Governor Pontius Pilate, having washed his hands in front of the crowd refusing to accept responsibility for sentencing Jesus to death, ordered him to be flogged. In addition to this severe beating, Jesus was also ridiculed by the Roman soldiers. They put a scarlet robe on his body, and a crown woven of thorns on his head. Next, they struck him on the head with a stick, spat on his face, and knelt before him, mocking him by saying, “Hail, King of the Jews.” After that, they took the robe off his back and put back on his own clothes. Couldn’t the soldiers possibly sense his suffering when they unclothed and clothed his bloodied body?
Then they led him to a hill called Golgotha to crucify Him.
Of all the execution methods used at the time, crucifixion was probably the cruelest. The condemned suffered immeasurable pain. Along their outstretched arms, broken blood vessels and crushed nerves transmitted waves of excruciating and maddening pain to the whole body. Having to support the full weight of the body, the wounded flesh and skin were torn away slowly, intensifying the pain. Furthermore, the condemned grew more and more thirsty; their throats burned of thirst; their heads felt as if they were in a vice; their vision was totally disoriented. Yet the physical pain was not strong enough to immediately knock them out or kill them. While they would have welcomed a swifter death to spare them from pain and shame, death came slowly, as if trying to roll up centuries of suffering into a few short hours on the cross.
On that historic Friday morning, which was the day before Passover, Jesus was crucified on the cross between two robbers. Above his body, Pilate had a sign posted saying “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” From twelve noon to three o’clock, darkness came over all the land, as if the sun refused to witness this heart-rending scene. At three o’clock, Jesus said, “It is finished,” and then bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Since the following day was the Passover, a very important festival, the Jews could not leave any dead body on the cross. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified broken to hasten their death. After breaking the robbers’ legs, the soldiers came to Jesus and found him already dead, so they did not break his legs. Instead, one soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, causing an outflow of blood and water.
A man named Joseph, who was a member of the Jewish Council and a longtime secret follower of Jesus, came to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body for burial. With Pilate’s permission, Joseph and a man named Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body in strips of linen with a mixture of myrrh and aloes, in accordance with Jewish customs. They then placed his body temporarily in a tomb of rock, cut out of the hillside near the site of the crucifixion. They rolled a big stone against the tomb entrance. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus followed and witnessed the event.
Having buried Jesus, they went home before dark to prepare for the Sabbath, in obedience to Old Testament laws.
Very early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James brought spices to the place where Joseph had temporarily laid Jesus’ body to anoint it. On the way, they wondered whom they could ask to roll the stone away from the tomb entrance. They were not prepared for what they saw when they arrived: An unknown force had rolled the stone rolled away from the entrance, and when they entered the tomb, they did not find Jesus’ body. Astonished, they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell his disciples. One of them, Peter, ran to the tomb, entered it and found only the strips of linen but did not find Jesus’ body anywhere!
Neither the women nor the disciples or anyone else to this day has been able to find any part of Jesus’ body. Those who believe Jesus to be the Son of God have an explanation for this phenomenon. Unbelievers also have their own explanations. Let us first examine some of the theories advanced by the unbelievers.
The first explanation of the disappearance of Jesus’ body came from the Jewish chief priests. Matthew recorded that while the women hurried away to tell the disciples, some of the guards also went into the city and reported everything that had happened to the chief priests. The priests discussed with the elders and devised a plan in which they gave the guards a large sum of money, instructing them to accuse the disciples of stealing the body during the night while they were asleep. If the news got to the Governor, they assured the soldiers that they would explain it away to keep the soldiers out of trouble. So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed.47
It is worth mentioning that, according to the request of the chief priests, soldiers were assigned by Pontius Pilate to guard Jesus’ tomb. On the day after Jesus’ death, they went to Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day, otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they put a seal on the stone and posted a guard.”48
Although it is not known whether the guard was of the Roman army or the Jewish Civilian Defence Corp responsible for guarding the temples, we do know that both groups had strict penalties for soldiers who fell asleep while on duty. For the Roman soldiers, the punishment for this offense was death! Facing such a penalty, no guard would admit to falling asleep. A guard would admit this only with the approval of his superiors, who knew quite well that it was just a concocted story.
Bear in mind that, when Jesus was arrested, the disciples became bewildered and lost faith in him. They never expected to see their Lord so powerless to the extent of being executed in such a disgraceful manner. In the night immediately after Jesus’ arrest, three times people recognized Peter as Jesus’ disciple, and three times Peter denied Him! How would these timid disciples find courage to evade the watchful eyes of the professional guards?
Just as the disciples had failed to grasp the meaning and the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross, they also failed then to recognize the meaning and the significance of the disappearance of his body. They had neither the ability nor the motivation to steal Jesus’ body.
After Jesus appeared to the disciples and explained everything to them, they became new men. They were transformed from a group of frightened and timid men who confined themselves in a locked room into enthusiastic and courageous people. Despite beatings, threats, imprisonments, and ridicules, their new personalities remained. Ever since, they have transformed the whole world. How could a group of people completely change their lives for the better on the account of a story that they invented to deceive the public? Later, all but one disciple, John, died as martyrs. One may be prepared to die for what he believes to be true, although such belief may be wrong; but no one will die for what he knows to be wrong.
Two other details worth relating to the stone blocking the tomb entrance and the linen cloth used to wrap around Jesus’ body are worth noting. Assuming the disciples were attempting to steal Jesus’ body, how could they possibly roll away the large stone without waking up the guards? Also, if they did steal the body, why would they bother to remove the linen cloth and leave it behind? Note that the cloth was left intact, folded up flat by itself as if Jesus’ body had evaporated through it.49 How can such a phenomenon be explained if the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body?
