How Certain Can We Be that Jesus Rose?

Do you know what the greatest mystery in the history of religions is?  One of the places this mystery appears is in John 20:24-28, the famous passage of doubting Thomas, which was read in many churches this past week, the Sunday after Easter.  This passage takes place a week after Thomas challenged God to prove Himself by declaring that he refuses to believe Jesus rose from the dead unless he can see the Risen Jesus for himself.  Indeed, Thomas is so certain in his skepticism about the Resurrection that he goes on to declare that he refuses to believe unless he can probe the wounds in Jesus’ writs and side.  In this very passage, Jesus accepts the challenge.  He appears to Thomas, challenging him to see and believe.  That’s when Thomas does one of the most dramatic tail-between-legs-about-faces in all of history, declaring to Jesus: “My Lord and my God.”  

The Greek in this verse for “God” is Theos.  It translates the Hebrew El or Elohim, which is the generic term everyone used to refer to “god” or “the gods”, including the pagans.  The Greek for “Lord” in this verse is Kyrios.  It translates the Hebrew Adonai, which was the substitute title Jews used in place of the Divine Name, YHWH, for God.  This is because they believed the Divine Name was too holy to be uttered except in the most sacred of contexts.  Using the title “Lord” makes reference to the Divine Name which God revealed to Moses at the burning bush without having to pronounce it. 

For Jews, when God revealed His Name to them, it was a profoundly personal act.  Because a person’s name was thought to capture and express their innermost identity, they believed God had revealed His inmost Being to them, His true nature and identity.  Who He is.  While “God” captures His universal role as the Almighty Lord of the Universe, as Sovereign over All, “Lord” captures God’s personal revelation, His Person, His most intimate identity. 

For first-century Jews, these were the two major titles used for God.  As such, they embodied the full range of His Divine Nature, everything from His overall “job description” as the Higher Power that reigns over all Creation, to His deepest identity, intimately revealed as a personal Lord.   

So, the “doubling up” of these two common titles for God, which is extremely rare—almost non-existent elsewhere in the Bible, see Psalm 35:23 “My God and my Lord” as the only true parallel: a number of other passages come close with the singular address: “Lord, my God”, but this usage lacks the “doubling up” effect—intensifies Thomas’ confession.  Thus, Thomas confesses his faith in Jesus’ divinity in the highest, most complete, most magnified way he could find words for.  In the language of that time, nothing more profound could be said about Jesus’ divine identity.  In fact, no other human being in the Gospels expresses a more complete understanding of Who Jesus is as Lord and God—as fully divine.  It is doubting Thomas who utters the supreme confession of faith. 

But how did a first-century Jew ever come to that understanding?  As numerous scholars have pointed out, this is the greatest mystery in the study of religion. 

We know with great certainty that first-century Jews living in Palestine were as fiercely monotheistic as any Jews who have ever lived.  There are multiple texts and archeological finds that demonstrate the extremes to which they went to uphold their belief in the oneness, the uniqueness, and the absolute transcendence of their God.  Yahweh, the Old Testament insists, shares His Glory with no other.  He, and He alone, is God.  Under immense pressure from their pagan neighbors and oppressors, they maintained this belief as tenaciously as any Jews who have ever lived. 

But there is a massive error in the way this usually gets presented.  Perhaps you’ve heard that for anyone in Jesus’ day to claim divinity would have been the worst form of blasphemy imaginable.  Any Jew who even hinted at this could be put to death.  It was a capital offense.  But that’s not really it.  This point doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

While it certainly is true that anyone who might dare to insinuate in any way that they were God—indeed, anyone who might even dare to tread on the prerogatives that belong to God alone, such as when Jesus forgives sins—would be liable to death, it is also true that well before ever considering such claims to be the height of blasphemy, their monotheistic mindset would have encountered a much more fundamental and formidable obstacle: The claim that the Infinite God had become a finite human being wouldn’t have simply been the height of blasphemy.  First and foremost, it would have been immediately and categorically dismissed as logically impossible.  And laughably so.  While they would have taken the vulgarity and arrogance of the offense of someone making such a claim with utter seriousness, the claim itself would have been laughable.    

See, what was most fundamental in their understanding of the Divine Nature, what it means to be Divine, is that the Lord their God is Absolute Other.  Transcendent.  Infinite by nature.  At the most basic, the most fundamental level, this is what it meant to be Divine.  Though in the Bible they often depicted  God in anthropomorphic terms, i.e., as having human attributes and characteristics, like hands and feet, this was simply a metaphorical way of speaking about the ineffable God.  It was shorthand for speaking about a God who is, by nature, pure Spirit as Jesus says in John 4:24, i.e., unlimited and uncontainable. 

