Easter Sunday: Celebrating the Historical, Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

By now, I suppose that I should be better prepared. And yet, I am routinely surprised when I find myself talking to someone who confidently claims the title “Christian” but does not really believe that Jesus resurrected from death and walked out of His tomb on Easter Sunday, alive and well, with a renewed physical body. Of course, almost no one who has done any amount of serious investigation – Christian, atheist, agnostic or what-have-you – will argue against the claims that the historical Person of Jesus really did live in first-century Palestine, and that He really did suffer and die under Pontius Pilate. No, it’s always the Christian claim to the bodily resurrection of Jesus that tends to be the sticking point for many.

Several months ago, I had a fairly-unsettling conversation with someone whom I dearly love. This person claimed to have a Christian worldview, and yet denied the historicity of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, in this person’s view, was just another “mythological” event cribbed from other competing religious traditions of the day, most likely borrowed as a hyperbolic claim to help the early Christian church fill the pews on Sunday morning. (Huh! Who knew?) In fact, any and all claims to the supernatural reside solidly in the realm of fiction and must be discarded without a second thought. “But I still embrace the Christian worldview…”

Employing this sort of Buffet Line Theology, readers of the Bible can quite easily discard all of the supernatural elements from the Old and New Testaments and yet (somehow) retain a Christian worldview. We feel free to pick and choose as we please, “So let’s keep everything that emphasizes the great social ethics preached by Jesus during His three-year ministry, the ethic of love for one’s neighbor reigning supreme.” After all, if we discard the virgin birth, miraculous healings, substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus, “What do we really lose?” Jesus still stands as the single greatest spiritual leader of all time…right?

Well, just to be perfectly clear…”what we lose” is Jesus, along with any and all hope for our own resurrection after death. We lose the entire New Testament. We lose the promised Messiah that the entirety of the Old Testament was pointing to and predicting, beginning in Genesis 3. “Setting ourselves free from ancient superstition” actually sets us “free” from the Person and work of Jesus altogether. And no one understood, with greater force or clarity, what was really at stake in the resurrection of Jesus than the Apostle Paul, who makes it painfully clear that if, by some mistake, we have set our ultimate hope on a crucified Lord who suffered and died just like any other man, we are all wasting our time going to church on Sunday mornings; you may as well stay home and sleep in on Easter (and every other Sunday morning after that).

1 Corinthians 15:12-19 (ESV, emphasis mine.)
“The Resurrection of the Dead”
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

I’m not sure how much more clarity Paul could have brought to this particular point. Paul, a man who had lost everything for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord (Philippians 3:8) and who had endured countless hardships for the sake of spreading the Good News about Jesus to others (2 Corinthians 11:22-28), is basically telling his readers that the Christian is “of all people most to be pitied” if we are holding to a false belief in a supernatural event that did not actually occur. Paul is quite clear that there really is no hope for any of us aside from the resurrection of Jesus, and he affirms this just a few verses later by quoting from Isaiah 22:13:

1 Corinthians 15:32 (ESV)
What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

In simple terms, Paul had decidedly “pushed every last one of his poker chips into the center of the table,” betting it all on the resurrection of Jesus as the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:15-20), whose bodily resurrection was the guarantee of Paul’s own bodily resurrection in the eschaton. Paul’s smack-down at the hands of Jesus in Acts 9, along with being permitted to see things that no man is permitted to speak of (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), undoubtedly strengthened him as he encountered both danger and doubt. Given his earlier life of zeal for persecuting Christians and the murderous opposition he would face, Paul needed all the strengthening he could get.

But what about you and me? To be completely transparent, I should probably confess that I spent several years of my young adult life as a skeptic, too: “I’ve never seen a dead person resurrect…so how can I believe that this fantastic event actually took place in real human history?” (Sound at all familiar?) So yes, I am exceedingly sympathetic to any and all who struggle to believe the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, and I also believe that one can indeed be a “real deal Christian” and yet struggle to believe everything they read in the Bible. (Indeed, I know of no other kind of Christian!) We may struggle with different biblical truth claims, but we all do struggle. That’s what faith is all about (Romans 8:24-25).

This Easter Sunday, I urge you to pay attention to your own heart when your children return from Sunday School and begin asking you all sorts of questions about the resurrection of Jesus. If you yourself do not believe it, then how can you possibly expect your kids to believe? In the absence of bodily resurrection, then, where does your true, ultimate hope lie? One of my favorite professors at Covenant, when asked why so many people disbelieve, caught me off-guard by answering with, “Can I just say this? Most of us are quite honestly far too lazy in our own reading of the Bible, and in our own personal investigations of its truth claims. Many, many people who doubt the Bible have never once actually read it.” In my own life, it’s funny how my own skepticism really only began to melt away after I read the Bible, all the way through, from start to finish.

By all means, have a great time celebrating the Easter holiday this year. Buy and eat way too much candy, paint some eggs, get yourself and your kids a nice, new outfit to wear to church. Once all the excitement has died down, though, I would just ask all of us to be completely honest with ourselves as to whether or not we really believe that Jesus actually conquered sin and physical death. If you struggle to believe – and have some time to invest – you might consider downloading the New Testament History and Theology class (free MP3s!) or you might pick up N.T. Wright‘s highly-respected work on this topic entitled, simply, The Resurrection of the Son of God. (If you’d like to get some sense of the man prior to buying one of his books, check out the YouTube video pasted in below.)

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (ESV)
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Two Minutes, 23 Seconds with N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham

Transcript of Video:

The resurrection of Jesus took everybody by surprise. The disciples weren’t expecting it. They knew perfectly well…if you followed somebody who you thought was the Messiah, and he got killed, then that was it. We know of at least a dozen other Messianic or prophetic movements, within the hundred years on either side of Jesus, they routinely ended with the death of the founder. And if the movement wanted to continue, they didn’t say, “Oh, he’s been raised from the dead.” They said, “Let’s find his brother, or his cousin, or somebody who can carry on this movement.” We can see how those Jewish groups did that.

This one did it differently. They had James, the brother of Jesus, as this great leader in the early church. Nobody said, “James is the Messiah.” They said, “Jesus was the Messiah.” “Why? He’s dead! They got him. Didn’t you realize they crucified…” “No. He was raised from the dead.” The only way you can explain why Christianity began, and why it took the very precise shape it was, is – let’s say it cautiously, first – they really did believe He was bodily raised from the dead. And then, if you take the second question, and say, “Why would they believe that?” You can go through all the theories. That they found themselves forgiven. That they had a fresh sense of the presence of God. That this was cognitive dissonance, etc. And you bring all those theories to the actual facts that we know on the ground in the first century…they just don’t fit.

The only way you can explain the rise of the early Christian belief that Jesus was raised is that there really was an empty tomb. They really did meet Jesus alive again, in a transformed body. And the thing makes sense.

Of course, when I wrote a big book on this, my philosophy tutor from Oxford – who was an atheist – read it and he said, “Great book. You really make the argument,” he said, “I simply choose to believe that there must be some other explanation, even though I don’t know what it was.” I said, “Fine. That’s as far as I can take you. I can’t bully you into saying, ‘Therefore, you must believe.'” Because to do that requires a change of worldview. But, once you change the worldview and say, “Maybe there really is a creator God. Maybe this creator God really is sorting out this sad old world at last.” Then, everything else makes sense in a way that it doesn’t with any other possibility.

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