At the beginning of a service on this most glorious of Sundays in the Christian year, the leader continues a 2000-year tradition and says: The Lord is risen. And the congregation with hearty acclaim says: He is risen indeed. Hallelujah
Is he? Is that too scandalous to ask on this day of all days? How do you know?
You may say with the same heartfelt acclaim: I know he is risen because he is real in my day-to-day experience and in the peace I have from forgiveness of sins.
This is absolutely valid. This is part of the Christian experience of new life which starts on Easter Sunday. It’s the experience of many of us.
But is this enough? There will be times when we don’t have this peace and our life is in turmoil. When God seems far away. On what do we then rely for our faith in the resurrection?
Moreover a BBC poll in April 2017 found that a quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection. You may be one of them. Will you please allow me the opportunity to present the evidence this morning.
Because if there is no resurrection, our lives as we live them, our being here today, our worship, our lifestyle is a complete waste of time. Moreover it’s a pathetic mockery. If Christ has not risen there is no Christianity. If there is no resurrection, whoever Jesus Christ was, whatever the moral goodness of what he spoke, howsoever he lived, is a complete joke. It’s an appalling deception to the rest of the world. If he did not rise from the dead, his entire life was pointless on his own terms and his call on us has no validity. Christianity lives or dies by the resurrection.
So where is the evidence? Is it seriously to be said that over the past 2000 years billions of people have wasted their lives on something which was complete fabrication and emptiness?
Absolutely not. Not a smidgen close. Why? Because the evidence stands up. Because we don’t make an irrational, illogical and completely brainless decision when we hold onto Christ in faith. My message this Easter morning is that we can with confidence rely on evidence.
In the law courts, there are two tests of evidence. In a criminal trial it is evidence beyond reasonable doubt. In a civil trial it is on the balance of probabilities. I am satisfied the evidence for the resurrection amply meets the balance of probabilities. I might say it reaches the criminal standard. But you don’t have to go there. Because on the balance of probabilities, the message of Christ then demands our attention and commitment.
What do we need for evidence for the resurrection? I suggest two elements, possibly an ancillary third
First, we need a dead body. Completely dead. Not fainted or in a coma. Forensically and medically dead.
Secondly, we need a risen body. Not a stolen dead body. Not a ghost or a zombie. Not some smoke and mirrors trickery. A body that is somehow still a physical body yet different because it is risen from the dead.
An ancillary third, and let me quickly deal with it. That the risen body does not subsequently die. Lazarus was brought back from the dead. But he died at the end of his life. No one suggests, today, April 2019, Lazarus is still alive. No one who accepts Jesus rose from the dead suggests he later died. But I include for completeness and integrity
So let us put on our Sherlock Holmes deerstalker, our white forensic coats or our CSI garb and look at the evidence. There is much but I set out some. I can recommend very good books to read further
The body was dead
The Gospels assert Jesus was judicially killed, having been sentenced to death. So this was not a murder or a fatal accident. This was overseen by state and judicial authorities. It was supervised by military authorities. It was witnessed as a public act.
There were six different trials. That’s pretty strong condemnation. Doesn’t mean they were fair trials but they were certainly judicial or state authorised. What were they?
- Jesus came before Annas, the former Jewish high priest, equivalent in a religious state to a Supreme Court judge
- before Caiaphas, high priest, at the very top of the Jewish judicial hierarchy
- before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council that had religious and some criminal jurisdiction over the Jews
- before Pilate, the military Governor
- before Herod, the King of Galilee and appointed by the military rulers
- then before Pilate again.
Both parallel systems, Jewish and Roman, were fully exhausted to the highest level of appeal for a Jewish citizen. Ignore here the major failings of law and procedure. The charge was blasphemy. The sentence was death. But as occurs where there are military rulers, the civic authorities have only limited powers. The Jewish authorities couldn’t carry through a death-penalty. That needed Roman authorities hence going to Pontius Pilate who tried to evade involvement but eventually found himself unable to get out of agreeing the death penalty.
Was the death sentence carried out? Undoubtedly.
