Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

Here’s the link to this article by Merle Hertzler.

The Mysteries of the Passion: The Resurrection

We turn now to the central issue of Christianity. Did Jesus rise from the dead?

First, can we agree that this is an extraordinary claim? People that were dead for several days don’t rise again. If your claim is extraordinary, I would like extraordinary evidence, please.

You may think I have just set the bar too high. After all, Peter didn’t have a smart phone or even a printing press. He could not take a movie clip or print a book. Give the guy some slack!

But I am not asking anything different then you would ask when faced with extraordinary claims.

For instance, consider the many tales about the legendary lumberjack, Paul Bunyan. People said that he could chop down a full forest with one swing of his ax, and that he personally dug out Lake Michigan. People have reported that he made the Grand Canyon when he drug his ax along as he walked. Do you believe these stories? I am sure you don’t. Why not? Have you personally reviewed the sources to see if they are credible? I doubt if you have. But you do know that the claim that he made the Grand Canyon by dragging his ax is not credible. It’s not worth taking the time to investigate. He didn’t do it.

When faced with such incredible claims, we would want very strong evidence before we believed it. We would want the evidence to be so overwhelmingly convincing that we would find no choice but to suspend our natural skepticism and accept the claim about Paul Bunyan’s ax.

One would think the same skepticism would apply when faced with the claim of a resurrection.

As I have explained earlier I don’t find the gospels to be reliable history. So if your evidence consists of what the Gospels say, you might not get far in convincing me.

The most likely explanation

Nevertheless, it would be important for us to ask what explanations for the phenomenon of early Christianity are more likely than an actual resurrection. So here I will lay out what I see as the most credible explanation.


Yes, I know you usually begin at the Gospels, but I find them to be written late and untrustworthy. So, I will turn to the most prolific writer of the early church, Paul, to see what the early Christians actually thought.

Paul says that Christ rose from the dead ( 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5). But the Christ of which he speaks seems to be a spirit. For instance, he writes, “I am crucified with Christ, “ nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) Obviously he does not mean that the body of the Jesus who walked on earth now lives in him. Jesus would not fit. No, Paul must be referring to some spirit being who somehow indwells him.

Colossians goes on to say that all Christians have Christ in them (Col 1:27). So, if Christ Jesus is now a spirit that dwells in many people, he really cannot now have an earthly body. So what need was there for the earthly body to resurrect? Would it not be better to leave the stinking body behind, and ascend in spirit?

After all, that is how Christians think they will live on after death. The body decays, but the spirit moves on.

So, when I read Paul I want to ask him, “How was Jesus raised? With what body did he come?”

Fortunately for us, Paul asks and answers those very questions:

35 But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” 36 You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; 37 and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. 39 All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of mankind, another flesh of animals, another flesh of birds, and another of fish. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. 42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.I Corinthians 15:35-44

What is his answer? Paul tells us the earthly body, the terrestrial body, is different from the celestial body. The terrestrial body perishes at death. The celestial body lives on. He compares it to sowing wheat. The grain that we planted never comes out of the ground. But somehow springing up from the inside of that seed comes another plant, with a different body.

Paul seems to be saying this is the way all resurrections work. So, he must also have been saying the same thing about Jesus. When he says that Jesus rose and was seen by witnesses (I Cor 15:3-8), he apparently is saying that the inner spirit of Jesus, the soul, ascended from the physical body, and moved on to glory. Then people supposedly saw visions of that risen spirit.

And that does not require an empty tomb, a missing body, or physical interactions with a human in a body.

Yes, I know, you have read all about a bodily resurrection in the Gospels, but remember, we are starting strictly with the early record. If we turn strictly to Paul, without forcing preconceived notions from reading the later Gospels, we are not seeing a bodily risen Jesus mentioned.

When Paul says Jesus “appeared to me,” is that convincing? According to Acts, that sight consisted only of seeing a bright light and hearing a voice. Is that enough to convince you of a bodily resurrection?

If somebody told you she saw a bright light and heard her deceased grandfather last night, would you take that as proof that the corpse of the grandfather was now alive? Or would you suspect that this person had been drinking too much?

So, if Paul tells us he saw a bright light and heard Jesus, does that make Paul a credible witness to the bodily resurrection? No.

What of the others that Paul mentions seeing Jesus? What did they see? Paul does not tell us. If we are going to read I Corinthians 15: 3-8 at face value, I think we need to conclude that Paul was claiming they saw the same type of thing he apparently was claiming: a vision.

Ah, but you have read all the stories of Peter and the other apostles interacting with a bodily risen Jesus. Yes, but those stories come from the Gospels, which come later. We will discuss those later. Here we are looking only at the earliest record, at Paul. It appears that he claimed nothing more than a vision of a spirit Jesus. One would expect that he thought the other apostles also saw nothing more than he did.

