When did Jesus come back to life?

On this holy Saturday, as we wait before rejoicing on Easter Sunday, I was thinking about the timing of the Resurrection. This was prompted in part by Jeremy Myers’ post Why Did Jesus Wait Three Days to Rise from the Dead? Also I had been thinking about this enigmatic Bible passage, talking about what happened immediately after Jesus died:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Matthew 27:51-53 (NIV)

Domenico Beccafumi's depiction of Jesus leading the patriarchs out of limbo, c.1530-1535From the next verse it is clear that the earthquake took place immediately after Jesus died, and before he was buried. But the timing here is hard to pin down. The most straightforward interpretation would be that the opening of the tombs and the raising to life of the dead holy people took place at the time of the earthquake. The timing of them coming out of the tombs is unclear, but it is only after Jesus’ resurrection, so at least 36 hours later, that they appeared to many people in Jerusalem.

Now I know that many scholars, including some evangelicals, consider this story to be a myth. Last year there was a major controversy when evangelical author Michael Licona suggested the possibility that this passage is “apocalyptic imagery rather than describing historical events”, and Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler condemned him for abandoning biblical inerrancy. This is in fact irrelevant to my point here. What is important is the use that the author of this Gospel makes of the story.

The interesting issue is that, according to Matthew, these Old Testament saints seem to have been alive but in their tombs for the whole of the period that Jesus was in his tomb. But only after Jesus left his tomb did these others leave their tombs and, like Jesus, appear to others in Jerusalem. Wikipedia notes that

Nolland speculates as to what happened after to the risen saints. He considers it unlikely that they simply returned to the grave after a brief time among the living, he also does not think it likely that the saints resumed their normal lives on Earth. Thus Nolland feels that Matthew probably imagines the saints being translated directly to heaven after a short time on Earth, similar to Elijah.

We could also end this quotation “similar to Jesus”, although these saints probably ascended to heaven not as many as 40 days after the Resurrection. But on this interpretation, the raising of these saints was not a temporary resuscitation like that of Lazarus, but a resurrection like that of Jesus, and like the one which we Christian believers can expect on the last day.

But there is a theological problem here. If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, the first in time to be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:20,23), then how could others have risen before him, even if they had to wait for his resurrection before appearing publicly?

Or could it in fact be that the resurrection of Jesus was just like that of the Old Testament saints, in that he too came back to life immediately after he died, but only came out of the tomb on the third day afterwards? Yes, Paul does write that “he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4), but that could mean only that he first appeared on that third day.

To go back to Jeremy Myers’ question Why Did Jesus Wait Three Days to Rise from the Dead?, in my opinion the best answer to that question is given by Kurt Willems in his post The Easter Surprise – Resurrection Changes Everything (reposted at Red Letter Christians as The Easter Surprise: Celebrating the first day of a new kind of week). Jesus by rising again is inaugurating a new creation. So it is significant that his work in the old creation was finished on the sixth day of the week he had spent in Jerusalem (here reading the gospel chronology in the traditional way); he rested in the tomb on the seventh day; and then he rose again for the new creation on the first day of a new week.

But on the seventh day of the original creation week God was not dead, only resting. Jesus too would have had plenty of reason to rest after his work on the cross was finished. So within this framework it makes sense if Jesus was also not dead but resting.

Now I am certainly not denying that Jesus truly died. The New Testament makes this clear. It also seems clear that he was dead when his body was put into the tomb and sealed up. On that basis the Old Testament saints could have come to life immediately after Jesus, slightly out of chronological order in Matthew. But we don’t know what happened between then and Easter morning. So we don’t really know if Jesus was dead, or was alive and resting. But theologically it might make sense that he was already alive, and waiting for the right time to present himself as such and start his work of new creation.

11 thoughts on “When did Jesus come back to life?

  1. Jonah was a type of Christ, and Jesus made a prophecy about Himself based on Jonah’s time in the fish. So, He needed to fulfill his own prophecy. In addition, there needed to be enough time to convince people that He was truly dead, buried, gone, before making an appearance resurrected.

  2. Methinks you’ve been reading too much Steven Erikson, Peter – his novels are full of the undead living in their tombs, especially Jaghut Tyrants in their Azath Houses. Makes for superb epic fantasy, mind…

  3. Phil, I haven’t read Steven Erikson. But I am not thinking of Jesus being in any sense “undead”, just resting and perhaps sleeping.

    Just realised that my interpretation makes sense of “today you will be with me in paradise” in Luke 23:43. The repentant thief could have been one of those raised from the dead, even if it was immediately after his death.

  4. Peter!
    You could be solving one problem but creating others.

    It has always fit to say, Jesus did his work on the sixth day, the day of evil, the day of endless toil if not followed by a Sabbath. Then he rested on the seventh day, of course.

    And on the first day — John says so twice! — he was the one mistaken for a gardener — in a garden — of course, on the first day of the new creation! Yes!

    Yet there is nothing to suggest the resurrection occurred on the day of rest, Saturday.


    I am not sure this is worth pursuing but good things can come up from anywhere at any time and we certainly live in a time of renewal, with all its bubbly ferment. I will stay tuned.

  5. As for the “this day” of Luke: I have always understood it to mean, “straightaway” or something like it. After all, when did Jesus present those myriads of risen saints at the throne of his father (Daniel 7:13)? Was that not when he was glorified, which he was not during his resurrection appearances(?)? (I am so glad that supposition and imaginative extrapolations are not sinful!) (I do surely HOPE they aren’t!)

  6. Well, Trace, I’m not at all sure about this one, but I thought it was a question worth raising in the light of the Matthew passage. Watch this space for a follow-up which answers your “So what?” question.

  7. Peter, is it not also possible in Matthew 27:51-53 that the author means to say the tombs were opened by the earthquake during the crucifixion but that the dead rose and came out of the tombs after the resurrection on Sunday? If you look at it in the Greek, it roles in a summary fashion from one “kai” to another: and… and… and… I would not put a lot of weight on the resurrections of the saints happenning commensurate with the earthquake.

  8. Pingback: The Communal Resurrection of Jesus - Gentle Wisdom

  9. Pingback: A Harrowing Saturday for Jesus - Gentle Wisdom

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