Pastor Mark's Short Papers

Dead or Alive - Telling the Difference

by Mark Koonz on October 31, 2011

“Alive at point A & Dead at point B—In Reverse”  by Mark Koonz


A few weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Peter told a crowd in Jerusalem:  “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

            Peter’s claim was astounding, because of what he said and where he said it.  He boldly declared this in the very same city where Jesus had been sentenced to death and crucified.  The disciples had seen Jesus alive again after his death. But what did they witness?  Was it the spectacular moment Jesus conquered death?  No.  No one saw Jesus at that moment.  So what exactly did these witnesses see? 

            The resurrection of Jesus entailed people seeing him dead at point A (when the Roman executioner thrust a spear into his pericardium and verified death; when they put his corpse into the tomb). Three days later they saw Jesus alive again at point B.

Dead at point A but alive at point B.  Now this sequence is the reverse of what we normally experience.  Usually we see people alive at point A followed by dead at point B, and we are confident we know the difference. 

We do know how to distinguish being dead from being alive.  If we did not know the difference then we would bury the wrong people in our confusion.

There are good ways to test and determine that someone is alive.  Does the person walk and move about, eat food, and talk coherently to other people? 

There are also good ways to test and determine that someone is dead.  No more breathing?  No more heartbeat?  Was he properly crucified?

Now the disciples of Jesus were in a position to employ these tests, but in their experience these things happened in the reverse order.  This was not expected.  First he was dead, then he was alive.  Highly unusual!  So the tests for life and death had to be applied in the reverse order.

When law professor and historian Dr. John Warwick Montgomery (University of Luton, emeritus) spoke at Whitman College a few years ago, his talk was titled “A Lawyer’s Case for the Resurrection.” 

What did Dr. Montgomery think of the unusual eyewitness reports? Were the disciples of Jesus in a position to apply the correct tests to determine whether the man was dead or alive?

He said the critical question was not “the order of applying the tests” for life or death, “but the legitimacy of the tests themselves.”

Verification of death wasn’t left up to the disciples.  The Romans determined that Jesus was nothing but a dead corpse before they released his body for burial.  The authorities asked for verification of death, and they got it. Only then did the disciples handle the body as they prepared it for burial.

Prof. Montgomery said, “Those living in the 1st century were as capable as we today of determining, in a case such as this, whether the appropriate standard had been met.”  The crucifixion team used the lance. The signs indicated the heart had stopped prior to the lance’s penetration of the vital area under the ribs. Then the burial party dealt with the morbid result.

But if death came at point A, what about verifying life at point B? Here the tests for life and death were applied, but in reverse order!  The test for death was applied by the Roman soldiers.  Those who wrapped the corpse and placed it in the tomb could also verify there was no breath or pulse.  And afterwards, that same body of Jesus was verified as alive.  Yet not merely alive but rather vibrantly alive.

“For the witnesses to the post-resurrection appearances, it [verification of life] involved eating with Jesus, listening to him,” touching him, and watching him. They knew how to test for life, and they couldn’t deny that Jesus was alive again. 

We read in Acts 1, Jesus “presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.”

They were all stunned.  Jesus was not hobbling about, but resurrected with vitality—dead at point A then vibrantly alive at point B.   This is not the sequence in our usual everyday experience, but that does not rule out the actuality of the disciples' experience.

            There was no decaying body in the tomb.  While human persons could raid a tomb and remove a body (in this case no one had any reason or incentive to steal the body), it was beyond their power to make the body alive again.  It wasn’t beyond God’s power.

The disciples were stunned by the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Stunned and overjoyed. Jesus’ defeat of death changed their lives forever.  But not only theirs.

            Two of the witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus, whose names are recorded in the 1st century documents, were hostile to Jesus. They were neither disciples nor friends. I’m talking about James and Paul. The historical record shows that prior to seeing the resurrected Jesus, one despised the man and the other would not follow him. 

            Yet both became as convinced as the others that Jesus defeated death.  What changed their minds about Jesus?  After his resurrection he appeared to James, and later to Paul. In fact, they were so convinced they became his followers and put their very lives on the line in the years that followed. 