Then He Appeared to Over Five Hundred Brethren at Once! by Richard Carrier

We have several books of the New Testament that claim to be written by the other apostles. We don’t know if any of these are genuine. Let’s assume for now that 1 Peter really was written by Peter as claimed. If he interacted with a risen Jesus, we would expect that story to flow spontaneously from his writing. It doesn’t. Here is what he says about the resurrection:

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;1 Peter 3:18-19

We find no passion of a man who had recently witnessed a bodily resurrection. Rather, we see a theological statement about Jesus being raised by the Spirit and going to preach to spirits. That sounds much more like a spirit Jesus than a Jesus in a body. So, this book does not confirm a bodily resurrection. We are not finding that confirmation in any of the earliest writings.

We have looked at the earliest record, at books by Paul and reportedly by Peter. All are consistent with belief in a spirit resurrection.


But what about the great explosion of resurrection-believers we hear about in Acts? Again, Acts is late, and is doubtful as history. If we turn to secular history for verification, we find no signs of a massive following of a resurrected Jesus in the first century. If the great explosion of resurrection-believers really happened, as Acts records, how is it that all these secular writers were unaware that this was happening? Earl Doherty wrote:

The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived until about 50 CE and wrote of unusual sects like the Therapeutae and the Essenes, has nothing to say about Jesus or Christians. Justus of Tiberias, a Jewish historian who wrote in Galilee in the 80s (his works are now lost), is reported later to have made no mention whatever of Jesus. Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE) collected data on all manner of natural and astronomical phenomena, even those which were legendary and which he himself did not necessarily regard as factual, but he records no prodigies associated with the beliefs of Christians, such as an earthquake or darkening of the skies at a crucifixion, or any star of Bethlehem. The first Roman satirist to scorn a sect which believed in a crucified Judean founder who had been a god was not Martial at the end of the first century, nor Juvenal in the first half of the second century, but Lucian in the 160s. Reports of Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher of the early second century who preached universal brotherhood to the poor and humble masses, record no knowledge on his part of a Jewish precursor. Nor does Seneca, the empire’s leading ethicist during the reign of Nero, make reference to such a figure. Other historians of the time, like Plutarch and Quintilian, are equally silent.Source: The Jesus Puzzle

There simply is no need to explain the surge of people preaching a bodily resurrection in Judea in the first century. If it happened, where is the evidence? Only the later book of Acts details it, and there are reasons to be skeptical about that book.

How successful was Christianity? by Richard Carrier

I contend that the early church was only proclaiming a spirit resurrection and was making no stir about a bodily resurrection.


All this changes around 70 AD with the writing of Mark. As we saw earlier, Mark believed Daniel’s promise about the Son of Man coming shortly after the Abomination of Desolation applied to his day. Thus, he was looking for Jesus shortly after the fall of Jerusalem.

Mark tells the story of Jesus on earth and the crucifixion scene. Where did he get his information? We don’t know. But we have no record of anybody saying much of anything about the earthly story of Jesus until he writes.

The original book ends at Mark 16:5-8 with 3 ladies visiting the tomb:

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. But he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; see, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.Mark 16: 5-8

That may seem like an odd place to stop, but it fit Mark purposes well. He is telling his audience that Jesus will see them soon in Galilee. That is consistent with his interpretation of Daniel as found in Mark 13.

If the earlier Christians were only speaking of a spirit resurrection, as I contend, how can Mark explain to his audience that it really was a bodily resurrection? If it was bodily, why did nobody notice? Why was nobody talking about it? Mark apparently came up with a neat trick. He declares that an unknown man told some women that the body of Jesus was not there. The women told nobody. So why was nobody talking about it? Mark had a ready explanation. Nobody knew about it but these women, and they were too scared to tell anybody.

The theme of it all being a secret is consistent throughout Mark. Repeatedly Mark had Jesus tell people not to tell others what was happening. (e.g., Mark 3:12, 5:43, etc.) Could it be that Mark was just throwing this in to explain why nobody else had heard these things?

At any rate, we don’t see the original Mark as much evidence for the resurrection.


With these things in mind, we come to Matthew’s story of the resurrection. Matthew apparently thinks he needs a better witness than the stranger the women found at the tomb in Mark.

And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone, and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. The guards shook from fear of him and became like dead men.Matt 28:2-4

Mark had said the women saw a man. This angel described in Matthew is not a man. This is not even an angel that looks like a man. No, this is an angel that looks like an angel. Had Mark been referring to this angel, how could he call this a man? But Mark had written only about a man. The accounts contradict.

Mark says the women ran with fear and told nobody, but Matthew says they ran to tell the disciples. Both cannot be correct.

Remember Mark had said the disciples would later see Jesus in Galilee. But he tells no story of them seeing him there. When we consider that Mark was claiming Jesus would triumphantly appear in power in Galilee a few years after he wrote, this could well be what he was talking about. His reported stranger at the tomb (a gardener?) could have been saying that when people find themselves scattered in the mountains of Galilee after the fall of Jerusalem, Jesus will arrive there to lead them to victory.

