The reality of the resurrection

Scriptures: 1 Cor. 15:19-26; John 20:1-18

Today we celebrate the greatest miracle – and greatest sticking point to people – throughout all history: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s one of those things that the Bible itself can be a stumbling block, as folks – not just the disciples when it first happened but the people afterwards, year after year, century after century, have struggled to understand: how someone could not just be resuscitated, but actually somehow be resurrected to a new kind of life, a new form, a glorified state, and was real.

“If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen, nothing else matters.” That final aphorism of the late Yale Professor of History, Jaroslav Pelikan, rightly encapsulates the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, then the ramifications are enormous: Jesus’ claims to divinity, the content of his teaching and his promise to those who believe in him of one day sharing in his resurrection are verified. If he is not risen, then there is little reason to give Jesus or his teaching any serious attention, and for that matter, as Leo Tolstoy noted, little reason to believe that there is “any meaning in life that the inevitable death awaiting us does not destroy.”

You see, far from a peripheral issue, the resurrection of Jesus stands at the very center of the Christian Gospel. As the Apostle Paul, the most prolific Christian missionary and New Testament writer recognized – just before the passage that we read – “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” The entire Christian faith hinges on this question: Did Jesus, after suffering an agonizing and humiliating execution, in fact rise from the dead?

Now before proceeding along this line to consider this today, it’s necessary to say something about the burden of proof for such an investigation. You see, most people assume that it’s the responsibility of those who believe in Jesus’ resurrection to provide convincing evidence of its reality. This, however, is not entirely the case. The resurrection of Jesus is a major historical problem, no matter how you look at it. Accordingly, the resurrection puts not only a burden of proof on its believers but on nonbelievers as well. As scholar Dr. Timothy Keller notes, “It is not enough to simply believe that Jesus did not rise from the dead. You must come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of the church. You have to provide some other plausible account of how things began.” The burden of proof can go either way.

Now, I guess before arguing that Jesus was raised from the dead, it was necessary to establish that he was in fact dead. And there are many things that prove that. Few scholars today accept the theory that he actually didn’t die, but skeptics over the years have proposed that Jesus did not actually die and that his resurrection was therefore a hoax. The most famous one that’s recent is called the “swoon theory.” Basically he kind of went comatose up there on the cross, and then the cold air of the tomb woke him up. And then he somehow pushed a two-ton piece of rock out of his way to leave the tomb.

Assuming that Jesus did in fact die on the cross, the question of happened to his body naturally follows. Was Jesus’ body really absent from the tomb? Well, as I said a moment ago, it would sure be hard to get rid of it on your own. This big large stone weighing nearly two tons would sit on a ramp, then they would push it and it would fall down, it would roll into a groove, right there at the base of the tomb, covering the opening. It doesn’t take much to get it down there, but as anybody knows who’s tried to push a rock uphill, it isn’t so easy the other way. In other words, the entrance was quite secure, just from the rock itself.

But as the earliest Christians proclaimed, on Easter Morning, the tomb was empty! Now this tomb site was known to Christian and Jew alike. If the grave had not been empty, it would have been impossible for a movement based on the Resurrection to come into existence. I mean, anybody who disagreed could have just produced Jesus’ corpse, and that would have killed the early church. Yet even the earliest Jewish polemic against Jesus presupposes that the tomb was indeed empty. In Matthew, the Pharisees and the scribes actually tell the Roman soldiers – see, that was another thing that was there too.

It wasn’t just that there was a big stone there, but there was a whole group of Roman soldiers who were set to guard the tomb, by order of Pontius Pilate at the request of the scribes, to make sure that the disciples did not in fact steal the body. Now you have to understand, for a Roman centurion, that if you failed in your duty, it’s not just a slap on the wrist. It’s not just even, let’s say, a dishonorable discharge. If you failed in your duty when you’re doing guard duty like that, the penalty is death.

So, for the Roman soldier to have somehow allowed these disciples, to either have slept on duty, or to have been somehow overwhelmed by the disciples, and then let them steal the body, is an incredible story. Yet that’s exactly what the scribes and the Jewish leaders asked the Roman soldiers to say, and they promised to protect them. I don’t know about you, but if I was a Roman soldier, I would not have been willing to testify to that. It would be better to say that a miracle occurred.

