Writing in The Weekend Australian (April 3-4, 2021), John Carroll, emeritus professor of sociology at La Trobe University, Australia, comments ‘Immortality has become the great question mark… For the secular modern age, belief in any form of life after death is in doubt … Most no longer believe in a supernatural being – whether providential, guiding, punishing, or forgiving. God has become a figment of the archaic imagination…’
What then does life have to offer? The sub-text of today’s elites are the words of the 5th century BC philosopher, Protagoras: In all things man (humanity) is the measure. Men and women determine what is of value and what is not. Voices today pronounce on race and gender, equality and rights. Interestingly, in the same way that 5th Greek philosophers drew aspects of their moral teaching from Moses, so there are aspects today that reflect Judaeo-Christian values – such as the abolition of slavery. That said, aspects of today’s agenda stand in clear contrast to those virtues.
Given that life and death matters are at stake, it’s imperative we ask whether the account of Jesus’ resurrection is an invention. I say this because the resurrection is foundational for Christianity. If it’s false, let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. If it’s true, it’s life-changing.
The words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus are apt: ‘Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is hard to discover and hard to attain’. And last century G.K. Chesterton remarked, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.’
The first witnesses. In the opening lines of John 20, the Apostle relates his experience on the morning of the third day following Jesus’ crucifixion. Mary of Magdala, one of the women who went to the 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 treated as unreliable and insignificant in first century Judaism, women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb. No Jewish writer would have written this if the account were fiction.
Furthermore, John the Apostle’s own testimony rings true. He tells us that 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 that he saw and believed (20:8). But in the next sentence he tells us that neither he nor Peter understood it. Like Martha who had told Jesus she knew her brother Lazarus would rise from the dead on the last day (John 11:24), John reasoned that Jesus had gone to be with God the Father, as he had said (John 14:2-4). Neither he nor Peter understood what Jesus meant when he said they would see him again, physically risen from the dead. We need to grasp this, for it emphasises the unexpectedness and authenticity of what happened.
Despair. We need to appreciate how Jesus’ first friends 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 shout of victory, “It is finished” – ‘My work is done’ – as he died (John 19:30).
Their minds were numb with the shock that such an innocent man who had used his powers to serve others, should die a common criminal. No wonder they hid behind locked doors, fearing for their own lives.
John records that on that Sunday evening, Jesus suddenly stood in the midst of his disciples. His words, Jesus stood, contrast with the time they had last seen him – hanging on a cross, wounded and bleeding, wracked with pain, dying. And when they had seen the spear thrust in his side, they knew he was dead.
Yet 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 that Jesus 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 was proof of that.
They were overjoyed, but their minds couldn’t fully grasp what was happening. It was like a dream. But, as Chesterton observed, Truth is stranger than fiction.
As I have remarked before, 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 the ’natural laws’, intervening with his awesome, supernatural power (Romans 6:4b). And no-one has been able to prove conclusively that it didn’t happen.
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’.
Prayer: Almighty God, you have conquered death through your dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ and have opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant us by your grace to set our mind on things above, so that by your continual help our whole life may be transformed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit in everlasting glory. Amen. (BCP, Easter Day – adapted)