byFaith | 4.8.09
By Alan Dowd
There’s no video of Jesus rolling the stone away. The empty tomb is unmarked, its whereabouts unknown. None of us has our hands in His wounds. Yet we believe Jesus died and rose three days later. For Christians, it is a matter of faith.
If irrefutable evidence for the Resurrection existed, there would be no need for faith. After all, as the author of Hebrews puts it, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Jesus Himself tells us, “Blessed are those who believe and yet have not seen.”
He was talking about people like you and me.
Not seeing all the evidence forces us to make a conscious decision about believing or not believing. And pushing against the doubt and uncertainty stretches and strengthens our faith, as a muscle is strengthened by resistance to weights.
That being said, there is ample evidence for the Resurrection—more than enough to give skeptics second thoughts and to give believers ample assurance.
Shrouded in Questions
Before digging into the real evidence, it may be helpful to discuss the stuff that poses as proof of our Lord’s Resurrection—the stuff that diverts our attention rather than builds our faith.
The evidence is not some burial cloth locked away in Italy. There’s been a debate about the Shroud of Turin’s authenticity for centuries, with skeptics and the faithful using science to make their respective claims. Just last year, scientists began a new round of “shroud-ology,” hoping to settle once and for all whether the burial cloth dates to the 13th century or first century.
However, try as they may to validate these claims of its stewards, the faithful can’t carbon date the Shroud into proof of anything at all. By investing so much energy in the Shroud, they run the risk of being disappointed by scientific findings. Worse, some become believers in the Shroud rather than in the Christ.
The evidence is not the writings of Josephus or other non-biblical sources, either. Josephus, after all, never called Jesus the Christ and did not argue that Jesus had risen. Rather, as Dr. James D. Tabor, a professor of Christian origins at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, explains in Josephus on Jesus, the references in Josephus’ first-century writings that include the religiously loaded word “Christ” and assertions about Jesus’ Resurrection were “rather clumsily added” sometime in the 11th century.
Josephus was not an apologist and doesn’t appear to have been a convert to Christianity. Instead, he offered “matter of fact, neutral reporting,” in Tabor’s words.
Josephus did, however, call Jesus “a wise man.” He noted that Jesus “drew many after him.” He reported that Pilate “condemned [Jesus] to the cross.” He reported on the claims of Christ’s resurrection—not on the Resurrection itself. There is a significant distinction. And, tellingly, he reported that Jesus’ followers “did not forsake him.” An older version of Josephus’ text cited by Tabor, an Arabic translation, puts it this way: “Those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him.” (We’ll return to this in a moment.)
The “evidence” explained in The Da Vinci Code and other films and books from this strange genre is not accurate either. No matter what ABC News and The History Channel say—no matter how hard they try to scramble history and heresy, opinion and fact—it’s still all based on a work of fiction that is itself based on someone’s theory about a painting from the 15th century (Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper). It’s fiction pretending to be fact, a novel masquerading as a documentary.
We can hope and pray that God has mercy on those who have foisted this off as history, because pushing seekers away from their own pursuit of the Truth and planting the seeds of doubt in baby believers is dangerous ground. As Jesus warned, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
Finally, the evidence is not even the empty tomb—at least not for us. After all, we don’t know where it is. We can’t point to the actual site. We didn’t see the hurried Sabbath-eve burial ceremony. Of course, for those who did, seeing the empty tomb meant everything. And that leads us to the real evidence of Christ’s resurrection: the existence of His Church, of Christianity itself.
Fighting against God
Jesus’ first followers were real people. They were proud and petty, short-sighted and short-tempered, and cowardly when Jesus needed them most. They ran from Gethsemane when the Roman soldiers and temple guards came to arrest their friend, their teacher, their Messiah. They hid in the shadows as He was led from jurisdiction to jurisdiction—from Caiaphas and Annas, to the Sanhedrin and Herod, to Pilate and the mob. They publicly disowned Him. And they locked themselves away somewhere outside Jerusalem, forgetting His promises and succumbing to their fears.
