None of the four Gospels describes the resurrection itself, which in the event no one saw. That is striking evidence of the historical seriousness of these narratives. They speak only of what people actually witnessed. Nothing is concocted as it would have been in a fabricated story. All four Gospel accounts demonstrate the utterly unexpected nature of the event, the various appearances of Jesus to his disciples, 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.
v.1 In the Gospels the resurrection is always 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, that is the third day after his death, not on the first day of the week, as we will be reminded in v. 7. We are being told something here about why Sunday would ever after have such importance to the life of the Christian church. It is the day of the week on which the Lord rose from the dead. These were Jews, after all. 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. It must have been something momentous to bring them to observe the weekly holy day on Sunday rather than Saturday. The Christian Sunday, which originated among Jews, begs for an explanation and the only adequate explanation is the resurrection itself.
v.4 In Matthew it is made explicit that these were angels and later in this same chapter, in v. 23, we are told that this is what the women realized themselves.
v.7 In fact, as we know from all the Gospels, the Lord had predicted his resurrection frequently throughout 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.
v.9 Being reminded of what Jesus had said they began to reckon with the possibility that Jesus was in fact alive again.
v.11 In their depressed and fearful state of mind, it is perhaps no wonder that they were not impressed by the women’s report. They may have entertained some of the same prejudice against the intelligence of women that was commonplace in their culture. Women were not at that time, for example, allowed to give testimony in a Jewish court. What is clear is that these were not men poised on the brink of belief in the resurrection! They were positively skeptical. [Morris, 354]
v.12 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 certainly have been removed with the body. No Jew was going to carry around a dead naked human being, unclean and defiling as such a body would be according to ceremonial regulations of the Jewish law.
What we have read is one of the four accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, one provided in each of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All of them tell the same story in general, but each furnishes some detail not found in the others, each provides its own unique perspective, based as it was on the eyewitness testimony of the people who were there at the beginning, such as the women, who were there soonest, some of the disciples of Jesus (especially Peter and John) who were there sometime later, and the larger company to whom he appeared later that evening (one account of which appearances we are given in the remaining verses of Luke 24). No other religion, no other philosophy of life is based on the claim that its founder rose from the dead! The resurrection of Jesus is both the center of the Christian faith and its primary demonstration, evidence, or proof.
But did this really happen? If it did, as the entire New Testament either expressly claims that it did or assumes that it did, then surely there has never been a more important event in the history of the world. If Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on Sunday after being crucified on Friday, everything he said about himself, everything said about him by his disciples must now be taken with absolute seriousness and must be of fabulous importance to any and every human being. Do you want to live forever? Do you want to live after you die, and not simply exist, but live, live with a perfect soul in a perfect body in a perfect world, live as God made human beings to live and live in loving communion with God and with everyone else? Do you want to find peace with God? Do you want your life to come into its own and find its true purpose? Do you want to be the sort of person deep in your heart you know you ought to be? No one else in the history of the world has ever been able genuinely to prove that such possibilities even exist except Jesus of Nazareth. If he rose from the dead that is precisely what he did. He proved that there is peace with God and life after death, or can be for those who trust in him.
But did it happen? Through the ages many people haven’t thought so. But no Christian believes in the resurrection, or any other part of his or her faith thinking that it is irrational or unreasonable. Quite the contrary. Wonderful, mysterious as the resurrection may be, Christians have always thought it entirely reasonable to believe that it happened. Indeed, they have thought the sound weighing of evidence actually favors, even demands belief in Christ’s resurrection.
The early Christians, as Christians ever since, were well aware how difficult it was for people to believe that Jesus rose from the dead – utterly unprecedented as it was and utterly contrary to everyone’s expectations – and accordingly they welcomed people’s questions, answered their objections by appealing to evidence of every kind. They welcomed debate. They argued that the Gospel history was reliable, that it was solidly based on eyewitness testimony, that it corresponded with reason, and that the evidence for it was compelling. Augustine, the great church father, one of the most brilliant men of human history, himself recalled that, while he was still a Manichean, the follower of a popular philosophy of the time (similar in many ways to the popular philosophy of our time), he was troubled by the fact that the Christians had strong arguments and pressed them with confidence while the Manicheans didn’t and couldn’t. The Manichees relied on the zeitgeist, the assumptions about life that were accepted largely without thought in their time; the Christians relied on argument and evidence! And, in many ways, so it remains today. Ask why a person doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and he or she is likely to say that it isn’t scientific, whatever that means, or that surely it is one of those ancient legends. But is it really so easy to dismiss the claim that the Christians made, that Jesus had risen from the dead?
Should you believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead? Yes, you should. Let me tell you this Easter Sunday morning why I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; why I believe it happened just as it is reported in the Gospels. Let me tell you why I believe that we ought all to accept it as a historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead; why you ought to accept that what we have read from Luke 24 is simple history in the ordinary sense of the term, an account of what actually happened, and that had you been in that garden with a camera you could have caught the events that Luke has reported here.
