Many Infallible Proofs: How We Know Christ Lives Today
February 8, 1998
“Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ the Christian faith would have been stillborn, for a living faith cannot survive a dead Savior.”
The time: 6:00 a.m. The place: A garden tomb. The date: Sunday, April 5, AD 33. In the early-morning hours a group of women walks quietly and slowly through the olive grove. They are carrying vials of spices because they plan to anoint the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth. Their eyes are red from weeping. It seems as if they haven’t stopped crying since that terrible moment late on Friday afternoon when the soldiers ordered the body of Jesus taken down from the cross. Because it was late in the day, they didn’t have time to completely prepare his body for burial. They have come this morning to finish the job. They are coming early so that they won’t be seen by authorities. The last thing they want is to call attention to themselves.
Now they have only a few more yards to go. Somehow they have to convince the Roman guards to unseal the tomb and let them enter. When they come to the clearing a shocking sight greets them. The soldiers are unconscious on the ground, the seal is broken, the stone has been rolled away, and the tomb is open. When the women look inside, their shock turns to alarm. The tomb is empty. Someone has taken the body of Jesus.
What happened? Where is his body? Why is the tomb empty? What does it mean?
The question before the house is very simple. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Can we know for sure? Acts 1:3 says there are “many convincing proofs” that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. What are those proofs? And can we trust them?
This is the most important question any of us can ever ask. Behind the answer lies the issue of what happens to our eternal soul. I invite you to join me as we calmly and carefully examine the evidence. Perhaps you’re seeking to understand this issue because you’ve heard many conflicting statements and you don’t know what to believe. Maybe you’re a Christian who has stepped forward in faith and believed, but you’ve never really studied the facts. Here’s your opportunity.
I. Looking at the Evidence
As we begin our investigation, let’s start by simply looking at the facts as we have them in the gospel accounts. Here are seven pieces of evidence surrounding the events on that Sunday morning in Jerusalem in AD 33.
A. The Roman Guard
After Jesus was buried, Pontius Pilate ordered a Roman guard placed around the tomb. Such a guard usually consisted of 16 men. Four soldiers would have been placed immediately in front of the tomb, with the other 12 sleeping in a semicircle in front of them. The guards changed shifts every four hours. These soldiers were elite, the most highly trained fighting force in the world. The penalty for failure to guard a prisoner or for falling asleep on duty was death (sometimes they were burned alive in a fire made from their own clothes). Believe me, these soldiers had every reason to stay wide awake. No one could have gotten past them to steal the body from the tomb.
B. The Stone
Frank Morrison calls the stone “the one silent and infallible witness to the whole episode.” The stone was of enormous size and doubtless weighed over two tons. It was so heavy that the women who came on Sunday morning knew they couldn’t move it. Once rolled into place, it took three or four men to move it. The gospels also tell us that the soldiers sealed the tomb, which meant that they stretched a cord over the rock and fastened it at either end with a sealing compound. Then they stamped it with the seal of the Roman governor. The penalty for breaking the seal was death. This again argues against any attempt to steal the body.
C. The Graveclothes
Both Luke and John comment on the condition of the graveclothes in the tomb. They found the linen wrapping sheets still in place with the cloth that covered the face folded to the side. Evidently the spices and resins had hardened into the shape of Jesus’ body, leaving the appearance of a cocoon after the butterfly has escaped. How do you explain that fact? Grave robbers would have taken the body without unwrapping it or they would have unwrapped it and thrown the winding sheets to the side. No one steals a body and then rewraps the graveclothes.
I believe that when Jesus rose from the dead he passed right through the graveclothes leaving behind the linen wrappings just as John and Peter found them.
D. The Empty Tomb
The skeptics have never been able to explain the following fact. When Mary arrived on Sunday morning, the tomb was empty. When Peter and John arrived, the tomb was empty. When the other disciples found the tomb, it was empty. When the Jews inspected the tomb, it was empty. When the Roman soldiers woke up, it was empty. No one has ever disputed that fact.
Think about it. Within a few weeks of the Crucifixion, the disciples were publicly preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead. If they had been lying or hallucinating, all the authorities would have to do is simply go to the tomb and drag out the dead body of Jesus. As Peter Lewis points out, they could have nailed the dead body on the city wall and that would be the end of the Christian movement. But they could not do it because the tomb was empty and the body was gone. They had no answer to the preaching of the apostles. The silence of the Jew is as eloquent as the speech of the Christians.
E. The Resurrection Appearances
The New Testament records at least 12 separate appearances of Jesus after his Resurrection. He appeared sometimes to individuals—such as Mary and Peter, sometimes to a small group—such as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, sometimes to a larger group—such as the disciples, and at least once to a group of 500 people. Still later he was seen by Stephen at his death, by Paul at his conversion, and by John on the isle of Patmos.