We have texts that show how first-century Jews thought about their pagan neighbors and oppressors and their belief in many gods, many of whom appear in human form.  Before they ever get around to accusing them of idolatry or blasphemy, they mock their beliefs as ridiculous—To anyone who has any rudimentary understanding of what the term “God” actually means, it is painfully obvious how absurd such a belief is.   

In the mindset of any first-century Jew, the idea of Jesus—or anyone else, from Abraham to Moses to David—being God incarnate wouldn’t just be blasphemous.  Above and beyond anything else—and this is what is usually missed—it would be laughably inconceivable.  Before first-century Jews would ever consider such a notion blasphemous, they’d dismiss it as utterly ridiculous.  They could never seriously entertain the idea at all.  Because, for them, it was utterly impossible.  Utterly inconceivable.  Utterly unimaginable. 

We should laugh at the notion too.  The only reason many of us don’t is because of our cultural conditioning.  Even if we don’t believe it ourselves, we have become all too familiar with it.  We know of otherwise reasonable people who believe it.  So, even if it isn’t reasonable to us, it seems like an option reasonable people can accept.  But if we were Jews living in first-century Palestine, we would laugh the idea to scorn, because, we would clearly see how transparently ludicrous it is. 

This hit home for me several Thanksgivings ago.  My cousin invited a woman whom she had befriended to our holiday dinner.  This woman happened to be an orthodox Jew.  She was also very passionate about education, immediately making it very clear how important she thought it was and how important it was to get into the right school—something I suspect she may have been emphasizing for the benefit of her children who were also present. 

Just as we sat down to eat, she inquired about my educational background.  When I responded by telling her about the colleges I attended, she got very excited.   She was completely enamored with the Ivy League school from which I received my graduate degree.  She could not have held it in higher esteem.  And at that moment, upon hearing that I had attended this school, she could not have held me in higher esteem.  She couldn’t stop raving about this institution and how wonderful it is that I was able to attend it. 

Until, that is, her next breath, when she asked me what I did, and I answered that I was a Pastor.  A Christian.  Her esteem quickly turned to dismay, to perplexity.  She began to interrogate me, mercilessly.  She even began to berate me, but not in a mean way, if that makes sense.  She was genuinely befuddled: How could you who went to such a prestigious school believe such nonsense?  How could you who looks and sounds like an intelligent human being not see what is so obviously absurd about Christianity?  How could you possibly believe in the Incarnation?  

She was so intent on getting a satisfactory answer—or at least getting me to see the flaw in my own logic—that she wouldn’t let me eat.  She kept grilling me.  All my repeated attempts to explain how someone who graduated from a school she esteemed so highly could actually believe that the Infinite God became finite in Jesus only served to frustrate and perplex her more.  She genuinely couldn’t understand how I couldn’t understand how utterly unintelligible the Incarnation is.  Suffice it to say, I didn’t get to eat much turkey that Thanksgiving. 

To her, the idea that the One who is Infinite by nature and transcendent by definition could become finite was so self-evidently preposterous she couldn’t understand how any intelligent person could accept it.  And she was right.  It does defy logic.  It defies the most basic attribute of the monotheistic Divine Nature—absolute transcendence. 

This was the very perspective those first disciples of Jesus had.  The most fundamental thing they believed about their God is that He is Infinite.  And we are not.  Logic dictates that no finite human being is capable of being, of containing, the infinite God.  Thus, we know they would never have been able to entertain the idea Jesus was divine. 

For me, this woman’s genuine inability to comprehend how I could believe such nonsense drove home how utterly impossible it would have been for those early Christians, who were easily as, if not far more fiercely, monotheistic than her, to ever seriously entertain, to ever imagine even in their wildest dreams, that God had become incarnate in Jesus.  Her relentless perplexity was a poignant insight into just how thoroughly absurd, how absolutely unthinkable, the idea of the Infinite God becoming a finite human being would have been for them. 

To shake us out of our familiarity with it, to help make sense of just how absurd, just how tremendously unthinkable this would have been for them, consider this analogy: Imagine trying to pour the ocean in a bottle.  You don’t have to think long before dismissing it as impossible.  Ridiculous.  Laughable.

