The Evidence For Jesus' Death And Resurrection

by Rev. Edrick Corban Banks
B.Theol. B.Mus FTCL.


Jesus' Death

John 19:30-37

30 So when Jesus had received the vinegar He said, "It is finished" and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. 31Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. 32So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other that had been crucified with Him; 33 but when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. 34But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth that you also may believe. 36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled, "not a bone of Him shall be broken." 37 And again another Scripture says "They shall look on Him whom they have pierced."

The record of this incident is found only in John's Gospel. In the preceding sections Jesus has stood trial, been scourged, beaten, mocked and left to die on the cross. Its solitary state in the fourth Gospel and its adamant attestation that this is indeed historical fact by the author, leads to the asking of two questions: Why is there no parallel section in the other three Gospels? And why is there such a strong emphasis by the author that this amount is indeed the truth?

I believe that this one incident described as it is, was of vital importance in the early church to establish the authenticity of its claims that Jesus is both God and man.

It is clear that this record was meant to be taken as historical fact, but it is also interesting that John's Gospel has fewer allusions to contemporary history than the synoptics. The reason for this, as I see it, is that while this Gospel draws on similar information that was parallel to the synoptics (the ministry of John the Baptist [1:19-37,22-36,41] Herod's rebuilding of the Temple [2:20] and reference to Pontius Pilate [18:28; 19:16,38]) it presents a more developed theology. This theology either grew with the changing needs of the early church, or to combat the growing threats of Docetism and Gnosticism to the Christian church towards the end of the first century. (Tradition dates the Gospel at about 85 A.D.). (For full discussion on these points, see following article "The Logos".)

Furthermore, the wound in the side of Jesus, the reference to John 1:14 ("The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us") and 1 John 4:2 ("By this you know the spirit of God, every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God"); all clearly point to a humanity of Jesus. These references are also intended to establish the fact that Jesus actually lived as a man, in a way the Synoptic gospels do not make so clear.

A second point is, once Jesus is unequivocally established as a man of "flesh and blood," it is of the utmost importance that his death is verified totally and completely, which would prevent all objections by the adversaries of the developing Christian faith, to the claims of Jesus' death and resurrection.

To clarify further the issues raised by our questions (above), let us look at the verses of Jn. 19:31-37:

Both Mark (15:42) and John agree that Jesus died on the day preceding the Sabbath. "the day of Preparation." According to Jewish law, bodies had to be removed and buried before the sunset of the Sabbath ( Deut 21:23). The fact that it was also the first day of unleavened bread, meant that "the imminence of a doubly Holy feast day increased the ordinary desire to have the bodies removed before nightfall (when the feast day would begin) and offered a motive that the Romans might respect."1

As crucified victims could live for several days, breaking of the legs, the crucifixion, hastened death. Often a victim would be able to raise himself to breathe more fully and ease the tension on his arms and chest muscles, but with broken legs this would not be possible and death would follow very quickly by asphyxiation.

Thus, the framework is established on which hangs the events to establish "beyond reasonable doubt" the fact of Jesus' death.

The execution squad would have been expert m their work and they would be very familiar with signs of death. That they did not break Jesus' legs showed that they already considered him to be dead. (c.f. Mark 15:44, the account of Pilate questioning the Centurion about the speed with which Jesus had died.)

The soldier pierced Jesus' side. The fact that it was such a deep wound, one where a man's fist could fit in (John 20:25 and 27) would suggest that it was a wound to make absolutely certain that Jesus was dead. Opponents of the view that the spear thrust would have been fatal, suggest that if a mortal wound was intended, the stab would have been closer to the heart.2 However, we must remember that the Roman soldier was a highly trained and highly skilled craftsmen in killing, and a Roman soldier would have been trained to deliver a fatal thrust with a spear. Delivered by a trained soldier, a thrust to the side of the body must have been equally effective as a means of killing, as a thrust to the heart.

Once the spear thrust had been made there was an "immediate" flow of blood and water. Dead bodies do not ordinarily bleed as the heart has ceased to produce blood pressure to keep the blood flowing. It has been suggested that since the body was erect, gravity would have facilitated the flow of fluids. It has not been suggested that they came out with any force. That they were recognizable and reported by John as two distinctly recognizable fluids is significant. It shows an accuracy in the eyewitness account of an incident that may not have normally attracted notice.

Various medical explanations as to the source of the fluid, from the lungs or the heart, the separation of the plasma, are not important. The fact that it is medically possible according to Wilkinson3 and that John laid so much stress on an incident that he himself had witnessed; shows conclusively that Jesus was already dead at the time the spear thrust was delivered.

