The Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians that every assertion of the gospel rests on the truth of Jesus Christ’s rising from the dead on the third day. He wrote, “. . . if Christ is not raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. . . . For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (I Cor. 15.14, 16-17).
In other words, if Jesus did not, in fact, rise from the dead, then nothing that is affirmed in the New Testament is true. In fact, nothing in the Old Testament is true either, because as Jesus himself said, “[the Scriptures] testify about Me” (John 5.39) and “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5.17). So, if Jesus is not raised from the dead, the entire testimony of God found in the Scriptures is worthless, because the Christian faith rests on that very foundation.
So it stands to reason that the gospel accounts of the Resurrection are not only important; they are indispensable. Everything is riding on the accuracy of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
But do those four accounts present us with a coherent narrative? If they do, then it is reasonable to believe them, and to accept that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead on the third day, as each of them assert. But if they contradict one another, then their reliability is questionable. If they are contradictory, how would we know which details in the narrative were accurate, and which were not? We would be left guessing, which is a bad place to be.
When we carefully consider the four accounts, do we find a coherent narrative? Let’s consider these details in particular:
- Matthew reports an earthquake, and an angel turning the stone away from the tomb and sitting on it. He also has the guards freeze in terror and become like dead men.
- But none of the other accounts include these details. In fact, Mark relates that the women who were on their way to the tomb early that morning wondered who would roll the stone away for them. If an angel rolled the stone away, why would the women wonder who would roll it away for them?
- When the women arrived at the tomb and found the stone rolled away, Luke says that they saw two angels—but Mark says there was only one.
- Matthew, Mark, and Luke each report that the angels the women found declared to them that Jesus had been resurrected. But John does not report this at all. In fact, John says that the angels only asked Mary Magdalene why she was crying.
- John says that he and Peter went to the tomb, but Matthew and Mark do not mention their journey to the tomb; Luke says that Peter was there, but says nothing about John.
- The biggest difficulty with the Resurrection accounts has to do with Mary Magdalene. She is mentioned as being with the rest of the women—the other Mary and Salome—who all went to the tomb together that morning. But John says that only Mary Magdalene was there at the tomb. He says that the angels were there to ask her why she was crying. And then John says that Jesus appeared to her, that she did not recognize him but thought he was the gardener. But then he revealed himself to her as Jesus, and told her to go and tell his disciples that he was alive. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is the angels that tell the women to report back to the disciples.
Matthew has Jesus appearing to the women as they are en route to report to the disciples, but it was after they had departed the tomb that he appears to them. So Mark and Luke do not mention Jesus at or near the tomb; Matthew has Jesus appear to the women while they are heading back to tell the disciples about the empty tomb; and John has Jesus appear only to Mary Magdalene at the tomb itself.
It would seem that there are serious contradictions in the gospel accounts as to what exactly happened on Resurrection morning.
- How many angels were at the tomb? One or two? Was the angel on the rock, or inside the tomb?
- What did the angels say to the women? Did they declare the resurrection, or did they wonder why Mary Magdalene was crying?
- Who was actually present at the tomb? Was Mary Magdalene with the other women, or was she by herself? Did Peter come to the tomb by himself, or did he come with John?
- And what about Jesus? Did all the women see him? Did they see him at the tomb or en route back to Galilee? Did they recognize him? What did he say to them? Was he present at the tomb at all?
These questions reveal what appear to be fatal contradictions in the gospel accounts. The stakes are very high. If the resurrection accounts are contradictory, then their credibility is seriously undermined.
The good news is that the four gospel accounts of the resurrection can indeed be harmonized. We can indeed have confidence that the gospels do not contradict themselves, that the accounts are completely reliable, and we can know that Jesus did indeed rise again from the dead.
Let’s look at Part II to see how.