The New Testament teaches that since Jesus was victorious over death, everyone who believes in him will be raised from the dead just as he was.
After years of hearing Easter sermons that the resurrection of Jesus was the critical event that all history had led up to, I decided one spring day in the early-1990s to do an in-depth study on the subject.
I started by comparing the gospel accounts of the resurrection. The Internet was in its infancy, and online Bibles hadn’t been invented yet, so I photocopied the relevant passages from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and pasted them side-by-side on a poster board. I was ready for God to reward my desire for spiritual understanding with exciting new revelations about that great day.
As I studied the four passages at once, I can’t fully describe what took place inside me. It was a revelation alright, but not the kind I had been hoping for. It was a realization that apparently nobody could get their story straight regarding what was supposed to have been the most significant day in the history of the universe. All the accounts had a vague similarity, but none of them was even remotely close to the others. There were irreconcilable differences regarding:
- Who went to the tomb first
- What time they arrived
- How many angels were there
- What the angels said
- The reaction of the disciples upon hearing that Jesus had risen
- Where the resurrected Jesus appeared first, and to whom he appeared
- Jesus’ instructions to the disciples when he appeared to them
I got up from my desk and walked outside confused.
Evangelicals explain the inconsistencies in the four accounts of the resurrection as being what you would expect whenever there are multiple eye-witness accounts (http://bit.ly/16HEV0I) of any event. I would grant them that if we were talking about the notes of investigators interviewing eyewitnesses to a plane crash or a fender-bender.
But the gospels don’t claim to be raw, unedited police reports about the life of Jesus. They claim to be infallible, inerrant records written by men who were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and who were recording for all humanity the resurrection, the very event upon which the Bible teaches the fate of the whole human race would be sealed for all eternity—and, furthermore, an event at which the purported author himself, Mr. H. Ghost, was supposed to have been present and active.
As such, it would seem to me that accounts told from different perspectives should have meshed effortlessly, like an event being recorded simultaneously by four different cameras. Maybe I would be able to see a little more or a little less detail from a different perspective, but it would still be quite obvious that, regardless of the camera angle, I was observing the same event.
Each successive gospel account of the resurrection should confirm the veracity of the previous one, perhaps adding detail or nuance, but should in no way conflict with or add confusion to the original version, thereby providing through collective affirmation a water-tight story that is complete and irrefutable.
But the four gospel accounts of the resurrection do not provide this type of cohesive story. What I found instead was that nearly every fact presented in successive versions of the story serve only to confuse rather than enlighten the reader. A complete list of contradictions and inconsistencies can be found here (http://bit.ly/zCgEeW).
I went back in the house, put my chart away, and decided that I would just have to “wait until I got to heaven” to get a clearer picture of the resurrection.
I would later learn that 19th-Century Harvard Law Professor Simon Greenleaf (http://bit.ly/SaDDod)had attempted to harmonize these four accounts of the resurrection in his book, The Testimony of the Evangelists (http://bit.ly/YEIHAp). I was not only unimpressed but also very disappointed to discover that in order to force the stories fit together, Greenleaf actually rearranged the order of the verses in Matthew Chapter 28.
This seemed completely disingenuous—what my wife would call a “tap-tap rule,” one that has been arbitrarily made up in the middle of the game by a kid who is losing—given the fact that every one of the gospels is told in a linear chronological fashion, starting with Jesus’ birth or the beginning of his ministry, and ending in his death and resurrection. (Also, you have to ask yourself, “Why would it be necessary for a Harvard law professor to argue God’s case for the resurrection anyway?)
The full weight of how significant this issue was did not occur to me at the time. For years, I had just pretended that it was no big deal. However, in this case, the significance of a flawed account is devastating, because if the New Testament “evidence” about the resurrection is not credible, there is no basis whatsoever for Christianity.
As the New Testament itself says, “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain…. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Cor. 15:13-14, 18).