Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the dead following his crucifixion, is fast approaching. A huge number of people will fill churches on Easter morning and sing about the resurrection, but do they believe it? In America today, while most people believe in God, a lot of people don't believe that the resurrection really happened. Amazingly, this includes people that consider themselves Christians.
The literal resurrection of Jesus is not something that can be accepted or rejected according to your personal interpretation of the Bible. This can happen with issues like whether we should have female ministers and whether speaking in tongues still exists. Debate about the resurrection, however, is not possible for people who call themselves Christian, because the resurrection is the single most important aspect of Christianity, and without it Jesus was simply one in a long line of "good teachers." So were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa, but we don't place faith in them or consider them the way to salvation. Jesus himself foretold his death and resurrection several times in the gospels:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Matthew 16:21 (NIV)
Jesus told his disciples, “The nation’s leaders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law of Moses will make the Son of Man suffer terribly. They will reject him and kill him, but three days later he will rise to life.” Luke 9:22 (CEV)
The various Christian denominations may argue about numerous points of doctrine, but they cannot deny the importance of the resurrection in the plan of salvation. The Apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans that "if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." He went on in his first letter to the Corinthians to say that "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." The resurrection is what sets Jesus apart from every religious teacher that ever lived and what gives believers their hope.
So I would like to make a very brief case for the historical reality of the resurrection, which isn't as complicated as it might seem at first. Without delving too deeply into various conspiracy theories that have cropped up in the last few centuries I will deal mainly with two key factors: the empty tomb and the deaths of the apostles.
1. The Empty Tomb. Let me first remove the long-discredited argument that Jesus was alive when he was taken down from the cross and somehow escaped the tomb. This theory has always been nonsensical; Roman soldiers were well skilled in making sure a condemned person's sentence was carried out. And while Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ may have been too bloody for some people's taste, it was a very factual presentation of what happened to those sentenced to crucifixion. That's simply not something a person survived.
Another extreme theory was that the disciples stole the body from the tomb. This theory hinges on the premise that Jesus' followers (all of whom fled when he was arrested) returned to the tomb, overpowered a squad of Roman soldiers standing guard to prevent just such an occurrence, and then hid the body. All so they could proclaim the reign of a king they knew to be dead. This notion stretches the imagination even further than the idea of someone rising from the dead.
So if we know Jesus was dead, and the disciples didn't steal the body, then why didn't the Jewish leaders or the Romans simply produce the body when the claims of the resurrection were made? That would have been the simplest way to shut the whole thing down. They didn't because they couldn't; the body wasn't there.
2. The Deaths of the Apostles. There have been many followers throughout history who died for the leader of a religious movement, most often through mass suicide, but the deaths of the apostles fall into a different category altogether. Of the eleven apostles (Judas had committed suicide after betraying Jesus) only John died of natural causes. The other ten died while spreading the gospel, in the following ways:
Peter - crucified upside down
James, son of Zebedee - beheaded
Matthew - killed by a sword thrust
Philip - crucified
Andrew - crucified on a cross in the shape of an X.
Simon - crucified
Thomas - speared to death
Thaddeus - killed by arrows.
Bartholomew - flayed alive and crucified
James, Son of Alphaeus - stoned to death
Both the violent nature of these men's deaths and the fact that they died at different times and in different parts of the Roman Empire is important. If they knew that the resurrection was a lie, which they would have if they had either stolen Jesus' body or not personally seen him after the resurrection, it is possible that one or two of them might have been deranged enough to die in order to keep the story going. There is no way, however, that ten of them would have endured excruciating deaths, completely separated from the others by years and hundreds or thousands of miles, for something they knew to be a lie.
What we see in the apostles is an amazing change from the terrified men who fled at Jesus' arrest to men who did not shrink from death in proclaiming his resurrection. That is only possible if he really did rise from the dead.
Ultimately, the resurrection is something that cannot be ignored or treated like a fairy tale. It is either true or it's not, and the entire Christian faith rises or falls based on the answer to that question. I believe that, given the limited space allowed, I have shown solid reason for belief in the resurrection that goes beyond a mere leap of faith. But in the end faith is still needed, and this Easter season each of us must ask ourselves if we truly have that faith.