Was Jesus in the Grave for Three Days?

Written by Gabriel N.E. Fluhrer |
Monday, June 10, 2024

Critics allege that we cannot reconcile Jesus’ words with the Gospel accounts of His death, which place it at the “ninth hour” (Mark 15:34), or 3 p.m. in modern terms. If Jesus died at 3 p.m. on Friday and was raised early Sunday morning, how can we square those facts with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:40? The Scriptures seem inconsistent here. Skeptics have long seized on this seeming contradiction to discredit the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. 

The celebrated church father, Augustine of Hippo, wrote, “What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain to an inquirer, I do not know.”1 He made this observation after a lengthy discussion on the nature of time and eternity. While his discussion was more abstract than the question at hand, Augustine’s statement reminds us that the concept of time is complex. Still, we all operate with a pretty straightforward understanding of minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years.

But our way of counting time is not the only way. The Bible was written by authors from a variety of backgrounds, in a period and culture far different from ours. To be sure, none of these factors undermine the overall divine authorship of the Scriptures. On the other hand, recognizing these differences helps us understand what the authors meant—and did not mean—when they used everyday language to record when an event happened.

In fact, the New Testament is eager for the reader to understand that it is documenting events that occurred in space-time history, as we understand it in an everyday sense. Time markers abound in its pages, from when Jesus met the terrified disciples on the turbulent sea (Mark 6:48), to the time He was crucified (Matt. 27:45), to how long He was in the grave (Luke 9:22; 24:7; 1 Cor. 15:4).

As the texts above indicate, the biblical authors taught that Jesus was in the grave for three days. The Gospels tell us He was crucified on Friday and rose from the grave on Sunday (Mark 15:42–47; 16:1; Matt. 27:57–61; 28:1; Luke 23:50–56; 24:1; John 19:38–42; 20:1).

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