Yet the Church—our faith—somehow came into being because of these people. How? The only thing that can explain their transformation is an encounter with the risen Christ, the living God.
When Jesus was buried, the Gospels tell us that a detachment of Roman soldiers was stationed outside the tomb. Pilate ordered them to “make the tomb as secure as you know how” (Matthew 27:65).
How many of Caesar’s soldiers were there is not clear, but we do know that Roman military personnel were neither derelict nor fearful. They were highly professional and usually ruthless in carrying out orders. The disciples caught a glimpse of their ruthlessness during Christ’s arrest, torture, and execution, and they learned about the Roman military’s respect for order and the chain of command from firsthand experience with a centurion. “I myself am a man under authority with soldiers under me,” the godly soldier explained. “I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Luke 7).
In other words, Roman legionnaires did what they were ordered. But on that first Easter morning, they were asleep “like dead men.” And the tomb was empty.
Matthew’s account tells us that the Sanhedrin grappled with how to smother the story. Ultimately, they “gave the soldiers a large sum of money,” encouraged them to report that the body had been stolen, and promised to cover for them if the story got out.
Just as they feared, the story leaked. A shrewd teacher named Gamaliel finally convinced his fellow Pharisees to stop the cover-ups and persecutions with words that at once appealed to their reason and stabbed their collective conscience: “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5).
Making All Things New
Among the first to hear the story that the Sanhedrin were trying to bury were Peter and John, who immediately “started for the tomb,” as John’s account explains. “Both were running.”
That little sentence tells us a lot. John and Peter ran to Jesus. Three days earlier, they had run away from Him.
Living in a time when even non-Christians embrace elements of Christ’s message, in a country where most people practice Christianity, in a neighborhood within walking distance of three different Christian denominations, I cannot blame the apostles for what they did and what they failed to do at Gethsemane. The most powerful military on earth—with a long record of brutally crushing any threat to Pax Romana—was knocking on their door. They had good reason to scatter in fear, to give up hope, and to hide on that long Sabbath Saturday.
Mark tells us that when the Roman centurions marched into the Gethsemane garden to seize Jesus, “everyone deserted him and fled.” One of them was so terrified that he “fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”
Everyone fled. That included John and his brother James.
A week before Christ’s execution, the two were arguing about their position and place in Christ’s kingdom, demanding of their preoccupied teacher, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10).
Their arrogance melted into fear once the Roman army arrived. But after they encountered the risen Christ, they became new men.
Acts 4 tells us that the Sanhedrin, including Caiaphas himself, was “astonished” by the “courage” of John. When the priests ordered John and Peter “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” they refused. “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God,” they declared, “for we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
John went on to write a large chunk of the New Testament and was exiled for his faith in Jesus. James was so bold that he died for His savior at the hands of Herod.
Everyone fled. That included Peter, the one who publicly and loudly disowned Jesus not once but three times. “I don’t know the man!” he exclaimed on that dark Friday.
But after Christ’s Resurrection, after his restoration, Peter would never disown Him again. Not only would he stand up to the Sanhedrin; he “stood up among the believers” and stood out in the world.
He became the leader of the Church, winning converts, counseling the unsure, healing the crippled, teaching the wise, breaking down barriers of race and religion, going to prison for his faith, and dying for Jesus. Peter was martyred sometime around 67 A.D.
Everyone fled. That included Thomas.
When the other apostles told Thomas that Jesus had appeared to them, Thomas was dismissive. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20).
For Thomas, seeing was believing. But Jesus was quick to tell him otherwise. “Because you have seen me, you have believed,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
That encounter was enough to transform Thomas. “My Lord and my God!” he cried. The doubter had become a believer, and the believer became a lion. Tradition tells us that he died spreading the Good News far from his home, perhaps as far away as India.
Everyone fled. That included Philip.
John tells us about the time Jesus turned a few fish and loaves into a feast for 5,000. Before He served His miracle feast, Jesus first tested His disciples, and Philip was one of the students that day.