There were eyewitness accounts.
John records being there with the minutiae of detail which you only expect from an actual witness. The wine vinegar on the sponge to ease the thirst; a small detail which tends to indicate truthfulness of a story. The breaking of the legs of those being crucified if they are taking longer than normal to die but no need in Jesus case because he was already dead. John 19.28-35
Peter, cowardly Peter, plucks up courage to go to the place of crucifixion. His account, Mark 15.16-41, asserts Jesus was crucified until dead. Matthew was the same: Matthew 27.32-28.20
Luke comes across as a professional witness. He refers to other witnesses in his expert report, his gospel. He says all who knew Jesus including those who had followed him from Galilee stood watching at a distance from the cross, Luke 23.49. Notice the word all. Everyone who had been around Jesus during his ministry was there.
Specifically a number of women observe the execution. Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Zebedee’s wife, the mother of John. At least two witnessed the actual burial, Matthew 27.55-61. But recording this is completely bonkers. In the Jewish culture then and legal systems today, the legal testimony of a woman carries little weight. In Jewish law, two women were needed to contradict the evidence of one man. No one drafts an affidavit with a central part of your case being primary witnesses who will be immediately discounted by the court. So why do it? Because the death was never in issue. Not at the time of death and not at the time of writing of the Gospels. No one would rely on female witnesses on any major disputed matter. His death was not disputed.
Next, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Now witnesses are getting far more important. Not just men but Jewish leaders, members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, took the dead body and buried it. They knew what Jesus looked like. There were only three on the cross. No mistaken identity.
The eyewitness accounts are satisfied there was a dead body.
But don’t just believe the Gospels. There are many contemporaneous historic records, not of Christians, who acknowledge the death of Jesus by crucifixion. The Roman Tacitus records Jesus was put to death by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. A Jewish historian, Josephus, affirms Jesus death.
How did Jesus die? This is important evidence of the death. The death certificate would have shown multiple causes. First, his body, any body, would have been close to the point of death before the actual crucifixion death. Flogged several times. Struck on the face with a heavy blunt instrument, a staff. Pelted by the crowds as he carried the heavy cross out of Jerusalem. Evidence of the weakness of his body that the Roman soldiers had to compel somebody to carry it the final distance. The brutal pinning to the cross.
Crucifixion was death by suffocation if not heart failure. I’m not going into the brutal detail this Sunday morning.
One additional point of evidence. Moreover evidence of which the writer was unaware when he wrote. A spear was thrust into Jesus side. A deep wound evidenced by the fact that Thomas could later place his hand into Jesus side. And out flowed, according to John, blood and water. 20th century medical knowledge indicates that blood and water would only occur if the spear had pierced a major artery or the heart itself
Prior to death, the sustained rapid heartbeat caused by hypovolemic shock the time of the beatings and the carrying of the heavy cross also causes fluid to gather in the sack around the heart and around the lungs. This gathering of fluid in the membrane around the heart is called pericardial effusion, and the fluid gathering around the lungs is called pleural effusion. This explains why, after Jesus died and a Roman soldier thrust a spear through Jesus’ side, piercing both the lungs and the heart, blood and water came from His side as John unknowingly recorded
And what of the experience of those who witnessed the death? I’ve never seen anyone die. The nearest was when I was too late for my mother by about an hour. Outside of war and pestilence, it’s not a modern experience, thankfully. But it was then. Frequent and familiar. Particularly the crucifixion, the equivalent of the Saturday afternoon footy. They knew death when they saw it. They knew when somebody was not yet dead. They were not fooled or gullible or naive.
Let me now deal with a few objections. Notice none of these were contemporaneous.
He swooned but did not die. But he was flogged within inches of his life, crucified with nails through hands and feet, stabbed with a spear into his inner body, hung painfully for hours, put into a cold tomb having been covered up by burial cloths and then somehow, 36 hours later, rolls a heavy stone away from the inside, appears completely alive to friends and family, walks many miles unaided on a Sunday afternoon, then appears in Galilee which is a day’s coach trip from Jerusalem and to 500 people at one time. This is not James Bond or Rambo. This is real life. This doesn’t happen.
