The Skeptics Easter

This is the time of year you see a host of television shows and news articles on Jesus. People seem to instinctively recognize that if the Biblical testimony about the resurrection is true, Jesus then becomes someone in a class all His own and qualifies to be the Savior He claims to be.

As a result of this fact, Christianity and the Resurrection have been under attack for nearly 2000 years. Even those in the quasi-church (those who call themselves Christians but actually deny the foundational truths of the faith) have come up with all kinds of wacky theories to explain away the Resurrection (and subsequently the implications of that Resurrection). They are joined by the media that celebrates books such as the Da Vinci Code and the revelation of supposed “hidden gospels” (which were never hidden and all are clearly without historical merit).

It is natural for people to be skeptical when they hear the true story of Easter. It is a unique and fantastic claim. This has always been the case. As you read the account of that first Easter Sunday you discover that even the inner circle of Jesus (the disciples) were skeptical when they heard the news. One commentator wrote, “We are asked to believe that someone dead and decomposing for three days became alive again. If initially you are a skeptic or a cynic, you have good reason to be. You understand the issues.

Let’s back up in the story to get the context. It had been a very long weekend for the disciples. Jesus, the man they had given three years of their life to follow, was arrested, rushed through the legal system, tortured, and then executed in a public exhibition.

Jesus was taken from the cross and buried in the tomb of a rich Jewish leader by the name of Joseph of Arimathea. A group of woman who were part of Jesus’ “team” watched Jesus being put into the tomb. Because of the Passover Sabbath, preparation of Jesus’ body for burial was incomplete. The women determined they would return and properly finish the burial of the man who had changed their lives after the Sabbath.

So on Sunday morning a group of women set out before the sun was even up. They were wondered about rolling the stone away from the tomb (apparently they did not know about the guard that had been placed at the site). But when they arrived, the stone was already rolled back and the body of Jesus was missing.

The women returned to the place where the disciples were staying convinced that Jesus had resurrected from the dead. We are told “their words seemed like nonsense”. The word used is the same word used in everyday Greek to refer to the delirious stories told by the very sick who are on morphine or some other strong drug. It is the kind of word you might use for the stories of someone who suffered from dementia.

It’s important to distinguish between two kinds of skepticism. The first kind of skepticism comes because you are uncertain about what is happening. The information does not seem possible. For example, suppose I told you that a certain person had gone skydiving. You might look at the person and think, “Nah”. However, you ask the person if they have ever gone skydiving and they tell you they have and show you pictures of their experience. In this case skepticism would give way to belief.

But there is another kind of skepticism. This skepticism is a smokescreen put up because a person simply does not want to believe. They have their mind made up and they will not be influenced by the facts. Such a person would look at the skydiving pictures and dismiss them saying they could have been created using Photoshop. These people wouldn’t be convinced even if they watched you jump from the plane!

There are those who dismiss the Resurrection with a wave of the hand by saying, “It is impossible” without examining any of the evidence. These people are not interested in truth; they are only interested in maintaining their prejudices. For those who are more open-minded let’s look at some of the evidence.

The Reliability of the Evidence 

The main body of evidence is found in the Bible. This is a problem to some. There is a vocal group of people who have dismissed the Resurrection saying the account was made up long after Jesus had actually died. These people tell you that the gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but were written by others who used these names to “sell” their stories. The thesis doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

No one doubts that the Apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and that he wrote it a very short time (within 30 years) after the death of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul quoted an early creed which many believe was given to Paul when he met Peter three years after his conversion. If that is true, the creed was being used very shortly after the death of Jesus. The creed says,

“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 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 Cor 15:3-6)

What this shows us is that the Resurrection story was not added later but was the very foundation on which the church was built!

The book of Acts is a history of the early church. It does not mention the persecution of the church under Nero, the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, or the death of Paul. All would have been significant additions to Luke’s work. This means Acts was surely written before these things took place around AD 65. At the beginning of the book of Acts, Luke mentions his previous book, the Gospel of Luke.  So Luke was written within 25-30 years of the death of Christ.

Scholars agree that Mark was written before Luke which also gives Mark an early date of authorship. Early church Father St. Ignatius who died in 115 AD quoted the Gospel of Matthew so it was obviously in existence already. Archaeologists have a very early fragment from the Gospel of John which places its writing firmly in the first century.