Even the Jews of that time did not deny that the tomb was empty. Some try to say it’s mere legend, and by the time it was written people had forgotten where Jesus was buried, but this is also easily disproved. Because our earliest Christian sources – not the Gospels themselves but in the letters of Paul, we see that the empty tomb is given credence. This passage in 1 Corinthians 15:20, scholars estimate was written within two years of Jesus’ death. Moreover, the notion of the empty tomb is at the center of the early preaching of Jesus’ disciples, in Acts, just weeks after his alleged resurrection. And the unanimous accounts of the first witnesses of the empty tomb are too problematic to be legendary

You heard the story in John. The person who first saw the empty tomb was Mary. While I know that it’s not fair, I know that it doesn’t seem right to us these days, but in those days women were not considered credible witnesses. So for a woman to be the first one to see it and then go tell the disciples, most Jewish scholars, most scribes and Pharisees would have said, “Phfft! Hormones,” or something like that. And they would not have counted it as a serious account.

If they were actually writing this story as a legend, anybody in their right mind in that period of time would have made a man find it, instead of a woman. And so, in a kind of reverse logic, the fact that they actually used a woman lends credence – credibility – to the story as being true.

Now there were witnesses, lots of witnesses, too. That’s the other thing, the next thing. The earliest accounts of eyewitnesses to the resurrection come not from the Gospels but from the letters of Paul, and he mentions a number of people that saw Jesus. We have Mary Magdalene. We have other women mentioned in Matthew 28 We have Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus, in Luke 24. We have eleven disciples and others, also in Luke 24. We have the ten apostles and others, with Thomas – doubting Thomas – being absent, and then we have the appearance to doubting Thomas and the disciples that are there. We have another account in John 21 to seven apostles.

They were all, by the way, even though they had seen the resurrection, the empty tomb, and presumably seen Jesus a couple of times, they still couldn’t wrap their minds around it, and they had gone fishing. Not because, like you or I might go fishing for relaxation, but because that’s what they did. They were fishermen. They were going back to work, now that Jesus was dead.

And they saw him on the shoreline. And they didn’t know who he was but he was cooking breakfast and it smelled pretty good. And they hadn’t caught anything all night. So they say, “Hey!” And he says, “Cast your nets on the other side.” And they go, “We’ve been fishing all night and we ain’t caught nothing.” He says, “Trust me.” And they cast their nets and it says the nets were so full they were almost breaking. So they take it to the shore, and there they break bread and eat fish with Jesus, and then he disappears.

We have Jesus appearing to the apostles at the Mount of Olives before his ascension. At one point, it actually says that he appeared to 500 people at once. Now that kind of gives a lie to another attempt to disprove the reality of the resurrection. Some people say, “Oh, it was a bunch of hallucinations.” This theory, however, is problematic because hallucinations are individual occurrences. Additionally, at least according to our medicine today, the disciples were not in a state of mind to trigger hallucinations. They were afraid, doubting and in despair after Jesus’ crucifixion. People who hallucinate need a fertile mind full of expectancy and anticipation.

Some say, “OK, maybe it wasn’t a hallucination, but wishful thinking.” They saw what they wanted to believe. As skeptic Michael Martin notes, “A person full of religious zeal may see what he or she wants to see, not what is really there.” The problem with this theory is that it employs what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” That is, it assumes that we modern people are skeptical about claims of a bodily resurrection from the dead, while the ancients were credulous and gullible people, and that’s why they believed. It assumes that we’re better than they were.

Now, this hypothesis is patently false. People in the first century did not believe in an individual coming back from the dead either. The notion of an individual bodily resurrection from the dead was absent from every dominant worldview of that time – Greek, Roman. Even the Jews didn’t believe in an individual resurrection but in the last day all of the righteous being resurrected.

To suggest that Jesus’ followers simply wanted to believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and thus had hallucinations of him appearing and talking to them, presupposes that resurrection from the dead was an option in the worldview of Jesus’ disciples, which it was not. Likewise, to suggest that Jesus’ followers stole the body from the tomb and then went about claiming that he was alive, presupposes that other Jews would have been receptive to the idea that an individual could be raised from the dead, which they were not.

There have been many people throughout time who have attempted to disprove the reality of the resurrection. And what’s amazing is how many of them – a majority of them – have ended up converting and attesting to the truth. Two of the more modern converts, if you will, known today. One is Josh McDowell. He was a lawyer and an atheist, who set about proving, using legal techniques, looking at the witnesses, looking at their testimony and things like that, to disprove the resurrection. In the end, he changed his mind and said, “I can’t.” He put all that in a book that I believe is called Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

Another one that’s more modern is Lee Strobel. He’s now a pastor at Saddleback in Chicago, one of many pastors there. But he was a journalist and an atheist, who set out proving by all journalistic literary standards that this was just a story. A tale. A lie. And once again, by every standard we have to rate whether a story is credible, whether witnesses are credible, whether the contents of the story are credible, it stands up to those standards and to the test of time.

