Easter Doubt

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 28:16-17

Maybe you are one of those who has trouble believing that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Would you like to learn how doubt is overcome?

While a friend of mine was visiting a very ill man in the hospital one day, he struck up a conversation with the man’s son, a university professor who had come back home to see his father. They began to talk about the Christian faith that was sustaining the father during this time of crisis but which the son had rejected. “I just can’t believe in Christ,” he told my friend wistfully. “I wish I could. I honestly do, but I can’t.” What would you have said to him? Perhaps you share the same problem. Can anything be done to overcome doubt?

One of the things I most appreciate about the New Testament writings is their honesty. I don’t see how anyone can read the gospels and fail to be impressed with the straightforward way they tell the story of Jesus, neither glossing over difficulties nor altering facts that might appear embarrassing or inconvenient. A good example of this honesty occurs near the end of the book of Matthew. It was some days after Easter. The eleven remaining disciples had gathered in Galilee, where they were probably joined by a number of other followers of Jesus. In fact, many think this was the occasion the apostle Paul referred to when he reported that once more than five hundred people had seen the risen Lord at the same time. This is what Matthew says about it:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

(Matthew 28:16,17)

This little touch of realism convinces me that the story is an authentic historical account, not something the disciples made up. “We did not follow cleverly devised myths,” wrote the apostle Peter, “when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16, rsv). The doubt of some of Jesus’ disciples in his very presence is not the stuff myths are made of, but it is the stuff life is made of. For this is exactly how it is today. Many people throughout the world are worshiping Jesus Christ, and at the same time many are doubting. If you are one of the latter, I would like to tell you how doubt can be overcome.

Two Ways It Cannot

But before I do that, I must admit two ways in which doubt is not overcome, at least not usually. One way is by accumulating evidence for the truth. Surprising as it may seem, doubt is usually not overcome by evidence, even the evidence of our own senses. After all, all who were standing on that hillside in Galilee could see Jesus with their own eyes, but still some of them doubted. The evidence before them was not enough to convince them completely.

Now this is not to say that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is weak. There is an old joke about a preacher’s sermon that at one place had a note in the margin: “weak point, shout louder.” That was not true of the apostles’ preaching about the resurrection. They did not try to bluff or bluster their way past this point because it was unsubstantiated. They did not avoid mentioning it as much as possible because they felt it was the shakiest part of the case for Christianity. They did not just touch on it briefly and then move quickly on to the ethical teachings of the Christian faith, hoping no one would take a long, hard look at the evidence. No, the apostles drew attention to the resurrection whenever they could. It was the central point of all their preaching. Every sermon of every apostle recorded in the book of Acts has the resurrection as its theme. The apostles not only declared that this event happened; they invited investigation of it. “This was not done in a corner,” as one of them put it. It was very much a public event, and the apostles consistently drew attention to all the evidence for it.

Evidence for Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead includes these four facts: first, the empty tomb of Jesus just outside of Jerusalem; second, the many people who saw him alive on Easter and for several weeks afterwards; third, the transformation of Jesus’ disciples into bold witnesses to his risen life and saving power; and fourth, the rise and worldwide expansion of the Christian church. As one New Testament expert, B.F. Westcott, has said: “Taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no single historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ.”

The problem with the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is not that it does not exist or that it is not strong. The problem is that it can be denied. Indeed, that is the problem with evidence for anything. You can always explain away what you see. C.S. Lewis, the twentieth century’s most articulate apologist for Christianity, once said he had met only one person in all his life who claimed to have seen a ghost and that person disbelieved in the existence of spirits both before and after the experience. The Oxford philosopher and atheist Sir Alfred Ayer, writing about a vision of eternity he had after his heart had stopped for several minutes, said, “My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death . . . will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no God.”

That is the trouble with experience – there are always alternative explanations for it. Those who say, “Show me and I’ll believe,” are missing the point. Even if they saw, they probably would still not believe. People who claim that they would accept Christ if only he proved to them that he was real are only fooling themselves. They could choose, if he appeared, to explain it as a hallucination or a trick of some kind. So doubt is usually not overcome by evidence, even evidence that is solid and real.

