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Is the resurrection just a nice story?


Today, in our series on Ultimate Questions, I want to address this question: is the resurrection just a nice story? In other words, did the bodily resurrection of Jesus really take place in space-time history or is it just an inspiring tale? In the twentieth century, the belief became popular that Jesus rose spiritually but not bodily from the grave, making of the Gospels a nice story, a myth.

For the past few months, our Thursday night book discussion group discussed a book by two New Testament scholars, N. T. Wright and Marcus Borg, entitled: “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions”. In the section on the resurrection, Marcus Borg argued for the spiritual resurrection of Jesus. He wrote, “Indeed, this seems to me to be the central meaning of Easter. Beginning with Easter, the early movement continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death, but in a radically new way. After Easter, his followers experienced him as a spiritual reality, no longer as a person of flesh and blood, limited in time and space, as Jesus of Nazareth had been.”

The key question here is: Does the New Testament present the resurrection of Jesus in this way? Let’s take a look at one of the accounts of the resurrection and see. Let’s read together from Matthew 28:1-15….

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he[a] lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead,[b] and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests[c] had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
Is it true? Did Jesus really rise bodily from the grave? Is this what the Gospels present for our consideration? Let’s look at the evidence…

First, there is the evidence of the stone. We are told in Matthew 27:60 that Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’ followers, “rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb.” But then in Matthew 28, the women who come to visit Jesus’ tomb find the stone rolled away from the entrance. Setting this large stone in place was a relatively easy task. The stone would have been placed in such a way that it would roll down into a groove cut in the bedrock in front of the entrance to the tomb. But once it was in place, it would require several strong men to remove it.
A number of years ago, English barrister, Frank Morrison, set out to disprove the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but in the end, he was stumped. Morrison ended out writing a book entitled, “Who Moved the Stone?” He called the stone at Jesus’ tomb “the one silent and infallible witness in the whole episode.” 

The question, “Who moved the stone?” leads us to a second piece of evidence we need to consider. That is the guard that was posted by Pontius Pilate. Many people down through the ages have suggested that Jesus’ own disciples stole his body. But how could a group of men slip past the Roman guard in order to move the stone and steal Jesus’ body?

The story made up by the priests and the elders simply doesn’t make sense, as is the case with most made-up stories. If Jesus’ disciples came and stole his body while the guards were sleeping, how would the guards have known that it was Jesus’ disciples who stole the body in the first place? If the guards did wake up and see the disciples running away with the body of Jesus, why didn’t they stop them? And if the disciples did steal the body of Jesus, why would they risk breaking the Roman seal on the tomb? The seal was a sign of Roman authority. Whoever broke it would have to answer to the Roman authorities. Why would the disciples risk their lives to do this? And if the disciples did steal the body of Jesus, then why did they later give up their lives because of their belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? The suggestion that the disciples stole the body of Jesus raises more questions than it answers.

This leads us to the evidence of the empty tomb. The women who came to Jesus’ tomb early on that Sunday morning entered into the place where Jesus’ body had lain the night before, and his body was no longer there.

J. N. D. Anderson, former lawyer and professor of oriental law in the University of London once wrote, 

The empty tomb stands, a veritable rock, as an essential element in the evidence for the resurrection. To suggest that it was not in fact empty at all, as some have done, seems to me ridiculous. It is a matter of history that the apostles from the very beginning made many converts in Jerusalem, hostile as it was, by proclaiming the glad news that Christ had risen from the grave—and they did it within a short walk from the sepulcher. Any one of their hearers could have visited the tomb … Is it conceivable, then, that the apostles would have had this success if the body of the one they proclaimed as risen Lord was all the time decomposing in Joseph’s tomb?”

It is important to note that nowhere in the Gospel records, or in the annals of first century history, do the opponents of Christianity claim that the tomb was notempty. But of course, the empty tomb, in and of itself, does not prove that Jesus rose in a body from the grave. We must also look at the evidence of the appearances of Jesus. The New Testament affirms throughout that Jesus appeared, in a body, to his disciples, after his crucifixion.

  • In Matthew’s account we read that as the women hurried away from the tomb, “suddenly Jesus met them.” Matthew says that they clasped his feet and Jesus spoke to them. How do you clasp the feet of a ghost or a spirit?
  • Luke tells us that Jesus ate broiled fish in the presence of his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:42-43). This seems like a strange way to portray a merely spiritual resurrection.
  • John tells us that Jesus asked Mary Magdalen to stop touching him, which infers that she was touching his risen body when she met him outside the tomb (John 20:17). John also tells us that Jesus invited Thomas to touch the nail wounds in his hands and the spear wound in his side. All of these accounts of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples suggest something more than a merely spiritual resurrection.

Some people have suggested that Jesus’ followers experienced a mass hallucination. However, as Josh McDowell has pointed out, “The hallucination theory is not plausible because it contradicts certain laws and principles which psychiatrists say visions must conform to.” Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Generally speaking, only particular kinds of people have hallucinations, namely high-strung, imaginative, nervous people. But the appearances of Jesus were not restricted to persons of any particular psychological make-up.
  2. Hallucinations are usually very individualistic and extremely subjective. It is unlikely that two people would have the same hallucination at the same time. Yet, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, that over 500 people saw the risen Jesus at one time.
  3. Hallucinations are usually restricted as to when and where they occur. But the appearances of Jesus occurred in a variety of places.
  4. Hallucinations require of people hopeful expectation. But the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ followers came to believe against their own wills. They didn’t expect the resurrection to take place. There was no precedent for such a thing happening.
  5. Hallucinations tend to recur over a long period of time with noticeable regularity. But the New Testament tells us that the appearances of Jesus came to an abrupt end, six weeks after his death.

