faiths. It appears that each Gospel writer had a number of different oral traditions from which to draw. On occasion, these traditions would overlap, and the Gospels are in agreement. Quite often, however, these traditions contradicted each other, leaving the writer with the problem of choosing that narrative that he thought was the most accurate. As we shall see, the writers often did not agree among themselves.

The following table is an attempt to harmonize the events of Resurrection Sunday and following. Wherever possible, those events that are in agreement are placed next to each other. A blank indicates that the Gospel under consideration does not record the event, or places it in a different sequence.

Matthew Mark Luke John
Sunday Morning, at dawn, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, arrive at the sepulchre. (28:1) Sunday Morning, at dawn, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Salome arrive at the sepulchre. (16:1-2) Sunday morning, very early, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna and other, unspecified, women arrive at the sepulchre. (24:1,10) Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene arrives at the sepulchre. (20:1)
There is an earthquake, and the stone is rolled away by an angel. (28:2-4) They find the stone already rolled away. (16:4) They find the stone already rolled away. (24:2) She finds the stone already rolled away. (20:1)
The women see one angel sitting on the stone. (28:2-5) The women see one young man inside the tomb. (16:5) The women see two men inside the tomb. (24:4)  
The angel says "Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you." (28:5-7) The angel says "Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you." (16:6-7) The angels say "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again." (24:5-7)  
The women leave the garden to call the disciples. (28:8) The women leave the garden. (16:8) The women leave to report to the disciples. (24:9) Mary leaves to report to Peter and John. (20:2)
Jesus appears to them on the way. He says "All hail. Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me." The women hold him by the feet. (28:9-10) Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. (16:9). (Mark does not say if this event immediately follows the previous.)    
  Mary reports to the disciples. They mourned and wept, and did not believe. (16:10-11) The women report to the disciples. They did not believe them. (24:11) Mary reports to Peter and John. (20:2)
    Peter goes to the sepulchre. (24:12) Peter and John return with Mary to the sepulchre. (20:3-4)
    Peter sees the linen clothes in the tomb. (24:12) John arrives at the tomb first, and sees the linen clothes. Peter arrives after him and enters the tomb and sees the clothes. John enters the tomb. (20:4-8)
    Peter leaves the garden. (24:12) Peter and John leave the garden. (20:10)
      Mary sees two angels in the sepulchre. They say "Why weepest thou?" She answers "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him." (20:11-13)
      Mary sees Jesus. She mistakes him for the gardener. Jesus says "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God." Mary returns to the disciples and tells them of this event. (20:14-17)
  Jesus appears to two disciples as they walked. (16:12) Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. (24:13-32)  
  They tell the other disciples, who do not believe them. (16:13) They tell the other disciples, who inform them that Jesus had already appeared to Peter. (24:33-35)  
The eleven disciples go to Galilee, where Jesus appears to them on a mountain. Some of them still doubt. Jesus says "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." (28:16-20). Jesus appears to the eleven. (The amount of time lapsed after the last event is not specified). He upbraids them for their unbelief. Jesus says "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." (16:15-18) Jesus appears to the disciples as they are talking. He assures them that he is not a spirit. He expounds the scriptures to them. He tells them to stay in Jerusalem until they are "endued with power from on high". (24:36-49) The same day (Sunday), Jesus appears to the ten disciples. He gives them the Holy Spirit. He says "As my Father has sent me, so send I you." (20:19-23)
      Jesus appears again to the disciples, this time with Thomas present. (20:24-29)
  Jesus ascends to Heaven after this last discourse. (16:19) Jesus takes them to Bethany, where he ascends into heaven. (24:50,51)  

There are a number of conflicts that become apparent from this study. They can be divided into three groups, viz. conflicts of number, of detail and sequence.

Conflicts of Number

There are several places where the Gospels differ as to the number of people involved in a particular event. Firstly, each writer has a different number of women present at the scene on Sunday morning. All mention Mary Magdalene. Three mention Mary, the mother of James. Salome and Joanna get one mention each, while Luke simply records that there were other woman present.

Then, the number of angels that the woman saw seems to be either one or two, depending on the author.

Finally, the number of disciples visiting the tomb is one, according to Luke, and two according to John. Neither of the other Gospels record that the disciples visited the tomb.

