How Was Jesus’ Death Different From Others?

WE ALL WONDER what will happen to us after we die. When a loved one dies, we long to see him or her again after our turn comes. Will we have a glorious reunion with those we love, or is death the end of all consciousness?

Jesus taught that life does not end after our bodies die. He made this startling claim: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”[1] According to the eyewitnesses closest to him, Jesus then demonstrated his power over death by rising from the dead after being crucified and buried for three days. It is this belief that has given hope to Christians for nearly 2,000 years.

But some people have no hope of life after death. The atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my own ego will survive.”[2] Russell obviously didn’t believe Jesus’ words.

Jesus’ followers wrote that he appeared alive to them after his crucifixion and burial. They claim not only to have seen him but also to have eaten with him, touched him, and spent forty days with him.

So, could this have been simply a story that grew over time, or is it based upon solid evidence? The answer to this question is foundational to Christianity. For if Jesus did rise from the dead, it would validate everything he said about himself, about the meaning of life, and about our destiny after death.

If Jesus did rise from the dead, then he alone would have the answers to what life is about and what is facing us after we die. On the other hand, if the resurrection account of Jesus is not true, then Christianity would be founded upon a lie. Theologian R. C. Sproul puts it this way: “The claim of resurrection is vital to Christianity. If Christ has been raised from the dead by God, then He has the credentials and certification that no other religious leader possesses. Buddha is dead. Mohammad is dead. Moses is dead. Confucius is dead. But, according to…Christianity, Christ is alive.”[3]

Many skeptics have attempted to disprove the resurrection. Josh McDowell was one such skeptic who spent more than 700 hours researching the evidence for the resurrection. McDowell stated this regarding the importance of the resurrection: “I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, OR it is the most fantastic fact of history.”[4] McDowell later wrote his classic work, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict, documenting what the evidence reveals about Jesus’ resurrection.

So, is Jesus’ resurrection a fantastic fact or a vicious hoax? To find out, we need to look at the evidence of history and draw our own conclusions. Let’s see what skeptics who investigated the resurrection discovered for themselves.

Cynics and Skeptics

Sadly, not everyone is willing to fairly examine the evidence. Russell admits he was “not concerned” with historical facts regarding Jesus. Historian Joseph Campbell, without citing evidence, calmly told his PBS television audience that the resurrection of Jesus is not a factual event. Other scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, agree with him. None of these skeptics present any evidence for their views.[5]

True skeptics, as opposed to cynics, are interested in evidence. In a Skeptic magazine editorial entitled “What Is a Skeptic?” the following definition is given: “Skepticism is…the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed. In other words…skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are ‘skeptical,’ we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.”[6]

Unlike Russell and Crossan, many true skeptics have investigated the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. We will hear from some of them and see how they analyzed the evidence for what is perhaps the most important question in the history of the human race: Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Self-prophecy

In advance of his death, Jesus told his disciples that he would be betrayed, arrested, and crucified and that he would come back to life three days later. That’s a strange plan! What was behind it? Jesus was no entertainer willing to perform for others on demand. Instead, he promised that his death and resurrection would prove to people (if their minds and hearts were open) that he was indeed the Messiah.

Bible scholar Wilbur Smith remarked about Jesus, “When He said that He himself would rise again from the dead, the third day after He was crucified, He said something that only a fool would dare say, if He expected longer the devotion of any disciples—unless He was sure He was going to rise. No founder of any world religion known to men ever dared say a thing like that.”[7]

In other words, since Jesus had clearly told his disciples that he would rise again after his death, failure to keep that promise would expose him as a fraud. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How did Jesus die (if he really did die) before the news began spreading that he rose again?

A Horrific Death and Then…?

You know what Jesus’ last hours of earthly life were like if you watched the movie by road warrior/brave heart Mel Gibson. If you missed parts of The Passion of the Christ because you were shielding your eyes (it would have been easier to simply shoot the movie with a red filter on the camera), just flip to the back pages of any Gospel in your New Testament to find out what you missed.

As Jesus predicted, he was betrayed by one of his own disciples, Judas Iscariot, and was arrested. In a sham trial under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, he was convicted of treason and condemned to die on a wooden cross. Prior to being nailed to the cross, Jesus was brutally beaten with a Roman cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip with bits of bone and metal that would rip flesh. He was punched repeatedly, kicked, and spat upon.

Then, using mallets, the Roman executioners pounded the heavy wrought-iron nails into Jesus’ hands, and feet. Finally, they dropped the cross in a hole in the ground between two other crosses bearing convicted thieves.

Jesus hung there in agony for approximately six hours. Then, at 3:00 in the afternoon—that is, at exactly the same time the Passover lamb was being sacrificed as a sin offering (a little symbolism there, you think?)—Jesus cried out, “It is finished” (in Aramaic), and died.[8] Suddenly the sky went dark and an earthquake shook the land, tearing the Temple veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the people. This New Testament account of darkness was confirmed as historical by a contemporary pagan source.[9]

An even greater darkness of depression annihilated the dreams of those who had become inspired by his charisma and joyful vitality. Former Chancellor of Britain, Lord Hailsham, writes, “The tragedy of the Cross was not that they crucified a melancholy figure, full of moral precepts, ascetic and gloomy….What they crucified was a young man, vital, full of life and the joy of it, the Lord of life itself…someone so utterly attractive that people followed him for the sheer fun of it.”[10]

Pilate wanted verification that Jesus was dead before allowing his crucified body to be buried. So a Roman guard thrust a spear into Jesus’ side. The mixture of blood and water that flowed out was a clear indication that Jesus was dead. The dead do not bleed, ordinarily, but the right auricle of the human heart holds liquid blood after death, and the outer sac hold a serum called hydropericardium.”[11] Once his death was positively confirmed by the guards, Jesus’ body was then taken down from the cross and buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Roman guards next sealed the tomb and secured it with a 24-hour watch.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples were in shock. Dr. J. P. Moreland explains how devastated and confused they were after Jesus’ death on the cross. “They no longer had confidence that Jesus had been sent by God. They also had been taught that God would not let his Messiah suffer death. So they dispersed. The Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks.”[12]

All hope was vanquished. Rome and the Jewish leaders had prevailed—or so it seemed.

But it wasn’t the end. The Jesus movement surprisingly did not disappear, and in fact Christianity exists today as the world’s largest religion. In order to understand why, we’ve got to know what happened after Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb.