By George W. Sarris
As we approach the Palm Sunday and Easter holidays, I was reminded of a Christmas card I received from a friend some years ago. It had a very simple, but profound message. The cover asked, “What's the difference between Christmas, Buddhamas, Confuciusmas, and Mohammadmas?”
When you opened the card, the answer was striking: “Easter!”
The followers of Christ, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed and the founders of every other religion are all able to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of their leader. They are all able to celebrate the anniversary of the death of their leader. But, only the followers of Christ can celebrate the anniversary of the resurrection of their leader! The tombs of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed and other religious founders are full. The tomb of Jesus of Nazareth is empty!
Interestingly, Jesus is the only credible Person in history who has ever even claimed to have risen from the dead. That claim has been challenged repeatedly during the last 2,000 years, but it has withstood the criticism and has been embraced by some of the greatest minds of all time, some of whom had set out specifically to disprove it.
What Really Happened?
The Apostle Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of Christianity. For him, the truth of whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead was the key factor in determining the validity of the Christian faith.
. . . if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead. . . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
Several theories have been proposed to try to explain away the testimony of the apostles. It has been suggested that Jesus didn’t die, that the disciples lied and stole the body, that they were in some way deceived, and that the women went to the wrong tomb. So, what really happened?
Maybe He Didn’t Die!
Several years ago, I had a conversation with an atheist physician who told me he was convinced that Jesus never actually died on the cross. He only passed out, and then woke up in the tomb.
I asked him to think as a physician. Did he believe it would really be possible for someone who had been brutally beaten and whipped by professional executioners, who had large iron spikes driven through his wrist and ankle joints, had his side pierced through with a spear, was bound up like a mummy in linen wrappings weighed down with 75 pounds of spices, and who was placed on a cold stone slab inside a rock hewn tomb with neither warmth nor food or drink nor medical care to be able to somehow revive, break out of the wrappings, perform the superhuman feat of moving aside a two-ton stone and either overpower or sneak past guards who would have been executed if they had fallen asleep on duty?
Then, if this physician were a disciple who saw someone who had gone through that agonizing procedure appear in front of him gasping for breath and literally appearing half-dead, would he have been encouraged to withstand intense persecution during the rest of his life and die as a martyr so he could experience that quality of a resurrected life. If anything like that ever really happened, the most likely response from anyone looking at the pathetic form in front of them would be,
If that is what rising from the dead is like, let me die and stay dead!
Maybe It Was A Plot!
The suggestion that the disciples lied and stole the body was one of the very first explanations given to explain the empty tomb. However, several difficulties immediately arise.
First, if it were a lie, why didn’t someone refute the disciples claim by simply going to the tomb and producing the dead body?
Second, people are not normally willing to suffer and die for a known lie. And, the greater the number of people involved in a plot, the greater the chances that at least one of them will give in to pressure and conscience, and admit the truth. None of the disciples and none of the numerous other people who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after the crucifixion ever admitted that their testimony was false. Many of them suffered persecution and death as a result of their witness. If the foundation of their entire message were a lie, they would not only have been the greatest hypocrites who ever lived, they would have been the greatest fools!
Third, this explanation does not fit with what we know of the discipline of Roman soldiers. When Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, the tomb was secured by putting a seal on the stone and posting a guard at the entrance. The seal represented the authority of the Roman government and was to be protected at any cost. Roman soldiers were subjected to the severest discipline in the world. The penalty for sleeping on duty was death. As one person has commented,
Those soldiers weren’t so tough . . . they just conquered the world!
When Jesus was arrested, the disciples ran away in fear. They were dejected, disoriented and dispirited. After the resurrection, there was a boldness and power associated with their witness that amazed even their enemies.
Maybe The Disciples Were Deceived!
Many people, not comfortable with the idea that the disciples would actually lie, suggest that they truly believed that Jesus rose from the dead . . . but they were mistaken. They usually attribute the mistake to some kind of deception or mass hallucination.
That Jesus, Himself, was the author of the proposed deception is ruled out by the fact that He was dead. The Jewish authorities certainly did not want the rumor spread that Jesus had risen from the dead, nor did the Roman governor. Hallucinations can occur when people are distraught and want to believe something. But, hallucinations occur to individuals, not groups.
Maybe The Women Went To The Wrong Tomb!
One final theory is that the women who first reported that Jesus had risen from the dead actually went to the wrong tomb. They were sad and emotional, and simply made an honest mistake.
However, since the women had seen the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed, it would be highly unlikely that they would have gone to the wrong place on that fateful Sunday morning. It is even more unlikely that the disciples who went to check up on the women’s statement would also have gone to the wrong tomb, not to mention the Jewish authorities who asked for a Roman guard to be stationed at the tomb to prevent the body from being stolen. And, then, of course, there were the Roman guards who were stationed at the right tomb!
Maybe He Actually Rose!
In the late 1920’s, a British barrister by the name of Frank Morrison undertook a personal study in preparation for writing a book that would seek to discover the underlying, non-miraculous “truth” behind the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. He was an honest inquirer who took great pains to look very carefully at the available evidence. He did write his book, but, to his great surprise, it turned out to be a classic work defending the resurrection of Christ, not debunking it!
He wrote, in Who Moved the Stone, for all of his readers to ponder:
This study is in some ways so unusual and provocative that the writer thinks it desirable to state here very briefly how the book came to take its present form. In one sense it could have taken no other, for it is essentially a confession, the inner story of a man who originally set out to write one kind of book and found himself compelled by the sheer force of circumstances to write quite another.
It is not that the facts themselves altered, for they are recorded imperishably in the monuments and in the pages of human history. But the interpretation to be put upon the facts underwent a change. Somehow the perspective shifted – not suddenly, as in a flash of insight or inspiration, but slowly, almost imperceptibly, by the very stubbornness of the facts themselves. . . .
There may be, and, as the writer thinks, there certainly is, a deep and profoundly historical basis for that much disputed sentence in the Apostles’ Creed - ‘The third day he rose again from the dead.’