Pastor Mark's Short Papers

Dead or Alive - Telling the Difference

by Mark Koontz 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.  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 didn’t, we’d 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 good ways to test and determine that someone is dead.  Was he properly crucified? No more breathing?  No more heartbeat? 

Now the disciples of Jesus were in a position to employ these tests, but in their experience these things happenedin the reverse order.  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 two years ago, his talk was titled “A Lawyer’s Case for the Resurrection.” 

What did he 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? 

“For the witnesses to the post-resurrection appearances, it 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. 

            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, they despised the man and 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. 

Both James and Paul were put to death because they wouldn’t stop talking about it.  We can still consider their testimony today:  “God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day!  We are eyewitnesses.” 

Has the world ever heard more exciting news?


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 not ethics 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.  Both are available through the website of the Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, and Public Policy.

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.