Is the Resurrection Real?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
April 26, 2020
Acts 2:14, 36–41, Luke 24:13–35


When I was in seminary, I had the privilege of studying under a wonderful New Testament scholar, and current Dean of Perkins Theological Seminary, Craig Hill. Dean Hill is an excellent scholar, having written a wonderful book about conflict in the early church called Hellenists and Hebrews and a fantastic book on Christian end-times theology called In God’s Time. (Craig, if you’re watching, you can either Venmo me the endorsement money or just mail me a check.)


The Road to Emmaus by Ducio di Buoninsegna

When he was getting his doctorate, he had the privilege of studying with one of the great scholars of our age, E.P. Sanders, author of the landmark book Jesus and Judaism, which established the gold standard for historical Jesus studies in the late Twentieth Century. I had occasion to hear Dr. Sanders speak at Wesley seminary and there are things he said in his remarks that to this day stick with me. I’ve had occasion to read Jesus and Judaism as well as a few other books by Sanders and am impressed by the depth of his scholarship and his intellect.

As a scholar of the historical Jesus, Sanders was engaged in the exploration of the gospels to determine what facts, if any, could be defended from an objective, historical point of view. That is, what are the things from Jesus’ story that a disinterested, secular historian could affirm as accurate and credible? Sanders had fashioned a list of “several facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath which can be known beyond doubt.”[1] They are:

  • Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist
  • Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  • Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  • Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  • Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  • Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  • After his death, Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  • At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement, and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career.

Noticeably missing from this list is Jesus’ resurrection. My professor told me that he had wondered why Sanders couldn’t add that to the list, since it was attested in every single gospel, in the epistles, including the writings of Paul who declared that he had seen the risen Christ. Surely, that was just as attested as his baptism by John, wasn’t it? Why could his mentor and friend not make that leap?

“Because that kind of thing just doesn’t happen,” was the response.

If we’re honest we admit he’s not the only one. Our pews and often our pulpits are full of people who sing the hymns and celebrate the stories of Easter, but who wonder deep down: is this real? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? And if so, in what way?


The first place for us to look, of course, is at the texts themselves. These ancient records of Christian teaching of Jesus’ resurrection provide a starting point for us.

Mark’s gospel, in its oldest form contains no description of the resurrection and ends with the women fleeing from the empty tomb afraid. The resurrection, to the extent it takes place in Mark’s original version, happens off stage.

Matthew’s gospel describes Mary Magdalene and the other Mary meeting Jesus suddenly on the way back from the tomb. It says that they “took hold of his feet” and worshipped him. After this, Jesus appears to the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee where they’d been told to go.

In Luke’s account, a portion of which we heard read earlier, Jesus appears to two disciples—one name Cleopas, the other unnamed—as they walk along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The text tells us “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” He has a long conversation with them about the events of the past few days, in which he explains to them everything the scriptures had to say about the messiah having to suffer and die and be raised again. They invite him in to eat with them and as he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them they recognized who he was. And then he vanished from their sight. The disciples run back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven, who inform them that Simon Peter had also seen the Lord, when Jesus appears in their midst. They are startled and think they’re seeing a ghost but he says to them, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then he asks for something to eat and eats a piece of broiled fish. Afterwards, he leads them out to Bethany where he withdraws and is carried up to heaven.

In John’s gospel, Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene who does not recognize him at first until he calls her by name. Later that day, he appears to the disciples in the locked upper room. He shows them his hands and his side, before breathing on them and imparting the Holy Spirit. He reprises this scene a week later for Thomas, who had insisted that he wouldn’t believe until he could see Jesus’ pierced hands and wounded side. The gospel concludes with him appearing by the Galilean lakeshore, and prepares breakfast of bread and fish for the disciples.

There are other appearances outside the gospels: in the Book of Acts, as Paul is riding to Damascus to root out Christians there, a light shines all round him and he hears a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

So, here’s what we glean: the risen Christ is recognizable (wounds in hands, feet, and side) and unrecognizable (Mary, the disciples on the road). He is solid—they can hold him and touch him—and he can appear and disappear suddenly. He is not an apparition but can eat and drink and even cook.

There is simultaneously continuity and discontinuity. But what is a resurrected body?


It helps to understand what we even mean when we talk about a “resurrected body.”

Now, the Resurrection of Jesus is meant to be seen in light of the Jewish hope for a general resurrection of the dead at the end of history, with the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. Resurrection fits squarely in with Jewish affirmation of the goodness of the body and the material world. This was different from the Greek idea that the material world was evil or corrupt and that pure goodness was immaterial spirit. In contrast to this, Jews believed that God had made human beings in the divine image and made the creation as a “good” thing. Resurrection is an affirmation of the goodness of the material world in that it is raising the material to new, embodied life. Those who believed in resurrection, understood it in physical, bodily terms.

