St Stephen Lewisham
18th May 2003
Easter Evidence: Part Two
St Paul says the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus. If that is true then it makes a critical difference as to whether we believe the Resurrection to be true or not.
He then goes on to say If Christ has not been raised you are still in your sins. We are shown up as witnesses who have committed perjury before God, because we swore in evidence before God that he had raised Christ to life. If we are telling a falsehood about the Resurrection then there’s not the slightest reason why anyone should listen to what we say about being truthful, loving one another, bearing one another’s burdens or fulfilling the law of Christ. If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are the most unfortunate of all people.
Last Sunday we considered the evidence of some non-Christian historians, Tacitus and Josephus in particular. Being historians they wanted to record accurately what Christians claimed to have happened on the first Easter morning; they weren’t particularly interested in whether that claim was true or not. Their usefulness for us is that they confirm beyond all reasonable doubt that a man called Jesus was publicly executed by crucifixion in AD30 outside Jerusalem in the time of Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor of Israel. But they go on to say that a matter of a few days, Jesus’s followers were claiming that he had risen from the dead and was truly alive. Over the next few weeks the numbers of those who claimed to have seen him, spoken and eaten meals with him grew dramatically, and the number of people who believed on their say-so that Jesus had risen grew to thousands and has persisted ever since.
Now, let’s look at what the Christians themselves said about it. Our earliest written evidence doesn’t come from the four Gospels but from the letters of Saint Paul. This is what he says to the people of Corinth.
I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely the Christ died for our sins… that he was buried; and that he was raised to life on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared first to Peter, secondly to the Twelve. Next… to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still alive;…then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles; and last of all he appeared to me too…
In other words St Paul, who had taught the Resurrection to the Corinthians at least fifteen years before St Mark’s Gospel was written down, is naming at least six occasions, besides his own experience outside Damascus, when between five and six hundred witnesses, most of whom were still alive (and could therefore be questioned) asserted that they had seen the Risen Lord.
Peter, John, Andrew, Philip and Jesus’ Mother were all living at this time, and one and all of them was prepared to be put to death rather than deny what they knew to be the truth, namely that Jesus had been raised to life to die no more.
Now what possible explanation can there be for this other than its being true. Well, let’s look at two or three possible alternatives:
Jesus never really died on the cross but recovered in the cool of the sepulchre. This is such an absurd suggestion that nobody until about 300 years ago even thought it worth considering. If it were true it would suggest that the soldiers who crucified him didn’t know a dead body when they saw one; that the Jewish Priests who had every interest in Jesus being dead simply didn’t bother to make sure that he was; that a human being desperately in need of medical attention with serious lesions in hands, feet and side could extricate himself from a tomb which had been closed with a stone so big that even three healthy young women doubted whether they could roll it away; that he could eat, talk and walk in such a way as to make his beholders think that he had risen; and that he should himself have been a party to this deception – for that is what it would have been had he never really died.
That the women and the apostles went to the wrong tomb. Well, if they did, all that the Jewish and Roman authorities needed to do would have been to show people where the right tomb was and leave it open for inspection to the public, perhaps charging a modest fee to go inside and see the dead body for themselves.
That the apostles were the victims of their own wishful thinking and it was an hallucination. Well, besides the fact that their hallucination was just as easily proved false by the production of the dead body of Jesus, there is the fact that on Good Friday none of them seems to have had the slightest expectation of ever seeing Jesus again.
That the apostles made the whole thing up, having first stolen the body out of the tomb. Well, of course that’s what St Matthew tells us that the Jewish authorities told the soldiers guarding the tomb to say if asked. The fact that they handed over a large sum of money to them at the same time suggests that they knew perfectly well that this was not the case. Obviously they hoped that the story of the Empty Tomb wouldn’t get about at all, and so they greased the palm of the witnesses to persuade them to keep quiet about it. The suggestion that the disciples suddenly becoming body-snatchers overnight sounds very much like a last-ditch fall-back idea in case the truth of the Empty Tomb leaked out.
Which of course it did: and within a few weeks, as we know, it was doing the rounds everywhere. Peter and John in particular were prepared to be flogged, go to prison and even (in the case of Peter) be sentenced to death by King Herod for preaching the Resurrection.
How likely is it, we have to ask ourselves, that five or six hundred people would be prepared to die for something they knew to be a lie? Of course it’s possible. Wasn’t it Adolf Hitler who said that the greater the untruth, the more people will believe it? But in that case we’re dealing, as St Paul said, with false, perjured witnesses. Believing what they say about anything else to do with Jesus would be as foolish as believing anything at all that someone said who claimed to be God, which Jesus did.
We can’t have it both ways. You have to take your pick. Either Jesus was a dangerous madman to be avoided at all costs, or else he is God Incarnate who rose from the dead on Easter Day. The wisdom of this world suggests that if you and I and the Apostles who believe that Jesu is God, and rose from the dead are mistaken then, as St Paul says, we are of all men to be most pitied.
The evidence however, as we have seen, indicates that God the Father’s by his wisdom and power raised his Son Jesus from the dead on the third day. In which case the wisdom of this world has just got it wrong. So far from deserving the world’s pity we are, of all men, most to be envied. For as St Paul goes on to say the world, life, and death, the present and the future are all our servants; but we belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.
Had Christ that once was slain
Ne’er burst his three-day prison
Our faith had been in vain
But now hath Christ arisen
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