“Is it true?” is still the question

Questioning the truth

There were over 100 talkative students packed in to the marquee which had been set up in a prominent spot at the centre of the university campus, and the guest speakers for this week of gospel-sharing events were wrapping up the final sessions. What struck me was not only the level of spiritual interest within this supposedly post-Christian generation, but the topic: is the resurrection of Jesus “true”, and what does it mean for us today? The speakers did a great job of outlining in an attractive and compelling way both the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and the implications of it for our life today.

I am used to hearing speakers enthuse about the “difference Jesus makes”, and even also the hope he to argue that the “post-modern” unconverted need to see that faith “works”, and are not asking “is it true?” The seekers that I meet want to know both, and they are smart enough to know that one (pragmatic relevance) rests upon the other (historical truthfulness). So what a joy to find that in 2017 spiritually interested undergraduates are hearing about the truth of the resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is true?

One speaker rehearsed the historical probability of the gospel accounts being literally true when they speak of a tomb with no body in it, and of appearances to a number of disciples on different occasions. He had clearly read and spoken on this theme many times before.

He offered Karl Venturini’s  swoon theory, proposed early in the nineteenth century and later adopted in form by Friedrich Schleiermacher (and more recently, Michael Baigent and Barbara Thiering). According to this, Jesus fainted on the cross, and then revived in the tomb and was rescued by his followers. The experienced student evangelist pointed out the historical improbability of this theory, given the professionalism and effectiveness of Roman execution, and the powerful effect of Jesus post-resurrection on all who met him.

The theory that the women who were the first at the tomb on Sunday morning mistook an empty tomb for the grave of Jesus was rightly dismissed as not only sexist (!) but as poorly fitting the gospel accounts. These record that multiple visits were made to the tomb by followers of Jesus, who had noted his burial place carefully. Furthermore, if they got the wrong grave, why did the Jewish authorities not immediately point out the mistake?

The speaker then alluded to the idea that Jesus’ body had been stolen by the authorities, and pointed out that if this was the case, the corpse is very likely to have been revealed since, but it has not. The suggestion that the disciples were creating a hoax about Jesus’ resurrection to achieve public fame for themselves was shown to be equally unfit as historical theory, given the same absence of a body, and also that most of them soon willingly faced prison and execution for this claim.

Finally, the theory that the disciples and women who saw the risen Jesus according the first written sources were hallucinating was recounted, and against it, the evidence of eminent psychiatrists that the appearances in the accounts do not remotely fit the pattern of hallucinations.

The speaker finished by challenging his sceptical listeners to come up with a better theory that has not been thought-of in the last 2000 years, or to accept the truth of the resurrection.

Time and again, historians and lawyers (see further reading, below) have trawled through the historical evidence and concluded that the interpretation of the eyewitness authors of the gospels is the most likely: on Easter morning Jesus had left the tomb and was about to appear to numbers of people over the following days and weeks showing his victory over sin and death to be complete and commissioning his Church to tell the world this news.

Evidence for God?

There are other strong arguments for the existence of God:

The cosmological (the existence of material objects and causes point to the existence of an immaterial Being who was before creation and initiated change and motion)

The teleological (the order, design and purpose in material objects point to the existence of a final cause, or Being, who has sovereignly overseen their creation to his own glory)

The ontological (the fact that we can imagine a Being as perfect as God points to the existence of such a Being)

The existential (the presence throughout history of a sense of the divine in human culture, especially in the witness of Christians to a transcendent and personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ, points to the existence of God as the source of these experiences)

The moral (the universal sense of right and wrong in human culture points to a Creator whose moral goodness has left this spark of conscience in us)

The aesthetic (the presence and awareness of beauty in the cosmos, whether in the form of music, art or nature, points to the perfect beauty of its Creator, of whom these things are each a taste or scent)

The ecclesiological (in the 2000 years since Jesus’ incarnation, the Church has made mistakes, but its influence upon culture, education, art, compassion, community life, and upon our attitudes to the sick, the disabled, slavery, race, women, and children, has been overwhelmingly good)

Even if some of these evidences for God are arguably stronger than others, I personally, like many, find these evidences for God compelling when gathered together.

