Did the resurrection really happen? The empirical evidence is better than you may think.
This is important because Christianity requires much more in the way of belief than Islam or Judaism does.
Judaism requires belief in one God, honoring the history of the people as established in scripture (with considerable support from archaeology), and the law, beginning with the Ten Commandments set forth by Moses. Leviticus elaborates on the law at great length, and forms of Judaism differ on how much of the law elaborated there is to be observed.
1 Corinthians 15 lays it on the line. “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
Christianity asks much more. It requires belief that Jesus was crucified, died, was entombed, and rose from the dead on the third day. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me...
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith... Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than are all men.
That lays it on the line. “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
A number of things can be said about this passage. Since Paul was executed in Rome about 65 A.D., this is the earliest testimony we have regarding the alleged resurrection. The four Gospels provide much more, notably Luke 24:32. Second, Paul seems to know that the claims about the resurrection are difficult to believe. He cites 500 witnesses, “most of whom are still living.” That is, empirical evidence exists about what Paul says, and if Paul is lying, this can be established. Incidentally, Arthur Darby Nock, our foremost Paul scholar, thinks Paul (then Saul) very likely heard Jesus speak at the synagogue in Tarsus long before Saul’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus (in today’s Syria).
That Jesus rose on the third day remains very hard to believe. Not least is the fact that a body dead for that length of time would decay considerably and would have to be fully reconstituted in order to appear alive. So let us follow the scholar Ian Wilson to Turin and there walk to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and there to the circular, black Royal Chapel designed by Guarino Guarini. There behind iron grills in a locked chamber is a linen cloth known as the Shroud of Turin.
Ian Wilson is a well-informed scholar on regarding the facts regarding the Shroud of Turin, and in his 1979 book, The Shroud of Turin: The Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ (Doubleday), he brought together the evidence and the conclusions reached by many other experts in this field (“Sindonologists”). It seems to me, difficult to believe though it may be, that this ancient linen cloth is in fact the shroud Jesus was wrapped in before he was placed in the tomb. Here I will summarize the argument of Mr. Wilson’s book:
1. Pollen does not decay. And ancient pollen in the linen cloth indicates the origin of this linen cloth in Jerusalem and also traces its journey from Jerusalem from the Middle East through Europe. It is almost impossible that forgery could accomplish this. ( David Hume: Call your office.)
2. The body was laid on the cloth and the remainder of the cloth folded over the body to produce front and back images of the man.
3. A startling fact: The image of the man on the Shroud turns out to be a photographic negative. When photographed it became a positive. Again, this seems to rule out an ancient forgery, that is, long before the invention of photography.
4. In most modern representations of the Crucifixion, the nails are shown as going through the palms. But as this image shows, the nails actually went through an aperture in the wrists. Had the nails gone through the palms, they would not have sustained body weight and would have torn through the flesh, the body falling from the cross. Execution required that the man die on the cross from lack of oxygen as he repeatedly tried to raise his body on the nails in order to breathe. Execution was slow.
5. Wounds on the back of the body indicate flogging by the Roman flagrum— metal weights attached to leather cords wielded by a wooden handle.
6. Had the image been painted on the cloth by a forger, the paint traces of the pigment would have remained on the surface. The color here penetrates the cloth evenly from one side to another. Note: In this, it is more like a scorch.
7. An objection: The Romans executed many men this way. Indeed, two criminals were executed that day along with Jesus. Could this shroud be that of another similarly executed man? It’s very unlikely. Crucifixion was disgraceful and an expression of contempt for the criminal. It is unlikely that the family or friends of a man of that sort would have wrapped his body in an expensive linen cloth—or that such a cloth would have been saved later on and made its way from the Middle East across Europe. Representations of Jesus in art reflect a knowledge of the Shroud by European artists.
8. Ian Wilson concludes that the image on the cloth is a “paranormal” phenomenon. That is, not made by hands. But how?
9. Speculation: The scorch might have been made by radioactivity attendant upon the resurrection. Whether or not it is pertinent, the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe produced measurable radiation that determines that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. If the scorch on the Shroud is the result of radiation, it could have been radiation that reconstituted the dead body. But that is merely speculation.
10. Ian Wilson’s book appeared in 1978. In 1988, carbon 14 tests were conducted indicating a medieval date for the Shroud. But that result is controversial and almost certainly wrong, for reasons cited above. In fact, along its journey to Turin, the Shroud was in a church that was the scene of a fire, and that could have corrupted the carbon dating.
Jeffrey Hart responds to critics of this piece here.
Jeffrey Hart is professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth College. He wrote for the National Review for more than three decades, where he was senior editor. He wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan while he was governor of California, and for Richard Nixon.