“When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’”
Philip’s answer was not exactly what we would expect from someone who believed He was standing in the very presence of God. “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite,” he nervously responded, focusing on what he did not have and overlooking that the Creator doesn’t need to shop for food.
Yet after the Resurrection, Philip had enough courage and faith to be imprisoned and martyred for Christ, in 54 A.D.
Some of those who formed the foundation of the Church were not at Gethsemane. James, the half-brother of Jesus, was probably among this group.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus was estranged from His family. According to John, “Even his own brothers did not believe in him.” Mark’s account quotes Jesus’ family as saying, “He is out of his mind.”
“At first he did not believe in Jesus and even challenged Him and misunderstood His mission,” one commentary writes of James (NIV Study Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, 1995). Yet sometime after the Resurrection, James was transformed. He led the Council of Jerusalem and authored the New Testament book bearing his name, providing timeless instruction on Christian action, temptation and testing, faith and works, and the power of prayer. He died for his faith—for his brother and savior—in 62 A.D.
Of course, some of Christ’s followers were transformed even before the Resurrection. Like us, they believed yet did not see. But unlike most of us, they expressed their belief at great risk to themselves.
Nicodemus was a key member of the Sanhedrin, and he had a reputation to protect. So, Nicodemus “came to Jesus at night,” as John reports. We shouldn’t miss the symbolism here. Nicodemus came under cover of darkness in order to protect his image. In response, Jesus delivered a blunt message about darkness and light: “Men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil,” He explained, no doubt sending a signal to His visitor. “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
In a sense, Jesus was saying to Nicodemus and to us that it’s not enough just to know about Him or to know Him. We must also have the courage to identify ourselves with Him. Nicodemus wasn’t immediately ready to take that step. But he would get there.
During their encounter, Nicodemus asked questions and expressed doubts: “How can a man be born again when he is old?” It was a very personal and honest question for Nicodemus, and it was probably humbling for such a wise man to ask. “Surely he cannot enter a second time his mother’s womb to be born,” Nicodemus wondered aloud.
Jesus answered by explaining that everyone who believes in the Son will have eternal life.
There is no evidence that Nicodemus believed what Jesus was saying at the time. But the seeds were planted. And in John 7, Nicodemus openly defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin. In response, his colleagues mocked him with sneering questions. By John 19, the seeds had bloomed and the transformation of Nicodemus’ heart was well underway. With a courage the apostles lacked that first Easter weekend, Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ lifeless body for burial, wrapped his teacher in linen, and buried his Savior.
We can almost hear him whisper through his tears: “Now I understand. You were pierced for our transgressions. And through your blood and death we are born again.”
That is a life transformed.
Nicodemus wasn’t alone as he buried our Savior. Joseph of Arimathea, another “prominent” member of the Sanhedrin, in the words of Mark, assisted him. John tells us that Joseph “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly” because he feared reprisals from other council members. But on that terrible Friday, Joseph revealed his heart to the world. Luke notes that Joseph “had not consented to [the] decision and action” of the Sanhedrin’s kangaroo court. And Mark reports that Joseph “went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.”
His faith would never again be a secret. Indeed, Acts 6:7 reports that “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” It seems likely that it was Nicodemus and Joseph who shared the Good News with their fellow teachers.
This change in the disciples from “a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists,” as Philip Yancey argues in The Jesus I Never Knew, “offers the most convincing evidence for the resurrection.”
Many of them died for Christ, and all of them lived for Him. The author of Hebrews offers the details of what they endured. They “stood [their] ground in a great contest in the face of suffering,” were “publicly exposed to insult and persecution,” and “joyfully accepted the confiscation of [their] property.”
You can’t fake that kind of faith, and you don’t have that kind of faith in a hoax.
As the first generation of Christians passed from this life to the next, Christianity gradually changed from a faith of followers, eyewitnesses, personal connections, and Thomases into a faith of, well, faith. It grew into a faith comprised of people who believe and yet do not see. People like you and me.