          Both James and Paul were put to death because they both had become leaders in the early Christian movement.  They would not stop talking about Jesus and his resurrection, the embodyment of God's gift of forgiveness.  We can still consider their testimony today:  “God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day!  We are eyewitnesses.”   
          What God did for Jesus was done at a specific time and place in human history, not in never-never land or "once upon a time."  It happened during the lifetime of Peter, John, James and Paul.  That event has this time-bound particularity in order to have universal reach, for nothing can become universal in signficance that is not first embodied in the particular.  The particulars connect to a great moment in human history but extend far beyond:  Jesus was crucified outside the wall of Jerusalem.  Jesus' corpse was placed in a tomb.  God raised Jesus from the dead!  Jesus now lives eternally.

           Has the world ever heard more exciting news?  This touches the heart and core of the existential threat to all members of the human family, which means it has the highest existential importance for each one of us.  The resurrection of Jesus was not an event isolated from his own character and ministry, for both were revelations and extensions of his unique relationship with God.  His life and resurrection are the basis for our hope of forgiveness and new life beyond death. 
            Is this theological reflection?  Yes, because the meaning of what God did in that moment is the reason why it has ongoing significance for our lives today, and for all generations.  What is presented above is the outline of a historical argument, one that can be pursued in more detail (see sources listed below), but we should never stop with a historical scene without asking about its meaning or how it fits into a larger pattern of events.  When sensing the involvement of God in some historic event, we should always ask how it connects with God's purpose or reflects God's character.  Furthermore, whenever we consider what God did in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we want to ask, "What does this mean for us?"  God's primary intervention in human history in the life of Jesus is meant for all of us.   Jesus was worthy of receiving this gift far more than any of his contemporaries could anticipate, but it is a gift that is going to be shared with us as well because of God's greater purpose to rescue and save the human race from the ultimate power of death.   
            The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was God's gift of reconciliation for the entire human race, across all time and space.  This central event in history also prefigures the end of all things, when God will fully restore life to the dead and renew all creation.  It is a sneak preview of what is to come.  Of course more can be said, but at the very least this promise needs to be stated.  The resurrection event is full of promise.  Everything about Jesus touches our past, present, and future.   Everything about Jesus links this dimension of space-time to a heavenly dimension that is beyond our space-time universe, but one that brings a transcendent purpose for our lives as we live them out here on earth.  This purpose can only be fulfilled in relationality with God.  God's determination to offer that relationality is declared and made known in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  

 For further reading and reflection, see John Warwick Montgomery's books "History, Law, and Gospel" and "Tractatus Logico-Theologicus."  On the latter, don't be thrown off by the Latin title:  it is a response to the challenge of Ludwig Wittgenstein's "Tractatus," where Wittgenstein acknowledged there can be no compelling ethic unless it transcends human wisdom and preference.  Montgomery affirms there is a revelation from God, hence there is an ethical norm that transcends the limitations of human preference.  The revelation from God took place in the life of the person Jesus of Nazareth.  Montgomery argues for the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus based on the evidence.  These two books are carefully written and not overly technical, so they help reflection on the part of people who are not experts. 

Another good but short source is William Lane Craig's "Reasonable Faith."  This book has a chapter dealing with arguments against miracles, a chapter dealing with the reliability of historical knowledge, as well as a good analysis of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  You may also go to William Lane Craig's website.

N.T. Wright's "The Resurrection of the Son of God" argues that the resurrection of Jesus was presented by the apostolic generation as a unique bodily resurrection, not just a spiritual survival of death - a whole human, body and soul, was re-created and made immortal in this resurrection (a creation event).  This is the New Testament presentation, the main message we call "the gospel" (good news).  Yet Wright also argues that the resurrection alone was not sufficient to help the disciples believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel.  The known character of Jesus was essential and was linked to the resurrection, combining together with compounded power that helped them to reach this conclusion.  They came to see that Jesus of Nazareth had the most singular and special relationship with God that any human ever had. Wright is excellent on this point as on others.