For the final post in our series on Christian belief we'll consider the foundational event upon which all of Christendom is based, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If Jesus had only performed miracles, affirmed His deity, and died a martyr's death on the cross, He would have been promptly forgotten by time within a generation or two after his death. He would have been regarded at best as a pious dreamer and at worst a fraud and charlatan.
The Resurrection, however, authenticates everything He said and did during His life. It stamps His ministry with the words, "this must be true." Paul writes that if Christ is not raised our faith is worthless and we're still in our sins (I Cor.15:16-19). In other words, Christianity rests on the fact of the physical, historical Resurrection. When Jesus was asked for a sign to confirm His teaching about Himself He enigmatically replied that if His body is destroyed in three days it will be raised back up.
Jesus' Resurrection has always been the firmest ground for Christian belief in a life after death. Because God raised Him, Paul writes, we can have a realistic hope, indeed an assurance, that He can and will do the same for us.
But, a miracle like this is awfully hard to accept in our modern world (See here for more on the topic of miracles and the modern mind). People just don't come back to life once they are dead. What's the evidence for believing that a resurrection is really what happened?
We should start by asserting that there is nothing impossible, either logically or physically, about such an event. A revivification would only be logically impossible if there were some sort of contradiction entailed by the proposition that a dead man came back to life, but there's nothing self-contradictory about this. It would only be physically impossible if naturalism is true, that is, if there is nothing to reality but matter and energy. Yet although many people believe that naturalism is true no one can know that it is. If God exists, If God is real, miracles are possible. Since it is certainly possible that God exists it is therefore physically possible that a dead man could have been brought back to life.
Yes, the skeptic replies, but it's highly unlikely, and we should parcel out our belief according to what our experience shows is most likely. Our experience shows that any natural explanation, no matter how implausible, is still more likely than that there was an irregularity in the laws of nature because those laws are uniform and unbreakable.
This of course, begs the question, as C.S. Lewis points out in his little work On Miracles. We can only know that the laws of nature are uniform if we know that there are never any irregularities, i.e. miracles, but we can only know that there are never any miracles if we already know that the laws of nature are uniform.
Again, if there is a personal God then miracles are indeed possible and we need to consider the plausibility of an alleged instance of one based upon the evidence. In the case of the Resurrection of Jesus, the evidence, as many Christian apologists have pointed out, starts with the fact that the thing that we can be most certain of is that the tomb was empty on the first Easter morning.
How can we be sure of that? Because all that the early opponents of Christianity had to do to stamp out the nascent "heresy" in their midst was produce the corpse of the man the Christians were saying had risen from the dead, but this they never did. Moreover, a significant number of the early disciples gave their lives for their belief that Jesus was alive. This is inexplicable given the fact that no sane person sacrifices his life for something he knows is a lie. Moreover, the earliest official accounts of what happened at the tomb claimed that the disciples stole the body, but why did the authorities spread that story if the corpse was not missing?
The question, then, is not whether the tomb was empty, but rather how did it get that way?
Several theories have been placed in circulation to offer an alternative to the Biblical proclamation that Jesus was radically transformed into something much different than He had been prior to His death. We'll consider just two of the most popular.
The first, as noted above, is that the followers of Christ stole the body, but this is totally implausible. These were men and women, peasants and fishermen, cowering in hiding, afraid that the authorities were going to come to arrest them. To think that they were able to sneak past the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb, roll away a heavy stone, and steal the body without drawing notice is difficult to believe. But even if this is what happened, why weren't the disciples arrested and questioned for breaking the law and stealing the body? Again, if this is what happened why were these same men willing to suffer torture, imprisonment, hardship, and even martyrdom to proclaim to people what they knew to be false, that Jesus was alive?
The second theory is that Jesus didn't really die but merely passed out and later revived in the tomb. This is even less plausible than the first hypothesis. Consider His condition. He had been without food, water, and medical care for over two days. He had been horribly scourged, nailed to a timber, his shoulder and elbow joints would have dislocated as he hung from the cross-beam, and he had been speared in the side so deeply that bodily fluids gushed from His abdominal cavity. Even so, we are asked to believe, He somehow only passed out on the cross and revived while in the tomb. Despite His weakened state, He managed to roll away the heavy stone at the entrance, sneak past the guards, and appear to His disciples in such triumphant glory that they were convinced He had actually been brought back to life by God.
If this is what happened, of course, the disciples would have soon realized that Jesus was in bad shape and had not been raised to any genuinely new life at all. Furthermore, Jesus would eventually have died and His followers would have known that. How then do we explain the willingness of these men and women to undergo torture and execution, all the while steadfastly refusing to renounce their conviction that Jesus had overcome death?
To be sure, the implausibility of these theories is not a proof that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead. There could have been some other explanation for the empty tomb that no one knows about. But what the difficulty in explaining the empty tomb does do is give credence to the testimony of the eye-witnesses, it shows that the person who is willing to give the scriptural narrative the benefit of the doubt is not taking an irrational position. For the person who believes that God exists, there is no compelling rational argument against the claim that the Resurrection actually occurred. Indeed, the only argument against it is the skeptic's certainty that miracles don't happen.
Something, however, did happen that morning in a remote corner of the world which forever transformed history. Whatever it was changed thousands of lives in the immediate aftermath and millions more thereafter. It must have been dramatic. The Gospels tell us that it was the astonishing sight of the risen Christ, and there is no reason, other than that we just don't want it to be true, not to believe that witness.