I live near Long Island Sound and often go for walks at the beach with my wife.  Over the past several years, there have been a few shark attacks off of Long Island.  Apparently, there are sharks “in them there waters”.  During those evening walks, when I look out at the Sound, at the many beautiful miles of wide blue ocean water, I can’t even begin to imagine all that water—and everything in it, including all the sea life—being poured into a bottle.  My goodness, it’s ridiculous to think about trying to fit just one small shark into a bottle.  And mind you, this vast expanse of water is just the Sound.  The ocean is “infinitely” bigger than all the water contained in Long Island Sound.

You might think I’m over doing things with this analogy, being overly dramatic.  But actually, as overdone as this example may seem, it isn’t nearly as absurd as the Incarnation would have been to the first-century Jewish mindset.  After all, the ocean, as vast as it is, is finite.  God isn’t.     

This analogy is how farfetched, how flat-out inconceivable, the Incarnation would have been for those first disciples.  And this is precisely why scholars find the fact that a group of fiercely monotheistic, first-century Jews ever arrived as such a belief the greatest mystery in the history of religions. 

So, how did that group of first century, fiercely monotheistic Jews ever come to confess Jesus as their Lord and their God?   

One of the questions about the Resurrection I often get, one of the things I once wondered myself, is how there can be any reliable evidence for an event that took place two thousand years ago, an event of ancient history?     

Astrophysicists tell us that the Big Bang occurred about 13.8 billion years ago.  But how do they know?  And how can they be so precise?  No one was there to witness it.  We don’t have video of it.  So how are they so confident it happened that many years ago?  Simple: The measurable effects the event has left.  Like, for example, so-called “Background Infrared Radiation.”  This effect is abundantly evident and makes them very certain the Big Bang happened as it did. 

While history is a very different discipline than astrophysics, the scientific criteria it applies to the various historical sources at our disposal can identify the measurable effects of events in the distant past with a similar degree of certainty.  And in the study of the history of religion, most of which is ancient history, few measurable effects are as certain as the early Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity.  Applying the criteria for historicity, we can be virtually certain that very shortly, perhaps even immediately, after Jesus’ humiliating death on the Cross, the first disciples, a group of fiercely monotheistic, first-century Palestinian Jews, not only came to believe what had been utterly unthinkable to them prior, but, at the risk of their own deaths, began to publicly proclaim what would have been the most ridiculous proposition they could have ever heard.  And the reason they consistently cite for this quantum leap of understanding?  That they had seen Jesus bodily risen from the dead.

Belief in Jesus’ divinity, however, cannot simply be explained by Jesus’ Resurrection alone.  If He had appeared risen from the dead in the manner and form most Jews expected the resurrection body to appear (which would only have occurred during the general resurrection at the end of the age—incidentally, it would have only been slightly less thinkable for first-century Jews that an individual would rise from the dead prior to the general resurrection, but that is another argument for another time), the most they could have concluded is that Jesus had been vindicated as Israel’s Messiah.

If this was merely how Jesus appeared to Thomas, for example, Thomas naturally would have directed his confession of faith to Yahweh, not Jesus.  He, like the rest of the disciples, would have praised and worshiped God for doing such a great and glorious thing in raising Jesus from the dead, vindicating Him as the Messiah.  If Jesus only appeared in the kind of resurrection body a first-century Jew could imagine, It would never have occurred to them to worship Jesus.  His appearances would never give rise to the belief that Jesus was their Lord and God. 

This is a huge point that is rarely noticed, and when it is, it is usually only within high level scholarly writings and discussions.  However, because it is the only good way to explain this clearly evident measurable effect, it constitutes one of, if not the most powerful pieces of evidence that the appearances were real, objective encounters with Jesus, that He was supernaturally raised from the dead.  Allow me to explain.

As many scholars have noted, the record clearly indicates that it was the disciples’ belief that they had encountered a risen Lord that led them, virtually right away, to their quantum leap of understanding that Jesus is Lord.  Their belief in Jesus’ divinity is firmly rooted in Jesus’ alleged appearances to them. 