John connects this with O.T. prophecy where the bones of the Passover Lamb were left unbroken (Exod 12:46) and (Ps 34:20) where the Lord protects the bones of a "righteous man" that none of them may be broken. There is also the prophetic significance of Zechariah 12:10 ("they shall look upon Me Whom they have pierced"), given as the final sign or manifestation of the Lord to Israel.

The symbolism that may be present with the blood and water is not as important as establishing Jesus' death. Therefore, what is presented here is an accurate eyewitness account of the last stages of the death of Jesus. There is enough factual data to substantiate that Jesus died as a man on the cross ... a real man of flesh and blood.

The Roman soldiers, by their actions established that Jesus was already dead. That they know their Job well enough to determine that he was already dead, is evidenced by the fact that they did not break his legs to hasten death. The insistence that this eyewitness account is true (v 35) that the reader "also may believe" and, the flowing of the blood and water, all contribute conclusively to the evidence that Jesus was dead.

These irrefutable observations were absolutely essential to John's presentation of Christ's resurrection which follows the account of his death. Therefore, what we have here is effectively a certification of the death of Jesus. This section tells us therefore, that Jesus was without doubt a living breathing human being and that his death was real and verifiable.

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The Resurrection

The resurrection is the cornerstone on which the whole of Christianity, both for the individual and for the body of the church, is built. If it is untrue, the whole structure of our Christian faith collapses: if it is true, the consequences for us and our world are immense. The resurrection is the most unique and amazing event in history. Its challenge is avoided by those who try to downplay it or deny that it ever happened.

Paul outlines this clearly in 1 Cor 15. Without the resurrection:

  • we have nothing to preach

  • we have nothing to believe

  • we are lying about God

  • our faith is a delusion

  • we are still lost in our sins

  • our hope is for this world only

  • we deserve more pity than anyone else in the world

This makes the Resurrection absolutely vital and essential to the Christian faith. There is nothing in all of history that matters so much as the Resurrection. Furthermore, there is certainly no event where it matters more that we determine whether it actually happened or not. Christianity is a faith. But it is not a faith without substance. It is a faith grounded in historical fact. Christianity is a faith where we are not expected to shut down our brains. It is a faith that allows testing and questioning. One of the hallmarks of cults is that questioning of doctrine and beliefs is not allowed. This was summed up by a church advertisement which said: "Religions that have all the answers don't allow any questions."

Lot us now look at false theories used to deny the resurrection.

1. It was the wrong tomb
It has been argued that in the dark of the early morning, Mary Magdalene and the others went to the wrong tomb. Finding it empty, they reported back to the disciples that Jesus had indeed risen. But we are told by Mark and Luke that the women watched Joseph and Nicodemus take the body and put it in the tomb on Friday. They knew exactly which tomb it was. Mary also mistook Jesus for the gardener. Gardeners don't garden in the dark when they can't see. If it was the wrong tomb the authorities could have headed to the right tomb on daylight. This wasn't done and is strong evidence that the tomb was empty. Then we are told later that the disciples went to the tomb after the women had arrived early in the morning. They didn't walk, but ran and headed straight for the tomb. There was no doubt in their minds where the tomb was. Imagine this conversation:

"Hey Simon, Mary's here and says the tomb's empty".

"Which one's that Pete?"

"You know, Jesus' tomb."

"Yeah right, suppose we'd better go and have a look. Can you remember how to get there? Wouldn't want to get the wrong one".

Put yourself in a situation where you are told something that puts you into a panic, and you have to move as fast as you can. What happens? You go into automatic, and you head straight for the place you know you have to get to without a second thought. When they did arrive they found only the grave clothes. It is of the utmost importance to remember that women were considered to he unreliable witnesses in Jewish culture. If this story had been made up, it is highly unlikely that the testimony of women concerning the empty tomb and the risen Christ would have featured at all.

2. The swoon theory
This argues that Jesus was not really dead and later revived in the cool of the tomb. Let's see if this possible. Mark tells us that Jesus was scourged before His crucifixion. The scourging was so brutal, because the whips were leather thongs with pieces of jagged bone or metal attached, that many died before they made it to the crucifixion. It was also done to weaken the victim so that he would die a lot faster on the cross (Mark IS: 2 1). Jesus had had no sleep the night before His crucifixion (Mark 14:32-41). Jesus was so weak He was unable to carry the cross Himself as a result of this (Mathew 27:32). He had spent six hours on the cross. Crucifixion was the cruelest and most painful of deaths. One either died from suffocation or heart failure in total agony. Jesus' side had been pierced by a spear thrust.

