How Can I Know Jesus Really Rose From the Dead?
There is no lack of bad news for us these days. We have a regular diet of crimes, wars and terrorism. There is so much of it that it takes a lot to shock us anymore.
I recently came across one news story that did shock me, although it had nothing to do with violence. A BBC survey revealed that one in four people who identify as Christian do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus? While that number goes down significantly for Christians who are active in church, there should be no Christians denying the resurrection. I remember a number of years ago that the top leader of a major Canadian denomination stated that he did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. There is a problem with this.
You may think that I’m being a bit strict on this. The truth is that I’m comfortable with a lot of variety within the Christian faith. I don’t care what you think about the age of the earth, the extent of Noah’s flood or how the world will end. I do care about what you think about the resurrection of Jesus.
The resurrection of Jesus is essential to Christianity. The Apostle Paul said this: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14) I sometimes get asked what it would take for me to give up my faith. There is one thing: If there was proof that Jesus did not rise from the dead.
Having said that, I also will admit that it can be difficult to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. This is not something we see every day. I remember numerous conversations with my father who would say, “Once dead, always dead.” There are some people who hear the story of Jesus rising from the dead and are immediately filled with faith. There are others who are more skeptical, such as myself, who need some evidence. It is okay to have questions about this. The point is to follow the evidence where it leads.
We are going to look at this by examining the story of Thomas.
First I need to point out that the Bible does not describe Thomas as “Doubting” Thomas. Also, the Gospel of Matthew indicates that Thomas was not the only apostle who doubted. We need to be fair to Thomas.
Here is the story. Jesus had been crucified and buried. Then on the third day, some people began to claim that they had seen Jesus alive. The risen Jesus appeared to ten of the apostles. Judas had committed suicide and Thomas was absent. When Thomas heard that Jesus had appeared to the other apostles, he had trouble believing it.
It is not that Thomas was without faith. Earlier, when Jesus had brought Lazarus back to life, Thomas knew that the Jerusalem area was dangerous for Jesus and his followers. It was Thomas who spoke up that they should go, even if it meant they all would die.
So why did Thomas have trouble believing in the resurrection? It’s not that he disbelieved in miracles. The problem was that there was a set Jewish belief in the resurrection. The resurrection would happen on the last day, what the Old Testament called the Day of the Lord. Thomas believed Jesus would be raised, but he assumed it would happen when everyone else was raised. It was the timing of Jesus’ resurrection that was the problem.
What I want you to see is that Jesus did not rebuke Thomas. Rather Jesus provided for Thomas exactly the evidence that he needed. The result was that Thomas offered one of the highest statements of praise to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
We can learn from Thomas. What was good about Thomas is that he was honest about his questions and doubts. There are people who walk away from the faith. I suspect that many of them had doubts for a long time but were afraid to admit them. They pushed them down hoping they would go away but instead they emerged stronger than ever. Sometimes this is the church’s fault. The church has not always done a good job of dealing with questions. I don’t mean just in answering them, but in providing a safe place for people to ask questions. Before we can ever find the answers, we need to be able to be honest about the questions. Thomas was and so should we.
How Can We Know?
What does it take to believe in the resurrection of Jesus? Some people have defined faith as believing something in the absence of evidence. While you can believe something without evidence, faith does not require its absence.
I believe that the resurrection of Jesus is one of the most attested events described in the Bible. Here are some pieces of evidence for you to consider.
- Jesus really died on the cross. Most people struggle more with the resurrection than the crucifixion. But in arguing for the resurrection, we need to believe in the crucifixion. One of the ways that some people try to get around the resurrection is be claiming that Jesus didn’t die on the cross and that he recovered over the weekend in the tomb and then appeared to the disciples. The problem is that the Romans were very good at crucifying people and people did not survive. In the unlikely event that Jesus did survive, he would have died in the tomb without food, water and medical attention. Jesus really did die.
- Women were the first to see Jesus. The Gospels tell us that the first to see the risen Jesus were the women. This is unlikely to be a made up detail because in that culture, the testimony of women didn’t count. There was no benefit to the original telling of the story to include the women.
- Jesus appeared to many people. If Jesus only appeared to one or two people, we could explain it as a hallucination. However, we find out in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus not only appeared to the apostles, he appeared to over five hundred people. That is difficult to explain away.
- Jesus appeared to skeptics. James the half brother of Jesus did not believe in him during his earthly ministry but after a resurrection appearance, he became the leader of the Jerusalem church. Paul was a persecutor of the church but turned into a missionary and theologian after meeting the risen Jesus.
- Many witnesses became martyrs. How do we know these people didn’t just make it up as a scam? Could the resurrection of Jesus be fake news? The problem is that many of these witnesses died for their faith. I understand that people today die all the time for what they believe and that does not make it truth. The difference is that these people were dying not for a theological belief but for something that they had seen with their own eyes.
I present these pieces of evidence, not to silence your questions, but to point you toward information that must be taken into account.
What Does It Mean?
The apologist within me would be happy to end the message here. But the pastor in me needs to take the next step. Assuming that there are good reasons to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead, what does it mean for us?
The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope. That is hope for this life and the one to come. Jesus after the resurrection came and met with Thomas in his point of need. Conquering death did not mean that he had no time for his friends. Jesus cares about us in this life right now.
The resurrection of Jesus gives great authority to the things that Jesus taught. When we are trying to figure out how we are to live our lives, we can go to the teachings of Jesus and know that they are truth.
The resurrection of Jesus is evidence that life conquers death. The power of death is much more than just stopping our heart. We see the power of death at work in the lives of many people who are still breathing. The resurrection of Jesus is like an explosion of life in a dying world. There is testimony after testimony of people who experienced this new life, being transformed and made truly alive.
The resurrection also means that we have hope beyond this life. Many of those who believe in an afterlife think of it as a disembodied state floating in the clouds. The Bible teaches that we will experience a bodily resurrection. That resurrection that Thomas was expecting, will happen to us. The resurrection of Jesus is the promise that what has happened to him will one day happen to us. This gives tremendous hope.
I don’t know where you are at in your faith journey. You may be just starting to consider Jesus and have not wrestled much with the resurrection. I hope that I have given you something to think about. Believing in the resurrection does not require blind faith. There are good reasons to believe in it.
You may be a firm believer in the resurrection of Jesus. That is wonderful but what does it mean to you? Easter is so much more that an excuse to eat chocolate Easter bunnies. This is the day we celebrate the invasion of life into a dying world. The resurrection of Jesus is the reason why we can have hope in this life and the next. Embrace that resurrection power into every area of your life.