Yet, for them to arrive at this belief, there had to be something about the nature of those appearances that revealed what their minds could never conjure up prior, namely the unthinkable notion that Jesus is God Incarnate.  The technical term for this is that the appearances had to be “theophanic”—taken from the word “theophany”, a manifestation of God’s glory and presence.  Something about the appearances had to resemble the way Yahweh appears in Old Testament theophanies.  Jesus’ appearances had to somehow signal, convey, manifest, or reveal Jesus’ divine nature.  Theophanic appearances are the only thing that could make those first disciples feel so compelled to believe what they could never conceive otherwise.  In other words, they had to see in Jesus’ appearances something about the resurrection body that was just as inconceivable as God taking human form—to believe the impossible, the unthinkable, they had to see something equally impossible for them to imagine. 

So what was it about Jesus’ appearances that would have clearly revealed His divinity to a group of first-century, monotheistic Jews?  The Gospels give us precious little detail about the appearance of Jesus’ resurrected body.  But they do give us clues.  Chief among them is Jesus’ ability to appear and disappear, for his body to simply materialize behind locked doors.  Jesus’ resurrection body is a real, physical body in the realm of space and time.  But it is also able to transcend space and time, to exercise power over the physical realm in the way only God can.  Scholars have a nifty, little, shorthand way of referring to this as the “glorified body”, a body which had been transformed to the transcendent sphere.   

Moreover, this “glory” is intrinsic to Jesus’ resurrection body, something He possesses.  In other words, in His appearances, glory is intrinsic to Jesus’ Person—just as glory is something only God alone possesses intrinsically.   At times in the Old Testament, different human and heavenly beings reflect the glory of God, the way the moon reflects the sun.  But they never possess the Glory of God as something intrinsic to their nature or person.  Only God does that.  But in His glorified body, Jesus is seen by His disciples as somehow possessing God’s glory as an intrinsic attribute—of His Person.  Glory is as intrinsic to Him as light is to the Sun.  Which, in the Jewish belief of that time, would easily constitute the clear mark of divinity.

Another clue is the initial lack of recognition on the part of a number of the disciples.  When Jesus appears, a number of them don’t recognize Him at first.  And even after they do recognize Him, there is something in His appearance that remains hard for them to comprehend.  They don’t seem to have words for it, but it perplexes them.  It is strange.  Odd.  Something they want to inquire more about but don’t dare to, as John’s Gospel tells us. (John 21:12.)  In other words, it seems to be something they have never seen before.  Something they would never in their wildest dreams expect to see even in bodies at the general resurrection.  Something “other”, from a different realm perhaps.  It is recognizably Jesus.  It is His body.  But they can’t quite put their finger on how different it looks.  And in a way nothing in the scriptures, or their experience, or their expectations could ever prepare them for.  It is stutteringly indescribable.  Again, this is only a clue, but such lack of recognition would be consistent with a real human body that featured some intrinsic indication of divine glory. 

Even if we can’t say exactly what in Jesus’ appearances revealed His divine nature, we know something had to.  Something signaled that God’s glory dwelled in Him the way their Jewish faith taught them it dwelt in Yahweh alone.  Something about Jesus’ appearance compelled them to think the unthinkable. 

To sum up: Given how impossible, how unthinkable, how unimaginable it would have been for those first disciples to believe that God had come in human form, the only kind of appearances capable of generating such a quantum leap of imagination, understanding, and belief, are appearances of Jesus equally impossible to conceive.  Theophanic appearances are the only kind of appearances that can account for such a seismic upheaval of the unshakable first-century, fiercely monotheistic Jewish worldview.  But theophanic appearances, striking as they do at the very heart and center of Jewish monotheism, are something no one at the time would be capable of imagining. 

How certain is this evidence, evidence for an event of ancient history, an event that purportedly took place two thousand years ago?

Well, the measurable effect of a group of intensely monotheistic Jews coming to believe in Jesus’ divinity in the immediate wake of His death leaves little doubt this was precisely the effect the appearances had, specifically that they were “theophanic” appearances of some sort.  But “theophanic” appearances, where Jesus is unmistakably revealed as God, would be just as unthinkable to first-century Jews.  They’d be every bit as unimaginable as the Incarnation, imagining Jesus to be their “Lord and God”. 

See, the quantum magnitude of the measurable effect historical criticism makes virtually certain can only be accounted for by something of a similar—equal or greater—magnitude.  The only thing that could have such an effect on the first-century, fiercely monotheistic Jewish worldview are appearances that revealed Jesus as God, as possessing divine glory in Himself, and in such a convincing and undeniable way that they would be compelled to think the unthinkable.

