Easter Facts

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 20:1-8

Christians base their faith on the fact that Jesus rose physically from the grave, and there are some very good reasons for believing this really happened.

Christians have a responsibility to witness, but there is often a difference between how contemporary Christians witness and the way Christians in the New Testament did. Today when Christians talk about their faith, they usually end up focussing on their own feelings and experiences.

That’s not necessarily wrong, but it is different from New Testament practice. In the New Testament, Christian witnesses appealed to facts, not feelings. They asked the non-Christians to whom they spoke to think. They didn’t invite people to believe in the gospel first of all because it could help them or make them feel better, but because it was true.

I’d like to make the same sort of appeal to you today. I invite you to think about whether or not our Christian testimony is true. Let’s look at the facts together; specifically, at the one central fact of Christianity, the fact of the resurrection. And let’s begin by taking note of a series of statements that are certain, beyond any possibility of denying.

THINGS ABOUT WHICH THERE CAN BE NO DOUBT

There are a number of facts about Christianity that every student of history knows are undoubtedly true. These facts are known not just from the Bible but from independent research. Here are four of them:

  1. It is certain that the Christian movement began very suddenly in the fourth decade of the first century of what has come to be called “The Christian Era.” Sometime during the early thirties of this century, a distinct group of believers emerged out of Judaism and began to grow explosively.
  2. It is certain that this movement began in Palestine among Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah (or “Christ”) and acknowledged him as Lord and God. These Christians, as they eventually came to be known, multiplied with incredible speed. At first the faith took root in the Jewish communities of cities throughout the Roman world, but the major growth came when it expanded into the Gentile population at some point during its first ten years.
  3. It is certain that Christianity grew because its converts believed in the apostles’ teaching: that a Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans and then rose from the dead, thereby revealing himself to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world. This was the message that Christians called the “good news” or the “gospel.”
  4. It is certain that this gospel message was first proclaimed in Jerusalem, the same place where the events were said to have occurred. The church began there, and Jerusalem remained the center of Christianity until the city’s destruction by the Romans in the year 70.

Now these facts, as I have said, are all certain beyond any reasonable doubt. No serious thinker would challenge any of them. So the question is this: How does one explain them? What is the truth behind these facts? What historical cause produced these particular results? We know that what lies behind, or under, the Christian movement as its foundation and support is the story of the resurrection of Jesus. So the question really becomes: How do you explain that story?

THREE ALTERNATIVE VIEWS

  1. A Conspiracy.There are only three possible explanations for the story of Jesus’ resurrection. One is that the story is a hoax, part of a “Passover plot” created by Jesus’ followers to give a plausible basis for their new religion. In other words, Christianity is founded on a vast and intricate conspiracy. To put it bluntly, it’s all a lie. Jesus’ followers stole his body so that his grave would be empty and they could proclaim that he had risen from the dead. Incidentally, this explanation appears in the New Testament itself as an alternative offered by the authorities in Jerusalem. But in order to accept it, you have to believe that between the time of Jesus’ death on a Friday afternoon and the reports of his empty grave on Sunday morning, his little group of followers first concocted the scheme and then carried it out, overpowering the Roman guards at his tomb in the process, and further, that they then managed to keep the whole conspiracy secret for the rest of their lives.

    But who was their mastermind? Where was the evil genius that organized such a thing? Elaborate deceptions aren’t successfully planned and executed by a committee. They require a powerful and intelligent and unscrupulous leader, and there was no one like that among the disciples. Peter, their leading figure, did have many attractive qualities to go along with some serious flaws, but no one, I think, would call him clever. Judas might have been able to pull it off – assuming that all the others went along with him – but unfortunately, he had committed suicide.

    And then, beside the problem of carrying out a plot like this, there was the matter of hiding the truth successfully. It would have been the greatest coverup in human history. Is it conceivable that all these people lived out a lie consistently for the rest of their lives, even going to their deaths on the cross and in the arena, if they didn’t believe that their faith was true? Charles Colson, a member of the Nixon administration, went to prison in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. For the past twenty years he has been a powerful Christian spokesman who bears a particularly significant witness to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.

