Throughout the Church, the sublime message “He is risen! He is risen!” (Hymns, 1985, no. 199) is sung with ringing conviction born of deep and abiding faith. Certainly no doctrine is more central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it was both taught and testified to by the Lord himself.
Yet, surprisingly, the Lord’s physical resurrection is strange doctrine to much of the Christian world. Even the Lord’s chosen disciples found it hard to accept this fundamental truth. Consequently, their turn from disbelief to full embrace of the doctrine strengthens the witness of the Resurrection contained in the four Gospels. Against forceful cultural influences that fostered their initial incredulity, these disciples gained unwavering conviction that remains a vital basis of evidence in the Savior’s literal resurrection.
An Anti-Resurrection Mentality
A brief look at the cultural influences pressing on early Christianity shows how formidable were the challenges facing this religion, especially its belief in Christ’s physical resurrection. A dominant cultural feature of the Mediterranean world and western Asia at that time was Hellenism. This rapid spread of Greek culture and ideas began in 331 B.C., when Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the Persian Empire (of which the land of Judah was a part). Strong strains of Hellenism persisted for centuries, even among the Jews under later Roman rule.
The Hellenistic mind-set found the idea of a resurrection strange indeed. Many a Greek or Roman would have had little difficulty believing that a god had sired a son, for their mythologies supported the idea. Also, belief in prophecy and portents was widespread, 1 as were reports of miracles and those who performed miracles. 2 The idea that a mortal could become as the gods was not difficult for many to accept, 3 and there were precedents for both men and gods dying and coming back to life. 4
But the idea that a mortal could rise from the dead and enter eternal life with a physical body had little precedent. Much of the Hellenistic world denied the reality of any kind of resurrection, let alone a physical one. The Greek rejection of the physical body made the idea of a resurrection of that body abhorrent. Some believed that mortals had been resuscitated from death, but these isolated incidents were a mere postponing of eventual death. 5 There simply was no room in the Hellenistic world view for belief in any kind of a general resurrection at the end of world history. 6
In view of this cultural setting, it is easy to understand the Athenian reaction to the Apostle Paul when “he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). The crowd responded by calling him “a babbler” who set forth “strange gods” (Acts 17:18). When Paul later gave his “unknown god” sermon (Acts 17:22–31), the people listened intently until he spoke of the Resurrection, at which point “some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again on this matter” (Acts 17:32). In the end, the doctrine of the Resurrection found few Greek adherents.
Samaritan and Jewish belief, especially that of the Sadducees, followed suit. Despite biblical precedent for the resuscitation of dead people—Elijah and Elisha each had raised a boy from the dead (see 1 Kgs. 17:17–23; 2 Kgs. 4:18–37)—these groups totally rejected the concept of a corporeal and eternal resurrection (see Matt. 22:23). The Pharisees were the exception (see Acts 23:6–8). They made belief in a literal resurrection a point of doctrine, claiming that the coming Messiah, who held the key to life, would exercise that power when he came. Because of this sect’s popularity, many Jews began to accept the idea of a physical resurrection. But a strong contingent continued to reject it, and the belief never became universal.
Paul’s frustration in trying to teach both Jews and Gentiles about Christ’s death and resurrection shows in his statement “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23). Though centered on the crucifixion, Paul’s declaration also has direct bearing on the Jewish reaction to the Christian witness to the Lord’s resurrection.
Some Early Christians Rejected the Physical Resurrection
The Jewish Apostles had to continually battle against an anti-resurrection mentality that kept pushing its way into the Church. Paul asked the Corinthians, “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:12.)
To combat the growing heresy, Paul cited multiple witnesses of the Resurrection. The risen Lord, he stated, “was seen of Cephas, then of the Twelve:
“After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
“After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
“And last of all he was seen of me” (1 Cor. 15:5–8).
The apostolic fathers, writing at the close of the first century, fought the same tendency. Ignatius bore forceful testimony to the Smyrnaeans and Trallians that Christ rose with a real body. “I know,” he cried, “that Christ had a body after the resurrection, and I believe that he still has.” 7 But such doctrine was not popular. Many second-century converts to Christianity were Hellenists or Neoplatonists, both of whom could not imagine a God contaminated by the flesh. This tendency derived from the influence of Docetism, which taught that the suffering of the earthly Savior was apparent rather than real, since even his flesh was believed to be illusionary.
