We pick up Luke’s narrative, after Prof. Allen Ross’ sermon on Psalm 73 last Lord’s Day morning, with the narrative of the resurrection that begins in Luke’s history, as it began on that long ago Sunday, quietly, softly, with no one expecting anything except to complete the Lord’s burial which had been interrupted by the onset of the Sabbath so soon after his death.
None of the four Gospels describes the resurrection itself, which in the event no one saw. That in itself is a striking fact, utterly unlikely to be true of a concocted story. All four Gospel accounts demonstrate the critical importance of the resurrection, the utterly unexpected nature of the event, the prominence of women among the witnesses of it — again, a detail that diminished the credibility of the account in that time and place and so would never have been a feature of an invented story –, the difficulty everyone had in believing that Jesus had, in fact, risen from the dead, and that it was, in fact, a resurrection, not a resuscitation but a return from the dead in a new condition of human life, the self-same body alive again but now made suitable for eternal life.
Remember, there are no chapter divisions in Luke’s original and we just read about the women and their preparations for doing this at the end of our chapter 23. The resurrection is always in the Gospels said to have occurred on “the first day of the week.” That is striking since Jesus had always predicted his resurrection to take place on the third day, not on the first day, as we will be reminded in v. 7. Are we being told something here about the role that Sunday would play ever after in the life of the Christian church?
They were there to wrap the Lord’s body in additional spices, so, finding the stone moved and the door to the tomb open, they went in. Only then did they find that the body was missing.
In Matthew it is made explicit that these were angels and we will learn later, in v. 23, that this is what the women realized themselves.
In fact, as we know from our reading through this Gospel, the Lord had predicted his resurrection again and again over the last year of his ministry, but the idea was so alien to his disciples that no one paid attention, just as they didn’t take him seriously when he predicted his crucifixion. Perhaps they thought he was speaking metaphorically. No one in the Judaism of that day was expecting the Messiah to die and rise again.
By the way, no Jew would use the word “resurrection” to describe an afterlife in which the body had been abandoned to the grave. To be risen means in the nature of the case that the body has come to life again.
Being reminded of them, the women now remembered what the Lord had said, and began to reckon with the possibility that Jesus was in fact alive again.
In their depressed and fearful state of mind, it is perhaps no wonder that they were not impressed by the women’s report. They probably entertained some of the same bias against the intelligence of women that was current in their culture. Women were not at that time, for example, allowed to give testimony in a Jewish court. It was easier than it should have been for them to dismiss the tale the women were telling. What is clear is that these were not men poised on the brink of belief in the resurrection! They were positively skeptical. [Morris, 354] And since this skepticism hardly reflects well on them, this is another eyewitness touch.
Peter went home not yet convinced, but perhaps realizing that something was afoot. The point of the grave clothes is both that they prove Jesus had been there and that, had his body been removed, the grave clothes would have been removed with the body.
We have not yet encountered the risen Christ. We only know from the angel that his resurrection has occurred. His appearances to his disciples will be reported later. And so we still have much to learn about what the resurrection amounted to and what it meant. All of that will become clearer as we make our way over the next several Lord’s Days through the remainder of Luke 24.
But this morning we begin our consideration of the resurrection by admitting that a good many people in our day do not believe the account we have read this morning. They do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead to a new and eternal form of human life. Perhaps they don’t think that anything happened as Luke reports it to have happened; that the entire story is a fabrication. Or perhaps they simply don’t think the tomb was actually empty that Sunday morning. Or perhaps they think that someone, perhaps a disciple, perhaps someone else, stole the body and circulated a story about Jesus’ resurrection. Or, like some, they think that Jesus actually didn’t die on the cross and awoke in the tomb and was somehow able to escape the tomb and get away. The story of the resurrection, however it originated, they think is a legend or, as is nowadays more popular, a myth, a story written to make a spiritual, religious or theological point, but hardly true in the ordinary sense of the word. It is spiritually true, they might say, but not historically true. Whatever they may think, what they don’t think is that on that particular Sunday morning after that Passover, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, had you been in that garden with a camera you could have caught the events that Luke has reported here.