And here’s why this yields such high, even virtual, certainty about the Resurrection.  Of all the alternative explanations scholars have proffered to explain the Resurrection by some natural occurrence, the only one that continues to be seriously entertained by scholars is the one that tries to explain the appearances as some kind of Altered State of Consciousness (ASC), for example, a hallucinatory experience, which merely occurred in the disciples’ minds.  In other words, while the experts no longer question that the disciples sincerely believed Jesus appeared to them, some claim that what they saw was just the product of their imagination’s.  Among the experts who study the Resurrection, this is the only explanation of the evidence, other than a supernatural event, that holds any weight.   

However, given what we know about ASC’s, it is virtually impossible that the first disciples could have imagined, conceived, or conjured up the specific kind of appearances that account for the measurable effect these appearances clearly left.  While anything is certainly possible, the odds are astronomically low that some kind of hallucinatory experience can explain the effect we know the appearances had on them.  Everything we know about the kinds of things people are capable of imaging or conjuring up, even at the subconscious level, tells us that it would be astronomically unlikely, if not thoroughly impossible, for a group of first-century monotheistic Jews to simply imagining or conjure up appearances that compelled them to confess Jesus as the Lord their God. 

Without some kind of objective, external stimuli compelling them to think the unthinkable, they could never imagine the Infinite God taking up residence and dwelling in a finite human. 

Without some kind of objective, external stimuli compelling them to conceive the inconceivable, they could never begin to contemplate Yahweh, who their Scriptures declare would never share His glory with any other, now sharing it with Jesus.  That Jesus of Nazareth, a man they walked the dusty roads of Palestine with, actually possesses the glory of God in Himself—that it is His to possess.  Such notions would be so absurd and ridiculous and laughable, they could never have entered the disciples’ minds if  Jesus hadn’t appeared to them risen from the dead, His body gloriously transformed, possessing in itself the transcendent power proper to God alone.       

If your head is spinning right now, take heart.  This is heavy stuff.  It takes time to sink in.  But as you take time to reflect on it, the implications are hard to deny: The quantum leap of understanding those first disciples experienced is a measurable effect the majority of scholars are all but certain about.  Similar to the way the existence of Background Infrared Radiation points convincingly to the Big Bang, this measurable historical effect points to the only kind of event that can explain it: “Theophanic” appearances of Jesus. 

And, given what we know about ASC’s in general and hallucinatory experiences specifically, we can say with very high certainty that it would have been impossible for those disciples to just imagine Jesus appearing to them in a way which clearly communicated and consequently compelled them to believe that He is their Lord and their God. 

Outside of the Resurrection, outside of a supernatural event, outside of Jesus appearing in a glorified body no first-century Jew could ever have anticipated, let alone conceived, there is no other satisfactory explanation.  Which puts the Resurrection squarely in the category of very certain, even virtually certain. 

For many today, faith has become the “ultimate guess”.  Living in a Pluralistic culture, we are bombarded with a bewildering array of different religious truth claims.  Living within our modern, scientific worldview calls so many previous religious beliefs into question.  Living during an unprecedented period of critical scholarly scrutiny into the Bible, much of which has challenged the historical reliability of the Gospels, leaves our heads spinning.  The one thing we believe we can be certain about is that certainty about any religious truth claim can’t be had.  Which leaves us not knowing what to believe.  All we can do is take our best guess, which doesn’t leave us with a good reason to commit to any worldview.  So most of us don’t.

Of course, taking a guess implies that one thing is just as likely as another.  But, while I certainly admit that anything is possible, some things are highly, highly unlikely.  And some explanations, some events, are far and away more likely than not.  It certainly remains possible that the disciples hallucinated Jesus appearing to them in a glorified body that conveyed His divinity.  But it’s not at all likely.  Not even remotely so.  It is virtually impossible, actually. 

We can be very certain that it would be virtually impossible for a fiercely monotheistic, first-century Jew to imagine Jesus appearing bodily risen from the dead in a way that compelled them to conclude He was the Lord.  God.  In human flesh. 

We can’t be absolutely certain Jesus rose from the dead.  But we can’t be absolutely certain the Big Bang happened the way scientists say it did either.  Still, the conviction it did is the overwhelming consensus of astrophysics.  They’d say you’d be a fool to bet against it happening this way. 

When it comes to ultimate reality, we can’t have perfect certainty—at least not this side of eternity.  However, we don’t have to guess.  As the greatest mystery in the study of religions reveals, the odds are heavily stacked in favor of Jesus’ Resurrection.  It is well worth betting your life on.

I hope you had a most blessed and most amazing Easter!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

Read More