The disciples stole the body. Even ignoring that they would not have created the early church based on a lie they knew, no one at the time suggests this. To the contrary, on the Saturday evening the Jewish authorities were anxious this might happen. So they gained permission to put senturies outside the tomb to stand guard. Can it be plausible that these broken disciples, fishermen and tax collectors and women, overpowered Roman soldiers?
The Jewish or Roman authorities took the body. That’s an easy one to answer. When the news of the resurrection was proclaimed, they would just produce the body. They didn’t. They couldn’t.
If I had more time, I would love to go into who actually moved the stone. But I give you this as a teaser. The stone was moved from the outside to see if the body had gone. Not from the inside. Not from the women because they knew they could not move it themselves. Who moved the stone is another drama for another day
The evidence is that throughout the controversy after the resurrection of Jesus, no one is recorded as saying he was not dead. His death is fact. He was no longer alive. There was no life left in that body. We can argue what happened after that Friday. But on that Friday evening, Jesus was dead.
Was Jesus subsequently alive? Was dead and now alive?
John went to the tomb and found it empty. The body had gone. Unless the body had been removed by others, it was now a live body.
John later encounters Jesus with other disciples a week after his resurrection. One disciple was a sceptic. Somebody who wanted to be given evidence of resurrection and who started from a position of doubt. Not doubt about death. Doubt about resurrection. It’s John 20.24-29. This is pretty honest stuff. Would you really write up a report in which you present a complete sceptic at the outset? Jesus invites Thomas to put his hand into, which I understand literally into, his side. Thomas did and believed. A sceptic who is convinced is far more powerful evidence than an easy-going supporter
Peter, John and Matthew speak from their direct personal experience of seeing the risen Christ. Not second-hand. Not anecdotal. Not circumstantial. Direct and personal
And what about the resurrection body? Certainly it goes through walls, appearing in a locked room. But it also ate fish, a meal. This is not a ghost; headless Nick is never seen munching with Harry Potter. This is not some sort of supernatural robot. The Terminator goes into a bar but doesn’t drink. This is a body, of a form we find difficult to understand but partakes in human characteristics. Eating, walking, talking. This was human behaviour of a human body.
Mary Magdalen was the first to see the risen Christ. She may have been the sister of Lazarus, and therefore familiar with resurrection. She spoke with Jesus in respectful familiar terms. She called him teacher. She touched him. Her hand didn’t go through him as ghosts in the movies. She goes to tell the disciples. John 20.10-18. Not, I’ve seen a ghost. Not, he wasn’t dead all along and we made a mistake in burying him. I have seen the risen Lord
Mary, the mother of James, saw Jesus alive and touched him. Other women saw him. These women saw the execution and the burial. An unbroken chain of evidence. They were certain he died and equally certain that he rose again. They may not have been reliable witnesses in that culture but the gospel writers put them forward because they did not feel the need to produce convincing evidence because the resurrection was accepted by so many
And then our favourite witnesses. Two people on the road to a nearby town, Emmaus, walking miles and chatting with a stranger. A vivid description, Luke chapter 24. They started eating a meal and realised, perhaps his way of breaking the bread or mannerisms in saying grace, it was the risen Christ. They had walked many miles with him. Please don’t tell me they were walking with an extra out of Ghostbusters.
Then seen by a crowd of 500. This is Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 15.16. Probably three or four weeks after the resurrection. In Galilee, a long way from Jerusalem. Many of these witnesses were still alive when Paul wrote. Paul challenges his readers if they had any disbelief. Paul was no fool. He was legally trained. He didn’t make any statement which he couldn’t substantiate. He knew many enemies would pounce on an uncorroborated assertion. So he challenges them. If you don’t believe me, go and talk to them and hear their recollection, he says. There is no record of anyone doing so and refuting their evidence
And remember this fact. These 500 were not committed disciples. Some, perhaps many, would have been sceptics, perhaps even absolute opponents. Some might have been Jewish authorities. Yet they saw the resurrection body.