What does all this mean: it means the story of Christ and his resurrection was recorded by contemporaries of Jesus and the Resurrection account is not some later addition to the gospels but the very bedrock of the teaching.

The Eyewitness Testimony

So let’s look at the evidence the Gospels give us.  First, Jesus truly died and was buried in a tomb that was easy to find. We are told the Roman guard, an experienced executioner, pronounced him dead. He was pierced with a spear and from account of “water and the blood” coming out from his body indicates the spear pierced his heart. He was certainly and irretrievably dead. Jesus was buried in the tomb of a well-know man, the women saw where He was buried, and the Jews knew where he was buried because they put a guard at the tomb.

Second, there was an empty tomb. On Resurrection morning Jesus was not in the tomb. Some have suggested the women went to the wrong tomb. If so, the disciples also went to the wrong tomb and Joseph of Arimathea (who surely went to see for himself) couldn’t find his own burial site! What’s more, if they had gone to the wrong tomb it would have been real easy to disprove the resurrection . . . they could have produced his body!

Third, people claimed to have seen Jesus, talked to Jesus, walked with Jesus and even eaten with Jesus. This was not an isolated experience. Hundreds of people testified to seeing Jesus after his resurrection! These appearances recurred for over a month. Paul encouraged people to talk to the eyewitnesses.

Fourth, the accounts are not all the same. In one gospel account, the ladies are together, in another Mary Magdalene is by herself. In one account there is one angel at the tomb and in another there are two angels. In one account Peter went to the tomb, in another it was Peter and John who went to the tomb. Isn’t this evidence against the story? No.  If you watch enough police shows on television you know that when several suspects give exactly the same story it shows they have rehearsed the story and are not telling the truth. The Biblical accounts do not contradict each other; they just give us different versions of what happened. This would be similar to the differences in two people giving testimony about an accident they witnessed.

Fifth, Jesus first appeared to women. If the church was making up this story Jesus would not have appeared first to women. In that day the testimony of women was not acceptable in court. Women were viewed as second class people.  If you were making up the story you would have had Jesus appear first to one of the disciples or even the Centurion!

Sixth, there is the dramatic change in the disciples. It is interesting that the skeptics in the story are the disciples! They were not looking for or expecting a literal resurrection of Jesus. They were cautious and did not want to open themselves up to disappointment again. But these same men are suddenly out preaching that Christ was the true Messiah who gave His life for our sin and rose again so that we might be made right with God.  They went from hiding in the upper room to being willing to suffer martyrdom rather than deny that Jesus is the true Lord of life. They were different men.

The Evidence from the Opposition

The evidence for the validity of the Resurrection comes not only from the eyewitness testimony. It comes also from the response (or the lack thereof) from the opponents. One of the reasons the Resurrection is not defended more in the New Testament is because the facts were unassailable. They did not need to defend it, just report it.

First, we know that even the opponents knew that Old Testament prophecy and Jesus himself had predicted that He would rise from the grave. This is the reason they sealed his tomb and put a guard at its entrance.

Second, the tomb was empty and the opponents had no explanation. All they had to do was produce the body or evidence of an alternative explanation and it would have all been over. They had nothing.

Third, some of the opponents of the faith suddenly became proponents of the faith. Jesus’ brothers had not believed previously but after the resurrection they suddenly became His followers. His brother James became a leader in the church and even wrote one of the books of the New Testament. There is also the story of Saul, who persecuted the church, and suddenly became one of the chief proponents of the new faith.  This was a more dramatic change than if a Cub fan (Dave) suddenly started rooting for the Cardinals! If that happened we would all know something dramatic had happened. These kinds of conversions have continued throughout the centuries.

The Formation of the Church

There is one more body of evidence and it is the formation of the church. A skeptic can’t simply dismiss the Resurrection without coming up with a historically feasible alternative explanation for the birth of the church. Consider,

  • It was absolute blasphemy to a Jew to propose any human being should be worshipped. Yet hundreds of Jews began worshipping Jesus literally overnight.
  • Observance of the Saturday Sabbath was a revered practice in Judaism. Yet these Jews moved the day of worship to Sunday because of the Resurrection.
  • The ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper make no sense at all apart from the Resurrection.
  • The incredible growth of the church in every country shows that this was not and is not a localized or cultural faith.