Many think, on the contrary, as I said, that these are legendary accounts, created with perhaps good intentions, but years later, when it was possible to create a plausible story, even to write up a story that had over the past some years come to be believed by many people, no matter its supernatural pretensions. One immense problem with that argument has always been that the narratives of the resurrection in the four Gospels don’t read at all like legends. Myths and legends have a literary character of their own and it is not what we find here. Luke’s narrative, as Matthew, Mark, and John’s, is, for example, full of the marks of eyewitness testimony, of the different perspectives that various eyewitnesses bring to the same event, and it doesn’t feature any of the classic marks of myth and legend. In his day, no one knew more about mythical literature than C.S. Lewis, professor first at Oxford and then at Cambridge. And this was his conclusion. Take any myth you like, he said, any famous legend, religious or not, and you will find something that does not read at all like the Gospel accounts of the resurrection. What you find in the Gospels instead is a narrative that reads like a record of events that people themselves witnessed, remarkable though they were.
But what then are we to do with the fact that so many clever people remain unpersuaded that this is real history, an account of what actually happened, of what these people, people whose names we know — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Peter, and the others — saw and heard.
Well, one doesn’t have to live very long in this world of ours before one learns that how intelligent a person is has very little to do with how accurate his beliefs may be. More than 2,000 years ago Cicero observed that there is no idea so ridiculous that it hasn’t been believed by some intellectual or another. And in our own time, we have Paul Johnson’s observation about Bertrand Russell, one of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers:
“Bertrand Russell was the only philosopher I have come across who always conveyed his meaning clearly and, because he did, you could debate the merits of his conclusions; and they were usually wrong…. Nobody disputed Russell had a powerful brain. But equally, no one in his or her senses would go to him for advice on anything that mattered.” [To Hell with Picasso, 20]
You may be aware that there is a bit of a dust-up going on presently on the liberal, skeptical wing of biblical New Testament scholarship. A group of them who call themselves mythicists have recently argued in print that Jesus of Nazareth is a mythical figure; that he never existed at all. Other liberal scholars, like Bart Ehrman, the former evangelical turned critic of historic Christianity who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, concerned that such ridiculous ideas give unbelieving biblical scholarship a bad name, have written defenses of the historicity of Jesus. It really is true, folks, and we need to be reminded of this from time to time. Clever people are coming up with ridiculous ideas every day. One of the important lessons one learns in getting a PhD, I long ago realized, is that there are many people with PhDs whose opinion, even on matters touching their own specialty, it would not be worth your crossing the street to learn.
The simple fact is, there have been many great powerful thinkers who have embraced the Christian faith and with it the belief that what we have read this morning is pure and unembellished history, an account of what actually occurred. What about them? You’re never going to find the truth by counting noses.
Science, they often say, that is scientists often say, is a self-correcting enterprise. And I think there is truth in that. But the history of science also proves that theories and explanations can be maintained for a long time after the evidence has accumulated that proves them untrue. To a very great degree people believe what they want to believe, what they prefer to be the truth, or what seems easiest to believe in their time and place. Very few people think their way carefully and without bias from the beginning to the end of any important question.
I saw a clip this past week on my computer that featured Morgan Freeman on whether there is life after death. The actor, with his great voice, interviewed various scientists, some of whom scoffed at the idea, others of whom believed it in some form or another. But, of course, no one bothered to ask why a so-called scientist would be able to answer that question any more accurately than anyone else. The piece concluded with Freeman, in his stentorian tones, assuring us that eventually everyone will find out for himself or herself. Of course that isn’t true either. If death is the annihilation of consciousness as the atheist typically believes, there will be no one left to find out anything, no someone to observe, “Oh, I guess there is no life after death after all.” On the other hand, who says that this is a question that can be left to the afterlife, as if this life had no bearing on the next? What paleontologist or biochemist or astronomer can answer that question for us?
There has been, as you may have read in the paper, a meeting of atheists in a hotel in downtown Tacoma this weekend, the keynote address delivered by Bill Nye “the science guy” from television. These people think to the man that the resurrection faith of the Christian church is unscientific and intellectually unsupportable; a preposterous idea for a modern man or woman to entertain. But they also believe a lot of things most people don’t find at all likely and, as has been pointed out one would think by now far too often, their view of life cannot explain or justify even their own most deeply held beliefs.
At the climax of his academic career, C.S. Lewis was as educated a man as there was in the world, a man of relentlessly serious thought about such questions as the resurrection. He was a man who had himself once scoffed at the idea that Christianity might be true, only to be overcome first with doubts about his atheism and then the conviction that the Christian message was true and that it was reasonable in a way other philosophies of life simply were not. That actually happens a lot in this world of ours.
