Jesus is Risen! Unbelievable?

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” 1 Corinthians 15:19 (NRSV).

You can blame my Easter sermon on a newspaper columnist. A few years ago I read a column in a well known paper in which the writer lamented that yet again the pastor had settled on saying nice things during his sermon. It seems he was tired of hearing positive and heart-warming things when what he really wanted to hear were reasons to overcome scepticism that Jesus rose from the dead. Interestingly, I get the impression from the New Testament that the sermons of the apostles leaned more toward convincing people that Jesus rose from the dead than toward giving a nice devotional thought for the day. For the early church Easter is central. It still is!

The sermon this Easter is not a nice one. Rather, as per the suggestion of the newspaper columnist we will be looking at reasons we can believe in Jesus’ resurrection in our sceptical age. I will be loosely following a framework laid out by Dan Grossenbach who in a recent edition of the Cold Case Christianity podcast suggested that all objections to the Christian faith fit within five basic questions which go by the acronym CHIPS.

  1. Is it comprehensible, that is, does it make sense?
  2. Is it historical, that is, did it really happen?
  3. Is this the correct interpretation? Are we really interpreting the data properly?
  4. Is it preserved properly? Can we put any trust in the Bible in the first place?
  5. Is it significant? Does this have any relevance to my life?

Normally this blog contains either a condensed version of the sermon (ie. the version some would rather I preach!), or one of the points. But for today, this is actually an expanded version. We will be looking at some of the following in greater depth during some of our upcoming Adult Bible Classes. So let’s get started!

Does it Make Sense?

Is it reasonable to believe the Christian claim that Jesus rose from the dead? After all, in the experience of most of us, if not all of us, people don’t rise from the dead. So why should we believe that this one person, Jesus, did?

Is it even possible that someone might rise from the dead? If our starting point is that there is no such thing as the supernatural, that there is no God whatsoever, then our minds are likely already made up: of course it cannot happen. But if the door is open to the possibility that God exists, then we should be open to the idea that God could work a miracle. God could raise a man from the dead if he wanted to.

But just because it is possible that God could choose to raise a dead man (or woman) to life, does that make the resurrection of Jesus any more believable? If a friend told you that one of their relatives had risen from the dead after being dead for a day or two, would you believe them? I hope not! We are correct to be sceptical of such claims and usually a better explanation can be found, that someone was hallucinating for example. If such scepticism is to be commended then surely would we not be correct in applying such reasonable scepticism to the resurrection of Jesus?

Well, no actually.  The thing to notice here is that it is a matter of context. If you are open to the existence of a miracle working God, there is still no reason to expect that he would grant that particular miracle for your friend’s relative. It would be reasonable to expect God to work as he normally does – by not supernaturally raising dead people to life, but rather letting what happens naturally, happen naturally. This is what we normally expect and we normally see no reasons for exception to this. Is there a reason for an exception in the case of Jesus?

Well, yes actually. If we are open to the possibility of God, we should also be open to the possibility that God would make himself known. In fact if that God were a good God we might expect more than mere possibility, but rather the probability that he would have some form of relation to his creation and interaction with it. The Biblical account commends itself to this expectation, and moreover the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) describes how God has concern for all nations (see Genesis 12:1-3), and promises to go beyond interaction with humanity to intervention for humanity. Jesus, his life, ministry, death, and resurrection fits perfectly with this expectation of God’s interest in humanity, and also with the intention to intervene on behalf of humanity as revealed in the Hebrew Bible.

So yes, when we hear of a resurrection it is appropriate to normally be sceptical, this being a miracle we should not expect. However, in this one case of Jesus, the miracle actually fits what we expect from God. Moreover, we should not be surprised that people don’t normally rise from the dead, as the Biblical teaching is that our resurrection is in the future: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20 NIV). So for us to argue that no one could ever rise from the dead for that is what experience teaches us, is for the bug on my wall to argue that penguins don’t eat fish. The bug does not have the penguin’s perspective. We do not have God’s perspective, but we do have his revelation, in the Bible and supremely in Jesus whom he raised from the dead.

