What would you do if it were proved that Jesus did not rise from the dead? I’m not sure what the evidence might be. Perhaps someone found a tomb with a body that had been crucified with a slit in the side and perhaps there was a marker that said this was Jesus of Nazareth, who preached and healed and cast out demons. I don’t know what the evidence would be, but suppose it was discovered and it was conclusive proof. What would you do?
This is the question that was asked in one of my classes in seminary. One of my classmates said he would get a case of beer, sit under a tree reading Ecclesiastes and wait for the Messiah to come.
The point is that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then our Christian faith is dead. If Jesus did not rise from the dead J. I. Packer says four things would then be true.
First, to quote Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:17: ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
Second, there is then no hope of our rising either; we must expect to stay dead too.
Third, if Jesus Christ is not risen, then he is not reigning and will not return and every single item in the Creed after “suffered and was buried” will have to be struck out.
Fourth, Christianity cannot be what the first Christians thought it was – fellowship with a living Lord who is identical with the Jesus of the Gospels. The Jesus of the Gospels can still be your hero, but he cannot be your Savior.
If Jesus died but did not rise from the dead, then he would join every other religious leader in history.
There was a joke some years ago, when Saddam Hussein was still in power in Iraq. The joke was that Hussein died and there was a world conference to decide what to do with his body. No country in the world wanted to take his body and bury it except for Israel and Saudi Arabia. They both fought for the right to bury him, not because they honored him, but because they wanted to ensure he remained dead. The UN heard arguments from both countries and then finally gave Saudi Arabia the right to bury Saddam Hussein. What won the debate was when Saudi Arabia told Israel, “We buried our prophet and he is still in the grave, but when you buried your prophet, three days later he rose from the dead.”
Mohammed died and was buried. Confucius died and was buried. Buddha died and was buried. Gurus have died and were buried. Charismatic leaders have died and been buried. All of these were buried and are still in the ground. Only Jesus, in the history of the world, died, was buried and then rose from the dead. This is why only Jesus can save us. That is why only Jesus is good news. Other religious leaders may be able to help us with some good thoughts and good teachings, they can be inspirational, but they are powerless to save us from death. This is our common fate: we will all die and be buried in the ground. Only someone who has risen from the dead can help us at the end of our lives.
So it matters that what we believe is true. If the resurrection of Jesus is only a story invented by his followers, then it is an empty faith with no power to do anything of eternal significance. How do we know it is true?
In 1828 H. E. G. Paulus shared his theory of what happened. He claimed that in 1st century Palestine it was common for people to be buried when they were not actually dead and this is what happened to Jesus. He fainted on the cross and then the smell of the spices in which he was wrapped and the coolness of the tomb revived him and so on Sunday morning he was able to walk out of the tomb. Somehow Jesus managed to get out of the graveclothes that had been wrapped round and round him and somehow Jesus managed to roll away the large stone that sealed the tomb.
There is a desperate quality to the arguments that Jesus did not really die and did not really resurrect, because if he did, then he can not be pushed off to the side while we live our lives. If Jesus did die and did rise from the dead, then he is a truth every person must confront.
So first of all, let me say something about the truth of Jesus dying on the cross. In John’s gospel, there is a detail about his death. (John 19:34)
one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.
There is a lot of discussion about this. Did the spear pierce the pericardial sac around the heart? Was there a build up of fluid in his chest cavity because of the severe beating Jesus received before being crucified? Whatever the cause, this detail reveals that Jesus died. The Roman soldiers came to break the legs of the prisoners so they would die more quickly but did not need to do this to Jesus because he was already dead. And just to make sure, they pierced his side, perhaps stabbing into his heart. So Jesus died and the resurrection has to be dealt with head on, not by trying to say he did not really die.
Let me share just three of the most convincing pieces of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
When Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin arrested Jesus and had him crucified, they thought they had dealt with a threat to their power and authority as leaders of Israel’s religious community. So when a little more than a month later his disciples appeared in the Temple and proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead, it was in their interest to go to the tomb of Jesus and take out his body and prove that he had not risen from the dead. All they had to do was to produce the body and they could stop this rising movement. But they could not produce the body because the body was not there. The tomb was empty.
The empty tomb is a problem for those who claim Jesus did not rise from the dead. Where was his body if he did not rise from the dead?
Jesus was buried Friday before sundown and the next day the chief priests and the Pharisees met with Pilate (Matthew 27:62–66)
and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
So the Temple guard, the same group that had arrested Jesus, went to the tomb and secured it.