Walter Hooper, for some years Lewis’ secretary, recalls mentioning once to Lewis that he knew of man’s grave, the epitaph on the tombstone of which read “Here Lies an Atheist, All Dressed Up but with Nowhere to Go.” Lewis replied, “I bet he wishes that were so!” How does Morgan Freeman or Bill Nye know that Lewis has not expressed the truth of the matter?
Now, to be sure, most people do not become Christians by subjecting the biblical accounts of the resurrection to careful review, reading the skeptics and their arguments, reading the counter-arguments of Christian believers, and after weighing the whole concluding that all in all it appears that Luke was telling the truth. Our confidence in the truthfulness of this history comes together with our confidence in Jesus himself, who reveals himself to us as our Savior from sin and death. You will perhaps remember that there are a few who have become Christians in precisely that first way — among them a few who set out to disprove the resurrection of Jesus and ended up convinced that it had really occurred — but most don’t think about the evidence for the resurrection until they are already Christians. You don’t need proof that someone rose from the dead when you have met the person yourself and have been overcome by the force of his personality!
Nevertheless, no Christian believes in the resurrection, or any other part of his faith, thinking that it offends against reason or that the very idea of resurrection is preposterous. As Augustine put it long ago,
“No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable… Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought…. Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe, but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking.” [Predestination of the Saints, 5]
The early Christian evangelists and apologists, as their successors ever since, were well aware how difficult the claim that Jesus rose from the dead was to believe and accordingly they welcomed people’s questions, answered their objections, and appealed to evidence of every kind. They welcomed debate on the question. They argued that this history was reasonable in the deepest sense of the term, that it corresponded with reason and that the evidence for it was compelling. Augustine himself recalled that, while he was still a Manichean, he was troubled by the fact that the Christians had strong arguments and pressed them with confidence and the Manicheans didn’t and couldn’t.
Whole books have been written providing the evidence for the historical nature of the Lord’s resurrection and, at some point in everyone’s Christian life, he or she ought to work carefully through one of those books. The confidence it will give you is good for your faith. There are more reasons than you may realize why thoughtful and well-read Christians have never been much troubled by the sort of arguments one typically hears against the historical character of Jesus’ resurrection.
For the fact is, there is a great deal to say in its favor as an event in history. No, that does not put the point strongly enough. There is a great deal to explain that cannot really be explained without the resurrection. The question is: can these things be explained in any other way than by the resurrection of Jesus Christ? We are looking for an adequate cause of some of the most remarkable and important developments in the history of mankind?
Let me just list some facts that require an explanation. These are not incidental features of history. In fact they changed the world root and branch.
- There is the Christian message itself: a message about God entering the world as a man, dying for our sins, and rising to new and everlasting life for us, the first fruits of those who sleep. It is not simply that this was a new message. It is not simply that this is not what any Jew thought that the Messiah would do. This is the flat contradiction of what every Jew believed the Messiah would do. He was to conquer and reign, not suffer and die. He was to destroy the wicked, not be destroyed by the wicked. He was to establish the kingdom of God, not fall victim to the kingdoms of men. [Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection, 66] This is why the disciples struggled so to understand what Jesus was saying when he predicted his suffering and death. The very idea was utterly alien to their understanding of the Messiah. What changed their minds? What turned these men, Jews to the man, into preachers of Jesus as the Savior of sinners to the ends of the earth? It was the resurrection. No one has ever proposed a remotely plausible counter-explanation. We know the so-called “Easter Faith” arose when it did; but what caused it to rise so suddenly, so triumphantly, when there was no anticipation of it in the Judaism of the day? Even liberal scholarship nowadays is likely to say that something happened. Right! But what something would explain this apart from the resurrection itself? After all, that is what these good and honest people said was the explanation! As one scholar puts it, “Even the most skeptical historians agree that for primitive Christianity…the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a real event in history, the very foundation of faith, and not a mythical idea arising out of the creative imagination of believers.” [In Habermas and Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?, 25] What is the most reasonable cause of this striking, unprecedented, utterly unexpected conviction that then people with passion began proclaiming to the world? Surely it is the remarkable fact of the resurrection itself!
- Then there is all of the attention in the New Testament and in early Christian writing to the fact that there were so many eyewitnesses of the Lord’s resurrection. These people knew very well how unlikely all of this sounded. They hadn’t believed it themselves until they saw him with their eyes. A good many people, more than 500 Paul tells us, saw him alive again. Clearly it was the evidence of eye-witnesses that counted so heavily in those days after Pentecost when thousands upon thousands believed that Jesus had risen from the dead who had not themselves seem him alive. It was the personal testimony of others to what they had seen that told the tale.
