The Timeline of the Resurrection

by Matthew W. Bassford

Recently, I’ve become aware that there is this thing floating around on the Internet called “The Easter Challenge”. The inventor of this challenge is an atheist. He asserts that the Biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus contradict each other so significantly that they are clearly false and so provide no basis for belief in Jesus.

If true, this indeed would be fatal to the Christian faith. If we don’t have reason to believe that Christ is risen, we also don’t have reason to be here this evening. However, as always, rather than taking the claims of atheists for granted, we need to evaluate those claims against the Scriptures. Once we do so, it becomes obvious that rather than being impossible, reconciling the various Biblical accounts of the resurrection is quite easy, even trivial.

Nonetheless, I think this is a worthy topic for a sermon. We need to know the truth about this for ourselves, and we also need to know how to rebut those who want to undermine our faith. This evening, then, let’s contemplate the timeline of resurrection.

In this attempt, though, we must keep two things in mind:

  1. Even though each gospel account of the resurrection is true, none of them are comprehensive. All of them leave things out because each Evangelist was writing with different purposes in mind. However, the silence of a writer concerning a resurrection event does not prove a contradiction.
  2. Here as elsewhere, the gospels are not terribly concerned with strict chronology. They will relate events out of sequence, just as we do when we tell a story, whenever doing so advances their purpose. These out-of-sequence sections also do not establish a contradiction.

Having said that, it’s time to craft our master narrative. There is so much material here that I simply don’t have time to read every passage or discuss every story. I’m only focusing on the parts that supposedly include contradictions. However, I’ve included Scripture citations to everything so you can look them up at home if you so desire.

The Opening of the Tomb

The first event is the opening of the tomb. It is recorded in Matthew 28:1-4. Some want to suppose that there’s a contradiction here because the earthquake, etc., is recorded after the mention of the women going to the tomb, and none of the other writers mention the earthquake. However, I don’t think that’s the most natural reading. Instead, I think Matthew is parenthetically describing something that had previously happened. If not, the women would be not merely witnesses to the empty tomb. They would have been witnesses to Jesus coming out of the tomb! This is simply Matthew telling the story out of chronological order, something Matthew frequently does.

Women come to the tomb (Mark 16:1-4)

The Women Come to the Tomb

Second, the women come to the tomb. We find this in Mark 16:1-4. The key event here is that the women, including Mary Magdalene, notice that the stone has been rolled away from the tomb.

Mary Magdalene Fetches Peter and John

Third, Mary Magdalene fetches Peter and John. Look at John 20:1-2. This is subtle but important. Mary is with the other women when they see that the stone has been rolled away. However, she does not continue with them to the tomb. Because she is convinced that someone has stolen Jesus’ body, she runs off to find Peter and John. Thus, she is not present for the other women’s conversation with the angel and is not told that Jesus has risen.

It’s worth noting that finding Peter and John does not mean that Mary has gone to all the disciples. Peter and John are staying by themselves, so at this point, Mary has not had contact with the others.

The Other Women Talk to the Angel

Fourth, while Mary is running to Peter and John, the other women talk to the angel. Consider Mark 16:5-8. They see that the tomb is empty, the angel tells them that Jesus is risen, and they leave. Thus, they are not around when Peter and John show up in a bit.

One other note before we leave this passage. Some try to set up a contradiction between Mark 16:8, which says the women told no one, and other passages that say the women told the disciples.

I think, though, that Mark is answering a different question than the other gospels. He’s explaining why the women didn’t go down the street telling everybody that they met that Jesus had risen. They were afraid. They were afraid — with justification — of being disbelieved and probably also afraid of getting imprisoned by the Jewish leadership. So they keep it to themselves until they reach the disciples.

Jesus Appears to the Other Women

Fifth, Jesus appears to the other women. This is revealed in Matthew 28:8-10. Probably, after this Jesus heads back to the tomb to encounter Mary Magdalene.

Peter and John Come to the Tomb

Sixth, Peter and John come to the tomb. This is recorded in John 20:3-10. They see grave wrappings, but no angel and no Jesus, and they leave.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

Seventh, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. This story is found in John 20:11-17. Peter and John have cleared out by now, so Mary is by herself. She hasn’t talked to the angel, so she still is confused about what has happened. Jesus resolves her confusion by revealing Himself to her.

The Disciples Disbelieve

Eighth, the disciples disbelieve. Here, let’s read Luke 24:9-12. Mary comes to the disciples, the other women come to the disciples, but they aren’t having any of it. Notice, though, that Luke is doing some story-collapsing. He’s combining the story of Mary going to Peter and John about body-snatching with the story of Mary and the other women going to the disciples with stories about the risen Lord.

Some might suppose there’s a contradiction here, but there isn’t. All Luke is doing is summarizing a complicated series of events as quickly as he can so he can get to the resurrection story he really cares about — the encounter on the road to Emmaus. He doesn’t mention previous appearances because that would have pulled the focus away from Emmaus, where he wanted it. He concludes the story with Peter going off by himself (which is true, even if it happened earlier) to explain how Jesus appeared to Peter and not to the others.

Jesus Appears to Peter

Ninth, Jesus appears to Peter. This is only found in the gospels in Luke 24:34, though it also is recorded in I Corinthians 15. Note, by the way, that even though Luke knows this happened before Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, he tells the story so that it is revealed afterward, so as not to detract from his main resurrection appearance.

Jesus Appears on the Road to Emmaus

Tenth, Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus. We see this in Luke 24:13-35. This is the centerpiece of Luke’s resurrection account, just like Mary Magdalene is the centerpiece of John’s. He gives it far more time than anything else in the narrative.

Jesus Appears in the Upper Room

Eleventh and last, Jesus appears in the upper room. Here, let’s go to John 20:19-20. Notice first of all that the doors are locked for fear of the Jews. The disciples are very concerned about attracting notice from the authorities. Second, by this point everybody but Thomas is gathered together, they’re convinced something strange has happened, and Jesus’ appearance only seals the deal.

Did you notice, brethren, how neatly the pieces from these four accounts fit together? It’s because they’re all reporting the same historical event! Just as contradiction would cast the story of the resurrection into doubt, so the harmony of these stories affirms our faith. As John observes in John 20:31, these things were written so that we might believe.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email