Does the Resurrection of Jesus Really Matter?
If Jesus didn’t rise, we have no foundation for our faith. If we’re gullibly basing our lives on a fairytale, we sure are wasting a lot of time trying to resemble a person who had the crazy idea He was God!
It takes some of us years before we finally stop asking every “But….What if….How” question our minds can dream up. And that’s okay. But we do need to get to the point where we can release our needing every T crossed and every I dotted before we can step out in faith.
Some people have a really hard time wrapping their heads around the cross and resurrection. And not just nonbelievers.
Case in point: a Christian friend recently admitted that she’s “okay” with God — mostly because she sees Him as safely distant — but that she still can’t trust the whole “Jesus loves us so much that He had to die thing” because it feels way too personal. We struggle withe the pain and shame of the cross, until the day we are able to fall in love with the sacrificial love it represents.
So this resurrection of Jesus: Let’s define it, and chat briefly about why it is Code Critical that Jesus lived, died, and resurrected, just as He promised He would.
What is Resurrection?
What, exactly, do we mean by “resurrection“? Are we understanding the term in the same way that people living at the time of Jesus did?
In his groundbreaking historical analysis of the resurrection, leading bible scholar and theologian N. T. Wright explains how the word was used and meant to persons living in the ancient world, whether or not they believed in the possibility of it:
This basic tenet of human existence and experience is accepted as axiomatic throughout the ancient world; once people have gone by the road of death, they do not return. … “Resurrection” was not one way of describing what death consisted of. It was a way of describing something everyone knew did not happen: the idea that death could be reversed, undone, could (as it were) work backwards. Not even in myth was it permitted.
For Wright to point out that “not even in myth was it permitted” emphasizes the uniqueness of the resurrection of Christ in an ancient world that accepted so many startling supernatural events in its stories. Wright points out that various ancient cultures all knew what the word meant, but there was no consensus regarding its reality. Pagans, Jews, and Christians, he shares, all understood the Greek word anastasis. “Some Jews affirmed it as a long-term future hope; virtually all Christians claimed that it had happened to Jesus and would happen to them in the future,” adds Wright. “‘Resurrection’ meant embodiment; that was equally so for the pagans who denied it.”
In both the Old and New Testaments, at least ten individuals were raised from the dead. In the Old Testament people were raised by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The New Testament records that Jesus, Peter, and Paul raised people from the dead. But were they resurrected like Christ? No. When viewed through the lens of Christ’s resurrection, we’d have to say they were merely resuscitated.
They lived out the remainder of their lives in the same ho-hum human bodies in which they had been birthed. Jesus was resurrected with a body that was recognizably His own, yet radically transformed. The quality of their resurrection pales in comparison to the resurrection Jesus experienced.
The Significance of the Resurrection
So why is Jesus’ resurrection so important to Christianity?
Because if Jesus was *just* a good teacher, and not our Risen Savior, nothing about our faith really matters.
Christ’s empty tomb was a necessary condition for the specific way in which the early Christians understood the event. That is, as an actual, historical event. Had Jesus’ body remained in the tomb, the early Christians would not have considered Jesus resurrected. Apologist Norman Geisler puts it like this:
If Christ did not rise in the same physical body that was placed in the tomb, then the resurrection loses its value as an evidential proof of His claims to be God (John 8:58; 10:30). The resurrection cannot verify Jesus’ claims to be God unless He was resurrected in the body in which He was crucified. That body was a literal, physical body. Unless Jesus rose in a material body, there is no way to verify His resurrection. It loses its historically persuasive value. The truth of Christianity is based on the bodily resurrection of Christ.
Adds philosopher Douglas Groothuis:
Of all the world’s religions Christianity alone purports to be based on the resurrection of its divine founder. No other religion or worldview makes such an audacious and consequential claim. … The resurrection of Jesus is at the center of the Christian worldview and Christian devotion. The Gospels do not end with the death of Jesus but speak of an empty tomb, of His appearances, and of a commission by the risen Jesus.
As Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, without the resurrection we lose redemption for our sin, and we lose all hope that life extends past our final exhale of breath. Paul concludes that, “If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.” How foolish, indeed, to align ourselves with Christ, if His claims about His deity hadn’t been confirmed by eyewitnesses.
