In an article in The Spectator UK, Justin Brierley writes of ‘The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God’ (March 30, 2024). He notes that ‘the New Atheists of the early 2000s – led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett’ – and their bestselling books have led to ‘confusion, a mental health crisis in the young and the culture wars’.

‘It’s not surprising then,’ he continues, ‘that a movement of New Theists has sprung up.’ He notes that ‘influencers such as Joe Rogan and Douglas Murray are increasingly talking about the value of Christian faith and the dangers of casting it off. The former new atheist Ayaarn Hirsi Ali has been praising the virtues of our Judeo-Christian heritage, after becoming convinced that secular humanism cannot save the West’.

Significantly, he comments that ‘Christianity is not just a useful lifeboat for stranded intellectuals. If it is not literally true, it isn’t valuable,’ he writes.

It’s imperative therefore, that we ask whether the account of Jesus’ resurrection is an invention. Life and death matters are at stake. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins, Paul the Apostle writes in First Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 17. If it’s true, it’s life changing. Our lives have meaning and hope.

The first witnesses. In the opening lines of chapter 20 of his Gospel, John records the events on the morning of the third day following Jesus’ crucifixion. Mary of Magdala, one of the women who went to Jesus’ tomb, ran back to tell Peter and John it was empty: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she said, “and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

Despite the testimony of women being considered unreliable and inadmissable in first century Judaism, women – as the other Gospels detail – were the first witnesses of the empty tomb. No Jewish writer would have written this if the account were fiction.

Furthermore, John’s own testimony rings true. He tells us that being younger he outran Peter, but he didn’t enter the tomb first. Peter did. Both saw the linen wrappings lying there and the linen cloth that had been around Jesus’ head… rolled up in another place. It was as though Jesus’ body had passed through the shroud which included some one hundred pounds weight of expensive myrrh and aloes (John 19:39) and the head covering had been discarded. It seemed that human hands had not removed the body. What did it mean?

John tells us he saw and believed (20:8), but neither he nor Peter understood it. Like Martha who had said to Jesus that she knew her brother Lazarus would rise from the dead on the last day (John 11:24), John seems to have reasoned that Jesus had gone to be with God the Father, as he had said (John 14:2-4). But neither John nor Peter understood what Jesus meant when he promised they would see him again, physically alive. We need to grasp this, for it underlines the unexpectedness and authenticity of what really happened.

Despair. We also need to appreciate how Jesus’ followers felt when they saw him strung up on a cross. For three years they’d been with him. They’d seen him turn water into wine, heal the sick, restore sight to a man born blind. They’d even watched when, standing at the entrance of a tomb, he called out to a man who had been dead for four days: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). Furthermore, they’d heard him teach and outclass the smartest minds that sought to break him. They believed that he was the Son of God incarnate.

Then to their horror, they’d watched him die! They’d heard his prayer of forgiveness and his promise to the penitent insurrectionist (Luke 23:34-43). They’d also heard his victorious shout, “It is finished” – my work is done (John 19:30) – as he died.

Their minds were numb with the shock and horror that Jesus would die the worst of deaths the Romans had devised – for the slaves and the very worst of society. No wonder they hid behind locked doors.

Resurrection. Yet on the Sunday evening Jesus suddenly stood in the midst of his disciples. John’s words, Jesus stood, contrast with the time they had last seen him – hanging on a cross, wounded and bleeding, wracked with pain, dying the most ignominious of deaths. And when they had seen the spear thrust in his side, they knew he was dead.

Here Jesus was, not weak and limp, but standing, tall and erect, in command, repeating words he had spoken when he was last with them: “Peace be with you”. And to prove he was real and not a ghost, he showed them his hands and his side (20:19f).

Bewildered and confused though they were, they nevertheless knew he was alive. “Peace be with you!” he said again. At their last meal he had promised, “My peace I leave with you… Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me” (John 14:27). His resurrection gave them the greatest assurance of the truth of his words.

They were overjoyed, but their minds couldn’t fully grasp what was happening. It was like a dream. But, as GK Chesterton once observed, Truth is stranger than fiction.

You may have trouble with the idea of miracles in the New Testament because we now know the laws of nature. Dr. John Lennox, emeritus professor of mathematics and philosophy at Oxford University, comments: ‘The laws of nature that science observes are the observable regularities that God the creator has built into the universe. However, such ‘laws’ don’t prevent God from intervening if he chooses. When he does, we are able to identify the irregularity and speak of it as ‘a miracle’’.

Jesus’ resurrection is not the result of a natural law that can be tested. Rather, as the New Testament tells us, it happened because God chose to over-rule, using his awesome, supernatural power (Romans 6:4b).

More than ever our confused world needs to hear God’s good news. When we turn to the risen Christ, he says to us, ‘Peace be with you. Have no fear’.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!

A Prayer. Almighty Father, you have given your only Jesus Christ, to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant that we may put away the old influences of corruption and evil, and always serve you in sincerity and truth; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. (BCP, First Sunday after Easter – adapted)

You might like to listen to Christ Our Hope in Life and Death from Getty Music.

© John G. Mason