Origen was one of the most vocal of these opponents of the Resurrection. He rejected outright the idea that Christ could have risen with a physical body. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost live without bodies, he insisted. “That being the case, bodies will be dispensed with in eternity, there being no need for them. … To be subject to God is to have no need of a body.” 8 Jerome, writing a century and a half later, reported that the debate was still raging. 9
By the time of Augustine, the Resurrection was a major point of contention within the Christian community. Augustine observed: “Nothing has been attacked with the same pertinacious, contentious contradiction, in the Christian faith, as the resurrection of the flesh. On the immortality of the soul many Gentile philosophers have … written that the soul is immortal: when they come to the resurrection of the flesh, they doubt not indeed, but they most openly deny it, declaring it to be absolutely impossible that this earthly flesh can ascend to Heaven.” 10
The acceptance of Greek philosophy, especially Neoplatonism, was the main contributor to some early Christians’ denial of the Resurrection. This philosophical distrust of things of the flesh has continued into modern Christianity despite the fact that the Lord’s physical resurrection is a central fact of the apostolic witness.
Disbelief among Modern Christians
Today many Christian scholars reject the doctrine of the Savior’s physical resurrection. 11 One widely used college textbook on the New Testament proclaims: “We need to keep in mind that the empty tomb was an ambiguous witness to the resurrection. It attests the absence of the body, but not necessarily the reality or presence of the risen Jesus.” 12
Thus the scriptural witnesses of the risen Lord’s appearances are important, standing as clear, unimpeachable testimonies against those who deny the reality of the Savior’s physical resurrection. The textbook goes on to say that these “traditions present a varied picture insofar as they portray the mode of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus ate with the disciples—they could see and touch the marks of the nails; but he could go through closed doors and vanish from their sight. It is a misnomer to speak of the ‘physical’ resurrection. Paul claimed that the appearance to him was of the same nature as the appearances to Peter, the twelve, and so on (see Acts 9:1–9; Acts 22:4–11; Acts 26:9–18), but how could that be a physical appearance? Indeed, in the same chapter of 1 Corinthians, he describes the resurrected body as a spiritual, not a physical, body and says that flesh and blood (that is the physical body) cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50; cf. 1 Cor. 15:35–58).” 13
Note that the authors completely ignore the Lord’s statement as recorded by Luke, “Handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39, emphasis added), nor do they explain what Paul meant when he stated that the resurrected body was “spiritual.” 14
The Savior Taught a Physical Resurrection
From the outset of his ministry, the Lord made it clear there would be a resurrection involving his physical body. When challenged by rulers demanding some sign of his authorization to clear the temple of profane vendors and money changers, Jesus declared, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
“Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
“But he spake of the temple of his body” (John 2:19–21).
Although during his mortal ministry the Lord often introduced to his disciples the subject of his death and resurrection, it was not until after his death that they comprehended his words (see John 2:22).
In a public discourse, Jesus taught openly the idea of his resurrection: “I lay down my life, that I might take it again.
“No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17–18).
At this many cried out, “He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?” (John 10:20.)
Even the Twelve, when Jesus attempted to prepare them for his upcoming death and resurrection, were confused by the seemingly strange doctrine that “they [the Gentiles] shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again” (Luke 18:31–33). This teaching is straightforward, yet Jesus’ disciples “understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:34).
Note Luke’s insistence on a complete lack of comprehension on the part of the disciples. His comment that the Lord’s sayings were “hid” from them does not mean that the Lord deliberately veiled his teachings on the Resurrection. He taught the idea often enough that it is evident that he was trying to make the doctrine clear. But the idea was too foreign for his disciples to readily accept.
