Should modern people believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead?

April 9, 2012

Great story, but is it true?

The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest miracle in human history and contradicts every known medical and scientific principle. No such thing has happened before or since. The gospel accounts mention three instances of people being miraculously brought back to life by Jesus, but they eventually experienced the typical irreversible human demise. Not so with Jesus Christ.

Fact is, among his own disciples, not everybody was buying it either. On the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) two followers actually encountered the risen Lord and were, at first, unaware that it was Jesus. They had already heard a rumor that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but they were sad. It is reasonable to presume that the two disciples doubted in the same way many people throughout history have not believed the Easter story. Let’s face facts, it is a big step to accept that a man came back from the grave.

Thomas, one of the twelve, was certainly not buying this tall tale and you can read the story in John 20. Jesus is very specific about having a physical resurrected human body. Luke recounts this encounter.

See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Luke 24:39-43 ESV)

This is not very deep study of such a large and important issue, but the point is that a fair reading of Scripture tells us that Jesus died a real human death and experienced an unheard of resurrection. The text also speaks emphatically to the centrality of a real bodily raising of Jesus from the dead. Paul makes this very clear.

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:13-19)

Let’s carry this a little further. If the Bible is to be taken as credible (and I think it is), Jesus is particular about who he visits after the resurrection. The eleven and a group of disciples are in the upper room. He speaks with the women who come to the tomb. In fact, Paul made a short list, stating that, “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor 15:5-9).

Jesus did not, by the sharpest possible contrast, drop in for a little chat with Pontius Pilate, nor did he settle accounts with the chief priests and the Pharisees. There was no appointment with Annas or Caiaphas. The risen Lord did not show himself to the Roman soldiers who participated in his torture and execution. Jesus spent time with his followers.

His earthly ministry was spent preaching the good news and healing those being oppressed by disease and demons, but he was careful to make sure that it was not a sideshow. Things begin to change when the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity takes on human flesh. Mankind has reason for hope.

Jesus also tells his followers to pick up those crosses and get in line (Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). Following the Messiah means becoming more like him and experiencing  the same kind of push-back that ultimately led to his brutal execution. Since Jesus is “the first fruits of those that have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20), we hope to share in his resurrection by being likewise brought forth from the dead, but the cross and the resurrection are connected realities.

Many today have the same doubts that plagued Thomas. None of us have ever seen a dead man walk out of his own tomb. In his book, Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright deals with issues of Christ’s resurrection and the final destination of faithful Christians. He observes that people would not have been expecting a two-stage resurrection in which Jesus rises first and is taken to the Heavenly realm and in which we are all raised together later on.

In Baptism, the Christian is figuratively raised to a new life in Christ. The baptismal image is important because is involves dying and rising. The two are connected. Now that we are raised in baptism, things have changed and we have a new allegiance to the Heavenly City. Our lives, our witness, make the world a better place.

But how can we be sure? Jesus did not criticize Thomas for his disbelief. Instead, Jesus took the “look and see” approach.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:27-29)

That last part is for us. Thomas had the opportunity to put his own fingers into Jesus’ wounds, but we are stuck in another time and place. The rational modern mind cannot grasp something that is taken by faith. That, however is not a blind mindless quality of thoughtless acceptance. The author of Hebrews tells us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1).

It is a big step indeed, based on our understanding of God’s plan of reconciliation with humanity and our experience of his loving mercy, to hope for our own  transformation into a new kind of humanity.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
(Eph 2:4-10)

So here we are; already seated in the heavenly places. Now it takes some kind of strong faith to imagine yourself already settled in the heavenly realm “in Christ Jesus.” We are in him, he is in us. That’s a mystery. How it happened is even stranger. Grace is a completely free gift of God received as a result of our faith experience.

There is simply no making sense of this to the modern, scientific,and supposedly enlightened mind. If a man walked out of a tomb on his own power, that might almost be a magic trick. Christians believe that it happened to Jesus, and we also believe that the same thing will happen to us one day. We are expecting to rule on this earth with Jesus.

If there is any proof of the resurrection in the world today, it ought to be visible in the lives of Jesus’ followers. Writing about the consequence of our union with Christ in baptism and hope of the resurrection, Paul suggests how we ought to walk.

… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:2-6).

Yes, we often come up short. Christians should live like resurrection believers, but we are still struggling in the flesh. Sometimes that cross gets heavy. We fall. We fail. It does not kill the faith nor take away our hope.


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