Bible: Outrageous Resurrection Account -- Gospel of Matthew

The Resurrection—Tischbein, 1778.
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This is an adaptation from a portion of a book that I’m writing. The book details a number of arguments and techniques for non-believers to use when discussing religion. While people of all persuasions are invited to read, the audience that I’m intending to address is my fellow non-believer.

There are so many arguments that are made and can be made regarding the alleged resurrection of Jesus. Among the various approaches, many are frequently trodden, yet very few approaches ever make progress for either side. Here's an argument of mine that perhaps stirs the pot in a new direction -- the primary goal of this is to start conversations, not necessarily to provide an ironclad case.

Why engage in arguments about Jesus' alleged physical resurrection?

Well, if you’re already convinced in the worthiness of engaging in religious debate, the short answer is that the central tenets of Christianity rely on Jesus’ resurrection. This fact not only makes the resurrection a valid target, but a particularly fruitful one if you can undermine it.

When talking with a Christian who believes in the physical resurrection of Jesus, it's vital to get them to articulate what they actually believe happened. Do they think that Jesus started breathing again? Was this a physical resurrection? Do the Gospel accounts get it pretty much right? Exactly right?

Once He’s back from the dead, does His physical body work like a normal physical body?

If you look at the account according to Matthew, apparently Jesus physically comes back to life in the tomb… and then teleports somewhere before the sealed tomb is opened -- because when the sealed tomb is opened, Jesus' body is already missing.

Let’s say you’re engaged in a person who thinks that the Gospel accounts get it right. That there was a guard guarding the tomb, and questions like, "how could the disciples have stolen the body…" etc., etc., etc… are being asked.

Don't shy away from this, dive into the details. Talk about what you find hard to believe about the account, and consider using your own formulation of the following argument.

Consider the background

Before getting into Matthew's account of the resurrection, I'd like to give you a brief background about the Gospels.  The Bible has four accounts of the life of Jesus, written down in what are known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Each writer tells us of what he finds important about the life of Jesus.

If you read what the writer of Mark has to say about what he finds important about Jesus’ life, you’ll get a very different picture than what the writer of John finds important. The Gospels are anonymous, hence the “writer of Mark” wording. With this fact in mind, I’m going to switch to calling the Gospel writers by their customary names.

For example, Mark forgets to mention that Jesus had a miraculous virgin birth – and John doesn’t find this worth mentioning, either.

As far as the death and resurrection of Jesus are concerned, the differences between the accounts are pretty interesting, as well.

I recommend reading each account – there really isn’t much text involved. Let's focus on Matthew's account now.

Matthew's outrageous detail

I’m going to talk about the account given by the Gospel according to Matthew because it has some particularly delicious details.

What do I find hard to believe about the Gospel according to Matthew account of the physical resurrection of Jesus?

As an atheist, you might think that the supernatural miracle of the physical resurrection of a dead body would be the most difficult for me to believe… but I keep a fairly open mind. These times were different… the Bible itself tells us that a person coming back from the dead is a fairly common explanation of events. Maybe this was a different time when miracles occurred more frequently.

I mean, as is reported, the crowds think that Jesus is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or other prophets back from the dead. Even King Herod exclaims that Jesus is John the Baptist – the man he had beheaded – back from the dead. These things were either happening all the time, or they were explanations that were thrown about quite a bit.

Matthew 14:1-2 (NRSV)

"At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’"

Matthew 16:13-14 (NRSV)

"Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’"

So no, I’m going to grant that perhaps these kinds of supernatural events occurred. So what’s difficult to believe about Matthew’s account, given that supernatural suspension of the natural order isn’t so hard?

It isn’t that the whole land was in darkness for three hours during midday (leading up to Jesus’ death).

It isn’t that there was an earthquake that was strong enough to break rocks.

Or that tombs opened up and "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised ... [and] came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many." (Matthew 27:51-54). – See what I mean about how frequently people came back from the dead in these days?

These events, impressive though you might find them today, even after you realize that no other Gospel writer thought to mention ANY of these things, aren’t too hard to believe.

You read correctly, no other account of Jesus’ death and resurrection mentions that other saints were raised from the dead, came out of their tombs, and walked around being seen by many people. Here is an interesting part to ask any Christian that you’re engaged with… how this whole resurrection thing works. If people died and came back to life before Jesus – saints, in their tombs, waking back up and walking around – what was it that made Jesus special? It’s a fun side-topic to explore.

I don’t believe, and it certainly is difficult to believe all of these admittedly ridiculous things – Jesus came back to life, many saints also coming back to life and walking around, and earthquakes – and that no one else thought that any of these things were interesting enough to mention.

Yet, Matthew’s account includes something that I find even harder to believe.

The story goes that the temple priests are sufficiently worried about Jesus and his followers and his claims to be God incarnate and the messiah. They are especially worried that the claim that Jesus makes – that He will prove that He is God incarnate and the long awaited messiah by coming back to life three days after his death. So they get permission from Pontius Pilate to set a contingent of soldiers to guard the tomb from Jesus’ followers from stealing the body away and proclaiming that Jesus rose from the dead.

