The Central Fact
by Ted Schroder
The reason Easter Sunday is celebrated is because of the belief that Jesus Christ, after his death and burial in the tomb, rose from the dead, bodily, on the third day. Christianity is completely dependent on that being the central fact of history. Easter is not based on a nature myth of rebirth after the death of winter. The world celebrated that cycle of nature before Christ. Easter celebrates something quite different. The desire for new life, the hope for eternal life, the longing for immortality, which filled every human heart, was finally fulfilled in the historical
resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that the claims of Christianity stand or fall on the historicity of that event: “and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
Paul makes a bold claim here in tying the truth of Christianity to the truth of a particular historical event. Disprove it, says Paul, and Christianity is doomed. What sort of historical evidence is there to support the resurrection of Jesus?
There is virtual unanimity among historical scholars, Christian and non-Christian like, about at least the following: that there was a man by the name of Jesus who lived in first-century Palestine, that during a short period of time he preached a message about the coming kingdom of God, that he attracted a small band of followers, that he was crucified by the Roman authorities, and that the same followers later claimed to have witnessed his resurrected body.
Nothing is particularly surprising or noteworthy here until we consider that neither the prevailing civil nor religious authorities of the time were particularly pleased with the upstart Christian movement, for obvious reasons. The religious authorities realized that all of the early converts to Christianity came from among the ranks of their adherents, and the Romans feared political rebellion and were disconcerted by the early Christians’ failure to proclaim allegiance to Caesar as a divinity. In the light of the fact that the Christian faith was centrally grounded in the resurrection of Jesus, the easiest way for the authorities to derail the early movement would have been to produce the dead body of Jesus. But the historical record is conspicuous for the fact that no one ever claimed to have been able to do just this. As a result, it appears that we must conclude that the tomb was empty. For if it had not been, it would have been easy for the church’s early critics to refute their claims. How then is the
empty tomb to be explained?
More than one explanation has been offered. The only alternative that has any historical plausibility is the first explanation ever proposed. It is recorded in Matthew 28:11-15:
“While they were going, some of the guards went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed.”
Matthew here represents the story as fiction, but the critic might well regard the explanation as the most plausible rendering of the historical facts. On further consideration, however, this explanation seems to have little if any merit. The reason for this is that many of the early witnesses of the resurrection were martyred for their failure to renounce their faith. What is surprising about this, is that while it is easy to imagine someone who would be willing to die for what he believes is true, it is virtually impossible to believe that someone would die for what he knows to be false.
Charles Colson, White House Special Counsel to Richard Nixon during his first term of office, noted this fact in his comparison of the situation of the early followers of Christ and those involved in the Watergate cover-up: “With the most powerful office in the world at stake, a small band of hand-picked loyalists, no more than ten of us, could not hold a conspiracy together for more than two weeks. Think of what was at stake… Yet even the prospects of jeopardizing the President we’d worked so hard to elect, of losing the prestige, power and personal luxury of our offices was not enough incentive to make this group of men contain a lie. Nor, as I reflect today, was the pressure really all that great; at that point there had certainly been some moral failures, criminal violations, even perjury by some… But no one was in grave danger; no one’s life was at stake.
This is why the Watergate experience is so instructive for me. If John Dean and the rest of us were so panic-stricken, not by the prospect of beatings and execution, but by political disgrace and a possible prison term, one can only speculate about the emotions of the disciples… they clung tenaciously to their enormously offensive story that their leader had risen from his ignoble death and was alive.
Is it really likely, then, that a deliberate cover-up, a plot to perpetuate a lie about the Resurrection, could have survived the violent persecution of the apostles, the scrutiny of early church councils, the horrendous purge of first-century believers who were cast by the thousands to the lions for refusing to denounce the Lordship of Christ?”
Long before Colson, Pascal (1623-1662) observed how unlikely it is that the
disciples would continue in a conspiracy of deceit when faced with certain death:
“The hypothesis that the apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonments, torture and death, and they would all have been lost.”
It is simply impossible to believe that the early disciples, who clearly were not anticipating the resurrection, could have been so resolutely emboldened by their belief in the resurrection of Jesus that they would remain firm in their conviction in the face of death, unless they had been actual witnesses of the resurrected Christ.
The truth of the matter is that these fearful disciples were transformed by a personal encounter with the living, resurrected Christ. All that he had said and done, all that he had taught them, finally fell into place, and they entered into an experience of the eternal kingdom of God. What they had heard, what they had seen with their eyes, what they had looked at and their hands had touched, they proclaimed, concerning the Word of life. (1 John 1:1) What was true for them is still true, and can have the same effect on us. Life can never be the same if the resurrection of Jesus is true.
(Extracts from Michael J. Murray, SEEK AND YOU WILL FIND, in “God and the Philosophers”, ed. Thomas V. Moore, pp.71-74)
Easter Sunday, 2007
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