Please note that all of these are eyewitness accounts. You might somehow dismiss one or two of them as wishful thinking. But it is not possible to dismiss them all. The accumulated weight of all the appearances is overwhelming. They point to one conclusion and one only: Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
F. The Initial Unbelief
I have always considered it a point in favor of the Resurrection that all the gospel writers agree that none of the disciples were expecting a resurrection and none of them believed it at first. Luke tells us that when the women who saw Jesus reported this to the disciples, they thought it was an idle tale, just wishful thinking. They had to be convinced against their wills that Jesus rose from the dead. This is a great argument in favor of the Resurrection.
G. The Radically Changed Disciples
Consider their state on Friday night. They were frightened, confused, dazed, fearful, disoriented, and disheartened. Every one of them was running for cover. They truly believed that Jesus was dead and that they would never see him again. In their minds Jesus was gone forever. Peter had denied him. The other disciples stood at a distance. Only John would come near the cross. The women who went to the tomb on Sunday morning fully expected to find a dead body there. The two disciples Jesus met on the road to Emmaus were walking away from Jerusalem, their faith buried with the corpse of their Master. Meanwhile the disciples huddled in an upper room with the door locked for fear of the Jews.
Now consider the scene a few weeks later. These same disciples now boldly stand in the temple courts preaching that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, that he had come back from the dead, and that only by repentance and faith can anyone be saved.
What changed these cowering men and women into flaming evangelists who shook their world with the message of the gospel? There is only one credible explanation for such a radical change. They had seen the risen Christ and that sight had changed them forever. As word spread from one person to another, they began to shout the good news. “He’s alive! He’s alive! He’s alive!”
If all of this does not convince you, let me raise one final point: For 2,000 years no one has produced a convincing answer to the question, “If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, what happened to his body?” This is the ultimate unanswered question. Where is the body of Jesus? No one throughout 2,000 years of history has provided a credible answer to that question. I will go so far as to state that no one ever will. I’ve been to the Holy Land and I can tell you that you can start in the North and dig to the South or start in the East and dig to the West. You’ll find bones everywhere you dig. But you won’t find the bones of Jesus because they aren’t there.
This morning we join with Christians around the world to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior. We stand in a long line of believers who proclaim with the angel, “He is not here, for he is risen, just as he said.”
II. Considering the Alternatives
In fairness we should admit that the evidence I have just shared with you has not convinced some people. Across the centuries—from the earliest days until the present—skeptics have offered a number of alternative theories to explain away the Resurrection of Jesus. Let’s consider four of the most popular ideas.
The Swoon Theory
This theory rests on the idea that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. Instead it suggests that he fainted, was presumed to be dead, was taken from the cross, wrapped in a burial shroud wound tightly around his body, anointed with 75 pounds of embalming spices, dragged through the twilight, laid in the tomb, left for dead, the heavy stone having been rolled into place, and then sealed, with a Roman guard placed in front of the entrance. Sometime late Saturday night he roused from his stupor, found himself wrapped in the shroud in the pitch darkness of the tomb, managed to unwrap the shroud, stood up, somehow rolled the stone away from the inside, and walked out, knocking down an entire squad of Roman soldiers, appearing in perfect health to Mary and the others who saw him on Easter Sunday.
The only problem with this is that he had been beaten until his back was in shreds, slapped, punched, kicked, made to wear a crown of thorns, forced to carry a heavy cross through the city streets until he finally collapsed, had nails driven through his hands and feet, hung on a cross for six hours in utter agony as his joints dislocated under the strain, and finally had a spear thrust through his side, puncturing his lungs and his heart. John 19:33 tells us that the Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, because they “saw that he was already dead.” Everyone who saw him thought he was dead—the Romans, the Jews, and the disciples.
They were right. Jesus was very dead on Good Friday evening. No man could survive what he endured. The swoon theory is harder to believe than the Resurrection and is not taken seriously except by those who refuse to face the truth that Jesus died and then rose from the dead.
The Mistaken Tomb Theory
This theory suggests that because it was early in the morning the disciples mistakenly went to the wrong tomb—one that was empty—and were met by a gardener who said, “He is not here,” meaning “The man you’re looking for is buried somewhere else.” This ingenious theory has one gaping hole. When the sun came up, they would have seen that they were at the wrong tomb.
The Stolen Body Theory
According to Matthew 28:11-15 this was the earliest alternative explanation for the Resurrection. But it fails to answer one question: Who would steal the body? And why? The Romans wouldn’t steal it—they didn’t care about Jesus one way or the other. Why would the Jewish leaders steal it? They wanted Jesus to stay in the tomb at all costs. Why would the disciples steal it? The weren’t expecting a resurrection (remember that the women were coming on Sunday morning to anoint his dead body). How would the disciples have overpowered the elite Roman guard? What would they do with the dead body of Jesus? The notion is absurd and shows once again that it’s harder to believe this theory than to believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead.