Questions for the Skeptics 

This is only part of the evidence. I believe to the deepest depths of my soul that the Resurrection happened just as it said. I believe this not because it is what I want to believe is true but because this IS what is true. Christianity is not afraid of honest questions. There is nothing wrong with being skeptical as long as it is an honest skepticism. Even the skeptic also needs to be open to questions about their beliefs.

So let me ask you some questions. Question One: In light of the evidence presented is it reasonable to conclude that Jesus really did rise from the dead? What alternative explanation is there for the facts?

  • How do you answer the eyewitness accounts and the empty tomb?
  • How do you answer the sudden beginning of the church?
  • How do you account for the dramatic change in the disciples?
  • How do you account for these Jewish people calling Jesus God and changing the day of worship?
  • How do you explain the fact that for nearly 2000 years there has been no credible answer to the Resurrection from the unbelievers?

Question Two: If Jesus did rise from the dead as He predicted, then is He is not supreme to every other person who ever lived? Doesn’t this fact show that Jesus was who He said he was? And if he was who he said he was, is it not wise to seek His salvation and live by His commands?  Let quote Pastor Tim Keller who wrote,

If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said?…This is how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew that is if was true it meant we can’t live our lives any way we want. It also meant we don’t have to be afraid of anything, not Roman swords, not cancer, nothing. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything.

The message of the risen Christ is clear: He is the only way we can have a relationship with God. Jesus said, “no one comes to the Father except through me.” This means first that you cannot gain God’s favor by being a better person, or by giving more money, or by trying harder. It is only by admitting your helplessness and putting our hope and trust in the fact that Jesus suffered the wrath that we deserve so we could know the life we could never earn.

Second, it means this notion that “All roads lead to Heaven” or “”All that matters is what is in your heart” (if that statement is true we are all headed to Hell) is false. There are not many ways to Heaven . . .only one! Salvation will not be found in some popular guru or in any other world religion. Jesus is the only one to come back from the grave. He stands alone as Savior!

Jesus calls us to radical discipleship. This means He does not summon us to “admire Him” or to “applaud Him” or to “vote for Him”. He calls us to repent (or turn from) our previous ways and become His follower. He says plainly that half-hearted faith is no faith at all. If we truly put our trust in Him them we will obey Him.

Jesus also told us that he would give us the Holy Spirit to equip us, strengthen us, and keep us on track toward holiness. The Holy Spirit will give us the strength to endure in difficult times, the words to say when we are called to make a defense for our faith, and the guidance we need to follow God’s path.

The point is that the resurrection is not a peripheral issue. It changes everything.

  • It changes the way we live our lives. We are no longer only concerned about what will bring me pleasure right now. We now build our lives on His commands. We are willing to endure suffering if that is what it takes to be true to Christ. We are willing to get involved to help others. We are willing to operate by an entirely different set of priorities from the world because we know this life is not all there is.
  • It changes the way we watch the news and respond to current events. We no longer put our hope in a person, a program, or a political party. Our hope is in Christ, the man who rose from the dead.
  • It changes the way we view some of the ethical and moral issues of our day.  As Christ-followers we understand that people are not disposable, they are created in the image of God and are made for eternity no matter whether they are in the womb or the Nursing home. We also understand that right and wrong is not decided by the courts but by the One who is Truth.
  • It changes the way we face death. Death is no longer characterized by the cemetery but by the empty tomb. Those who die in Christ, live again.
  • It changes our attitude. Life is no longer meaningless. Our situation is no longer hopeless. No matter what the circumstance we can rejoice because this world is not our true home. We aren’t defeated by the temporary frustrations and disappointments of life because we see a bigger picture. We should be characterized by rejoicing rather than grumbling.

So this Easter, even if you are a skeptic, I hope you will truly examine the evidence. It’s my hope and prayer that God will help you to see, embrace, and commit yourself to Jesus, the One who offers forgiveness, new life, and a relationship with God that begins the moment we believe and extends beyond the grave and into forever.

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