Nor is doubt overcome by argument – here is another way that does not work. This is not to say that there are not compelling arguments for the reality of the resurrection. If you want to approach the whole matter logically, you will find that there are many convincing reasons for believing that Jesus literally rose from the dead. For example, answer this question: What happened to his body? That the tomb in which he was buried on Friday afternoon was empty on Sunday morning seems to be an undeniable fact. But if his body was gone, how did it disappear? There are only two possibilities: either someone took it or he left on his own. But who could or would have taken the body of Jesus from its grave? Surely not his baffled and leaderless disciples. Besides, they were no match for the Roman squad that had been posted to guard the grave site.

On the other hand, it certainly could not have been the authorities who took the body. That was the very thing they were trying to prevent, and if they had removed it for safekeeping, why did they not simply produce it a few days later when his disciples began to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead? That would have stopped the whole Christian movement dead in its tracks.

So who could have done it? One more detail: the New Testament says that though Jesus’ body had gone from his tomb, his grave clothes were left behind. Who would steal a corpse and leave its shroud?

Or how about this question: What happened to Jesus’ disciples? What turned them from frightened, disoriented, disillusioned men and women into fearless apostles whose mighty witness turned the world upside down? Jesus told them to go into all the world with his message and make disciples for him of every nation. The incredible thing is, they actually did it! This handful of ordinary people, without money or influence or education, with no access to powerful media, no positions of authority, actually took the gospel to the entire Roman empire. Within a lifetime, their faith had been planted throughout the then-known world, and by our time the worldwide Christian movement has grown to be the greatest enterprise in human history. The church of Jesus Christ is even now growing and expanding to every nation and among every people on earth. What made this happen? What single cause is powerful enough to produce such an effect? What spiritual “big bang” is strong enough to create this new universe of world Christianity? Is it all based on a myth? Or did it all come about because Jesus’ resurrection actually happened?

These are questions that have to be answered by those who are genuinely interested in the truth. But the problem with reasons and arguments is that they usually just lead to counter arguments and even if these are weak, people will seize upon them. Matthew says that the authorities in Jerusalem, when told by the soldiers that Jesus’ tomb was empty, published the story that his disciples had stolen his body. The force of the truth did not lead them to believe. It led them to lie. The fact is, doubt is not usually overcome by reason. People generally are not argued into faith.

One Thing That Does

So what is the answer? If doubt is not overcome by evidence or by argument, what will make the difference? The answer is right here in front of us, in Matthew’s simple statement: “When they saw him, . . . they worshiped him” (v. 17). The word translated “worship” here means literally “to bow the knee.” Jesus’ disciples, we are told – even those who doubted and even while they were doubting – fell down at Jesus’ feet in adoration. Their worship was a sign of personal surrender. We are not told all that was going on in their minds as they did this, but it seems certain they must have been filled with questions. They did not have all the answers. Surely they had been going back and forth over the evidence and arguing within themselves all along. But regardless of that, they worshiped him.

“But wait a minute,” you say. “How can I possibly surrender to Jesus when I am not even sure if he is real? How can I worship him when I do not know if I believe in him?” Well, you could begin by being honest enough to recognize the real issue. The problem is not with evidence or arguments or proofs. It is not that it is impossible for a rational person to believe in Jesus Christ. The real issue is not whether you can believe in Christ, but whether you are willing to worship him. In other words, the problem is not in your mind, it is in your will.

You see, if I worship Jesus Christ as Lord and God, then I have to surrender control of myself to him. I am no longer the most important thing in my own life. He is. I no longer decide what is best for me. He does. A lot of people do not want that, which is why they take refuge in their doubts. But doubt can be overcome – if you are willing to come to Christ, doubts and all, and bow before him in worship.

During the American Civil War, Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his troops had surrounded Fort Donelson in northern Tennessee, trapping an entire Confederate army. He received an inquiry from the enemy commander, who wanted to know if Grant would meet to discuss surrender terms with him. “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted” was Grant’s reply.

Unconditional and immediate surrender. That is what Christ expects from us. And he has a right to. After all, he is Lord and God. Moreover, it is the only answer to the problem of doubt. In the end, doubt will not be overcome merely by evidence or by argument. Doubt will be overcome only by surrender.