If God exists, then it is reasonable to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, it does make sense. And there are good reasons to believe God exists!

But Did it Really Happen?

So if we conclude the resurrection is reasonable, there will still be some questions ahead of us including “did it even happen?” We might conclude, for example, that it would be reasonable to believe that I could have ridden my former motorcycle over 200 km/h given its 121 horsepower, but that does not mean it happened (and I’m not about to admit that it did!). Just because it is is reasonable to believe that Jesus could have been raised from the dead, does not mean that he actually did. Is there anything to commend the idea that his resurrection really is historically accurate?

Quite a number of scholars like to point out the “minimum facts” when dealing with this question. (You can Google Gary Habermas or William Lane Craig for example). The minimum facts are those things that scholars and students of history can agree upon as having actually occurred as per reasonable standards of historical enquiry. These are facts agreed upon by conservative and liberal, theistic and atheistic scholars alike. So for a moment let’s not think of the New Testament as a devotional or religious book, but rather as a collection of source materials which the historian can examine to discover what actually happened. This is how history is figured out and it is worth pointing out here that if you are going to be hyper-sceptical with regards to the source documents we call the New Testament, then every other source document from antiquity requires ‘hyper-sceptivity’ and your standard history text-books will be thin indeed.

So what are the minimum facts that scholars tend to agree upon? Common ones include the empty tomb, the claims to have seen Jesus alive, the change in the disciples and new disciples like Paul and James, and the beginning and growth of the early church. Each of these are worth looking into to see why the scholars agree on them, but time won’t permit that here. Rather what we want to look for is the explanation that fits the minimum facts. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Perhaps the disciples stole the body and then claimed to have seen Jesus alive? First, the guards were set there so that they would not steal the body, but even if there were no guards, it fails to explain the origin and growth of the early church. Ten of the eleven disciples (Judas already dead) were eventually martyred for their faith in Jesus. Why would they die for a lie when they already showed themselves incapable of living for the truth when they fled from Jesus at his arrest? Judas betrayed Jesus before his crucifixion, but none of the disciples betrayed the Easter belief following, which is when you would expect an even greater movement of betrayal. You would expect someone to break ranks under persecution. Further, you would not expect sceptics like James and Paul to join the ranks of the persecuted.

2. Perhaps the disciples were hallucinating and so did not really see Jesus alive following the crucifixion? However, Paul could point to over five-hundred people who claimed to see Jesus alive, his writing being early enough to be a kind of “check-it-out-if-you-like” suggestion (see 1 Corinthians 15:8).  The idea of so many people hallucinating the same thing is quite unreasonable, and even if you could make a case for mass hallucinations (at different times we might add), given the theology and culture of the day we would expect such to be more in line with seeing a “ghost” of Jesus, rather than a Risen Jesus. So already this idea does not commend itself, but even if it did, it does not explain the empty tomb, now why the likes of James and Paul came to believe.

3. Perhaps Jesus did not really die, but only appeared to be dead? This is unlikely given the beating Jesus took prior to crucifixion, and the efficiency of the Romans to do crucifixion well. The spear was thrust into the side of Jesus to ensure he was in fact dead. That Jesus’ legs were not broken to speed up death as with the other two crucified men is evidence they were satisfied that he was in fact dead. Also, even if Jesus had survived, he would have appeared so weak that his appearance would not have inspired the kind of faith the disciples went to their deaths with.

4. Perhaps Jesus was raised from the dead? This explains the empty tomb, the record of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples and sceptics like James and Paul, and the origin of the Christian faith very well. It also fits well with the context of religious belief in that time and among those people. That is, belief in the Risen Christ is something that follows on naturally from the Jewish hopes, yet is not something we would have expected anyone to make up. This is the best explanation of all the known facts. However, if you are not open to the possibility that God exists then of course the best explanation will not be admissible. Perhaps one will want to say that these source documents are not reliable for historical enquiry in the first place? We will look into that next.

Can We Trust the Church Got It Right?