Pinchas Lapide, an orthodox Jew and Israeli historian, notes:
Without the experience of the resurrection, the crucifixion of Jesus would most likely have remained without consequences and forgotten, just as were the innumerable crucifixions of pious Jews which the Romans carried out before Jesus, during the lifetime of Jesus, and up until the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70….Thus the Christian faith stands and falls not with Golgotha, the infamous “place of the skull,” where thousands of Jesus’ brothers were murdered cruelly by Roman mercenaries, but with the experience “on the third day” after the crucifixion, an experience which was able to defuse, to refute, and even to make meaningful this death on the cross for the community of disciples.
Do Discrepancies Invalidate The Resurrection?
Some people have an aversion to believing in Christ’s resurrection because they see that the New Testament narratives do not match each other 100 percent. They conclude that these “discrepancies” indicate that the Gospels are largely made-up stories.
Yet scholars argue that it is the minor differences in the tellings of the Gospel story that indicate authenticity, not substantial error. Says philosopher Douglas Groothuis, “If each account perfectly mirrored the rest, this would likely be a sign of collusion, not accurate history told from differing (but equally truthful) perspectives.
Retired Los Angeles Police Department cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace, a former atheist turned apologist who is a recognized authority in evaluating eyewitness testimony, asserts:
If there’s one thing that my experience as a detective has revealed, it’s that witnesses often make conflicting and inconsistent statements when describing what they saw at a crime scene. They frequently disagree with one another and either fail to see something obvious or describe the same event in a number of conflicting ways. The more eyewitnesses involved in the case, the more likely there will be points of disagreement.
Wallace adds that any “discrepancies” in the Gospels are simply divergent recollections that can be pieced together to get a complete picture of what occurred.
Mark, he shares, is far more passionate and active in his choice of adjectives. Three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) contain blocks of identical or nearly identical descriptions, perhaps because of common agreement of important parts of the narrative. But John’s account attempts to fill in the details not offered by the prior witnesses. John makes little effort to cover the same familiar ground.
Wallace’s point: small discrepancies need not line up perfectly, as long as the overall story of Jesus’ resurrection holds together.
Scholars haven’t relied solely on the Gospel tellings of the resurrection. A historical approach to scholarly research, you see, examines witnesses living at the time of an event, or living soon enough after it to hear firsthand accounts. Scholars have scoured the written testimony of early church leaders — among them Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr — to capture their view of the resurrection.
Here’s the gist: Clement focuses upon familiar daily and seasonal happenings (the rising and setting of the sun; the crop cycle) as parallels of Jesus’ resurrection and the future resurrection we shall each experience. Ignatius speaks of the resurrection as a permanent source of inner strength. Polycarp, in his Letter to the Philippians, encourages believers to endure persecution in view of the power of the resurrection. And Justin Martyr reminds believers that because of the resurrection, our spirits will live on for eternity, even as our earthly bodies become dust.
Living Out the Resurrection of Jesus
It is because of His resurrection that we can raise the roof with heartfelt worship. If just a man, we could only credit Jesus with being an amazing spiritual leader. But if we claim Him to be the resurrected Son of God, we can entrust to Him our messy lives — and our future hope of being with Him forever.
As we wait for that day, let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground and model the sacrificial love that Jesus displayed. I leave you an excerpt from Max Lucado’s lovely book, Facing Your Giants:
Who is a mediator but one who stands in between? And what did Christ do but stand in between God’s anger and our punishment? Christ intercepted the wrath of heaven. Something remotely similar happened at the Chungkai camp. One evening after work detail, a Japanese guard announced that a shovel was missing. The officer kept the Allies in formation, insisting that someone had stolen it. Screaming in broken English, he demanded that the guilty man step forward. He shouldered his rifle, ready to kill one prisoner at a time until a confession was made. A Scottish soldier broke ranks, stood stiffly at attention, and said, “I did it.” The officer unleashed his anger and beat the man to death. When the guard was finally exhausted, the prisoners packed up the man’s body and their tools and returned to camp. Only then were the shovels recounted. The Japanese soldier had made a mistake. No shovel was missing after all.
Christ took our punishment to offer us hope. His sacrifice begs us to ask: Can we love each other like that? Having been forgiven, can we also forgive? Having feasted at the table of grace, can we also freely share? With the Spirit’s help, YES!
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.