Then we have Joseph of Arimathea asking for the body. Pilate was surprised (Mark 15:42) that Jesus had died so quickly. So he sent for the centurion to verify Jesus' death. (Mark 15:44-45). Pilate knew that crucifixion victims would normally linger for days. If Jesus had still been alive while in the tomb, He would have had to extricate Himself from the tomb clothes wrapped around him like bandages, while being weighted down by 70 pounds of spices. Finally after 36 hours in a freezing cold stone sepulcher without food or water or warmth or the tending of his wounds from the flogging and the nails, He got up and with superhuman strength moved the boulder from in front of the door. If Jesus had survived this, his appearances would have been more like a resuscitated corpse than a triumphant Saviour.

3. The disciples stole the body
It is clear that the disciples were of high moral character and honest men. They were taught to value honesty by their teachers and Jesus. They would not be involved in deceit of this sort. There were also twelve people to hold a story together plus other followers of Jesus. This sort of duplicity takes careful planning and collusion. The story would have got out at some stage. They had also fled for fear of being caught. We only need to read Matthew's account of the armed guard and the scaling of the tomb. (Matthew 27:62-65). This guard would have been severely punished for sleeping on duty (there is no record that they were disciplined). If the body was stolen and it was an elaborate hoax, it means that the disciples, die perpetrators of the hoax, suffered and died for what they knew to be a lie. Furthermore, why would they proclaim the message of the Resurrection, if they knew that it would result in their persecution and suffering. People die for what they believe is the truth, not a lie.

4. The Roman or Jewish authorities took the body
All they needed to do to put a stop to Christianity was to produce the body as soon as the story started getting around. They could have killed this troublesome belief stone dead (no pun intended) simply by producing the clear evidence of Jesus' body. The early Church would have collapsed if they had. They did not have the body in their possession.

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Post Resurrection Appearances

Let us consider the post resurrection appearances. These were not just witnessed by the disciples and the women, but by 500 people at one time (1 Cor. 15:6), as well as by a number of other individuals. The total number of post resurrection appearances by

Christ to individuals, and groups, in country and town, in the upper room and by the open lake, constitute testimony to the veracity of these accounts. But perhaps these appearances were only hallucinations? This has been a very popular theory However, only certain people are given to hallucinating and with such practical diverse, personalities as fisherman, tax collectors, rabbis and five hundred people at once, it is highly unlikely. Indeed it is impossible.

Remember also that the disciples were expecting nothing at all to happen. Literally the last thing they expected was to see Jesus alive again. They were. sad, downcast, in despair and fearing for their lives. Remember Peter's denial of Jesus and remember how they slunk away as Jesus faced trial. After the crucifixion they had locked themselves in an upper room with a locked door "for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19-23). They felt beaten, and they were dispirited and frightened. The last thing on their minds were hallucinations.

Suddenly there is this miraculous change. They went out and preached boldly, facing the possibility of flogging, prison and all manner of persecution and death. Why the remarkable change? Nobody would endure what they and other Christians have endured for either an hallucination or a lie. The only thing that can account for the change was that Jesus Christ rose from the dead! Jesus conquered death and is alive today. If this were not so, the Christian Church would never have survived through to the twentieth century. Countless men and women down through the centuries have claimed to know Jesus as their risen Lord in their own experience.

They have claimed to know His love and companionship and to have prayer answered in His name. This includes people of every age race, educational background and culture. We only have to look at the most recent revival in Russia and Africa. The only convincing argument for all these remarkable events and changed lives, is that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, as recorded accurately by John.

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  1. Brown, R.E. The Gospel According to John. p 934.  Anchor Bible (Doubleday and Co 1970) X11 XX1 p 935. Return to text

  2. Ibid., p 935. Return to text

  3. Ibid.; Wilkinson, J. "Incident of the Blood and Water in John 19:34" Scottish Journal of Theology Vol. 28(2) (1975), pp 149‑172. Return to text

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Select Bibliography

  • Brown, R.E. The Gospel According to John (New York: Doubleday, 1970).

  • Dods, Marcus. "The Gospel of St John" in The Expositor's Greek New Testament ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), Vol. 1. Part II, pp 653‑872.

  • Geisler, Norman L. The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1989).

  • Green, Michael. Who is this Jesus? (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1979).

  • Green, Michael. You Must he Joking! (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991).

  • Morison, Frank. Who Moved the Stone? (London: Faber & Faber, 1930).

  • Tenney, M.C.  "The Gospel of John" in The Expositors Bible Commentary general ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, (M: Zondervan, 198 1) Vol. 9, pp3‑203.

  • Wilkinson, J. "Incident of the Blood and Water in John 19:34", Scottish Journal of Theology Vol28(2) (1975), pp 149‑172.

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2002 Wellington Christian Apologetics Society (Inc.) All Rights Reserved.


Previously published in
Apologia (The Journal of the Wellington Christian Apologetics Society)
Vol.2, No 3, p.13-17, 1993

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Last modified: Friday, 08 October 2004