- First, there is the character of the biblical narrative itself.
It claims to be straightforward reporting of events. It sets those events in a known historical context down to the details. Tiberius was the emperor at the time. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Palestine. Caiaphas was the Jewish high priest and Herod Antipas one of Rome’s client kings. These are all men known to us from other sources and nothing in the biblical account is inconsistent with what is known about them, and most of what is in the biblical account but not in other accounts confirms everything else we know about these men. The account of the Lord’s mockery of a trial is perfectly in keeping with Roman jurisprudence in the period. What is more, it reads as straightforward history. It doesn’t read at all like a fabricated story; it bears none of the identifying marks of myths and legends. These narratives have often been assumed by both ancient and modern readers to be legends – stories that, however they originated, became more and more fantastic as the years passed – but there are two fatal problems with that explanation.
The first is that there wasn’t enough time for that to happen. It used to be thought that, since they tell a supernatural story, the accounts of the resurrection must have been written long after the event, whatever the original event may have been, perhaps as much as 150 years afterward, which, it was supposed, provided ample time for the story to grow and for legendary accretions to be attached to it. 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 the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, that they are based on eye-witness testimony and were written and circulated when many of those 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 of the first century. In other words, there is but the blink of an eye 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 and you had been thinking about it every day ever since? I remember vividly things that happened ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago that were hardly earth-shaking in their importance. And there wasn’t but one or two eyewitnesses; there were dozens, even hundreds! There simply was no time for the simple story to grow into a supernatural tale.
The second is that myths and legends have a literary character of their own and that literary character it is not what we find here in the Gospels. Luke’s narrative, as Matthew, Mark, and John’s, is, for example, full of the identifying marks of eyewitness testimony, of the unexpected, of the unplanned for, of the different perspectives that various eyewitnesses bring to the same event, and it lacks all the classic marks of myth or fable or 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, from any period in human history, 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 overtook people and caught them completely by surprise. Christians have long challenged the world to produce a single example of a myth or legend arising around a historical event or figure and being believed so soon after the event or the death of that figure himself. Just one example. We’re still waiting.
I urge you to read the Gospels if you have not done so. And as you read, ask yourself if someone is making this up. Ask yourself if in any way it reads as if someone is manufacturing a tale. I think you will find that the narrative authenticates itself as straightforward history, remarkable as it is. It has certainly made that impression upon untold numbers of people through the ages. It has borne witness across the centuries to its own historical authenticity. Read the rest of the New Testament and tell yourself, if you can, that these writers were the sort of people to concoct a tale or to be taken in by some flim-flam. Indeed the New Testament writers knew that the story they were telling was going to be hard to believe, and they said again and again this is not a myth, this is not a legend; as unprepared for this as we were, this is what happened, this is what we saw! They knew people would suspect their account of the resurrection was not factual, but they assured them that it was.
- Second, I believe the Gospel accounts of the resurrection because they offend against the sensibilities and the expectations of absolutely everyone in that time and place.
No one would have invented this story if he or she wanted to be taken seriously. No one would have concocted such a tale who actually wanted people to believe it to be true. The Jews were not expecting the Messiah to be crucified and to rise again. Crucifixion and resurrection were no part of any of their theories of who the Messiah would be and what he would do. Very much the contrary! The resurrection of Jesus was an actual impediment to faith for Jews. This was so much the case that the Lord’s own disciples, to whom he frequently spoke of his coming crucifixion and resurrection, freely admitted that they never grasped that he actually meant what he said until after it had happened. They were as surprised by the resurrection as any other Jew would have been.
The Greco-Roman world likewise had no expectation of the resurrection of the body, indeed it was an idea utterly foreign and uncongenial to the philosophies of that day. Their hope was for the pure soul to escape the sullied body, not for the body to come back again. The resurrection was an actual impediment to belief among the Gentiles of that world. No one would have invented it who hoped Gentiles in that day and age would believe it. No one has ever provided a satisfactory explanation of where the account of the Lord’s resurrection came from except from those who were utterly nonplussed to have witnessed it themselves. What is more, that the citizens of the Greco-Roman world would have come to believe that the meaning of life was to be found in the death of an amateur Jewish rabbi – little as they thought of Jews and little as they thought of Palestine – is an idea so preposterous that only the reality of the resurrection can explain the fact that they became followers of Jesus by the thousands and then by the millions.
It used to be claimed 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 and myths surrounding the resurrection of Jesus are all the stories made up to explain it away!
And what is true of the account in general is also true of its details. For example, no one who was inventing a story that he wanted to be taken seriously would have made women feature so prominently as eyewitnesses to the history. In that place, in that time such testimony would have diminished its credibility not increased it. Women appear in the record because, like it nor not, they were there at the empty tomb and were the first ones there. They were telling it like it was. That women figure as largely as they do in the record of the Lord’s entire ministry is some significance evidence that what we have in those records is a faithful account of what actually occurred, not some story made up after the fact.