    Nothing less than a witness so awesomely powerful as the resurrected Christ appearing to the 11 apostles and Paul could cause those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is Lord. Take it from one who was inside the Watergate web looking out, and who saw firsthand how vulnerable a cover-up is; a “Passover plot” or the perpetration of mythology is not only implausible, it is impossible. Watergate’s greatest lesson should be its testimony of the frailty of man. The inefficacy of a bungled burglary cover-up is indirectly a powerful witness to Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

    (Charles Colson, “Why I Believe in the Resurrection,” Christianity Today, 1983)

  2. A Myth. A second alternative explanation to the resurrection is that the whole story was made up by the writers of the four Gospels. This is the opinion of many of Christianity’s learned critics, educated people who know the story of Christianity’s beginning but don’t want to accept a supernatural explanation for it. It’s not that the apostles were deliberately lying, they say; it’s more a matter of trying to express a kind of spiritual truth in story form. The apostles certainly believed something about Jesus. His life and teaching had made a powerful impact on them, and it was this impact they were testifying to when they told of his rising from the grave. But of course, it didn’t actually happen. It couldn’t. Critics note that the Gospels weren’t written until 30 or 40 years after the events they purport to describe. They also note that they were written by Christian believers and so their contents have been shaped by faith in Jesus. Therefore, there can be no question of their being literally true.

    This explanation of Christian origins has the advantage of doing away with a Jesus who is the divine Son of God, a Jesus who supernaturally rose from the dead. It is consistent with the world view of modern, secular people. However, as an explanation for the origin of Christianity, it has the significant disadvantage that it does not explain the origin of Christianity. It doesn’t tell us how people first became Christians.

    Did the gospel writers really make up the whole story? Well, then, why did they do that? What made the writers themselves believe it? They obviously did, or we’re back to the Passover Plot.

    And what about the people who first told the story? For the gospel events were circulated by word of mouth long before they ever came to be written down. People stood up on the streets of Jerusalem right after Jesus’ death and claimed he was alive. What was it that made them say that? What made their preaching so wildly successful? When the disciples proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection as a fact, thousands of their fellow Jews believed them and became followers of the Messiah.

    And while all this was going on in Jerusalem, why did the authorities resort to persecution and strong-arm tactics to try to squelch the new faith? They arrested the Christian leaders. They hounded and harassed the Christians themselves, spreading alternative stories about how Jesus’ grave came to be empty. Why didn’t they just produce the body?

    The explanation that the resurrection story is a sort of myth produced by the New Testament writers is what could be called “the evolutionary theory” of Christian origins. This theory says that somehow Christianity got started by a naturalistic, non-supernatural means. But we can’t really explain how. Something changed Jesus’ disciples from a grief-stricken, frightened, confused little band into bold champions of a new faith that conquered the world. But we don’t know what. Something made his apostles say they had seen Jesus alive, but it couldn’t have been the fact that they had. Something caused the New Testament authors to write about the resurrection as if it were true, but it wasn’t the conviction that it was. Frankly, this is an explanation that explains nothing, and I don’t find it very convincing.

  3. A Fact. There is, of course, one more alternative. It could be that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is true. It could be that Christian faith is founded on fact. It could be that the witness of all these people concerning what they themselves saw and heard is to be taken at face value. Is the resurrection a hoax or a lie or a legend? When I consider all the facts, I can’t believe it is. I have to believe it really happened.

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,

the amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

each soft spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the

eleven apostles;

it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,

the same valved heart

that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then regathered

out of enduring Might

new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence,

making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded

credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-m?ch?,

not a stone in a story,

but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of

time will eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,

make it a real angel,

weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in

the dawn light, robed in real linen

spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed

by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

(John Updike, Seven Stanzas at Easter)