Under normal, non-coronavirus circumstances, Easter is the largest church-going Sunday of every year. Surveys find around 50% of Americans typically plan to attend an Easter service. But amidst the usual pastel swirl of egg hunts, bunnies, and fancy clothes, how often do we really consider what the celebration is about? Even for those who consider themselves devout Christians, do we pause and contemplate the mind-blowing proposition of the physical resurrection of Jesus?
In 2020 there is increasingly less room in the public square for open dialogue about the resurrection. After all, we have science, A.I., and smart phones. We’re too sophisticated for tales of antiquity. Admittedly, it’s an outlandish thing to believe that a man actually died and came back to life. That’s probably a big reason more Christians don’t openly dialogue with their non-Christian fellow citizens about Christianity. It’s often an uncomfortable topic because on the surface it sounds like a fairy tale. Last year, a BBC poll found 46% of Christians in Great Britain don’t believe in the resurrection. Did you catch that? Forty-six percent of Christians in Britain don’t buy the resurrection. It’s frankly easier to discuss Jesus as the kindly philosopher. He’s more relatable as a sort of virtuous, hippy-type figure who lived modestly and loved everyone. That version of Jesus is less confrontational — simply a good, quotable, role model to pattern your life after. But nice-philosopher-Jesus isn’t Christianity. The core of the faith is that Jesus died as the final sacrifice for the sins of humanity. But then the stone covering the entrance to his tomb was pushed aside, Jesus came back to life and walked out of his grave. That is mind-boggling.
The apostle Paul wrote that if the resurrection didn’t happen, “…then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17). To be clear, Paul did not question the veracity of the resurrection, he was simply saying everything hinges on the resurrection — that we’re completely wasting our time if Jesus didn’t come back to life.
The gospel, with the resurrection at its core, is fantastic news for humanity. Ironically, however, much of the world is openly hostile to it. Jesus predicted this hostility. The world can tolerate Jesus, the teacher. But Jesus as God and a magical resurrection? That’s a bridge too far for many. Even as I write this, around the world Christians are going to prison and even being killed for adhering to their belief in Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection.
I get that the resurrection sounds like a fairy tale; a nice story too good to be true. Based on our finite experience, none of us have ever seen a dead human return to life. It’s not necessarily easy to believe, which is itself a major roadblock to faith for many people. I still remember a biology professor when I was in college telling an auditorium full of students that she could never believe in a God who left so much room for doubt. Poor Thomas, the “doubting” disciple of Jesus, has gotten a bad rap for 2,000-plus years for declaring that he’d have to examine Jesus’ crucifixion wounds himself before he’d believe in the resurrection. Thomas is very relatable — way more like us than we’d care to admit. At least he was brave enough to admit his doubt.
We don’t get the benefit of Thomas-level physical proof today, which is a faith-killer for many people. But there is compelling evidence that Jesus actually rose from the grave. There are libraries of books written on the topic from every angle, so it is way beyond the scope of a single essay. But consider a couple examples, the first and most obvious one being that Jesus’ body was never produced. That would’ve been the easiest way to disprove the resurrection claim. If you want to stamp out a pesky religious cult that’s riling up your city, you just produce the dead body of their leader and Jesus would barely be a footnote in history. That didn’t happen. The location of the tomb where he was buried was not a secret at the time. This is huge — no one, including the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, claimed that the tomb still held Jesus’ body. The question was always what happened to his body? If Jesus was still in the tomb, there is no way a worldwide movement based on belief in his resurrection would have started in Jerusalem — the very city where Jesus was publicly crucified and buried.
Over the centuries, a common explanation for the empty tomb is that Jesus’ disciples stole his body and buried it somewhere else to maintain their desired narrative. But it’s difficult to fathom that ten of the eleven remaining disciples would eventually die grisly deaths for maintaining their resurrection claim (the eleventh, John, died in exile on an island). If the resurrection was a lie, you would think at least one of them would’ve finally cracked and fessed up to save his own skin. Or that at least one of the disciples’ close family members would’ve given in and led the authorities to the body of Jesus. But that didn’t happen.
The earliest claim of Christianity wasn’t simply that the tomb was empty, however. The disciples and multiple other witnesses insisted they interacted with the resurrected Jesus. The earliest creed of the apostles (which historians date between two to five years of the Easter events) says Jesus “…appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive…” (1 Corinthians 15:6). The Apostle Paul seemed to be implying, if you don’t believe me, you can go ask those folks. If you’re inventing a legend, it seems unwise to mention a detail like that which could be easily debunked. Paul, a former religious extremist terrorist who rounded up and killed Christians, was also explicit about his own conversion after a physical encounter with the living Jesus.
No other religion makes such an audacious claim as the resurrection. It’s a very simple, all or nothing proposition. It’s either completely true or totally false. There’s no in-between, unless I suppose you were to simply find merit in the fairy tale as the “opium of the people” that Karl Marx famously described — just a nice story to help us make it through another day and help us sleep at night.
Easter commemorates the pivotal event of human history. It’s difficult to believe the world calendar could be built around an event that didn’t happen. And because it’s the most pivotal event in human history, it has implications for every individual. It fundamentally changes everything. It means God is real and that he has an unfathomable love for humans. It means we can have forgiveness and peace in the face of our own death. It means we can relax — we don’t have to struggle to redeem our own filthy souls because Jesus has done that work for us. It confronts every human with a choice, whether to accept or reject God’s free gift of salvation.
The reality of the resurrection also has consequences, which can make people hostile to otherwise great news. The consequences are that the resurrection confronts our beliefs, our personal preferences, our priorities, and even our politics. We cannot truly wrap our minds around the resurrection and not have it change who we are (and change often scares us).
The answers we desperately seek to the fundamental questions of our existence are found in the resurrection. This Easter, believers and nonbelievers alike would do well to consider the reality of the resurrection. Weigh the evidence and consider the implications — Jesus invited his disciples to do no less. After Thomas touched Jesus’ crucifixion wounds and believed, Jesus said: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).