The Hallucination Theory
This is currently the most popular theory put forward by those who do not want to believe in the Resurrection. It suggests that Jesus actually died, but that his disciples wanted to believe in his resurrection so badly that they had some akin to a mass hallucination. The only problem is, the New Testament makes clear that they weren’t expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. That was clearly the last thing on their minds, and when they heard the glad news that he was alive, they didn’t believe it (see Luke 24:11). This theory also asks us to believe that hundreds of people had precisely the same hallucination at precisely the same time—something that modern psychiatry tells us is plainly impossible. Furthermore, in the gospels and Acts Jesus doesn’t merely “appear” to the disciples. He eats with them, talks with them, and walks with them. He speaks to them both in groups and as individuals. The testimonies are multiple and detailed, and diverse as to time and place and particular circumstances. There is no possible way to explain this by means of a hallucination, a vision, or some kind of mass psychosis. It simply doesn’t fit the facts.
III. Facing the Facts
Let me wrap up my message by putting these facts before you:
A. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is perhaps the best-attested fact of ancient history. I have only given you a fraction of the evidence. There is much more proof that we could bring forward. When all the evidence if fairly examined with an open mind, the only possible conclusion is that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.
B. The Resurrection is a non-negotiable doctrine of the Christian faith. It is truly the heart and soul of our faith. If Jesus is still dead, then our faith is in vain. A dead Jesus cannot save anyone. This is not an optional doctrine. This isn’t something you are free to debate—like the timing of the Rapture or the proper mode of baptism. It’s not in the category of whether or not we should speak in tongues. The bodily resurrection of Christ lies at the core of Christianity. If it is not true, then everything else we believe is also false and we have been completely deceived.
Let me state this as strongly as possible. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then he is a false prophet and not the Son of God. He could not be our Savior and Lord if he is still dead in the tomb. That’s what is at stake here. We can trust nothing that he said if he is still dead.
But that would also mean the apostles were liars and the church itself is built upon falsehood. Worse still, it would mean that death has triumphed and we have no good news for the dying. In the words of Peter Lewis, “If for a Savior we have only a ghost, then for a heaven we shall have only a dream.”
Everything we believe stands or falls on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s why this is a non-negotiable doctrine. You must believe this in order to be a Christian. If you do not believe in the Resurrection of Christ you are not a Christian—no matter what you may call yourself.
C. This is the message the world needs to hear. Sometimes we preach the Cross and forget the Empty Tomb. But the Cross cannot save unless Christ is risen from the dead. The world needs to know that Jesus Christ is alive today. A dead Jesus helps no one, a living Christ can heal, save, forgive, pardon, restore, cleanse, renew, guide, and when the moment comes, he can take safely home to heaven.
D. The Resurrection of Jesus gives us hope in the face of death. There is no other reason to think that we will ever see our loved ones again. The New Testament again and again connects our resurrection with his. Ours will happen in the future because his happened in the past. Sometimes when I stand by the grave of someone I know, I can almost hear a voice from beneath the ground saying, “I’m coming up.” To unbelievers that may sound like wishful thinking, but to me it’s nothing but solid biblical faith. In the words of the Apostles Creed, I believe in the resurrection of the dead.
E. No one can force you to believe in Jesus. You must make that decision for yourself. I am keenly aware that nothing I say can convince you against your will. Across the centuries millions have believed and many others have doubted.
The issue is quite simple. Where do you stand regarding the resurrection of Jesus? There is more than enough evidence for those who choose to believe. And there is room to doubt for those who care to do so.
At this point we need to recall the words of Jesus to Thomas … “Stop doubting and believe!” (John 20:27). Eventually you have to make up your mind one way or the other.
Let me say it another way. It will do you no good to simply think about Christ and the Resurrection intellectually. As long as Christ remains outside of you, and you remain outside of him, all that he suffered and all that he gained is of no value to you. If you want to go to heaven, you must be in Christ and Christ must be in you.
Where do you stand? You can’t stay neutral because there is no middle ground. Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t. I can’t argue you into believing but the facts speak for themselves.
I am convinced with all my heart that Jesus Christ is alive today, and I’ve trusted him with my life. But I can’t decide for anyone else. The choice is yours.
One final word and I am done. Perhaps you’ve seen the billboard with a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross. Underneath the picture are three words: “It’s your move.”
Jesus died on the cross. It’s your move now.
Jesus rose from the dead. It’s your move now.
On this happy morning I declare to you that Jesus Christ is alive. My friend, what will you say to that? What difference does it make to you? Will you give him your heart and your life? Will you trust him as Lord and Savior?
It’s your move now.