Is it Reasonable to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?
As a pastor, there have been times in the past where the question I addressed on Easter morning was “did the resurrection of Jesus happen?” It’s an important and fascinating question for sure, but I don’t think it’s the right one for Easter morning. The right question for Easter morning (I believe) is, “Why does it matter?” “Why does it matter to me, today, that some man long ago and far away might have come back from the dead?” That is where I tend to focus the Easter message.
I still think the question of “did it happen” is fascinating though, because interestingly, there are no easy answers – and there should be.
See, we know that dead people don’t come back. Why else would death be such a big deal? Why would people bother or dare killing anyone if they were just going to come back to life a little later on. We know dead people don’t come back, but to not believe that there was a man named Jesus who lived two thousand years ago, who died on a Roman cross, and then came back to life is a little more tricky.
Jesus’ life and death are historically uncontested facts, but his resurrection…
Historians fight over a lot of things, but here is overwhelmingly what they say about the resurrection of Jesus: the most critical claim you can make about the resurrection of Jesus that is supported by historical evidence, is that Jesus’ followers (possibly hundreds of them) believed to the depths of who they were that they had an encounter, even multiple encounters with a Jesus who had come back to life and that experience, whatever it was, radically changed their lives, which eventually, changed the world. What it was that made all these people believe that a dead man came back to life is what historians fight over, but they don’t fight over whether Jesus’ followers believed that he did or even that whatever they experienced radically changed them.
In the words of agnostic scholar and historian Bart Ehrman, “Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution” (Italics mine, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, p231).
Skeptical historians suggest alternative ideas about what could have made all of these people believe to the core of their being that something happened that we know doesn’t happen. After all, people coming back from the dead is something that is outside the realm of our experience and understanding. But what was it that all of these people experienced that made them believe they had an encounter with the physically resurrected Jesus? All the explanations are either inadequate, silly, or something that our own experience tells us doesn’t happen. Did these people experience a series of group hallucinations that were all highly similar and powerful enough to reorient their lives around? Did the disciples go to the wrong tomb, found it empty and then have a series of encounters at different times and places with someone they mistook for Jesus? After being brutally whipped, tortured, nailed to a cross, and impaled, did Jesus simply pass out and after sleeping it off for a few days on a stone slab, get back up again and go about his business? Did the Roman soldiers charged with torturing, killing, and then guarding his body upon pain of their own death, actually do all of torturing and killing parts and then decide to use whatever medical expertise they had to resuscitate Jesus after they had gotten his mutilated and impaled body off of the cross and away from prying eyes? Or, did he really die the way he said he would and then come back to life the way he said he would and then that shocking experience forever changed his followers?
There is no clear cut answer to something that there very much should be. After all, dead people don’t come back.
The Christian claim that we are celebrating today is that a man who claimed to be the son of God, said he was going to be killed and then come back to life, actually died and came back to life – and it’s not as easy to disbelieve as you might think.
I think this is exactly the way that God would have it to be. It gives enough material for those who would doubt and disbelieve to have significant things to wrestle with, while keeping those who would believe from believing based on certainty instead of trust and faith.
God, after all, wants us to trust God beyond what our eyes can see. It’s the thing that gives depth to our souls.
“Did it happen?” is a fascinating question for sure, but on Easter, we talk about the question that I believe hits closer to home for all of us, “Why does it matter – for me, for my life, for the world today?”