Thus far we have seen how the resurrection of Jesus is a reasonable belief, and that it has much to commend it as a historical event. But are Christians interpreting Jesus and Easter correctly? Can we trust that the church got it right? Some might suggest that the source documents are too far from the actual event to be trustworthy and that the Christian theology flowing from the resurrection of Jesus is really a fountain with a false source. So what if the resurrection of Jesus fits the minimum facts the best, perhaps we should not trust the New Testament in the first place? Perhaps the so-called Gnostic Gospels are closer to the truth about Jesus, or the Muslim tradition with its insistence that Jesus was spared the cross, or perhaps there is no tradition that has understood Jesus properly? Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus is a fable just like some of the other gods that man has created in his own image? These are matters of interpretation, that is, we might frame it with the question: “Is the Christian interpretation of the resurrection of Jesus the best interpretation?”

If you walked by the church just now as I write and saw my motorcycle in the parking where it was not two hours ago, you might think that I had it delivered on the back of a pick up truck. That is a possible interpretation of the known facts, but is it the most reasonable? The most reasonable interpretation is that I rode in on it this morning, which I did. What is the most reasonable interpretation of who Jesus is and what happened at Easter?

There are generally two main lines of interpretation put forward. First, perhaps there was a man named Jesus who went around and taught good things (or perhaps there wasn’t), but following his death different ideas were added as to the significance of this man and the events he was involved in. Perhaps people like Paul mixed Jewish expectation with pagan myths and came up with the Jesus we find in the New Testament documents. On this interpretation, all religious interpretations are far from the truth and therefore unreasonable. Second, perhaps Jesus lived, taught, worked miracles, was crucified and was raised again to life. In this view the Christian view as found in the New Testament is the interpretation of Jesus to be trusted. Can we know? There are a few things to commend the Christian interpretation:

1. Dating of the documents of the New Testament: for reasons we do not have time or space to document here (we will be digging deeper in our Adult Bible Class), the New Testament documents are the closest in time to the events they describe. All of them are written in the first century, and the majority of them fall somewhere between 49 AD and 70 AD. Remembering that the event we now know as Easter occurred in the 30’s, this is quite close, and close enough for eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus and those who had seen Jesus alive following his resurrection to still be alive. Also, within the New Testament documents scholars point to what are called “confessional statements” which are not original to the author, but basically quotations of statements that Christians would repeat as part of their liturgy, so these go back in time even further. One of these is contained within Paul’s writing on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIV)

Some scholars point out that the confessional element here would have been used within a decade of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and Paul quotes it knowing that many of the eyewitnesses are still alive and that their stories can be checked out. Given the time frames, it is more reasonable to see Christian theology flowing from the experience of the Risen Christ, than legendary material added to the remembrance of a mortal Jesus, or the creation of a Jesus out of thin air. The Gnostic Gospels on the other hand and all such material are too far from the events to be reliable as source materials on Jesus, rather they are source materials on Gnostic thought. The Muslim interpretation is even further removed and can not be reasonably counted as historically accurate for learning about Jesus.

2. Church History: Some people maintain that the classic Christian formulation of the faith was not the most truthful one, but rather the one that won out against all competing interpretations. Often such make out the process of defining which books belong in the New Testament to be quite an arbitrary one, and one that was not completed until centuries after the time of Jesus, the Council of Nicea of 325 usually being cited. Dan Brown’s “The Davinci Code” makes the whole process sound like a power trip on the part of the Church leadership, however, this is not a fair reflection. A study of non-Biblical Christian writings reveals that the books of the New Testament were well respected from very early days, with only some of the more minor writings being debated. By the time the New Testament canon was formalized, it was really just a formality. These were the documents that Christians were already looking to, and always had, not the Gnostic Gospels which came later as a perversion of Christian belief under the influence of gnostic thinking.

3. That genuine feel: As my main ‘preaching’ Bible is now held together with duct tape, I thought I’d invest in a new one. My choice was down to one of two, either a bonded leather or a genuine leather one, the bonded leather winning out on price. However, sometimes I wish I had sprung for the genuine leather – you could feel the difference, you could tell it was the real thing. There is a feel to the documents of the New Testament, especially when comparing the Gospels of the New Testament to the Gnostic Gospels, the former have a real feel to them, being more a matter of fact relating of story than the telling of legend.