- The triumphant evangelism of the apostles and the early church also requires to be explained. Whence came this enthusiasm to take this message to the world apart from the extraordinary event itself, apart from their encounter with Jesus alive again after his death on the cross, apart from their conviction that the resurrection was a turning point of apocalyptic proportions? And why did the enemies of this message find themselves so utterly incapable of shutting them up. Obviously the tomb was empty. Where was the body?
- And then there is the first day of the week. These were Jews, all of them. The sacred character of the Sabbath was fixed deep in their bones. Saturday had been the Sabbath since the beginning of the world. They were Sabbath keepers. It was one of the most precious and defining elements of their piety, the holiness of the Sabbath Day. It must have been something momentous to bring them to observe the Sabbath Day on Sunday. The Christian Sunday begs for an explanation and what other adequate explanation is there than the resurrection itself.
- As powerful evidence as all that I have so far mentioned is the life history of Saul of Tarsus, the great Apostle Paul, one of the intellectual titans of human history. We know a good bit about Paul from his own writings — writings the authenticity of which no one but the occasional crank has ever seriously disputed — we know what his life was like before he became a Christian, we know he was an active opponent of the new teaching, we know he was a persecutor of the church, and we know that he credits an encounter with the risen Christ himself as the reason for the revolution in his life. Then we have his impossibly rich explanation of Jesus Christ and his meaning for mankind in his letters, an explanation and a meaning that depends absolutely on the fact of the resurrection, a point that Paul openly admits. Paul knew other eyewitnesses of the resurrection. He rests everything on his certainty that Jesus rose from the dead that Sunday in Jerusalem. What is the theory? That he was lying? That he was delusional? That his teaching is some sort of elaborate metaphor for something? Believe me, through the years people have asserted all those explanations and others, but none has been taken seriously. They are frankly preposterous. Harder to believe than the resurrection itself!
- Then there are the doctrines of the incarnation and the triunity of God, the foundations of the Christian faith. Monotheism was and remained in the bones of every Jew. The distance between God and man unbridgeable. What could ever have convinced such Jews that there were in fact three persons in the one living and true God and that God himself, God the Son, had become a man for the salvation of men? Deep mysteries! A terrible challenge to the human intellect. Apart from the resurrection, apart from a divine interruption of history as dramatic as the resurrection, neither of these ideas would ever have seen the light of day. No one would or could have believed them.
It used to be thought that the accounts of the resurrection were written long after the event, whatever the event may have been, perhaps as much as 150 years afterward, which, it was supposed, provided ample time for the story to grow, for legendary accretions to be attached to it, and so on. Sort of what Parson Weems did to the personal history of George Washington. But no one believes that any longer. We now know that the Gospel accounts were written in the first century, perhaps at least three of them before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, that they contain eye-witness testimony and were published when eyewitnesses were still alive. What is more, Paul’s letters, which likewise teach the resurrection as an historical fact were written earlier still, the earliest perhaps as early as the late 40s. There was no time to speak of between the event itself and the historical record of it we have in the New Testament. Would you have any difficulty remembering what happened ten or twenty years later if what happened was the most astonishing thing that had ever happened in the world? I remember vividly things that happened ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago that were hardly earth-shaking in their importance.
Then we were told that the resurrection arose from ideas circulating in the religious milieu of the first century Mediterranean world. Well that didn’t prove to be true either. Hardly anyone talks that way any longer. There were no such ideas. There is a reason why more than once it has been said that the only legends surrounding the resurrection of Jesus are all the stories made up to explain it away!
Brothers and sisters, what caused the rise of our Christian faith, utterly unprecedented as it was? What caused the triumphant emergence of the message of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord? Christianity started with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. No other explanation, no other cause suffices.
We know very well why people don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That they do not hardly surprises us. But what we do not accept is that their reasons for not believing are really at all persuasive. There is more credulity — the willingness to believe almost anything — and prejudice — the refusal to believe some things no matter what — than there is either reason or serious argument in the typical skepticism we encounter about the resurrection.
But, if Jesus rose from the dead — as he did — what a world of wonderful reality opens to our view: life beyond the grave, heaven itself, a world far more wonderful than this one in every way, and someone who can take us there!