And indeed, the gospel accounts all affirm that: Jesus is not a ghost. He eats and drinks. He still has the wounds of his crucifixion. In some ways he is the same, but in other ways, he is quite different.

See, resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. All of the other raisings in scripture are resuscitations: Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, and so on; we all assume that these people died at some point later on. Those who are resurrected, do not die again. As Paul says, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” (Romans 6:9 NRSV)

Further, resurrection, on the other hand, is a new, glorified body. Jesus even hints at this himself when he says in Matthew’s gospel: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30 NRSV)

Paul goes into even more detail:

“But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. … So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
“Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

1 Corinthians 15:35 ff. NRSV

So, let’s recap: in the resurrection, Jesus is given a spiritual body that is recognizable but unrecognizable, able to engage with the material world and yet able to ignore the limits of the physical world. Still bearing the wounds of death, but imperishable, immortal, like the angels.

Are all your questions answered yet?


A. Understanding

Here’s the thing: we who live on this side of the Enlightenment cannot help but try to make sense of these things. We try to explain them physically or concoct elaborate theologies in which all of this somehow makes sense to us so that we can feel confident that when we proclaim “Christ is Risen!” we’re not fools.

But as I am fond of saying, the text is often a key to its own interpretation. The fact that the gospels cannot pin down exactly what the resurrection is, the fact that Paul has to rely on clearly paradoxical language—“a spiritual body,” the fact that none of the gospel accounts is entirely consistent, is evidence that when it comes to the resurrection, no one truly understands it. It embraces things in tension, continuity/discontinuity, materiality/spirituality, finiteness/infinity, location/universality, temporality/eternity. The text is practically screaming at us: we don’t know what it is.

But shouldn’t we? Shouldn’t that matter? If we’re going to proclaim the resurrection, shouldn’t we know what we’re talking about so we can say whether it’s real or not?

B. The Reality

Here’s the reality.

On the 15th and 16th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, eleven men were hiding out in an upper room in Jerusalem, having watched their beloved master suffer and die at the hands of the most powerful empire the world had ever known.

They had backed the wrong horse. Embarrassing to be sure, but not unprecedented. In fifth chapter in Acts, Rabbi Gamaliel even recounts a number of instances of failed messiahs over the years. Messiahs were popping up all over Judea and Galilee. The eleven had picked the wrong champion. Tough luck, fellas.

But beginning with the 18th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, those eleven men and the women of their community spread out from Jerusalem, into Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and all the world, proclaiming the Gospel and the coming Kingdom of God.

This would all be done at great personal cost. This would get them persecuted. This would lead to their deaths. But still they went. The went into the halls of power, even as far as the capital city of that great and terrible empire and they preached that Christ was Lord, not Caesar.

Something happened on that 17th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, my friends. Something that convinced those men and women that what they had thought was defeat was victory. What they had thought was shame was glory. What they had thought was death was life.

Something happened to them to convince them that God was at work, that Christ was alive, that hope was not dead, that the Kingdom of God was at hand. That something we call resurrection.

Something happened to take Saul, one of the most zealous persecutors of the early church, and turn him into one of its greatest evangelists. That something we call resurrection.

Whatever that event was, however we understand it, whatever the details of that experience, it was real.

C. Denying the Resurrection

We can get hung up on the details that we imagine they are the things we’re supposed to have faith in. The arguments that Christians get in with non-Christians and with each other over the nature of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and how to understand it ignores the powerful world-changing reality at the heart of the proclamation.

For this reality requires not our doctrinal assent but our discipleship. It calls us to follow in the path of faithful discipleship in the way of the one raised to new life. This is the meaning and the importance of the Resurrection for us.

And so when it comes to denying the resurrection, we find that our ability to understand the resurrection or put it into concrete terms we can wrap our heads around is the least of our problems. As philosopher and author Peter Rollins once said:

“Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”


The resurrection of Christ—however understood—changed the lives of the disciples from fearful followers of a would-be messiah, to apostles of the living God, sent into all the world to proclaim the message of liberation from oppression, hope for the downcast, and the binding up of the brokenhearted. It caused them to speak truth to power, to give their lives for justice and peace, to elevate the lowly and the marginalized. It called them to follow in upending the world; the way life had upended death.

Our inability to explain or wrap our heads around the resurrection does nothing to change the fact that the resurrection is real.

And it does nothing to change the fact that we are called to live into a reality that has been changed by resurrection from a world beset by fear, hate, and death, and to dare boldly to proclaim the victory of hope, love, and life.


Acts 2:14, 36–41 • But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.


Luke 24:13–35 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

            As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.


[1] Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 1985, p. 11.