Historical evidence that it’s true

But for me the most compelling and reliable place to look for the existence of God, and even more important, for His knowledge, is in His self-revelation in the historical events of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which the historical accounts of the eyewitnesses provide testimony. One of Jesus’ first followers, the apostle Paul, writing within two decades of the events, underlines the centrality of the historical resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. The reliability of the gospel accounts, on which the truth of the resurrection largely rests, has endured more than a century of sceptical attack from those arguing that the stories are embellished or concocted, but most of this attack has been upon the records of Jesus’ words (not the resurrection accounts), most of it has been well refuted by Biblical scholars, and none of it has yet found a convincing means or reason by which the gospel writers could have invented the resurrection as an explanation for Jesus’ extraordinary influence.

Further reading

Frank Morrison, Who moved the stone? (Authentic Media, 2006)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998)

John Wenham, The Easter Enigma: are the resurrection accounts in conflict? (Wipf and Stock, 2005)

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resurrection is for life, not just for Easter

Resurrection Piera della Francesca

It’s a fact that without Jesus’ resurrection there would be no Christianity.

There would be no New Testament. No church. There would be no  forgiveness of sins. No St John Passion or Easter Oratorio. No Augustine or Luther. No Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. No Charles Wesley or William Wilberforce. Probably, no abolition of slavery, no gender equality, no education for any but the rich, and no health service.

Yet Easter is unrecognised in post-christian Britain: 3 out of 4 people say that Easter is primarily about a long Bank Holiday weekend and guzzling lots of chocolate, and less than 1 in 4 say it marks the resurrection of Jesus.

Read the eyewitness account of the apostles, and you cannot miss their absolutely clear belief:

The resurrection changed everything. Yes, the cross is the climax of each gospel, but without the resurrection the gospels would not have been written. It’s too important to celebrate for one day and not all year round.

So here are four key facts (following just Matthew’s account in his chapter 28), and what they mean today.

Fact one: The first witnesses

v1 “after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, May Magdalen and the other Mary went to look at the tomb”.

Four women are mentioned – John tells us this “other Mary” is the wife of Clopas, uncle of Jesus – the other gospel writers also mention Salome and Joanna.

You will notice that none of these four are men.

But they are the first witnesses of the empty tomb, the stone rolled to the side, the first to see the angel and be told the message in v5,

you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is risen, come and see where they laid him…go quickly and tell his disciples that they will see him in Galilee”.

they get another surprise, in v9 – Jesus appears to them.

He is there in risen and physical form. They see him first.

Peter is not there. Nor is John. Only the women.

Their gender only matters for one reason: it underlines the historical accuracy of the resurrection gospel story of Matthew.

He writes primarily for Jewish readers, to convince them that Jesus is the promised Messiah.

In Jewish tradition at that time, women did not count as witnesses in court. Josephus writes that the evidence of a woman in court counts about the same as a convicted criminal.

But all Matthew can find as witnesses for the first events of Easter morning is a group of women.

The fact that Matthew has women as his witnesses made the resurrection story less believable to his first readers. Had he been making this up he would have used men. He uses women because that is what actually happened.

Fact two: The empty tomb

But an empty tomb could have several explanations, and Matthew knows this.

It could be that the women were confused in their grief and went to the wrong one, when in fact Jesus’ body was round the corner.

Matthew anticipates this theory by telling us in 27:61 that when Joseph of Arimathea, a believing Jew, buries Jesus in great honour in his own tomb, precisely these two women were there watching opposite the tomb.

Besides which, had Jesus still been in a grave, it would have been easy for the authorities to produce his body when the Church started preaching he had risen, which they never did.

Or the tomb is empty because the disciples stole the body in order to start the false rumour of resurrection. Ancient historians confirm that guards were sometimes placed because grave robbery including body snatching was common.