Later, after the stone that sealed the tomb was rolled away and Jesus resurrected, some of the Temple soldiers came to tell the chief priests what had happened. The chief priests called an emergency meeting to discuss what to do and then (Matthew 28:12–15)
they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
The chief priests were concerned that the disciples would do something to keep the movement going and so took steps to prevent any stealing of the body. They wanted to makes sure Jesus stayed in the grave.
When it became clear something miraculous had happened, rather than respond and say, “Perhaps we were wrong about this Jesus,” they took steps to cover up what the soldiers had seen. They did not look for the disciples and arrest them and try to find the body because they knew there was no body. They had heard from the soldiers what had happened.
The chief priests were proactive in guarding against any disturbance of the body of Jesus and then worked to cover up the truth of what had happened. If there had been a body, they would have used it to stop the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection.
The empty tomb is the first piece of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.
The second convincing piece of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is the change in the disciples. The portrayal of the disciples in the gospels is not very flattering. They followed Jesus but time after time failed to understand what he was talking about. They got carried away and suggested Jesus ask them to call down fire to destroy a Samaritan village that had rejected Jesus. They argued among themselves who would have the most power when Jesus became king. They watched Jesus feed the crowd of four thousand and then when they forgot to bring food to eat, Jesus made reference to the yeast of the Pharisees. The disciples immediately broke into discussion, clueless about what Jesus was saying. You can read disappointment in the words of Jesus to his twelve, trusted disciples. (Mark 8:17–21)
“Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? … “Do you not yet understand?”
When Jesus gave them power to heal and cast out demons, they went out, two by two, and came back like giddy schoolboys, excited that they had been able to do what Jesus did. But even at the end, when Jesus spoke to them at the Passover Meal on the night he was arrested, they did not understand that he was the Messiah who had come to die for them. When Jesus was arrested, they ran and hid in fear. Their thoughts of bravery disappeared and they hid behind locked doors.
A month and a half later there they were, out in the Temple courtyard, speaking with authority, healing a man born lame, standing up boldly to the threats of the Sanhedrin. What happened to them? What made the change? The resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit transformed them into men who now were able to do the work Jesus had been doing. How else do you explain this sudden change except by the supernatural resurrection of Jesus?
A third piece of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is that the disciples not only preached with authority, without fear, but that they went to their death proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. James was killed by Herod and then Peter was arrested, but this did not slow down the apostles. They moved out into the world, preaching and proclaiming the risen Jesus and all of them died a violent death except for John.
Being willing to die for what you believe is not proof that what you believe is true. There are Muslims who are willing to die for their faith. Members of cults go to their death because of the power of their beliefs. So to say that what Christians believe is true because they are willing to die for their faith in Jesus is not a convincing argument.
But I think there is an argument to be made that evidence for the resurrection of Jesus can be seen in the fact that his immediate disciples were willing to die for their belief that he had resurrected.
If the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus and buried it somewhere and then made up stories that he had appeared to them, would they then be willing to die for their deception? Are people willing to die for their lies and deception? People will deny they have lied and deceived, but if telling the truth will spare their lives, then they will confess the lie rather than die.
Maybe they had a vested interest in maintaining the lie that Jesus had risen from the dead. But what would that interest be? Did the disciples set up centers of wealth and power after the death of Jesus? Did they have an earthly kingdom to protect and preserve?
The historical record shows the disciples did not seek power. Peter, who picked up a sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when the Temple guard came to arrest him, this same Peter wrote his letter to Christians being persecuted (1 Peter 3:13–17)
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
Peter’s letter is a renouncing of power, not a seeking for power.
The disciples of Jesus turned their back on wealth and power and went out into the world to preach the good news of Jesus. And all of them, except for John, died premature deaths, suffering because of the message they preached.
The evidence is convincing that Jesus died and that he rose from the dead.
The Apostles’ Creed continues: He ascended into heaven,
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.
I imagine you have pictured this scene. The disciples go with Jesus and they stand around him as he gives them his blessing. Then his feet lift off the ground and he rises, like a helium-filled balloon, and they watch as he becomes a smaller and smaller figure until only an imagination can think he can still be seen, a speck in the sky. Is that how it was?
This picture presupposes that heaven is up there. Jesus came down here from up there, lived on earth, died and was resurrected, and then floated back up to heaven. But heaven is not part of this universe. It is not up there. Jesus did not ascend into space.
When Jesus ascended, he moved beyond the earthly limits of time and space and entered into heaven’s dimensions. And then from heaven’s dimensions he sent the Holy Spirit to empower us and enable us to carry on his work.
Here is a question that came to my mind as I contemplated this part of the Apostles’ Creed: Why didn’t Jesus remain on earth to rule and build his kingdom? How would the last 2,000 years have been different if Jesus had resurrected, set up shop in Jerusalem, and then continued to teach and preach and heal and cast out demons?
