A quest for the resurrection of Jesus

When he was a student, Richard Burridge, who had no time for religion, was challenged by a friend to ‘prove it’s all rubbish and help people like me stop believing in fairy stories’. He looked at the story of the resurrection of Jesus, and became convinced it was true. Now a New Testament scholar, and Dean of King’s College London, Richard Burridge talks to Nigel Bovey about the resurrection.

Professor Burridge, is the concept of resurrection unique to Christianity?

No. The ancient Egyptians believed in gods who died and rose again. What’s unique to Christianity is the claim that a living human being – a man who walked and talked among us – died and rose again. That is a very different idea from myths about dying and rising deities.

What does the Bible mean by the word ‘resurrection’?

The biblical concept is twofold. The Old Testament develops the idea of life after death. In the earliest passages, death is Sheol – a formless place where all the dead go, similar to the Greek concept of Hades.

Some 500 years before Jesus, the theme emerges of a resurrection of all people at the end time. With this comes the idea that history is linear rather than cyclical. So, there was the time of humankind’s innocence, there is the present age, and then there will come a time when God wraps up the universe and all the dead will be raised. This is known as ‘eschatology’.

In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees, who represented the most religious aspects of Judaism, believed in the end-time resurrection of all people. Paul, who was a Pharisee before he met the risen Jesus on the Damascus road, writes a lot about the general resurrection at the end of time.

The second theme of resurrection is the resurrection of Jesus. Christians believe that there was a person, Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, died, was buried and was raised by God. It is not that Jesus had any magical powers. The resurrection is an act of God; it is not something that Jesus could have done for himself.

Didn’t Jesus raise the dead?

Jesus’ resurrection and the act of restoring people to life are different. Jesus did restore people to life, as did some of the Old Testament prophets and some of Jesus’ disciples. But those who had been restored eventually died again. These are instances of resuscitation rather than resurrection.

For example, Jesus restores Lazarus to life after he had been dead for three days. But Lazarus is not alive today. In contrast, Jesus didn’t die again years after God raised him; rather God raised him to the resurrection life of the end times, never to die again, to be the prince of life for ever, to be the one who will initiate the great resurrection at the end of time and who, when people are raised, will be their judge.

Photo of Richard Burridge
Richard Burridge. Photo: Nigel Bovey

Can there be Christianity without the resurrection?

There are some people who view themselves as Christians, and find that it enhances their life to have a Christian faith, who find it hard to believe in the resurrection.

My experience, however, and the overwhelming experience of the vast majority of the church throughout history, is that, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:14, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain.’ I cannot conceive of a Christianity that doesn’t have the resurrection at its core. It is what makes Christianity unique. The resurrection makes Jesus unique. It is because of the resurrection that I’m a Christian. The resurrection is the big deal.

The resurrection makes Jesus unique?

Nothing about the life of Jesus makes him unique. He fits perfectly into that period around the 1st century when the Roman Empire controls most of the known world, the Jewish people are governed by a variety of Jewish kings and Roman governors, but they are a difficult people to govern. There are any number of leaders who, a bit like Michael Palin at the start of Monty Python, come out of the desert, and say, ‘It’s… the kingdom of God’. Many of them claim they are God’s chosen one who’s going to bring in the kingdom.

Some of them are crazy. Others are very astute, theologically trained, strategic leaders who develop big messianic movements. The occupying Romans have a tried-and-tested method of dealing with these populist movements – execute the ringleader, and his followers disappear. In 99 per cent of the cases it worked. The only time it didn’t was with the Jesus movement.

Jesus being crucified isn’t an unusual event. The Romans know he’s a troublemaker. When the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas declares that ‘it is expedient for one man to die than for the nation to perish’, he is taking the cynical route of a politician. The crowd backs the authorities by choosing to release the freedom fighter Barabbas rather than Jesus.

A disciple betrays Jesus to the authorities. Probably fearing that they will share a similar fate, most of his other disciples – including Peter, the first leader of the church – abandon him as he hangs on the cross. By the time Jesus dies, to all intents and purposes the latest messiah movement is dead and buried.

Yet, within a couple of weeks, the scared-silly Peter is standing in the Jerusalem streets, saying that God has raised Jesus from the dead and that he has met him. Within two decades, this Jesus movement is across the Roman Empire and in Rome itself. Within 100 years, it is a major world faith. Within 250 years, it is the official religion of the Roman Empire. The resurrection is a major fact of history.

Can you prove the resurrection happened?

Can I prove my wife loves me? All the evidence is there but we can’t prove love. Outside mathematics, we can prove nothing – not even that we exist. The best we can do is to build the best hypothesis that explains the evidence and then live as though it is true.