After recording Jesus as saying “The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that … he shall rise the third day,” Mark adds, “but they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:31–32). This account suggests that the disciples heard the doctrine but chose not to inquire into it, while Matthew’s version suggests there was at least limited understanding: “Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men:
The Gospel narratives agree that before the Lord’s resurrection, the disciples did not comprehend the doctrine. They understood that he would go to Jerusalem and there die, but they do not seem to have grasped what would happen after that. Yet after they had received an outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Apostles were able to view the Resurrection with new eyes. In stressing the disciples’ difficulty in accepting the Resurrection, the Gospel record reinforces its authors’ integrity and credibility; for only after they had become sure believers in the Resurrection themselves would they embrace and proclaim it as verily true.
Witnesses to the Lord’s Interment
This background is vital in helping us understand why the gospel writers wrote as they did. The four Gospels are more testimonial in nature and purpose than they are biographical and circumstantial. Although they are each unique, independent witnesses of the Lord’s divinity and saving ministry, they stand together in forthright attestation of the “good news” of the Resurrection.
Each Gospel writer stresses that the Savior truly died. Matthew notes that in addition to Joseph of Arimathaea, three women were present when the Lord was buried. We also learn from this account that Joseph carefully wrapped the body in preparation for burial, placed it in the tomb, and personally rolled a large rock over the opening, after which some of the women lingered (see Matt. 27:56–61).
Matthew further relates that on the next day, a delegation of Jewish rulers asked Pilate for permission to set a guard around the tomb, “saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.
“Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first.
“Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.
“So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch” (Matt. 27:63–66).
Here is a clear indication that these men remembered well and interpreted correctly the Lord’s statement made nearly three years earlier: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19; see also Mark 14:58). Matthew’s account shows first, that there could have been no tampering with or removal of the body, and second, that the Lord did not somehow resuscitate and escape from the tomb on his own.
Mark’s and Luke’s accounts parallel Matthew’s, even to the point of Joseph’s rolling the stone across the tomb’s entrance after the women had witnessed “where [the Lord] was laid” (Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56).
John’s account varies somewhat, noting that a soldier pierced Jesus in the side with a spear to assure his death and that Nicodemus helped Joseph clothe the body and place it in the sepulchre (see John 19:34, 38–42). Although no mention is made of the presence of women or of sealing the tomb with a stone, John satisfies the need for more than one witness by noting that Joseph was not alone in his preparations.
Taken together, the Gospels leave no doubt that the Savior actually died and was buried. The spear thrust, the wrapping of the body, the sealing of the tomb, the presence of more than one person at the time of and after the burial amply witness to the actual death of the Lord.
The Empty Tomb
Only two facts connected with the Resurrection are common to all four Gospel narratives: that the tomb was empty and that Mary Magdalene was either the first or among the first to see it. Matthew writes that before Mary and “the other Mary” had reached the tomb near dawn, an angel descended in glory, frightening the guards into immobility, and rolled back the stone. The angel remained there until the women arrived; then he reassured them: “He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
“And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you” (Matt. 28:1–7).
The Gospel of Mark adds more information. He identifies the other Mary as the mother of James and notes the presence of another woman, Salome. Finding the tomb open, the women entered and were afraid upon seeing “a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment” (Mark 16:1–5). He reassured them, saying, “Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
“But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you” (Mark 16:6–7).
Except for a few details, Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts follow each other quite closely. In each case, an angel assured the women of the Savior’s return to life and insisted that they personally view the burial place and then report to the other disciples. The women also learned that they, also, would see the risen Lord.
Luke’s account notes that three women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna (probably Salome)—along with others went to the tomb early Sunday morning to finish the burial procedures. Finding the tomb open, they went inside and saw “two men [standing] by them in shining garments” (Luke 24:3–4). The frightened women were quickly reassured with the words “Why seek ye the living among the dead?
“He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,
“Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again” (Luke 24:5–7).
In this account, no angels were present when the women entered the open tomb; rather, the angels are reported to have appeared a few moments later. Luke also tells of another angel who attested the Resurrection; and instead of instructing the women about a future meeting with the risen Lord in Galilee, the angels had them recall a resurrection prophecy the Lord had made while in Galilee.
John’s account is the most different. He notes that “when it was yet dark,” Mary Magdalene went alone to the tomb. Having “see[n] the stone taken away from the sepulchre and two angels sitting thereon,” she quickly found Peter and John and told them that the Lord’s body had been “taken away” (JST, John 20:1–2). The fact that John focuses on Mary’s experience and does not mention the presence of other women does not negate the possibility of other women being present.