Or consider another example. For the Jews of the first century monotheism was in their bones. It was the defining conviction of their worldview and their personal faith. It meant everything to them that there was but one God, a conviction they maintained virtually alone in the polytheistic world of that day. How in the world were they then convinced to worship Jesus Christ, who was obviously a man, as God? How did they come to believe that the one living and true God exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, deep, deep mystery that it is, and a danger to monotheism as it might so easily be thought to be, apart from some titanic influence. How could they – believing as firmly as they did in the absolute transcendence of God – ever have come to believe that God himself came into the world as a man to save us from our sins, apart from some dramatic interruption of history so profound that it opened their minds to ideas they had never imagined or thought possible before. Apart from the resurrection, no one would ever have conceived the ideas of the incarnation, God becoming man, or the Trinity, the three-fold personality of the one living and true God. Neither of these ideas would ever have seen the light of day, no one would or could have believed them had Jesus not risen from the dead! I know the resurrection is not an invention because no one in that world would ever have invented this story or dreamed of having done so!
Islam, for example, can be easily explained as the product of some not terribly accurate knowledge of Judaism and Christianity mixed together with the religious and social ideas of desert tribal people. But Christianity is very different. It can’t be explained as a natural development. It was a discovery!
In these ways and many more, the only adequate explanation of history is that “Christianity was born out of the afterglow of the resurrection of Jesus.” [Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 552]
- In the third place, and much the most important, I believe the account of the resurrection found in the Gospels because the message based upon it has in endless ways proved itself to me to be true.
Let there be no mistake about this: the good news, the teaching of the Christian faith in the Bible is the message of the resurrection. Virtually every sermon contained in the New Testament is based on the resurrection; all the rest of its teaching presupposes the resurrection. “The Message that flashed across the ancient world, set hearts on fire, changed lives and turned the world upside down was not ‘love thy neighbor.’ Every morally sane person already knew that; [that] was not news. The news was that a man who claimed to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world had risen from the dead.” [Kreeft, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 176]
One must be careful here. It is sometimes said that the Christian message is believed because people want it to be true; in other words, the wish is the father of the thought. We believe in Christ’s resurrection because we want to believe that we can live again after we die, that there is something beyond death, something better. But actually, that is not the case. Such is very often true of the sentimental views that people have about heaven and life after death. People assume without evidence that their loved one is happy in heaven no matter what sort of life he or she lived, no matter whether he or she had any clear conviction of how human beings actually go to heaven – why some do, why others do not –, no matter whether he or she had any relationship with God. I would say the same is true of a jihadist who imagines that killing himself and taking many others with him will earn him a heavenly abode with 80,000 servants and 72 virgins to become his wives. The wish is the father of the thought. People are believing what they want to be true, which is pure sentimentality.
But the Christian message is nothing like that. It is an honest message in a world chock full of dishonest ones. The salvation that Christ grants to those who trust in him is not only the forgiveness of one’s sins and the promise of eternal life, but the purification of one’s heart and life so that he or she will love God and will love everyone else with perfect love. It will mean the eradication of some of our cherished ideas that are contrary to God’s will. It will mean true and searching humility, to consider ourselves and then behave as if we really think that we are lower than others, not higher. It will require sexual purity, cheerful submission to the will of God, and offer to us happiness primarily in the service of God and others. Frankly, most people aren’t longing for any of this. No one would invent a religion that promised things that most people don’t really want.
There is a great deal about the Christian life, the life of following Jesus, that is painfully difficult. Sacrifices must be made, submission must be given to God’s will even at the expense of our natural and often powerful desires, and one is required to wait for many things, things that cannot yet be seen, touched or felt. Human beings find this hard to do. This was G.K. Chesterton’s observation. “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” You see, Christianity is not wishful thinking; it is a view of life that is painfully realistic, requires the death of pride – all those conceits that we cherish about ourselves – it requires a whole-life commitment to purity and holiness of life that no human being in this world finds natural or easy. What is more, honest people learn and come to know that there is no way to such a life – the life we were made for, the life our conscience tells us we ought to live – by our own efforts. God must intervene, a power we do not have must be exercised on our behalf, a new life we do not live, of which we have only a bare idea, and for which we have only faint desires must be given to us.
That there is such a life we know – the evidence for it is found within ourselves, in our conscience –; that we do not live such a life we also know only too well. But that is precisely the problem, difficult, complex, and intractable as it is, for which the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the solution and the only solution. No wonder then that it happened! Something that dramatic had to be done to bring us to God and heaven.
Look, we get it. We know very well why people would not want to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The implications are tremendous. To believe this, and to take it seriously, will require a revolution in one’s life, root and branch. But if it happened – and it did happen – there is nothing else to be done. And what hope and joy, what unexpected vistas open to our sight because we know that Jesus conquered death for those who trust in him! People met him alive after he had died. That is a fact of history. Now the most important fact in the world is that you can meet him too. Multitudes have looked for him and found him. Tell him you wish to meet him too.