Remember also the witnesses to the resurrection body were first-hand. They knew Jesus. They grew up with him. They spent months, a couple of years, with him. They knew his mannerisms, no doubt his dialect and curious expressions as we all have. Perhaps they knew scars on his arms and hands from accidents in his time helping his father, a carpenter. They would have known if this was anything other than the Jesus they knew well. This is the best eyewitness identification you can obtain. Direct and first-hand.
And then we have Paul himself. Encounters the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and then throughout his life. From an arch persecutor he becomes the leading disciple and evangelist. Surely the turnaround in his life is good evidence. Not on its own. But this is now getting substantial
But, you say, Jerusalem was in a state of frenzy at Passover time. These were emotional people. Not solid middle-class Surrey. Five brief remarks
Yes, some people are subject to hallucinations and emotional persuasions. But the witnesses were very many and from a wide variety of backgrounds and temperaments. All of them were imagining things? I don’t think so.
Hallucinations are very individual. The source is our own subconscious. No two people undergo the same phenomena. The gospel indicates exactly the same experience by all
These phenomena are usually the result of events deeply desired. The return of a loved one. An accident to a child which doesn’t now happen. But the disciples were sad and dejected and not expecting anything.
Psychic experiences normally occur at certain times of day and places. Jesus resurrection appearances occurred at different times and places including a Sunday afternoon walk.
Psychic experiences usually repeat over a long period. The appearances of Christ stop after 40 days. No repetitions.
So no to psychic illusions, hallucinations or persuasions of febrile minds
Curiously I rely on circumstantial evidence i.e. it relies on an inference to reach a conclusion of fact, such as a fingerprint at the scene of a crime. Circumstantial evidence can allow more than one explanation and is rarely good enough on its own. But it can be the most powerful when it fits life experiences
So what is compelling? Several features
The tomb of Christ was never the subject of early pilgrimages. Why? The first followers did not believe he was still dead. Why go there? Contrast Lenin’s tomb and many others
The church begins only because of the resurrection. Paul and others were not interested in just another religion. Without the resurrection there was no purpose in Christianity, 1 Corinthians chapter 15.
Christians suddenly started worshipping on a Sunday and not the Jewish sabbath of Saturday. The early Christians were Jews and an act of deep significance must have caused them to change their day of worship. That was the resurrection on a Sunday.
And then we have the change in the lives of the people as a consequence of the living Christ. Transformed lives are circumstantial evidence. Everything in which the original disciples had put their confidence had completely ended. Whatever they may have thought would happen, it is clear none expected a bodily resurrection. Defeated, dead on their feet, alone, leaderless, no confidence or energy to carry on. Meeting secretly, behind closed doors, afraid of the authorities.
And within weeks speaking openly of the resurrection of Christ, to hundreds, challenging the authorities, speaking with power, authority and confidence. Within years, being persecuted to death. For them, there was only one reason. The body was dead and was now alive.
Because for them and for us, it changes everything. If the resurrection is true this Easter Sunday, then Jesus is not just an historical person. Not just a good person. Not just someone committed to social justice. Not just a sacrificial way of living. Not just an inspirational speaker.
He can only be what he said he was. God come to earth. God come to take us from our fallen, failed, inadequate and insufficient selves. God come to give us a new life just as Jesus, as man, had new life in his resurrection. God come to give us forgiveness of sins, peace of mind and body, to be the people we could be and should be. God come to fulfil his incredible plans for creation through us.
The evidence for the resurrection is well and truly proven on the balance of probabilities. But God deliberately doesn’t give us evidence beyond reasonable doubt. He wants us to reach out to him in faith. Faith which is not brainless or illogical or for crazies. Faith based on facts. But faith reaching out on those facts. Faith which believes. Faith in the new life in Christ. Will you reach out in faith this Easter to the resurrected Jesus?
So I wish you a very happy Easter. Confident that as we believe in the resurrection, we are believing on reliable evidence and relying on his salvation for us.
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed hallelujah