As soon as a child comes to the realization that life will end at some point the dominant question becomes, "What happens after you die?" Career pursuits, falling in love, marriage, children, and the accumulation of wealth and pleasure quiet the question for a while. Middle age is a time when the question bubbles to the surface again as we begin to lose the ones we love and bear the scars of life.
Religion has promised an afterlife since the dawn of time. The Egyptians would begin construction of burial tombs, called pyramids, as soon as a king ascended the throne. These tombs were filled with ornate and expensive treasures, enough to now fill the world's museums, because the sense was that the king would spend far more time in the afterlife than on earth. The Jews gave us the idea of heaven, the Greeks and Romans the Elysian Fields, ancient Scandinavians Valhalla. In the past decade at least five books on heaven have spent months on bestseller lists, the latest being Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife; To Heaven and Back: A Doctor's Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story; and, of course, Heaven Is for Real, which has been a bestseller every week since it was first published in 2010 and was recently made into a major motion picture.
Skeptics concerning the hereafter will say that religion was invented to comfort those left behind and to soften the blow of non-existence. The argument that dominates the scientific community today is that living eternally is unobservable, therefore nonfactual. And the average person's argument is that no one has ever returned to tell us about it.
But actually one did. Every Easter over a billion Christians around the globe celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. If Jesus did indeed overcome the grave, would that be enough evidence to believe in God? Is the resurrection factual?
Let's examine the evidence.
Asked one day by the religious leaders to show them a sign from heaven, Jesus said He would give them "the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:38-40).
Many of us are familiar with the story of Jonah who, after those three days and nights, finally obeyed God, went to Nineveh, and preached repentance. As a result, all the people of Nineveh, from the king on down, listened and mourned and turned from their wicked ways. A nation that never had a Bible, never sang a worship song, did not believe in a monotheistic God, fully repented because of an eight-word sermon.
Early Christians understood that the "sign of Jonah" was the resurrection, a fact corroborated by a look at the Catacombs in Rome. The Catacombs are miles and miles of underground caverns that ancient Romans used to bury their dead. Christians hid and worshiped together there because they were under such heavy persecution. They decorated their meeting places with etchings, the second-most prevalent of which was a figure of a whale or a great fish, often alongside a depiction of Jesus rising from the dead.
Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection were foretold centuries before the actual events took place and recorded in what we call the Old Testament.
The gospel in the Old Testament starts in Genesis 3, the first prophecy in the Bible. In the midst of His judgment for Adam's sin, God offers a glimmer of hope as he speaks to the serpent: "And I will put enmity / Between you and the woman, / And between your seed and her Seed; / He shall bruise your head, / And you shall bruise His heel" (Gen. 3:15). This verse indicates what God is about to do: God is going to send a Redeemer.
There are a few things we have to discuss here. The seed of the woman is interesting. You know enough of biology to know that it's the seed of a man that goes into a womb, and all the genealogies in the Bible are through the "seed" of men. So "Seed" of a woman means there is no man involved. As Isaiah said centuries before, "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son" (Isa. 7:14).
When the angel came to Mary he told her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). Isaiah tells us, "And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father" (Isa. 9:6). He would be God, and He would be eternal. As Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58; see also Ex. 3:14).
And then we have this idea that the offspring of the serpent would be bruised in the head, though managing to bruise the heel of the woman's offspring. When Jesus died on the cross, the Scriptures say that the demonic hordes thought they had won. It says that if they had known what would have happened after the resurrection, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:7-9). They bruised his heel (killed him); but Jesus crushed their head (came back to life, conquering death). Colossians says he made an open spectacle of all of them (Col. 2:15).
Genesis 3 is just the first of over 300 Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. I don't have room here to expand upon the many that pertain strictly to the resurrection, but some of my favorites are Psalm 16:10, Hosea 6:2, and Hosea 13:14.