There’s indirect evidence as well, for those that struggle with the reality of the resurrection. You have, after the death of Jesus, the sudden emergence of a worldview centered around the resurrection of the body. That is, all of a sudden these disciples started preaching. Not only that, but they were willing to die for that statement, that faith, in the resurrection of the body.

Over ten thousand Jews followed the allegedly resurrected Jesus within five weeks of his crucifixion, but they were also worshipping him as God. Now the Jews believed in one God, as we do, but they did not understand the concept of the Trinity. So for them to say that Jesus was God was blasphemy of the highest order. What event could have been so significant as to overcome this ingrained system of belief?

And then there were those hardened skeptics who did not believe in Jesus prior to his crucifixion but thereafter turned around completely and believed in the Christian faith after Jesus’ death and resurrection. One of the most notable is James, the brother of Jesus. He was embarrassed by Jesus and did not believe in Jesus during his ministry. There’s a story in Mark, where Jesus is teaching in a house, and Jesus’ brothers and his mother come to him and say, “Come home. That’s enough of this stuff you’re doing. People think you’re crazy.” Yet afterwards, he was a leader of the church in Jerusalem and was stoned to death for his belief in Jesus. He wrote the book of James.

The rapid emergence of the Church and the cultural shift that it brought requires some kind of explanatory event. Within only twenty years after the death of Jesus, Christianity had spread so quickly, it even reached the imperial palace of Rome, and ultimately overwhelmed the Roman Empire and became its state religion. From a human perspective, Christianity had little probability of success. I mean, it was a group of uneducated rural people from an obscure part of the Empire, with no significant money, no power or influence, proclaiming a message about a crucified carpenter who had been resurrected from the dead. Does that sound like something that’s a recipe for success?

And fifth, as I mentioned earlier, and finally, the lives of the disciples were transformed in such a way that they were willing to die for their conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. There are those that would die for what they believe. But there are very few people that are willing to die for what they know is a lie.

It is insufficient for the skeptic to simply disregard the resurrection of Jesus as something that couldn’t happen. Rather, the skeptic must confront and explain these historical realities. Why did thousands of people come to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, even though no existing worldview supported the idea and no other group of messianic disciples claimed that their leader was raised from the dead? Why were thousands of Jews willing to worship a human being as God? What can account for the conversion of ardent skeptics like James and Saul, who became Paul? What can explain the phenomenon of the rapid emergence of the Church? And how can one account for the hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrection who were so convinced of what they had seen that they spent the rest of their lives proclaiming the message, and ultimately facing execution for their beliefs?

Well, the truth is they can’t. The historical evidence for the resurrection is compelling. Alternative explanations directly oppose everything that is known about first-century history and culture. Yet many people are unwilling to engage with the historical evidence and follow it to its logical conclusion, side step the investigation in deference to a prior commitment to the philosophical claim that miracles are impossible, so therefore it couldn’t happen.

Those folks are of the kind of nature that my grandmother used to talk about. She said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” They’re so close-minded that no amount of evidence that you present will be proof. But don’t let them shake your faith in the reality of the resurrection.

Still, we need to provide a witness to those around us in this skeptical day and age. You have, listed here, some of the facts that are out there. For the truth is, the greatest proof of the resurrection will not be in history, logic, or even the legal proofs. The greatest proof of the resurrection for those around us will be the lives that we lead. Do we live out a resurrection life? Do we live as if we believe Christ is risen from the dead? Do we act as if we have the authority and power of a risen Christ to overcome life’s trials, find joy (or at least non-fatalistic peace) wherever God has placed us, and to love our neighbors unreservedly even as we testify to the need for moral and upright lives that honor God?

Salvation came on the cross as our sins were purged. But the resurrection, far from being merely a stamp of approval, is all about the new life that we gain, and we are the greatest witnesses for or against that new life and a new way of being that is testified to in Scriptures. I challenge you today to live out your life in resurrection power, believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord; to know the truth of and gravity of sin; to know the proof of God’s amazing love found on the cross in Jesus as our sins are forgiven; and to know without doubt the reality of the resurrection, and the everlasting new life it brings to you and to those who believe. And may each one of us give all glory and honor to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with our lives. Amen.

Special thanks and recognition to Charles Dunn from whose article “The Reality of the Resurrection: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus” much of the material was pulled.

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