But Matthew, a decade or two after Mark, seeing that this did not happen, comes up with the explanation that the disciples actually saw Jesus in Galilee years before, right after the resurrection. A creative change to the story, but what is it based on? Seeing Matthew’s propensity to insert things into the story, such as many dead people rising and appearing to many, some of us don’t trust him.

So, we find creative changes to the book of Mark, but no reason to believe any of those changes came from an actual witness. We are again left empty.


Luke and John come along and add additional stories of resurrection appearances. The four gospels accounts however, are hopelessly incompatible.

Parallel Gospels- Resurrection by Glaises Baptist Church. See the gospels side by side. They contradict.

This has all the appearance of people adding stories decades later, rather than telling what happened.

Growth of a Legend
(Approx. dates. Actual dates are unknown)

So, I find this as the most likely scenario: Paul and the early Christians spoke of a spirit resurrection. Years later the gospel writers came along and added increasingly dramatic tales of a physical resurrection.

Other possibilities

Of course, it could be that there really was a story of a bodily resurrection in apostolic times. Let’s look at a few ways such a story could have originated other than through a physical resurrection.


One possibility is that the Easter story could have developed after some women had mistakenly searched the wrong grave, or if the body had been removed for some reason. “They have taken away the Lord,” exclaimed Mary after seeing the empty grave, “and we do not know where they have laid Him.” (John 20:2) Of course! Mary had street-smarts that is oddly missing in modern times. The body is not where she expected it to be? Who took it? Where did they put it? It could well be that Mary was right, that somebody did indeed take the body.

Some have argued that the tomb of Joseph could well have been a temporary tomb to hide the body during the Sabbath, and that the body was moved early the next day. If so, this would explain why the women could not find the body.

The story of the missing body could have passed on to others, who could have wondered about it and talked about it frequently. The story could have grown with each telling, until 40 years later the legend had grown to the point where it involved a physical resurrection, leading to the story found in Mark.


A second possibility is that Jesus might not have actually died but had been mistakenly thought to be dead. He could have revived and left the grave. Josephus tells us of a man who survived crucifixion (see this offsite link). The Romans were not experts in diagnosing death, and they could have been mistaken. Jesus could have revived and walked off, only to later die in hiding in the wilderness. The stories of the missing Jesus could have circulated and grew, until they developed into a legend of the resurrection.

Now the possibility of an unconscious Jesus that revived may be unlikely. Few people are ever proclaimed dead and then are found to be still alive. But it has happened. If you hear of a man in a third world country who was thought to be dead, and was later found to be alive, which is more likely: that the man was mistakenly thought dead, or that the man actually resurrected? It seems to me that the mistaken diagnosis is far more likely. So, isn’t a mistaken diagnosis of Jesus’s death more likely than the possibility that he rose from the dead?


A third possibility is that somebody could have stolen the body. No, it does not need to be an elaborate hoax in which all 11 remaining disciples were involved. We are told Joseph of Arimathea owned the tomb. He and a helper could have stolen the body and hid it to make it look like Jesus had risen. The disciples could have all been fooled. Only Joseph would have known, and he wasn’t about to tell.

So, we have listed four options here, all of which I think are more likely than a bodily resurrection.

  1. A perceived spirit resurrection.
  2. A lost body
  3. A resuscitation.
  4. A hoax.

I find Mark’s account was most likely not the result of an actual resurrection. The stories added by the other gospel writers appear to be nothing more than fiction.

Are there Creditable Witnesses to the Resurrection? by Merle Hertzler My favorite online debate.
Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story by Richard Carrier
Resurrection: Faith or Fact? My Bonus Reply

So, did the resurrection occur? If the first five books ohttps://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/15182f the New Testament are seen for what they probably are, later fabrications, we have no real evidence for it. Since the evidence is shaky, and the story is implausible, are we not justified in doubting the story?

What if I am wrong?

What if I am wrong? I frequently am. Do you think that God will condemn me for using my intellect to arrive at this conclusion? I don’t think so.

Can you imagine that you and I will be confronted with a history exam at the pearly gates? Imagine that we are asked to tell what happened at that grave to gain admittance to heaven. Why would a question of history be so important? People differ about history. People differ about whether George Washington cut down the cherry tree; about whether the Trojan Horse story really happened; and about what exactly caused the collapse of the Maya civilization. And isn’t that okay? Can’t we still be friends, even though we may have different interpretations of the past record?

If somebody thinks all three persons of the Godhead remained in heaven, with the resurrection happening in spirit in the heavens, and his view turns out to be historically false, should that person be condemned forever for misunderstanding history?

And will the final exam ask how many persons are in the Godhead? If we answer four, one, or even zero persons, then what? Will people be cast from heaven if they have the wrong count? So perhaps it is okay for you and I to honestly look at history, and come to our own conclusions. I have done that, and I now do not believe in the story of the earthly resurrection.

Let’s move on. If there is no resurrected savior, is there any reason to believe that you and I will survive death? Let’s look at that question next.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: