The Rev. Frank
The Resurrection: An
Last Sunday was Easter and we joyously celebrated the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. A week has passed. The joy has subsided enough to look at things in the light of day. I want to dare to ask the question, “How do we know they didn’t just make it up?”
After all, we were all born centuries after that first Easter. On a morning when we have just read how Jesus’ own friend Thomas doubted whether the resurrection was true, we should feel emboldened to ask a couple of questions of our own. How do we know that the disciples did not just wish Jesus had been resurrected? How do we know they didn’t have something at stake in fooling everyone else into thinking that Jesus came back from the dead?
First, I want to give the standard answer and show the problems some folks have in accepting it. Then we will look a little harder to see if we might have something more to say on the matter to see if it holds up.
Here is the way the standard answer goes. The best proof of the resurrection is the change in Jesus’ own disciples. Before the resurrection, those same apostles were scared, hiding from persecution. After an encounter with their risen Lord, they were brave enough to take to the streets as Peter does in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
Yes, the disciples might have told a lie to keep the Jesus’ myth going, but not once it came at the price of their very lives. The disciples were in a position to know whether the resurrection stories were the truth or a lie. They were the very witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. They might lie to keep the story going if it meant filling their purses with money, but when persecution came, they would back away from their claims of Jesus’ resurrection. When push came to shove they would not die for a lie?
That’s the standard answer and it works pretty well. The Bible does describe to us the beginnings of persecution against the early Christians. We hear of the first Deacon, Stephen, being stoned to death. But, we have no reason to believe he was a witness to the resurrection. We also read of the death Jesus’ brother James, who was himself converted by an encounter with the resurrected Christ. James was pushed off the top of the Temple for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus. James would have been in a position to know the truth. Would he have died for a lie?
As for the other disciples, their fates are not described in the Bible. In fact, there is no good solid historical evidence for what happened to them, just traditions, that sometimes contradict one another. Yet, the traditions all have the apostles dying for their faith with the sole exception of John, who is said to have died of old age in Ephesus. Even if a skeptic were to grant that the traditions about these men having been put to death for their belief in Christ were true, would this prove that Jesus was really and truly raised from the dead? Not exactly.
Let’s be honest. It could have been a delusion—mass hysteria fed by a desire for the resurrection to be real. Maybe they felt that Jesus was somehow still present to them and they wished it into a historic fact. Or maybe they talked of Jesus’ teaching still being with them and later believers worked with the story until they told it that Jesus’ was resurrected. A symbolic event could have been confused as being an historic event by people living a few generations later.
The Anglican theologian Alister McGrath cites three problems skeptics could offer in opposing the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus: 1) claim resurrection fit into contemporary Jewish expectation, 2) raise the challenge that Jesus’ resurrection is similar to pagan myths, and 3) point out the lack of historic analogue to the resurrection for nothing comparable has ever happened.
In Jesus’ own lifetime, there were two primary schools of Jewish thought on the resurrection, both of which are found in the Gospels. The first was that there was no resurrection of the dead and the only way we live on is through our descendants. Jesus in the Gospels countered this view, held by the Temple priests, known as Sadducees. The second idea was that there would be a resurrection at the end of time. There was simply no category in Jewish thought for a resurrection occurring then, during the present age. In that context, teaching of a crucified person being raised again fit no common expectation. This idea of a crucified Rabbi being resurrected never to die again was a radically unorthodox idea. It would not have been put forward just to meet Jewish expectation.
Some claim rather than meeting Jewish expectations, the story of Jesus’ resurrection is nearly identical to pagan and Gnostic myths. These similarities are too great to be ignored, so Jesus’ resurrection must be a myth. This line of reasoning would say, that sure Jews did not expect a resurrection in this lifetime, but everyone else did, so that saying someone was resurrected would have fit into ideas in common currency. Ho hum. Nothing knew even. Another resurrected hero.
These statements overlook the striking difference between other myths and the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Myths are cast in mythic time. Jesus’ death and resurrection are described in some detail in terms of when and where they occurred. Furthermore, there is no single example of a resurrection myth being applied to a specific person in history. If Jesus’ is cast as an historic example of a pagan myth come to life, the New Testament writers were showing amazing originality. The closest analogy is found in Gnostic redeemer myths, sometimes cited by skeptics. The only problem is that those stories were written after Jesus’ death and resurrection. If plagiarism took place, it wasn’t the apostles who were cribbing the ideas.
A third problem to accepting the resurrection is the lack of scientific verifiability. Or as the German sociologist Ernst Troeltsch put it, men do not rise from the dead in our experience, therefore Jesus could not have risen from the dead. I certainly can’t refute his premise. People just don’t go popping out of their tombs on the third day. Yet, as Alister McGrath notes, “If people were raised from the dead on a regular basis, there would be no difficulty in accepting that Jesus Christ had been raised. But it would not stand out. It would not say anything, either about the identity of Jesus himself or about the God who chose to raise him in this way. The Resurrection was taken so seriously because it was realized that it was totally out of the ordinary.”
The problem is not as some skeptics may characterize it that Jesus’ resurrection fit into an expectation on everyone’s hearts and minds at the time. Lots of good Jewish teachers had been put to death. Yet, none of their followers ever claimed resurrection. The Christian story was stunningly unorthodox.
Jesus’ resurrection was both unprecedented and unexpected, even by the very people Jesus’ had taught to see it coming. In our reading from Acts, Peter tells those present that their great ancestor King David is dead and his tomb is, as Peter says, “with us till this day.” But he claims of Jesus, “God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”
Peter proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection, not because everyone expected this of the Messiah, but because it was so life-changingly unexpected that Peter and the others couldn’t avoid talking about it. It might have been easier if they had just claimed that Jesus’ message was still valid, that his teaching should live on. But that is not what they claimed. The apostles claimed that Jesus was and is the firstborn of the dead, the until now still unrepeatable example of the resurrection to come at the end of time.
So where are we now? I think it is too easy to shoot down the idea of resurrection, with the superficial premise that that which we have never observed to happen can never have happened. That is faulty logic. Just because no one in our lifetime has observed resurrection does not mean that it is not possible. There is nothing in that argument that invalidates the Christian claims that Jesus’ resurrection is unique.
Rather than assuming what can and cannot have happened once upon a time, we could start like Thomas with something more tangible. We could say that we need something that we can hold on to before we will believe.
As I alluded to last week, in the end the only proof I have to offer is a bit subjective. But I will not offer my own subjective proof, my own experiences of the resurrected Jesus. I would rather offer yours.
What I would challenge you to consider is this: the best explanation for the post Easter change in Jesus’ apostles really is the Easter experience of resurrection. Yet, if that experience is not available to you in the here and now then the disciples were deluded for they felt and taught that the post Easter Jesus would always be present through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Psalmist put it this way in Psalm 34, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Taste and see if the resurrection is real. Lay your doubts at the altar and see what God does with them. Try living as if the resurrection were real. Try praying as if the resurrection were real. Try opening your heart up to God as if the resurrection were real.
God will honor that faith, that openness and offer you something better than the best-reasoned arguments I can conjure up. Jesus can offer you your own experience of our resurrected Lord. Then you will know for yourself that Jesus’ resurrection is no myth made up by deluded fanatics. Jesus’ resurrection is not only something of historic significance, but it has present-day relevance if you will open yourself to the life-giving power that brought Jesus back to life. It really is something you can count on…
For Alleluia, He is
 A Christian apologist is one who relates the Christian faith to skeptics. It is in that spirit that I offer a skeptics look at the resurrection.
 This sermon relies on McGrath’s “Intellectuals don’t need God & other modern myths” (Zondervan 1993) in which he cites these problems with accepting the doctrine of the resurrection.
 McGrath, page 122.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526