Matthew has seen this one coming, too. He tells us at the end of chapter 27 that the Jewish council were worried about grave robbery leading to rumours of resurrection, as Jesus was known to have predicted. So they got Pilate the Roman governor to agree to them placing a guard outside the tomb and a seal on it to guarantee no rumours

After the resurrection the guards rush breathlessly back to the Jewish leadership to say the tomb is open and the body gone, and they have seen an angel. Do the chief priests believe their story and ask how they can become Christians too? No, they do what stubborn people trying to hold onto power always do when confronted with evidence they do not like – they dismiss it.

They pay the soldiers what Matthew says is “enough” to keep them quiet.

V13 “you are to say “his disciples came in the night and stole him while we were sleeping”.

Matthew says the story was still circulating among the Jews when he wrote.

Tertullian, in 200, says this theory was as likely as the idea that “the gardener moved the body, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitors to the empty tomb!”

The only explanation that fits the facts is that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ body had been raised.

Fact three: The first appearances

An empty tomb and a shining angel are guaranteed to make the most courageous people more than a little nervous. No wonder the angel’s first words in v5 are “Do not be afraid”.

But remarkably he continues, “He is not here, he has risen, see where he lay, he will see you again”. What a mood-changing sentence! So in v8 Matthew says

the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him” (literally they knelt before him).

One thing is clear from this account: Jesus is dramatically risen in bodily, physical form.

Sceptics have suggested that the vision of Jesus is a dream or hallucination of the women, a spiritually uplifting message that somehow caught on as “resurrection”.

But for Matthew the resurrection of Jesus is a physical reality not a spiritual idea.

Of course, the resurrection of Jesus is a powerful truth that can give joy to sad hearts.

But it was not a happy dream that Jesus was somehow alive in their hearts that changed the women that morning, it was the appearance of Jesus with them in such real form that he could speak to them and they could kneel before him and hold his feet.

Fact four: The changed lives

We are told earlier in the passion story that Peter denied Jesus – three times – Judas betrayed him, and the other 10 including Matthew, scattered and left him as soon as he was arrested. Even the loyal women follow to the side of the cross, but are not saying “he will rise again, so we just have to wait as Sunday’s coming!”. They are grieving and full of regret.

But within minutes their sadness becomes joy and they are running to tell that the tomb is empty, an angel has appeared, and they have met Jesus alive.

Within hours, Peter and John have visited the tomb for themselves, the disciples have met Jesus and heard him breathe peace over them. These events turn fearful men into courageous preachers who live and die to share the news that Jesus died but has risen.

Experts agree1 that the moment which made his followers realise that Jesus IS the Messiah whose resurrection vindicates his death for our sins, and  the Son of God, not just a great human teacher, is Easter morning (see Romans 1:3-4 and 10:9-13). New Testament Christology – and Trinitarian Christian faith – arises from Easter.

The joyful conviction that Jesus is risen would shake the city, conquer the Empire, and change the world with the love and hope of Christ. Resurrection is for life, not just for Easter.
1 See NT Wright “Surprised by Hope” (SPCK, 2007) or his longer “Resurrection of he Son of God” (SPCK, 2003). Also LJ Hurtado “Resurrection-Faith and the ‘Historical’ Jesus” in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 11 (2013) 35–52

Gleanings from the news: religious freedom, Pope Francis, resurrection, world’s toughest job

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Pope Francis gave a wide-ranging interview this week in which he praised evangelical sermons for being “close to the people” in contrast to “disastrous” Catholic lessons in theology. “Almost a sacrament”, he said. He also observed that he expects his time as Pope to be relatively short.

With such cultural confusion about freedom and belief, it was good to see that the Equality and Human Rights Commission research on religion in the workplace showed that many, including Christians, feel current law is confusing and undermines their faith. Shouldn’t wearing a cross be allowed if noserings are OK? Conversely, it showed that we in church should recognise that some humanists feel pressured or excluded by insensitive religious colleagues.

Heading towards Easter it’s great that Josh Byers has done a lovely and useful infographic of the known facts and theories about the resurrection.

And a bit of fun – ahead of Mothering Sunday a mock interview for the world’s toughest job. Moving, too.