For decade after decade and century after century he would be present, appearing around the world, popping into homes and churches and military and government buildings. There would be no debate about his existence. In our modern world, there would be a Jesus channel with 24 hour coverage of all he did and said. He would help people put down the sword and pick up the plow, stop injustice before it happened, keep hurricanes and typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis from wrecking their destructive force on us. The wars and genocides of the past 2,000 years would not have happened. There would be no sex trafficking, no exploitation of children.
Doesn’t that sound great? If I were God, this is what I would have done because I am overwhelmed by the weight of suffering in the world. Technology has brought the world much closer to us. One or two hundred years ago we would not know what was happening in other parts of the world. It would be distant news, abstract and disconnected from our lives. But now the technology brings the people around the world who suffer into intimate contact with us.
I see pictures and interviews of children who have been trafficked. I have relationships with people in Syria and Egypt, Japan and Thailand where people suffer from political unrest and natural disasters. I am far more intimate with the world than my ancestors one or two centuries ago. And for this reason I feel the weight of the suffering of the world in a way my ancestors did not.
I told someone recently that I am optimistic for the Kingdom of God and pessimistic for the kingdom on earth. I am so tired of all the misery in this world. I am so discouraged by human behavior. We keep on making the same mistakes over and over again. We make progress and then throw it all away. Our greed and lust for power just will not disappear.
So I would have kept Jesus here with all his power to stop storms and make us walk a straight line.
But that does not seem to serve God’s purposes. Jesus ascended and sent the Holy Spirit who works within us, encouraging us to make good choices, to choose to walk a straight path through life.
Why is this better than for Jesus to reign here on earth? It is because God wants us to grow in faith and this is not done in the presence of certainty; it is best done in the presence of doubt.
Jesus does not want to force us to believe; he wants us to choose to believe. Jesus does not want us to choose because it works to our advantage; he wants us to choose with our heart. Jesus ascended and sent the Holy Spirit because he knew that would be the best way for us to grow in faith.
The Apostles’ Creed continues: and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
This is an expression of the power and authority of Jesus. People who met Jesus in Palestine were not sure who he was. Anyone who comes face-to-face with Jesus now will have no doubt that he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the all-powerful king.
Who is the most powerful man or woman on earth? Some might argue for the strongest person. Others would argue for the wealthiest person. Maybe the most powerful person on earth is the one with the strongest military or perhaps the most media influence. But Augustine, the 4th century Berber church leader, pointed out that the worst thing a person can do to us is kill us – and a snake or mushroom can do the same. So, he said, a person has no more power than a mushroom.
We fear the power of people over us in this world, but from the perspective of eternity, we are all going to die anyway. Sooner or later, our body will go into a grave. So what difference does it make if this happens earlier in our life or later? It makes a big difference to us here and now, but I suspect from eternity’s viewpoint this is not so important.
Men and women have the power to kill us and end our life on this planet, but Jesus has the power to make the entire universe go back into the nothing it came from. Jesus has the power to send us to an eternal hell. Jesus has all power, but we are encouraged in Scripture to approach him with confidence. (Hebrews 10:19–24)
Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
How do we know this to be true? How can we trust that the all-powerful Jesus will act lovingly toward us?
Look at his hands. Look at his feet. Look at his side. Jesus rose from the dead and although his body was transformed into a resurrection body, he carried the scars of his crucifixion into his resurrection. His scars are proof that we have an intimacy with God that death cannot break.
This is why Paul wrote in Romans 8:38–39 (The Message)
I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.
I believe in Jesus who on the third day rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
Our faith rests on historical truth. What we believe is not the result of someone’s creative imagination. Jesus, God in the flesh, was a man who lived in Palestine, died and then rose triumphantly from the dead.
Jesus ascended to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to help us grow into holiness, to prepare us for our eternal, heavenly existence.
Jesus has all power and will bring us to himself. We can trust him with all his power because he bears the marks of his love for us on his body.
What do we need to do?
We need to worship him and give him praise. We need to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our own transformation. Jesus, who has all power, will save us but we need to cling to him. In times of great faith or great discouragement, we need to cling to Jesus.
In times of comfort or in times of suffering, we need to cling to Jesus.
When it seems as clear as a bell or when there seems no evidence that God exists and loves us, we need to cling desperately to Jesus.
When we are healthy or when we are seriously ill, we need to cling as tightly as we can to Jesus.
When we are surrounded by hundreds and thousands of followers of Jesus or when we are all alone, in the midst of people who do not believe Jesus is God, we need to cling with hope to Jesus.
Jesus will save us but we need to cling to him.