A more plausible theory might be that the Roman government or the Jewish elders had removed Jesus’ body. However, if they had placed guards in front of the tomb and had it securely sealed, why would either of them remove the body? Furthermore, after this event, the whole city of Jerusalem was in uproar over the rumor of the disappearance of Jesus’ body. Had the Roman government and the Jewish elders known its whereabouts, why didn’t they simply produce it to dispel the rumor of Jesus’ coming back to life? On the contrary, they could only have the disciples brought before them for questioning, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”50 Although they were very furious and worried, no one could do anything to stop the disciples. Unable to find the body of Jesus, they resorted to arresting them, flogging them and ordering them not to speak in his name.
Others have put forward the theory that in the early morning the women had unknowingly gone to the wrong tomb. This theory is likewise unconvincing, since, again, the Roman government needed only to point out the real tomb of Jesus to rest their case. Besides, while the women might have possibly gone to another tomb, but could mean that the disciples and Joseph make exactly the same mistake? Note that the tomb was a private one and there was no other tomb nearby.
Another theory that has been advanced is that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. He merely fainted, then recovered and left the tomb. It is worth noting that this theory was not proposed until the eighteenth century. Before this time, no one disputed Jesus’ death.
However, the cross was a very effective instrument of death. Two outstretched arms caused the thorax to enlarge and the diaphragm to be pulled downward. Thus, crucified victims were able to inhale but not exhale, unless they used their legs to push themselves up. This was the reason Roman soldiers broke the legs of the condemned in order to hasten their death. Actually, it was very easy to determine whether the condemned were still breathing or not simply by looking at their abdomen and chest.
Jesus died on the cross much more quickly than others. When Joseph came to ask for his body, Pilate was surprised and summoned the centurion to verify his death. When the centurion confirmed Jesus’ death, Pilate then allowed Joseph to bury the body. These Roman solders were not inexperienced in recognizing death, and thus it is very unlikely that they could have been mistaken. Even if they had been mistaken, there were two other men, Joseph and Nicodemus, who took down his body for burial. How could they also have made the same mistake?
John recorded in noteworthy detail that when a soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, blood and water flowed out.51 John recorded this detail before any medical knowledge on this issue. If Jesus had still been alive, and been stabbed in that manner, his blood would have gushed out in rhythm with his heart beats, rather than in a slow flow followed with water. Only much later was it discovered that there have been very few cases in which water would flow out after blood from the side of a dead body stabbed with a knife. One such case occurred when the condemned person suffered a cardiac arrest on the cross. Lacking this medical knowledge, John could not invent this fact to bolster his agenda for Jesus’ death and resurrection. He only related truthfully what he had witnessed.
Even if had Jesus not died on the cross, he would not have been able to survive the cold tomb, without fresh air, medical care and treatment following his severe beatings and hanging. How could he subsequently free himself from the burial cloth around his body, roll away the large stone at the entrance, evade the guards, and walk miles to meet the disciples and others in this condition?
Yes, not only the disciples but also many others have given testimonies to the fact that Jesus appeared before them in flesh and blood!
He did not appear just once, but over forty days he appeared at least ten times before those Peter referred to as “witnesses whom God had already chosen.”52 He appeared before Mary of Magdalene53, before the women who visited the tomb that Sunday morning54, before Peter55, before two disciples on the road to Emmaus56, before ten disciples in a locked room without Thomas57, before eleven disciples including Thomas58, before more than five hundred people at the same time59, before James60, before the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias61, before a crowd prior to his ascending to heaven62, and before Paul on his way to Damascus63.
Even if one agreed with some of the theories concerning the disappearance of Jesus’ body, his physical appearances would still have to be explained. If we doubt the sincerity of the witnesses, or do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then there is only one rational explanation: All of these appearances were hallucinations created by some psychological effects on the witnesses.
Modern psychology, however, shows that such a hypothesis has no validity. In order to experience a hallucination, one has to be sentimental, imaginative, and in a vulnerable state of mind. Among the crowd of more than five hundred people who witnessed one appearance of Jesus, there were not only sensitive women such as Mary Magdalene but also rugged and experienced disciples such as the fisherman Peter and the tax collector Matthew.
Hallucination differs from person to person. It originates from the subconsciousness and is heavily dependent on the individual’s past. It is very rare that even two individuals experience the same vision at the same time. But Jesus not only appeared before a few individuals, but also before a crowd of hundreds.
Hallucination occurs when both time and place are conducive. In this case, Jesus appeared at different times and at different places: at times to one person, other times to a crowd; at one time in a garden near the tomb, at another time in a locked room; on one occasion on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, on another at Galilee.
Lastly, hallucination is often the result of unfulfilled longings. If someone is longing terribly for something, he may see it in a hallucination. Jesus’ disciples did not have such a longing. That Sunday, when the women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, none of the disciples expected his body to be missing. When Jesus appeared before Mary Magdalene, she thought he was the gardener. Not until he spoke to her did she recognize him. Initially, the disciples did not believe her story, and when he appeared to them the first time, they thought he was a ghost! That time, Thomas was not there. When told of the incident, Thomas did not believe, saying, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”64 Later, Jesus appeared again before the disciples, including Thomas, and he told Thomas to examine his hands and his side. Thomas then said, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”65
Since Thomas there have been billions of people who have believed that Jesus is the Son of God. In his own words, these people are the most blessed, because their faith is not “static” but “dynamic.” Their faith is not the end but the beginning of a spiritual journey promising a great deal of unexpected discoveries, and transforming their lives to a state of peace and to assured hope of finding themselves one day in heaven.