Given the feel of the documents, the flow of history, and the dating of the documents which fits nicely into that flow, it is reasonable to conclude that if any of the interpretations of Jesus is likely to be historical and correct, it will be the classic Christian one. So if you are open to the existence of God and the reality of the supernatural at all (and there are reasons to be so), it is a reasonable thing to trust the Christian interpretation. But can we trust the the documents of the New Testament in the first place? While they may be early, perhaps they have been changed so much over the centuries that we should not trust them? We will look at this next.

Can We Trust the The Bible Has Not Been Changed Over the Years?

Thus far we have seen that belief in the the resurrection of Jesus is reasonable, there are reasons to see it as historical, and that the Christian interpretation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus commends itself as a good and reasonable interpretation. But in looking at the reasonableness of the belief in the resurrection, what if the writings of the New Testament have been so altered that what we read today is not what was written back then? Can we trust that the documents of the New Testament have been correctly preserved? This is an especially important question when we realize that we do not have any of the original documents, but only copies of copies.

Yes, we can trust that they have been preserved. When it comes to the trail of texts going back in history, Scholar Daniel Wallace says we have “an embarrassment of riches.” Here are some things to consider:  We have far more texts of the New Testament documents than are available for any other works of antiquity. There are thousands of New Testament texts, while for many of the major works there are really only a handful. In addition to the texts themselves we have many, many different translations and quotations from Christian writers that confirm the content of the texts. Not only do we have more texts of the New Testament documents than any other work of antiquity, but many of those are much closer to the date of the original writings than is the case for other works from antiquity. In many of those other works there are many centuries between the oldest copies and the original works, but in the case of the New Testament we have copies dating from about 200 AD, and we have some fragments that date to 125 AD. By the normal standards of history this is considered weighty evidence that the texts are reliably close to the originals.

Finally, there is the fact that you could go with an alternate reading every time and still come up with the same people doing and saying the same things and the same theology flowing from it. The differences that did creep in over the years (and which we can discover because we have so many texts to work with) do not actually make a difference. You will still read about Jesus’ teaching, death, and resurrection!

This is a very brief introduction to this topic, but we will take a closer look at this in our Adult Bible Class sometime in the near future.

Is it Significant? Why should I care?

We could spend time looking at how it is reasonable to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, that it fits historically with the known facts, that the Church was responding to this historical fact rather than making it up, and that our source documents (the works that make up the New Testament) have been reliably preserved, but if it is not significant to us we may not care. To go back to a former illustration, it may well be true that penguins eat fish, but that fact may be completely irrelevant to the bug on my wall. Should we care that Jesus rose from the dead?

First, if Jesus is raised from the dead, then God loves us very much indeed! Some may wonder if there is a God, and if there is, if that God is a God who loves. The Christian does not wonder, the Christian knows. Jesus was raised showing God’s power to accomplish his purposes. Jesus died showing God’s love for sinful people, his death reconciling us to God.  I am not as a Christian pastor trying to persuade you that the Christian faith is the best religion, or is most reasonable world-view.  Rather I want you to experience the wonderful love and grace of God in your life.

Second, if Jesus is raised from the dead, then we must take Jesus seriously. The resurrection of Jesus is confirmation of the identity and work of Jesus. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, we might look back to him as an inspiring figure in history, some of whose teachings we like, some of which we might rather leave in the dust of history. But if Jesus is risen, then he is much more than inspiring, He is Lord, and His teaching becomes of first importance to us, and his work, what he accomplished becomes of first importance.

Third, if Jesus is raised from the dead, then we must take all of the Bible seriously. And if we are to take all of the Bible seriously, then we must take theology seriously.

Fourth, if Jesus has been raised from the dead, then we must take the person and work of the Holy Spirit seriously.

Fifth, if Jesus has been raised from the dead, then we must take the nature and work of the Church seriously.

Not finally, for there is more we could say, but to draw this to a close (for you have read and I have written enough, for now), if Jesus has been raised from the dead then we look forward to our own resurrection.

Is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead significant? There is nothing in the world as significant!