I was surprised the other day to discover that the gym where my wife and I exercise is observing Easter. To be sure, it didn’t close for the entire day, but it did dramatically shorten its hours of operation. I hadn’t thought that in the secular culture of the Pacific Northwest most people would even know that it was Easter Sunday, much less care. In the southeastern United States the TV weatherman last night would have helped you know what to expect when you went to church the next day – whether the sun would be shining; whether you risked getting your new hat or new dress rained on – but from long experience we do not expect that here in the Seattle/Tacoma area. But here was my gym assuming that most of its clients wouldn’t be coming on this particular Sunday: it was Easter after all.
But then I couldn’t help but wonder what the people who made that decision thought when they changed their hours for this Sunday. Was Easter for them and did they think it was for their customers simply some rite of spring, a holiday of bunnies and colored eggs? Did it occur to them that Easter was in fact a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead the third day after his crucifixion? Did they give any thought to the fact that no such holiday would exist today unless long ago some intelligent, serious, highly moral, deeply committed men and women had been certain that a man dead on Friday was alive again on Sunday morning?
The continuing presence of Easter in our culture presses this question upon us: what are we to make of that claim? It is worth everyone’s considering seriously at least once in his or her life. It lies behind the most significant cultural movement in the history of Western civilization, if not the world. There are many more people in China today who believe that Jesus rose from the dead than there are communists! More than a hundred million by the government’s own count and there were perhaps less than a million such people in 1948 when the communists took control. There are hundreds of millions of people in Africa who consider it beyond doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, who consider such accounts of the resurrection as we have read this morning nothing more nor less than reliable history, accounts of what actually happened, astonishing as it may be. And so it has been through the centuries that have come and gone since that long ago Sunday morning outside Jerusalem.
We do not; Christians do not usually talk about why we believe what we believe. The Bible does not spend much of its time on such questions. Sermons in this and other Christian churches usually are devoted to what we believe and the implications of those beliefs for our daily life. We consult the Bible to learn how we are to live because we are followers of Jesus Christ.
But every now and then it is good to go back to the beginning and down to the foundation and ask: why do we believe that Jesus, dead as dead can be on Friday afternoon, was alive again and alive forever on Sunday morning. It is, after all, a remarkable thing that we believe and it has remarkable implications. If Jesus rose from the dead, then we can too. That, the Bible says, was the whole point of his resurrection, to make possible our resurrection in turn.
What is more, there are, obviously, reasons not to believe the claim that Christians make and the history that the Bible records. It seems unscientific. In our experience people don’t rise to life after they are dead. The processes of decay begin immediately when a person dies. Modern people are naturally skeptical about reports of supernatural events and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is, by all accounts, a supremely supernatural event.
Many are suspicious that Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead simply because they want it to be true. They think that Christians are afraid of death and so they invented a belief in the conquest of death. It makes them feel better. It gives them peace and hope in the face of the inevitability of death. That is what Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud thought. The Easter story is a crutch to help weak people limp through a dark and forbidding world.
But, in fact, that isn’t true. I would say, first, that we certainly are all going to die and that all of us, to one degree or another, fear death. That much is certainly true. But that tells us nothing about whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. Indeed, the fact that we want to live forever is very interesting in itself. Where did that desire, that longing come from? Why do we have it? Why do we instinctively feel that death is an enemy, an interruption of something that ought to continue uninterrupted? Why are we caught off guard by the rapid passing of our years? But, answer those questions as you will, if you read the Bible you will discover that there is a hard-nosed realism about all of this. The Apostle Paul in one place admits that if Christ did not rise from the dead we Christians are first-class dupes and ought to be pitied as such. We bet on the wrong horse. We’ve wasted our time and our energy living a difficult life to no purpose. Christians are like other people. We are tempted to believe what we want to be true; but, finally, we have to know whether it is in fact true. It costs too much to live by our creed if it isn’t true. And the Bible itself teaches us to search for the truth and to be content with nothing less than the truth.