Of themselves, these conflicts of number are not enough to devastate the story altogether. Believers will often argue that each Gospel writer was aware that there may have been more people involved in a particular scene, but only chose to concentrate on a smaller number. This is plausible, although it does raise a number of questions about the apparently fickle nature of Divine Inspiration. It should also be noted that this confusion about number is consistent with the theory that each author drew on a number of oral traditions, some of which disagreed with the others.

Conflicts of Detail

While the Gospels have a number of events in common (although, as we shall see, there are serious problems with the sequence in which these events are recorded), they do differ among themselves as to the exact details involved. We have already seen that there are discrepancies with the number of people present at the various stages. It is also instructive to examine what these people said and did.

The words that the angel (or angels) spoke to the women present an immediate problem. Matthew and Mark have very similar narratives here, indicating a strong possibility that Matthew simply paraphrased Mark. Luke includes much the same elements as Matthew and Mark, although he does add the line "Why seek ye the living among the dead?" Luke also casts the reference to Galilee in a different sense - Matthew and Mark have the angels saying that Jesus will meet them in Galilee, while Luke refers to a past event that took place in Galilee. (A further contradiction is introduced by the fact that Jesus, according to Luke, commands his disciples to remain in Jerusalem, while the other gospels record that they were commanded to go to Galilee.) In John's Gospel, the angels do not speak to Mary, except to ask her "Why weepest thou?"

Another conflict is evident when the two disciples on the road to Emmaus return to the other disciples. In Mark's Gospels, the news is greeted with some skepticism, while Luke records that the disciples were already of the opinion that Christ had risen.

One more difficulty arises when we try to ascertain when Jesus first appeared to the eleven. In Matthew, the disciples go to Galilee, where Christ meets them and gives them the Great Commission. Mark does not record that the disciples went to Galilee. We are simply told that Jesus met them "afterward". The exact amount of elapsed time is not specified. Both Luke and John are unequivocal, however - Jesus appeared to the eleven on the same day he was resurrected, i.e. the Sunday, presumably in Jerusalem.

It is also worth noting that Luke seems to contradict himself in his two books (the Gospel of Luke and Acts). In the Gospel, Luke seems to indicate that Jesus ascended into heaven on the same day that he was resurrected (corroborating Mark), while the book of Acts inserts a period of forty days between these two events (Acts 1:3).

Conflicts of Sequence

It is when we consider the sequence of the various events that the true scope of the problem becomes apparent. While the synoptic Gospels present a more or less similar sequence (though there are still problems among themselves), it is the fourth Gospel that displays a radical divergence. The discrepancy is most apparent when we try to answer the question of who first saw the Resurrected Christ. Matthew and Mark agree that the women were the first to see Christ (although Mark specifically mentions only Mary Magdalene).

[It should be noted at this point, however, that most scholars are of the opinion that the last part of Mark, beginning at verse 9, is a late addition to the Gospel. This spurious ending may in fact represent an early attempt at harmonizing the Resurrection stories, and this should be borne in mind when comparing the narratives.]

Luke, in contrast, records that the women saw the empty tomb, but left the garden without ever seeing Christ. In fact, it is unclear from Luke's Gospel exactly when the first encounter took place. Luke records that the two disciples on the road to Emmaus saw the risen Christ, but when they returned to the other disciples, they discovered that Jesus had already appeared to Peter.

John, on the other hand, clearly has Mary Magdalene seeing Christ (and the angels) before Peter, but only after Peter had been to the tomb. Thus, John specifically contradicts Matthew, Mark and Luke, and creates a conflict impossible to resolve without juggling the chronology of the events. John also specifically contradicts Matthew in his record of the words that Jesus spoke to Mary. Matthew records that the women held Jesus by the feet, while John records that Jesus asked Mary not to touch him.

The Resurrection in the Epistles

As already noted, Paul refers time and again to Jesus' Resurrection as the cornerstone of the Christian faith. However, he fails to give any details of the event that could be used to reconcile the Gospel narratives. In fact, the only details that Paul does give seem to conflict with the Gospels.

In First Corinthians 15, Paul lists the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. The women, including Mary Magdalene, are not mentioned at all; neither are the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In verse 5 through 7 of chapter 15, Paul lists the appearances of Jesus in the following order - Peter, the twelve, five hundred disciples, James, all of the apostles, and finally Paul himself. Thus, Paul seems to agree with Luke, but contradicts all the other Gospels.

The Believer's Response

Not surprisingly, a number of Christian apologists have taken up the challenge, and attempted to prove that the Resurrection historically took place. Few have managed a convincing reconciliation of the four narratives, since, as we have seen, the problems are insurmountable.

