Our culture resists the idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection. Most of the recent Easter cards reflect this. While there are motifs of new life, new birth, and even renewal, rarely is the word ‘resurrection’ mentioned. Theologians don’t always help, for some will tell us at Christmas that Jesus was not born of a virgin, and at Easter that he was not physically raised from the dead.
Hugh McKay, a Sydney commentator, once put it this way: ‘The historical, literal truth about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, has little connection with the Easter celebration of Christian believers. Faith thrives on doubt and therefore, even if Jesus didn’t live, die and come back to life again, Easter would still have meaning.’ It’s a very attractive view: Jesus’ resurrection is no more than a mystical experience, without any necessary foundation in fact.
But that is one thing the New Testament refuses to accept. For, contrary to what society thinks, what some theologians think and what some ministers preach, the writers of the New Testament are insistent: Jesus’ tomb was empty. Witnesses saw him alive.
One of the remarkable features of the account of Jesus’ resurrection is the witness of women. Under Jewish law at the time, the testimony of a woman was inadmissible and even in Roman society a women’s witness was not treated with equal weight as a man’s. If Jesus’ resurrection was a fiction women would not be the first witnesses: yet all four Gospels record that they were.
Another amazing feature about Jesus’ resurrection is the reference to angels. If I was inventing a story that I wanted others to accept, I would not introduce angelic figures. Having said that, if I thought that introducing angels might make my story about supernatural events more acceptable, I would let the angels speak for themselves, and give their version of what had happened and why. An angelic press conference could be quite remarkable. But all the angel said to the women was: ‘If you want to find Jesus there’s no point in you being here; he is risen.’
G.K. Chesterton once applied some words of Lord Byron to Christianity: Truth is stranger than fiction, he said, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.
On Monday, September 10, 2001, Judy and I were living just three short blocks from the World Trade Centre. That evening we dined just down from the Trade Centre. If anyone had said to us that on the following morning terrorists would hi-jack two commercial aircraft and crash them into the Trade Centre with innocent passengers on board, we would have said, ‘It wouldn’t happen. It couldn’t happen. It won’t happen’.
We may at first have difficulty understanding the notion of Jesus’ resurrection, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen and didn’t happen. The New Testament witness is consistent: Jesus did physically rise from the dead. In the earliest written account we read: Christ (he) was buried,… he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and… he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living… (1 Corinthians 15:4-6).
JESUS’ PHYSICAL RESURRECTION
Peter preached his first sermon about Jesus being raised from the dead less than three miles from the tomb. People could have easily checked for themselves whether the tomb was empty.
Dr John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, in Gunning for God (Lion: 2011, p.212) writes, The empty tomb is important: if it were not empty, you could not speak of resurrection. But we need to be clear that the early Christians did not simply assert that the tomb was empty. Far more important for them was the fact that subsequently they had met the risen Christ… It was nothing less than this that galvanized them into action, and gave them the courage to confront the world with the message of the Christian gospel… The fact that they had personally witnessed these appearances of the risen Christ formed an integral part of that gospel.
God’s good news is good because it is true. It is grounded in fact. Jesus’ resurrection is not fiction. It is the reality that authenticates God’s willingness to forgive us; that gives us hope and joy. It is the reality that surely stirs us to speak with others about God’s gospel.
© John G. Mason