The soldiers seal the tomb of this false messiah and rabble rousing preacher who claims to be God incarnate – and claims to come back to life to prove it.

These soldiers are there guarding the sealed tomb of this impostor, and on the dawning of the first night that they’re guarding it a great earthquake occurs and an angel wearing dazzling white clothing descends from heaven like lightning. This angel single-handedly rolls away the stone of the sealed tomb revealing that it’s empty! The soldiers witness this, and are so terrified they fall to the ground “like dead men.”

Matthew 28:2-4 (NRSV)

"And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men."

These soldiers allegedly have front-row seats to the most important and impressive miracle of all time.

They don’t, however, start worshiping the obvious God-man whose death and resurrection bring about earthquakes, darkness in the middle of days and angels descending from heaven.

Instead, they return to the priests that sent them to guard this “impostor’s” tomb and tell them everything that happened.

These priests are now in quite a situation. They had to deal with all the stresses of organizing the Passover, and then they had to deal with this rabble-rousing Jesus character. And, as soon as they get Jesus sentenced to death, the trouble really begins.

There was an earthquake, the temple curtain being ripped from the ceiling to the floor, darkness that covered all the land, and now another earthquake.

On top of that there are all these reports of all kinds of dead saints that are walking around today, and to top it all off, the guards that the priests THEMSELVES had posted to guard the tomb came running back, terrified, telling them, “Hey! That guy that you sent to death for falsely proclaiming to be sent by God... Turns out, He is God! We were there, guarding the place... earthquake happens, angel comes blazing in from the sky rolls away the stone, Jesus came back to life just like he said would happen!”

At this point, if you don’t know how the story goes in Matthew, you might guess that the soldiers and priests became Christians and followed Jesus for the rest of their days.

You’d be wrong.

In Matthew's account the priests gather together with the elders and they talk about what’s going on. They decide that they won’t change their opinion about Jesus, impressive though these miracles are. No, they decide that they’ll keep this whole “God-incarnate is back from the dead and appearing to many people” a secret by telling the soldiers to lie about it.

The soldiers are told, “Lie about what you saw...here's some money, all you have to do is say, 'His disciples came and stole his body away while we were asleep.'”

Matthew 28:11-15 (NRSV)

"While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day."

What do the soldiers do?

They don't throw the money down and join the Christian disciples and become a missionary to anyone who will listen to their first hand account of how they were the one guarding the tomb of Jesus when he was resurrected! That they saw the angel that rolled away the stone!

No, they agree to the request, and lie to everyone who asks them, that the disciples came and stole the body.

They don't follow God-incarnate that they themselves saw resurrected and greeted by a lightning angel.

Maybe the soldiers who were terrified to the point of shaking and falling down like dead men weren’t all that impressed with God incarnate.

But, how about the chief priests of the temple?

These guys all got together, sentenced a guy who claimed to be God and the messiah to death, and were just given a ridiculous amount of evidence that what he said was true.

The guards that the priests THEMSELVES had posted came running to them and were told that every claim that Jesus made about Himself is true.

Would not a single chief priest think... uh-oh, we sentenced God to death! We better repent and fast!

Would these men of God really, when faced with undeniable evidence that the messiah has come and that God walked among us, work to cover it up?

Seriously?

Did the conversation go something like...

Ok Bob, our entire lives have been dedicated to serving the God of Israel -- all-powerful creator of the universe -- waiting for the Messiah. Turns out, we sentenced the Messiah, who turns out to be the all-powerful creator of the universe, to death, and He is now back to life, causing earthquakes and telling everyone that He, God incarnate is back. How are we going to deal with this?

Well Steve... we were clearly wrong about the messiah, and God incarnate, but we have to save face, but we should brace ourselves as we are now up against a formidable force...

An all-powerful deity is going around proving that He is indeed the messiah that we have been waiting for. We don't have many resources to fight this kind of power. But, how about this: Let's lie about whether God incarnate is back from the dead, and that he will save us from eternal damnation.

Oooo, Bob, I like it. You're right, God incarnate could put on an impressive show to convince the entire world that this miracle has occurred... but I bet if we could pay off these soldiers to say that "no no, nothing happened..." we could keep the vast majority of our fellow Jews in the dark about the true nature of God and the messiah!

That way, although we are condemning ourselves and the Jewish people to everlasting rejection of God, we will retain our jobs as temple priests.

Oh yeah…the rest of our lives will be devoted to an endeavor that is anti-God.

True, but we won’t have to repent or admit that we’re wrong.

Asking me to believe in supernatural miracles is one level of ridiculousness.

But to say that people experienced and saw the things that Matthew claims they saw, and that these people were so monumentally unimpressed -- to the point of completely ignoring it -- suggests that, perhaps, these people didn't actually see what Matthew thinks they saw.

I should phrase that differently, the soldiers, apparently, not only witnessed the most important and impressive miracle of all time -- they had the BEST front row seats to the most important miracle of all time -- and THEY were unimpressed?

And years later, this story of how unimpressed these first hand witnesses were is supposed to impress me?

Even allowing for all the supernatural events to occur, this story doesn’t convince me of anything except the absolutely ludicrous nature of the story itself.

Now, get out there and start your own conversations, discussions, and debates!

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