Those who do attempt a reconciliation of the narratives usually rely on a principle known as 'reconciliation by omission'. This principle states that if a particular passage fails to mention a specific event, it should not be assumed that the writer is explicitly arguing that the event did not take place. For example, a number of apologists have tried to reconcile the Synoptic gospels with John by assuming that Christ first appeared to the women, with Mary absent, and then to Mary alone after the disciples had visited the tomb.

The problem with this theory, from a logical point of view, is that it explains too much. By simply assuming that unspecified events have indeed taken place, it is possible to harmonize any divergent narratives, no matter what 'holy book' they may be taken from. In addition, this theory actually creates more problems than it solves. Where did Mary go, given that she is recorded as being present with the women at the beginning of the resurrection story by all four writers? Why is her disappearance not recorded, if it was such an integral part of the story?

Fundamentalist apologists, in general, will rather ignore these discrepancies, and try a different line of attack.

A fairly popular argument centers on the activities of the apostles shortly after the Resurrection. We are told that the disciples underwent an almost magical transformation, from the beaten, despondent wretches of the Gospels, to the fire breathing, triumphant and fearless preachers of Acts. Such a transformation, we are asked to believe, could only have been accomplished by the literal resurrection of Jesus.

When examined closely, this argument makes an unwarranted assumption - one that we will meet time and again in the apologist's arsenal. "How do we know", we ask, "that the Apostles were indeed such fearless preachers?" "Why, just read the Book of Acts" comes the answer. And here is the problem - there is no compelling reason to believe that the Book of Acts is historically reliable, just as there is no reason to believe that the Gospels are reliable. The apologist is, in fact, guilty of circular reasoning.

A similar problem occurs with another argument in support of the Resurrection. Why did the authorities not simply display the body of Christ in the streets, and put an end to the whole Christian nonsense, once and for all. The answer, according to the apologist, is that there was no body! The tomb was empty!

This argument actually contains two logical fallacies. Firstly, how can we be so sure that the fledgling Church was indeed such a thorn in the side of the authorities, as the Book of Acts claims? This is again an application of circular reasoning. We need to keep in mind the fact that the Book of Acts was written by an ardent Christian supporter (whoever he may have been). As such, the book is almost certain to display a bias in favor of the Church, and it is quite likely that the effect that the early Church had on the general populace has been greatly exaggerated.

Secular history is almost completely silent on the subject of the early Christians. One would be hard pressed to find a single extrabiblical reference to them in the first Century CE. This is difficult to reconcile with the claims of the Book of Acts.

Even if we allow this point, there is another problem. The authorities may have had a number of different reasons for not displaying the body. Firstly, it is a lot of work to go to, simply to silence a small but annoying collection of religious fanatics. Secondly, by this time the body would have undergone significant decomposition, and would, in all likelihood, have been completely unrecognizable. The disciples would have claimed, quite rightly, that the body could have belonged to anyone. Thirdly, the authorities, if they had any understanding of human nature at all, would have realized that even if they could produce the original body, it would have been a futile exercise at best. Most religious fanatics will not change their minds, in spite of the most compelling evidence. Belief is a powerful thing - it renders the human mind impervious to reason.

If we put the story in a modern context, it becomes a little easier to understand. Why doesn't the Tennessee State government simply exhume the body of Elvis Aaron Presley, and put an end to the entire "Elvis is Alive" subculture? (It would at least have the desirable effect of robbing the tabloid press of roughly half its material). The answer is simple - nobody cares that much about a small collection of religious nuts. The State government has far better things to do.


When we examine the Resurrection narratives, it is obvious that they cannot be reconciled. This is strong evidence for the theory that the resurrection never took place, but gradually grew as a legend among the early Church. It is even possible that it was Paul himself who first advanced the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, an idea that was seized upon by the early Church and quickly modified to include a number of mythical elements.

Whatever the answer, it is evident that the Resurrection story does not meet the skeptic's condition of "extraordinary proof", and there is thus no compelling reason to believe that such an event ever occurred.

More Information


Review of "The Resurrection Factor" by Josh McDowell (1982)
"Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?" Debate between Michael Horner and Dan Barker.
The Geisler-Till Debate
The Horner-Till Debate
The Historicity of Jesus' Resurrection - The Debate between Christians and Skeptics


The Resurrection Puzzle

Contents Copyright 1997 Curt van den Heuvel

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