The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is at the very core of Christianity, and has been the subject of intense study and criticism by many over the millennia. From outright denial that it ever happened, to really imaginative explanations of what “really” happened that morning, people have tried to explain away the single most important event in the Christian experience. The Season of Easter is a good time to review the entire topic. The importance of this event is stated quite categorically by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.” [1 Cor. 15. 13-18]
That is pretty clear, isn’t it? If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then our faith is useless, because the one we have put our faith in is not who he said he was. In other words, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus. That makes it very important that we know what “resurrection” means, how we can know that it really happened, and what the implications are – not just for Christians, but the whole world.
The first thing to note is that when Jesus was resurrected, he did not just come back to life. Lazarus was brought back to life by Jesus a few days after he had died. The widow’s son was brought back to life also by Jesus, but these were not examples of Resurrection. Lazarus and the boy remained what they had been before death, they were simply restored to the life they had known before. If that had been the case with Jesus, there would not be the same unique importance placed on the event by Christians. He would have shared in a very unusual, but not unique experience. The resurrection of Jesus was of a completely different nature. It also took place for a very different reason than the raising of Lazarus.
Immediately after finding the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene met the risen Lord, but for some reason, she didn’t immediately recognise him. Then he spoke her name, and she knew him, but he warned her not to touch him because he had not yet returned to the Father. Similarly, the two followers who met him on the road to Emmaus did not recognise him, even though he walked with them for some time and spoke to them at length. But when he broke bread with them in the room at Emmaus, they knew him. Then he, literally, disappeared.
He came to the group of disciples when they were in a locked room. They, rather naturally, were terrified and thought he was a ghost. But: “He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” [Luke 25.38-39] Two interesting things about this: something had changed since he had met Mary earlier, now they could touch him. In addition, he was a being of flesh and bones, a human being, real and tangible, but obviously something much more also.
At other times between his resurrection and ascension, he met with individuals, groups, even more than five hundred people at one time. He cooked breakfast for them, and ate and drank with them too. But he could come and go through space without hindrance. He explained why he had died and been raised again, reminding them that he had told them this many times before his crucifixion, but they had not grasped what he had told them:
“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” [Luke 24.44-49]
The early Christians went everywhere preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus as central to everything they believed. His death and resurrection went together in their minds: the death without the resurrection was a tragedy. The resurrection put the seal of truth on everything Jesus had said, preached and promised. It is still the pivotal event: if Jesus was not raised, Christianity is nothing. However, “…if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” [Romans 8.11] “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” [Romans 10.9] “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” [1 Cor. 6.14]
Next week: How do we know it really happened?