After Saul of Tarsus, the man is known to history as Apostle Paul, met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus – history recorded for us in the ninth chapter of the Book of Acts – the Lord sent an old Christian to him to tell him how much he would have to suffer for Jesus’ sake! The resurrection was no crutch for the Apostle Paul! To be a believer in the resurrection of Jesus didn’t make Paul’s life easier or more peaceful but very much more difficult. And any serious Christian would say the same thing. Life would not be better, but it would certainly be easier if we did not believe in Jesus and were not committed to serving him and obeying his commandments. In my experience, people as a rule do not become Christians precisely because the commitment required is too steep and do become Christians, not because they are afraid of death (that question rarely enters into it), but because they can’t help themselves.
So let me tell you why we believe that Jesus rose from the dead. We are not unaware how that sounds to a modern ear; how improbable it seems. But we are not dismayed. We remember how utterly improbable it seemed to people in those long ago days and vast multitudes of them – including those who had been out and out skeptics – came firmly to believe it nevertheless. I can only sketch the reasons and only a few of them, but let me tell you what I think the three most important lines of evidence are.
- First there is the historical record of the Bible itself.
It all begins here, of course, in the accounts we are given in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And what accounts they are. They breathe fire. They report the testimony of a large number of people who claimed to have actually seen the Lord alive and well on the third day. They are, as has often been proved, the furthest thing from mythical or legendary accounts. They have the marks of historical authenticity in every line. They pulse with the excitement of ordinary people being caught up in the most extraordinary of all events. We have just read such an account. It, like all the others, weaves together pieces of eyewitness testimony. Cleopas and the twelve, warts and all, overcome alternately by confusion, amazement, and fear, tell us what happened, what they saw. It shows us very ordinary people struggling to come to terms with an extraordinary and utterly unexpected event.
A vast amount of research has been done on the resurrection narratives and again and again they have stood the test of even the most determined skepticism. I haven’t the time to survey the arguments, but let me remind you of this one incontestable fact: had Jesus not been raised from the dead, it is very doubtful we ever would have heard of the man. The entire Christian faith and its proclamation to the world rest on the conviction that Jesus rose from the dead. The early Christians made a point of emphasizing that these things did not happen in a corner. They invited public scrutiny of their claims. And how unlikely is it that the Christian message, which was a specific claim about an event in recent history, should spread at a rate so alarming to its opponents and they be unable to do anything to stop it, when the new movement had for its leadership a few fishermen, a tax collector, and some other assorted individuals of no particular consequence? “These things were not done in a corner!”
It was this sort of argument that brought an English attorney by the name of Albert Henry Ross, who wrote under the pseudonym of Frank Morrison, to change his mind altogether about the historicity of the resurrection. He grew up, in the early years of the 20th century, in an educated culture that no longer gave credit to the historic claims of Christianity. His day, in that respect, was not so unlike our own. Today 45% of American students entering college think that the Bible is the Word of God, but only 11% still think that when they graduate. But it was also a culture of wide historical learning and critical sophistication.
A writer by avocation, Ross decided to write a book about Jesus, a book that would deal only with that part of the gospel history that a modern mind could believe with confidence. That, he thought, would be Jesus’ teaching, not his miracles and certainly not his resurrection. But in doing the research for his book his mind was changed and the book he eventually wrote, entitled Who Moved the Stone? became one of the great defenses of the historicity of the resurrection written in the 20th century. As he put it, he came to realize that, “the whole [narrative of the resurrection] reads like an actual, unvarnished, and even naive transcript from real life.”
And, then, reflecting on the history of early Christianity, he wrote:
“The phenomenon which here confronts us is one of the biggest dislodgments of events in the world’s history, and it can only really be accounted for by an initial impact of colossal drive and power.”
Many have come to the same conclusion from their study of the resurrection narratives in the Bible. The early Christians did not spread through the world with a message of the brotherhood of man or of spiritual uplift. They didn’t go from place to place talking about God and his commandments. What they did rather to announce, with all the authority heralds of God, certain concrete facts of history, objective events that had taken place in time and space. The keynote of their proclamation was, as they themselves said, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.”
- The second of these lines of evidence for the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the longing of the human soul.