Mary’s report brought an immediate response from Peter and John. John outran Peter to the sepulchre but did not enter. While John looked inside and saw the discarded grave clothes, Peter rushed right in. John then followed and “saw, and believed”—an apparent reference to the fact that he realized it was the third day and that Christ had indeed risen from the dead as he had said. 15
Except for John, the disciples’ reaction to the empty tomb was bewilderment. Luke recorded that after viewing the tomb, Peter “departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass” (Luke 24:12). Even the witness of the women, who had reached the tomb first, did not alleviate the perplexity, for “their words seemed to [the disciples] as idle tales, and they believed them not” (Luke 24:11).
Mary Magdalene and Other Women Witnesses
Not only were women the first to enjoy the angelic witness to the Lord’s resurrection, but also they were the first to see the risen Lord. Mary of Magdala was the first such witness (see Mark 16:9–10; John 20:1). Drawn back to the tomb, she stood near it for a time, weeping. Then, looking inside the tomb, she saw two angels, likely the same two she had seen earlier and who had testified to the other women.
But Mary did not recognize the angels as divine. When they inquired why she wept, she expressed her fears and, before they could respond, left. At this point the Savior appeared to her. Initially she did not recognize him; but upon his saying her name, “she turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
“Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:16–17).
Unfortunately, this account offers no sure witness to a physical resurrection. Mary was forbidden to touch or “hold” (John 20:17, note a) the Lord because, he said, “I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). The Savior’s explanation indicated that the injunction was temporary. Until he had ascended to the Father, physical contact by itself or physical contact that would unduly detain the Lord was not appropriate. This argues that the Savior did have a physical body.
Not too long thereafter, the risen Lord appeared to the other women who were on their way to see the disciples. “All hail,” he said; “and they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.
“Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me” (Matt. 28:9–10).
Now the testimony of these women stood on a double basis—divine testimony and tactile witness; they had seen and heard from angels that the Lord had risen, and they had actually been permitted to hold his feet. Yet even in light of these proofs, the brethren did not believe. Mary’s personal witness to them, probably given not long after that of the other women, fared no better: “When they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, [they] believed not” (Mark 16:11). Thus the combined testimony of the women did not assuage the disciples’ disbelief. All the Gospel writers make this point.
On that Sunday, the disciples were downhearted, frightened men. It seems it would have been easier for them to believe that Jesus had died and stayed dead. Yet their conversion to the reality of Christ’s resurrection strengthens their witness for those who otherwise might disbelieve that vital truth. Each Gospel writer makes it clear that the disciples were not swept into belief because they wanted to be. Rather, they believed in spite of their own inclinations to the contrary. The evidence of the truth eventually became overwhelming when the Lord appeared to them in person.
The Lord’s Appearances to His Disciples
The first of the risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples occurred on a Sunday afternoon. Cleopas and an unnamed disciple were traveling to Emmaus when the Lord joined them without their discerning his identity. Asked why they were troubled, the disciples told of the day’s startling events, concentrating on the empty tomb and the women’s witness and concluding with an admission of their own perplexity.
“O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken,” exclaimed the yet-unrecognized Lord.
“Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?
The discussion was filled with spiritual affirmation as the hearts of both disciples burned for joy. Arriving at the village near sundown, they constrained the Lord to stay the night. As the Lord blessed and began to serve the food, recognition came; but before a question could be formulated, he vanished (see Luke 24:28–32).
The Lord does not appear to have eaten before he left, though he did handle the food (see Luke 24:30). The two disciples knew the Lord was substantial—real and alive! This knowledge amplified and confirmed the Lord’s earlier explanation to them of the need for his suffering, death, and resurrection.
These disciples quickly returned to where the eleven disciples were gathered in Jerusalem. But their witness, like that of the women, was met with skepticism: “neither believed they them” (Mark 16:13). But while these two new witnesses were yet trying to persuade the brethren, the Lord appeared to the assemblage. The suddenness caused initial fright, but the Lord reassured them: “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?
“Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:38–39).
