Does Matthew 28:16-17 provide evidence that some doubted the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Matthew 28:16-17 is a favourite with internet skeptics. It is as follows,
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.
The word is this is clear evidence that some doubted the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. If some doubted, doesn’t that give us good reason to believe that maybe the resurrection wasn’t physical? Maybe the resurrection was nothing more than a vision or hallucination?
Some apologists attempt to address this by 1) determining the meaning of the Greek word translated “doubt” 2) asking who were the people who doubted and 3) asking why they doubted.
How apologists answer these questions give us some solution to the objection. Firstly, the Greek word for “doubt,” distazō, is more likely translated as “hesitate.” This is used only one other time in the New Testament when Peter was walking on water. In the face of something as incredible as the physical resurrection, we would expect to see some rubbing their eyes, so to speak. This doesn’t indicate total disbelief but hesitation to fully believe what they were seeing. Complete denial needs further evidence.
Secondly, the identity of the group who doubted isn’t exactly known. We could speculate that since Paul testified to Jesus having appeared to more than five hundred witnesses this group could be one who had only heard about the crucifixion and was unsure that He had really risen. Since this appearance was reported to have taken place in Galilee, it’s a reasonable explanation. Or maybe the disciples themselves were having mixed thoughts? It’s something that isn’t entirely clear, but as I will explain, this isn’t a problem.
Thirdly, some believers speculate that maybe some doubted because Jesus, in His glorified body, looked somewhat unfamiliar. They could have been thinking, “Jesus has risen, but is this really Him?”
As well-meaning as these solutions are, they are admittedly off the mark. When we approach this passage, both believers and skeptics assume, without evidence, that the doubt relates to the physical resurrection. Contextually, there is no reason to assume this group were doubting whether Jesus had really risen from the dead. The verse in question contrasts those who doubt with those who worship. Worship, in ancient culture, wasn’t merely bowing down or lifting hands, it was synonymous with devotion and servitude. In the following verses, notice how Jesus doesn’t give anyone reassurance that He had really risen (such as with Thomas), but rather states where His authority comes from.
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
Jesus indicated that the source of His authority came from Heaven and He continued to instruct them on what to do next. This seems like an awfully irrelevant response if some were doubting His resurrection. However, if the doubt related to Jesus’s divinity (what the resurrection meant and what they were to do with it), this response makes a lot more sense.
This gives us an interesting insight into the authenticity of this account. If Matthew were narrating a fictitious story it would be ridiculous to write about the doubt of some of Christ’s followers for seemingly no apparent reason. Wouldn’t the author of an ancient fantasy make sure everyone knew who it was or what the Resurrection meant? Why include this note of embarrassment unless Matthew was obligated to because it’s precisely what happened.
The lesson to be learnt from this is not to take skeptics at their word. If they raise an objection, make sure their premises aren’t misguided or making unjustified assumptions before attempting to address it. If the skeptic is the one raising an objection he needs to support the premises of his argument and not simply assume they are correct. Addressing the flaws of his argument first makes a world of difference to your defence.