After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in the tomb Joseph had prepared for himself. Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Jewish ruling class, a Pharisee, and Scripture says he had followed Jesus secretly. He had heard Jesus and seen the miracles and he had apparently resonated with what Jesus was doing, but he had a lot at stake: he had been raised a Jew and he had a job he didn't want to lose. But something happened after the crucifixion. Maybe it was when Jesus said, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do." Maybe it was that Jesus went willingly to His death to back up what He taught. Whatever it was, it caused Joseph of Arimathea to risk his position and power, go to Pilate, and request Jesus' body in order to give Him a decent burial.
By doing this, Joseph did us a huge favor. Because if you're going to claim that somebody rose from the grave, you would have to know where he was buried.
We know where Jesus was buried, and so did the Jewish leaders. Fearing His disciples would steal His body, they came to Pilate requesting a guard be set over the tomb. So Pilate, who had no religious affinity whatsoever, assigned sixteen Roman soldiers and set a Roman seal. If that seal was broken, it was death to the soldiers.
It was an ordinary burial. But scholar J.T. Robinson of Cambridge University, who spent a lifetime studying this, said the burial of Jesus is one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus. We know how, when, where, and by whom He was buried.
On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus' tomb was found empty by a group of His women followers, and they were the first to testify that He had risen. A number of things point to the fact that their story was not fabricated. First, they didn't have some fantastic story to tell – just an empty tomb. Second, the testimony of women in that culture was considered worthless. If people were going to make up a really great story, they'd use more "reliable" witnesses. Third, law enforcement officers tell us that, when all the eyewitnesses to an event tell exactly the same story, it's a sure sign that they've worked on the story together. True eye-witness testimony varies from witness to witness, and must be pieced together to get the whole picture.
What then is the picture we can piece together from their various testimonies? "He is not here; He is risen." They differed on a few details, but they were positive He wasn't there.
On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
Our whole view of history is based on eyewitnesses. We all believe that George Washington was the first president, but why? Because somebody was there. Somebody was there, wrote it down, wrote it in a history book, and we read it. Most of us won't go back to first-source material or do tremendous research to find out if he really was the first president; we take it for granted. The same holds true for other historical figures.
In Jesus' case, we see the list of eyewitnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. After His death He was seen alive by Cephas (Peter), "then by the twelve" (1 Cor. 15:5). What I like about that is that Thomas is included: Thomas, who wasn't there when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, and said he wouldn't believe unless he had a few facts, like taking his finger and putting it into Jesus' nail-scarred hands.
I can relate to Thomas. Sometimes I stand at a funeral and I look in that hole, and 98.9% of me says, "I believe, that we're going to be changed, that we're going to have glorified bodies. But Lord, help my unbelief. Help the deepest part of me that doesn't believe, because I'm a finite, lost man with this mind that needs to be refreshed and renewed. Lord, help my unbelief." Thomas was part of the twelve.
Jesus was also seen by over 500 people at once. Everybody shared in the same experience. If only one person had seen Him, the person might have thought, "Hmmm. Was that really Him, or was it bad pizza the night before?" When 500 people see something at once, there's plenty of corroboration.
Besides these five hard facts, there are some things I call ripples. Contemplate a few: One ripple is that we mark time by Jesus' life, BC and AD (or BCE and CE). Another ripple is that we had an explosion of manuscripts, not only by the Gospel writers but by others who wrote about this seismic event. We had the fall of Rome, the coming of Western civilization, and Christian thought in the Renaissance. We have hospitals, and so many things that find their way back to Jesus' philanthropy and caring for the poor and the sick.
Now, what does all this do for you and me? Why is the certainty of the resurrection so important? Because if Jesus didn't rise from the grave, there is no Christianity. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14," And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty." In other words, if we're just putting a bunch of principles into practice, even though we may see some slight improvement in our lives, it's a waste of time. We still die in the end.
Romans 6 says that, if you were baptized into Christ, you not only died with Him but shall be raised with Him (Rom. 6:3-4). We have this amazing hope that one day we will walk in the kingdom of God in glorified bodies. And the older I get, the more fervently I say, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus!" Because I do too many funerals, walk into too many hospitals, and hear too many bad stories every day. And that's just here in the West, a fantasy compared with the other two-thirds of the world.
The resurrection is a game-changer because it gives us hope and purpose. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:57-58:
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
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