I said earlier that it is a very interesting question as to why human beings fear death. Why they long to live, not just to continue to exist but really to live. Here we read the sadness in the voice of these men as in v. 21 they tell their unidentified companion of their grief at the death of Jesus: “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” In other words, they had hopes for their lives and the life of the world. They wanted to see good triumph and evil be destroyed. They wanted to see the end of injustice, and there was as much injustice in their world as there is in ours. They wanted life to realize its wonderful promise. I came across this the other day, the recollection of a woman who had been an inmate at Auschwitz. This particular day she was crowded into a cattle-car for the journey to a labor site.
“One morning, I think it was morning or early afternoon, we arrived. The train stopped for an hour; why, we don’t know. And a friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you stand up?’ There was just a little window, with bars. And I said, ‘I can’t. I don’t have enough energy to climb up.’ And she said, ‘I’m going to sit down and you’re going to stand on my shoulders.’ And I did; and I looked out. And…I…saw…Paradise! The sun was bright and vivid. There was cleanliness all over. It was a station somewhere in Germany. There were three or four people there. One woman had a child, nicely dressed up; the child was crying. People were people, not animals. And I thought: ‘Paradise must look like this!’ I forgot already how normal people look like, how they act, how they speak, how they dress. I saw the sun in Auschwitz, I saw the sun come up, because we had to get up at four in the morning. But it was never beautiful to me. I never saw it shine. It was just the beginning of a horrible day. And in the evening, the end – of what? But here there was life, and I had such a yearning, I still feel it in my bones. I had such yearning, to live, to run, to just run away and never come back – to run to the end where there is no way back. And I told the girls, I said, ‘Girls, you have no idea how beautiful the sun is, and I saw a baby crying, and a woman was kissing that baby – is there such a thing as love?’” [Cited in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 494]
“I had such yearning…” We all do; we can’t help it. We can’t escape our longings for love, for happiness, for fulfillment, for life, life that is worthy to be called life. This woman saw the sun and a baby in her mother’s arms and she knew by an instinct deep within her that this was a picture of something real, that ought to be. But she lived in a world of death and cruelty and despair. We know very well that what is is so much less than what ought to be. We experience that most keenly deep within ourselves. We know that we ourselves are so much less than we ought to be. We so easily imagine ourselves better, stronger, wiser, more admirable in every way than we actually are. But we experience this longing also with regard to the world in which we live. Our hunger for justice, for goodness, is an indication of something. We were made for something more than what we have so far attained.
C.S. Lewis put it this way:
“Our life-long nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, our desire to be on the inside of a door which we have always seen from the outside: this is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”
He means that we should not ignore the fact that every human being is in the same place: hungry for life, real life, the life of goodness, justice, peace, love, and joy. We have had tastes of these things, but we know, we cannot help but know that there is more, much more, if only we can find it. Some would tell us that this is nothing but our upset stomach, but it is far too much to explain in such a trivial way. It is precisely these longings that make us human beings; they belong to our very nature; our very selves; our persons.
When you are hungry you want food. The fact that you are hungry certainly is no proof of the fact that food is an illusion; that you are making up the idea of food simply because you are hungry. You wouldn’t get hungry if there weren’t such a thing as food! And, in the same way, there wouldn’t be the longing for life, real life, life to the full, if there were not such a thing as that rich and complete life that we all crave. The God who gave us those longings, who made us the way we are, is the very God who has found the way for those longings to be fulfilled. That is what the resurrection means and the fact that resurrection is precisely what we are all longing for – whether we think about it or not – true, wonderful, happy life in the full integrity of our humanity, body and soul together – has always been one of the most powerful arguments on its behalf. When we all find ourselves looking for something, when we can’t help but look for it, when the search for it is the motive of so much of our daily life, then when the very thing we are looking for is presented to us – not cheaply, we must surrender our very lives to God to receive this gift – is this not powerful evidence of the reality of the resurrection. The wish is not the father of the thought. The universal wish, the powerful longing is the proof that such a thing exists.
- Third, and finally, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the presence of Jesus himself.