What can we conclude from all this? John Stott answers that question in this way:

The disciples were not gullible, but rather cautious, skeptical and ‘slow of heart to believe.’ They were not susceptible to hallucinations. Nor would strange visions have satisfied them. Their faith was grounded upon the hard facts of verifiable experience.

Others suggest that the writers of the Gospels made up the story of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. But I have to ask: Why would they do that? Why would anyone make up such a story and then sacrifice their lives instead of recanting a made-up story?

All of the aspects of these stories in the Gospels: the stone, the guards, the empty tomb, the nature of the appearances of Jesus, to my way of thinking, clearly present a unified story of bodily, not merely spiritual resurrection. 

Some people reject this story saying simply: “But we know dead men don’t rise up from their graves.” True, but just because we haven’t seen it happen, doesn’t mean it could not happen. If we believe in a God who was powerful enough to create the universe, then certainly that same God can intervene in the creation that he has made. Bodily resurrection is not too hard for God.

But still people ask: what difference does the resurrection of Jesus really make? Is it relevant?

I believe the resurrection of Jesus is relevant; it can make a difference to the way we live our lives every day.

First, the resurrection of Jesus speaks to our human condition of guilt. We all feel guilty for our sin and long for forgiveness. Paul tells us in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life on account of our justification.”  Jesus’ resurrection shows that his death on the cross has really put us right with God.

The resurrection of Jesus also speaks to our human condition of loneliness. It is the risen Jesus who says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Because Jesus is alive and well and reigning in heaven, he can send his Holy Spirit into our hearts. He has promised to be with us and never leave us.

The resurrection of Jesus also speaks to our need for hope. 1 Peter 1:3 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hopethrough the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Allow me to close with a story. The Very Reverend Harry H. Pritchett, Jr., former Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, wrote this many years ago…

Once upon a time I had a young friend named Philip. Philip was born with Downs Syndrome. He was a pleasant child—happy, it seemed—but increasingly aware of the difference between himself and other children. Philip went to Sunday school at the Methodist church. His teacher, also a friend of mine, taught the third-grade class with Philip and nine other eight-year-old boys and girls.

You know eight-year-olds. And Philip, with his differences, was not readily accepted. But my teacher friend was creative, and he helped the group of eight-year-olds. They learned, they laughed, they played together. And they really cared about one another, even though eight-year-olds don’t say they care about one another out loud. My friend could see it. He knew it. He also knew that Philip was not really a part of that group. Philip did not choose nor did he want to be different. He just was. And that was just the way things were.

My friend had a marvelous idea for his class the Sunday after Easter. You know those things that pantyhose come in—the containers that look like great big eggs—my friend had collected ten of them. The children loved it when he brought them into the room. Each child was to get one. It was a beautiful spring day, and the assignment was for each child to go outside, find a symbol for new life, put it into the egg, and bring it back to the classroom. They would then open and share their new life symbols and surprises one by one.

It was glorious. It was confusing. It was wild. They ran all around the church grounds, gathered their symbols, and returned to the classroom. They put all the eggs on a table, and then the teacher began to open them. All the children stood around the table.
He opened one, and there was a flower, and they ooh-ed and aah-ed. He opened another, and there was a little butterfly. “Beautiful,” the girls all said, since it is hard for eight-year-old boys to say “beautiful.” He opened another, and there was a rock. And as third-graders will, some laughed, and some said, “That’s crazy! How’s a rock supposed to be like new life?” But the smart little boy who’d found it spoke up: “That’s mine. And I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and stuff like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different. And for me, that’s new life.” They all laughed.

My friend said something to himself about the profundity of eight-year-olds and opened the next one. There was nothing there. The other children, as eight-year-olds will, said, “That’s not fair—that’s stupid!—somebody didn’t do right.”

Then my friend felt a tug on his shirt, and he looked down. Philip was standing beside him. “It’s mine,” Philip said. “It’s mine.”

And the children said, “You don’t ever do things right, Philip. There’s nothing there!”

“I did so do it,” Philip said. “I did do it. It’s empty. The tomb is empty!”

There was silence, a very full silence. And for you people who don’t believe in miracles, I want to tell you that one happened that day last spring. From that time on, it was different. Philip suddenly became a part of that group of eight-year-old children. They took him in. He was set free from the tomb of his differentness.

Philip died last summer. His family had known since the time he was born that he wouldn’t live out a full life span. Many other things had been wrong with his tiny body. And so, late last July, with an infection that most normal children could have quickly shrugged off, Philip died. The mystery simply enveloped him.

At the funeral, nine eight-year-old children marched up to the altar, not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death. Nine eight-year-olds, with their Sunday school teacher, marched right up to that altar, and laid on it an empty egg—an empty, old, discarded pantyhose egg.[1]

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