If not proof, let’s talk evidence. Is there any non-biblical evidence for the resurrection?

There’s no specific non-Christian evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. But I wouldn’t expect to find any, because anyone finding it is likely to have become a Christian.

Logically, the resurrection cannot have happened if Jesus had not lived or had not died. Was there a real-life Jesus?

I’ve no time for the argument that says Jesus is a myth or legend. There’s lots of external evidence that Jesus of Nazareth lived. He’s mentioned by the great Roman historians Tacitus and Pliny and by the Jewish historian Josephus. I am as convinced that Jesus of Nazareth existed as I am that anybody else in the ancient world existed, not least because everything has a cause and effect.

When an historian sees a phenomenon, they look for the cause that explains it. The phenomenon is the global entity known as the church. The church was caused by the Jesus movement. If Jesus of Nazareth hadn’t existed, there must have been someone else very much like him.

Photo of a carved crucifixion from Thuringia in Germany
15th century crucifixion, Thuringia, Germany. Photo: Simon Jenkins

And Jesus really died?

One way of explaining away the resurrection is to say that Jesus didn’t die on the cross but that he simply swooned and later revived in the coolness of the tomb. This account doesn’t stack up.

For the previous three years, Jesus travels as an itinerant preacher. Every day, he doesn’t know where he will be sleeping or how he will be eating. How likely is he to be healthy? The last week of his life is particularly gruelling: facing critics in Jerusalem, upsetting the religious authorities, being betrayed by a friend and knowing that, before the week is out, he is going to be crucified.

He spends his last night in prayer and without sleep. He is arrested, given 39 lashes, has a thorn crown rammed on his head, is humiliated in public and abandoned by friends. He is then nailed to a cross.

The Romans are world-class executioners. After hours in the heat of the day, the bodies have to come down before sunset to avoid offending the Jewish Sabbath. A soldier spears the side of Jesus to make sure he is dead. Plasma and body fluids escape. Soldiers know what a dead body looks like.

The idea that someone who has gone through a professional crucifixion then has the strength to revive himself, roll back the sealed stone from the dark tomb, evade the armed guard and convince the world that he is Lord of life is just incomprehensible.

What evidence for the resurrection does the Bible offer?

The first disciples were not concerned about gathering evidence for the resurrection. They knew it was true. They had met the risen Jesus and their lives were changed by that encounter. Rather than giving reasoned argument for the resurrection, the New Testament writers simply state it as fact.

Early Christian preaching is not that Jesus simply appeared. The point is that he convinced people he had been raised by God from the dead and that he changed people. That’s the crucial thing.

The earliest passage on the subject is 1 Corinthians 15, written by Paul about 20 years after the crucifixion. Corinth was a cosmopolitan seaport that saw the worship of traditional Graeco-Roman gods and Near Eastern deities. They knew about gods dying and rising.

Paul tells his readers what he had been told about the resurrection, shortly after he became a Christian a few years after Jesus died: that Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day and that he appeared to more than 500 people, including Peter, who denied him, and his own half-brother James, who thought Jesus was a dreamer in his lifetime, but who both went on to become leaders in the early church.

Paul is specifically saying that at the time he’s writing, eyewitnesses are still alive who can testify to having seen the risen Jesus.

Could it have been a case of mistaken identity or of mass delusion?

Mass delusions don’t survive mass executions. The disciples were so frightened of being crucified themselves that they went into hiding. In the case of mistaken identity, all the authorities needed to do was to produce Jesus’ corpse – which, of course, they didn’t.

How did you become convinced of the resurrection?

As a first-year student at Oxford University, I thought the Jesus thing was a load of baloney. A Christian friend challenged me: ‘If you think like this, why don’t you prove it’s all rubbish and help people like me stop believing in fairy stories?’

I looked at the evidence for the resurrection. The more I tried to disprove it, the more convinced I became that it was true. All the other explanations that seemed plausible when I started looking at them ended up being improbable. After I’d looked at the evidence, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t come up with a better explanation. It was the classic Sherlock Holmes case: Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

Another factor is that if God did raise Jesus from the dead and if he is alive for evermore, then I can know him myself. The difference between Jesus and the likes of Julius Caesar is that I know Jesus and can have a personal relationship with him, which I can’t do with Caesar.

My faith in the resurrection began with an historical quest that looked at all the evidence, and then came to the conclusion that it must be true. That remains so. If the resurrection is true, it must change everything about what I believe and how I should live my life in the strength of Jesus’ risen power.

Through the ups and downs of the past 40 years, one thing in my life has been constant – the presence of the risen Jesus. I believe in the resurrection not because I’ve checked the historical facts but because daily I walk and talk with him.

This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission. ©The Salvation Army 2017

Photo: Ian W Scott