This was certainly the case here. Cleopas and his friend… By the way Cleopas is named almost certainly because he was a man whose eyewitness testimony Luke, the Gospel writer, used to prepare his account. Luke either had met Cleopas himself, which is most likely, or had spoken to others who had heard Cleopas tell the story of that day, no doubt many times. I say Cleopas and his friend, did not have the Bible’s account of the resurrection of Jesus to read. They had heard, as we read in vv. 22-24, the excited reports that had come from the cemetery that the tomb was empty and that some of their friends had been told by angels that Jesus was alive. They had heard some of what had happened; they had not heard all of it and they were trying to piece it all together and that afternoon were by no means clear as to what had happened that morning. They, too, were naturally skeptical. They had not been to the tomb themselves. And they certainly weren’t working out in their minds an argument for the reality of resurrection in general. No Jew, I mean not a one, at that time expected any resurrection until the general resurrection at the end of history. Jesus’ resurrection took everyone completely by surprise.
The reason these men believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, something they had no expectation of before that day, was because Jesus met them on the road and revealed himself to them. They had no choice but believe because they met the living Jesus Christ. And the same was true for the gathered disciples. They had heard the reports from the tomb but Christ’s appearance came to them as a shock nonetheless. But there he stood in their midst. Once they got over their shock there was no getting round that fact: Jesus himself who had died on a cross Friday afternoon, was standing before them, speaking and then eating. The marks of the nails could still be seen in his hands! Now, we all wish we could have been there. The Christian wishes that he could have seen the risen Christ the disciples did: what a wonderful scene that would be to remember through the years of one’s life. What comfort in trouble, what encouragement in difficulty, what an argument to set before others! No doubt many non-Christians have wished that they might have been present that Easter night, just to see what actually took place.
But did you notice that strange remark in v. 16. Jesus had walked up to these two men, men he knew and who knew him, and began walking beside them. But they didn’t recognize him. Indeed, we read, “they were kept from recognizing him.” Why? What’s going on here?
Well, one answer is surely the one provided in vv. 26-27. Jesus didn’t want them to recognize him until he had prepared them to understand the significance of his resurrection. Had they recognized him immediately the shock and excitement would have driven all other thoughts out of their minds and Jesus wanted to begin the work of instructing his disciples in the meaning of his death and resurrection. We read of that again with the Twelve in vv. 44-47.
But I think there is another reason why these two men, Cleopas and his comrade, were kept from recognizing Jesus at once when he met them on the road. I think it is meant to demonstrate – what will be after all an immensely important truth – that a person can be in the presence of Jesus, can know his presence, without actually seeing him. These men were with Jesus before they saw him. It wasn’t their sight that brought them into the actual presence of the living Lord Christ. He came to them and was with them before they ever saw him. After all, there would eventually be only some hundreds of people who had the privilege of seeing Jesus in the flesh after his resurrection. But there would be vast multitudes that would encounter him, meet him, and come to know him, the living Lord, who never saw him with their eye or heard him with their ear. What happened to Cleopas and his friend was a kind of picture of what would happen to the multitudes of people who would come to know the presence of Christ without seeing him as the eyewitnesses did.
One mighty result of the resurrection of Jesus was precisely that he was alive again to meet people and to be met by them. He was quite often with people and spoke with them and taught them and encouraged them in those forty days between his resurrection and his ascension to heaven. But even when he left the world he told his disciples that he would be with them always, even to the end of the world. The Holy Spirit mediates the presence of Jesus Christ to his people and introduces him to those who are in the process of becoming his followers.
Simone Weil, the French Jewess philosopher turned Christian wrote of her own experience in 1938:
“I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow…. I discovered the poem…called ‘Love’ [by the English pastor and poet George Herbert, a poem about the love of Christ]. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I made myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that Christ himself came down and took possession of me. In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never forseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.” [Waiting for God, 68-69]
And that is finally why we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; for the same reason Cleopas and the other disciples of Jesus did: they met him and found that he was with them. As surprising, even unsettling as that was to them, so surprising is it to a great many in our day, people like Andy Kaiyala. They had no thought of Jesus rising from the dead, they weren’t expecting to meet him on the road, but he met them nevertheless and the encounter transformed their lives.
There are many reasons to believe in Jesus as the risen savior, but the very best is to meet him yourself. He once said, “He who comes to me I will never drive away.” Put him to the test. Go to him; or better, ask him to come to meet you.