Eating appears to have been a critical factor in convincing the disciples of the reality of the physical resurrection. Though they had felt the nail prints in his hands and his feet, “they yet believed not for joy, and wondered” (Luke 24:41). At this point the Lord requested something to eat, an act that seems to have catalyzed their belief. Then he began to teach them “that they might understand the scriptures,
“And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:
“And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
“And ye are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:45–48).
The last sentence captures the point of the moment: the disciples were to be personal witnesses of the Savior’s ministry and, most important, resurrection.
John’s account adds the important detail that Thomas was not present at this meeting. Though swamped with testimony when he did meet with them, Thomas refused to believe, just as other disciples had disbelieved the combined witness of the women, Mary Magdalene, and Cleopas and his companion.
Thomas’s case shows how difficult it was to accept the idea of a physical resurrection. Nothing short of tangible proof sufficed. As Thomas said, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe”(John 20:25).
A week later, on a Monday, Thomas met with the other disciples. Once again the Lord appeared. This time he directed some of his attention to the disbelieving disciple. “Reach hither thy finger,” he commanded, “and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:27). Doing so, Thomas’s reaction was quick and sincere; he simply exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Thanks to Thomas, there exists additional evidence of the Lord’s physical resurrection.
There is another lesson to be learned from John’s narrative. To Thomas the Lord said further, “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29). These words suggest that from that time on, others would be required to believe not through tangible proofs but through the testimony of others whose witness is sure.
As vital as the New Testament accounts of the Lord’s death and resurrection are, Latter-day Saints are wonderfully blessed with additional witnesses of the Lord’s resurrection. From the Book of Mormon we learn that more than 2,500 people in the Western Hemisphere witnessed the appearance of the resurrected Lord at the temple in Bountiful. The account of this glorious event leaves no room for doubt that the risen Lord had a tangible body, for “the multitude … thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet … until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record” (3 Ne. 11:15; see also 3 Ne. 17:25).
Not only do we have the witness of the Book of Mormon; we also have the declarations of the Prophet Joseph Smith from his experience that both the Father and the Son have bodies “of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22). Since then, the Lord’s divinely appointed prophets, seers, and revelators have continued to bear witness of the Lord’s resurrection and of the glorious promises of resurrected life for all mankind.
For examples from the Hellenistic culture, see Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.589–94; 5.301–519.
Examples of the Roman view of the times are found in Cicero, De Divinationa, 1.1–38; 2.64, 70; Tacitus, Histories, 1.3, 18, 86; 4.81; for the Jewish view, see Josephus, Jewish Wars, 6.285–95.
For reports of healings, see Tacitus, Histories, 4.81; Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, “Vespasian,” 7; Dio Cassius, 65.271.
See, for example, Metamorphoses, 14.800–28.
In Oriental belief a number of death-defying savior-gods such as Tammuz, Bel-Marduk, Adonis, Sandan-Heracles, Attis, Osiris, the Cretan Zeus, and Dionysus were never really mortal and thus had no bearing on the New Testament witness.
A number of Greek authors (see, for example, Homer, Iliad, 24.551; Herodotus, 3.62; Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1360 ff.) simply state that resurrection is impossible. Others accepted the idea only as an isolated miracle (see, for example, Plato, Symposium, 179; Lucian, De Saltatione, 45).
Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 3, in J.-P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Graecae, 161 vols. (Paris: Migne, 1857–), 5:709; and Epistle to the Trallians, 9; in Patrologiae Graecae, 5:681.
Origen, Peri Archon, 2.6.2, in Patrologiae Graecae, 11:210.
Ibid., 2.3, in Patrologiae Graecae, 11:188–91.
Augustine, On the Psalms, Ps. 89. 32, in J.-P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Latinae, 221 vols. (Paris: Migne, 1879–), 37:1134.
For examples, see Reginald H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, 2d ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1980); P. Perkins, Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984); G. O’Collins, Jesus Risen: An Historical, Fundamental and Systematic Examination of Christ’s Resurrection (New York: Paulists Press, 1987).
Robert A. Spivey and D. Moody Smith, Anatomy of the New Testament: A Guide to Its Structure and Meaning (New York: Macmillan, 1989), p. 239.
See Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73), 1:842.