Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
As strange as it may sound to some, Christians do actually believe Jesus rose from the dead. We believe there was really a Jesus of Nazareth, who walked on the earth, who died just as truly as any other human, who then came back to life and walked out of his tomb in a material, visible, body.
It’s entirely reasonable to respond to a claim that someone rose from the dead with skepticism. If the guy next to me on the subway today told me he saw someone rise from the dead, skepticism is a mild way of putting how I’d respond. I have never seen a dead person come back to life, nor has anyone I know and trust. Beyond that, I have good scientific reasons to believe that once the biological functions that sustain a living organism cease to function, there is no natural way for life to be restored.
So yeah, knowing what I know, I wouldn’t even give such a report a second thought. However, do I really know enough to rule out the possibility of anyone rising from the dead? Only if I’m prepared to state with certainty that no forces beyond natural forces exist. How could anyone state such a thing with certainty, though? It is not empirically provable, and it is certainly not self evident (on the contrary, for thousands of years of people and throughout the world today many find belief in God, a force beyond natural forces, to be self-evident). If this so, we cannot rationally rule out the possibility of resurrection.
Realizing this, we are free to actually examine this story of rising from the dead, Jesus’ story. When we do, we find that those who told the story intended to report real history. One gospel writer, Luke, says he intended to write an “orderly account” based on “eyewitnesses”, in order that his audience “may have certainty concerning the things [they] have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4). What does he report? He reports that Jesus died (Luke 23:46), was placed in a tomb (Luke 23:53), and then three days later he was not in a tomb, but had risen (Luke 24:6). He then reports that Jesus broke bread with his disciples (Luke 24:30), and ate with them (Luke 24:41-43).
Perhaps one can accuse Luke of lying, but he wasn’t alone in this story. In fact, another early Christian, Paul, writing only 15-20 years after Jesus’ life, says that Jesus appeared after rising from the dead to 500 people, many of whom were still alive at the time of his writing (1 Corinthians 15:6). It’s as if he’s saying, “Go ask them.” If you received such a challenge, what would you do? You’d either ignore it and not follow this religion, or you’d go ask people if they had in fact seen this risen person. If they said no, you’d go no further. If those 500 people who saw Jesus risen from the dead didn’t exist, but Paul said they did, odds of his message gaining a foothold seem incredibly low. Not only that, Paul and the other disciples demonstrated their confidence in the resurrection by their willingness to be put to death for proclaiming it. What are the odds they would do that if they knew they made it all up?