What Really Happened at Easter?

While we don't have footage from that first Easter morning, we have witnesses to help us understand what happened that day.

What really happened at Easter?

Even after two millennia, inquiring minds still want to know: What really happened at Easter? Or, to phrase it differently: Really, what happened at Easter? Not Easter 2011 or 1911, but the first Easter, the day of Jesus’ resurrection.

Here’s the problem: our “inquiries” are shaped by our power to answer the “really.” What contemporary folks take to be an answer to “really” can usually be figured out, or so we are led to believe, by forensic evidence painstakingly gathered.

Of course, as Eric Barreto has pointed out, we don’t have access to footage from “Papyrus News Network” to help us understand what happened in a historic, let alone scientific, sense. What we do have is the biased witness preserved and written down in Christian communities: the Gospels and Paul. These witnesses are able to help us in three important ways:

  1. First, New Testament writers preserve traces of the arguments someone might use to gainsay resurrection. We aren’t the first to ask “what really happened?” or make guesses about it.
    Secondly, those same documents preserve a modest silence about what “really” happened and direct our attention to following the Risen Lord.
  2. Finally, all the evangelists show us that even for those in the very presence of the Risen Lord, recognition and understanding often come slowly, if at all. Let’s look at all these aspects of answering “what really happened?” in turn.

What sorts of theories emerge when Easter morning dawns and the tomb of Jesus is discovered to be empty? The basic explanations, resurrection aside, would include:

  • that the faithful women, Peter, and the beloved disciple went to the wrong tomb;
  • that someone had removed the body; or
  • that Jesus had not really died, but had “come to” and was able to get help and leave the tomb.

Gospel writers brought forward all these possibilities in order to dismiss them in turn. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us that women who knew Jesus from Galilee (and would not, therefore, mistake him for someone else) saw Jesus die,[1] came to the tomb and indeed, sat near it as Joseph of Arimathea (and Nicodemus in John’s Gospel) put Jesus in the tomb. These women knew where to return the next morning.[2] Although the women would not be allowed to testify in court, their testimony here offers multiple eyewitnesses and argues against error. In addition crowds of people see Jesus die, including the eminently reliable Roman centurion. No one doubts his death.

These women are also important because they would be unable to roll away the massive stone placed at the tomb’s entrance. The same women return to the tomb at the earliest possible moment after the Sabbath as Mark especially emphasizes (See commentary on Mark 16:2). They find the stone rolled away. The faithful Jewish disciples could not have done it on the Sabbath and the women could not have done it at all. Matthew makes clear that the authorities expect some sort of trick like this from Jesus’ disciples and preclude it with a guard and sealing the stone. In fact, the guards report the same mysterious disappearance of Jesus from the tomb as the women do (Matthew 28:11), helping the reader make the conclusion that no human hands have brought this about. Further testimony to Jesus’ absence from the tomb is given by heavenly figures in all four gospels.[3] Two Gospel writers, Matthew and John, also provide male witnesses to the empty tomb as well.[4]

The Gospel witness is that Jesus died, was properly buried, and when his faithful followers went to the tomb as soon as they were able on Easter morning, he was gone by some means other than human intention (stolen body) or human error (not really dead, wrong tomb). None of the witnesses even attempt to describe how Jesus was raised.

They do not even attempt to describe how he looked, with the exception of one feature. Mary does not recognize the Risen Jesus in John’s Gospel (John 20:14). Cleopas and his companion do not recognize Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:16-30). Disciples don’t know him in John’s Gospel.[5] Luke tells us that even those who have already seen Jesus risen from the dead and those who have heard the stories from their trusted companions, are terrified by what they take to be a ghost (Luke 24:37).

There are two issues in these stories. One is that Jesus is not entirely recognizable for whatever mysterious reasons. The other is that even when followers recognize Jesus, they are not convinced that he has been raised from the dead, but understand him as a ghost, some form of a person still dead. It is by showing us Jesus eating, an activity of which ghostly and angelic beings are not capable, that Matthew, Luke, and John show us the Lord, risen.

The Gospel writers offer us a modest picture of what really happened on Easter: it is a picture of how the people around Jesus experienced his absence from the tomb and his presence among them, with the perplexity (John 20:2-13), doubt (Luke 23:11, Luke 24:22-24), and fear (Matt 28:8Mark 16:8Luke 24:37) that such an experience could create.

Let’s bring Paul into the picture as well. While we do not hear Paul’s preaching or teaching on Easter events, we do get a glimpse of how important he thinks resurrection is and how difficult it was even for believers to grasp. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul does not try to describe what happened on Easter. Although he describes a revelation of Jesus to the Galatians (Gal 1:12, 15-16) and knew many others to whom the Risen Lord appeared, Paul is willing only to assert that it happened and that Jesus’ subsequent appearances are all the reality we get.

The questions raised by the Corinthians are important. Paul does not simply blow them off when they ask, essentially, how there could be an Easter, how a body could be raised and what kind of body it would be. “We don’t know,” says Paul. Yet the experience of the Spirit’s presence among us is sign enough of the fact of and the turn of the age begun by that resurrection.

Our sources are biased indeed, biased by experience of new life, of vision, of the Spirit’s presence in very surprising places. The tomb was empty, the Spirit was abroad. God hallowed human life by its presence, called idolaters to covenant relationship, and delivered people from the present age of evil. That’s what really happened at Easter and we don’t have to look only back in time to see it.

Lack of news helicopters and forensic evidence notwithstanding, we dare speak of circumstantial evidence. Like Paul and the evangelists, our answer is modest in the face of mystery, knowing that much is yet to be known, really.


[1] Matthew 27:55; Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49; John 19:25-26

[2] Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 23:55-24:1; John 20:1-2 (Mary Magdalene only)

[3] Matthew 28:2-3; Mark 16:5; Luke 23:4; John 20:12

[4] The guards in Matthew 28:11-15; Peter and the beloved disciple in John 20:3-8

[5] John 21:4. This takes place later than Easter day.

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