April 11, 1993 | Ray Pritchard
Can a person who calls himself a Christian ever doubt the resurrection of Jesus Christ? This morning I am going to argue that the answer to that question is Yes!
It may sound odd to say that to a group like this on Easter morning but the question itself is very crucial. Let me put it another way. Suppose that Jesus did not rise from the dead, how do you explain what happened that first Easter morning?
That is the question that has fascinated great minds for 2000 years. What exactly happened? How can we be sure? Are there any other explanations?
I know that the vast majority of us believe in the resurrection … and we hardly think about whether it really happened. What I’m going to say may surprise you, but there are other explanations, some of them quite brilliant, for the apparently empty tomb. If we stick our heads outside our doors and listen to the men and women of the world, we will find that there are many sincere people who have questions. Easter questions.
This supreme question is this: Can a person who calls himself a Christian ever doubt the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Yes or no, what do you say? More importantly, what does the Bible say?
In a few moments, I’d like to examine the evidence and reach a conclusion, but first this major point:
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central fact of the Christian faith and is therefore open to every kind of question.
Noted English author Michael Green said it this way:
Christianity does not hold the resurrection to be one among many tenets of belief. Without belief in the resurrection there would be no Christianity at all. The Christian Church would never have begun; the Jesus movement would have fizzled out like a damp squib with his execution. Christianity stands or falls with the truth of the resurrection. Once disprove it, and you have disposed of Christianity.
Is he right?
A Second-Rate Holiday
In our society there are two great religious holidays–Christmas and Easter. For most of us Christmas is the bigger and greater season of the year. It’s the time of year when we gather with family and friends to sing carols, decorate the tree and exchange gifts. Christmas is the climax of the whole year. Easter? Well, for most people it’s just another long weekend, another chance to get away for a few days.
Even Christians view Easter as a second-rate holiday!
Somehow we’ve gotten our thinking badly mixed up. If Easter had not happened, Christmas would have no meaning. If the tomb is not empty, the cradle makes no difference. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then he really is just a misguided Jewish rabbi with delusions of grandeur. If Easter is not true, then Christmas is only the story of an obscure baby born in an out-of-the-way village in a forgotten land 2000 years ago. It is Easter that gives Christmas its meaning.
You want proof? In all the New Testament no major doctrinal point is ever built upon the the virgin birth of Christ. Not one. It’s true. It happened. But it’s never discussed or mentioned. In fact, two gospels don’t even say anything about it.
But the resurrection? That’s a different story. In every part of the New Testament, it comes up again and again. Read the sermons of Acts. When the first Christians preached, they didn’t mention Bethlehem; they talked about the empty tomb. They never got over the fact that on Easter Sunday when they went to the tomb, Jesus was gone.
If Christ Be Not Raised
This week I’ve been reading I Corinthians 15, that famous passage where Paul reasons out loud about the resurrection and the implications if it did not happen. Evidently some believers in Corinth were teaching that Christians would not rise from the dead when Jesus returns to the earth. Paul answers by saying, “That’s foolish because if Christians do not rise from the dead what you are really saying is that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead because those two things go together–his resurrection and ours.”
Then he says it twice: “If Christ has not been raised.” (I Corinthians 15:14,17) So what, Paul?
1. Our preaching is vain. (14)
2. We are despicable liars. (15)
3. Our faith is vain. (17)
4. We are still in our sins. (17)
5. Dead Christians have perished. (18)
6. We are to be pitied more than all men. (19)
That is precisely my point: The resurrection is the central fact of our faith. Disprove it and nothing is left.
That’s why from the very beginning, skeptics and doubters have attacked the Christian faith at this very point. It’s not the virgin birth, it’s not the miracles, it’s not his death. The resurrection is the touchstone.
And that’s why questions are welcome on Easter Sunday. This is the heart of what we are all about. Everything we do rests on this fact–Jesus rose from the dead. If it weren’t so important, no one would bother to doubt it . You can doubt some miracle of Christ if you want and the only loser will be you … but if you doubt the resurrection of Jesus, the foundations begin to crumble.
A sign should be posted for all the world to see:
Doubters welcome at the empty tomb.
So it is that sincere men and women ask hard questions about Easter–and well they should. It all begins or ends right here.
One Sunday in Jerusalem
All of this raises another question: Suppose we had been there that first Easter, would we have believed or would we have doubted?
To put it another way, what would it take to convince you that someone you loved had come back to life after being dead three days? Suppose it were a close friend or a family member and you had seen them die? What would it take to convince you? Rising from the dead is not a common thing. At best, it hasn’t happened for many generations.
If we had been there in Jerusalem with Matthew, James and John … would we have believed the strange rumors that Sunday morning?
Let us for the moment, consider the evidence. How did the people who knew Jesus best react to the news of his resurrection?
I begin with a simple observation. They were not expecting a resurrection. That was the farthest thing from their minds. Forget his predictions. Forget all that brave talk. Forget those wild dreams. They had given up.
Strange fact. Who really expected problems? Who was afraid that “something” might happen? Hear the words of Matthew 27:62-66. The Jewish leaders had more faith than the disciples. So did the Romans!
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ’After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting a guard.
The believers had no thought of a resurrection. Who came first to the tomb that Sunday morning? The women. Were they looking for a resurrection? No. Mark 16:1 says they came to anoint the body of Jesus. In those days a body was prepared for burial by covering it with spices and then pouring on a sticky ointment. In the confusion and hurry late Friday afternoon, the spices had been places on Jesus’ body but not the ointment. The women came to finish the job of embalming!
And what did they find when they got there? The stone rolled away and an empty tomb! All four gospels agree on this fact. The women did not have the slightest clue as to what had happened. They were not looking for a resurrection.
An angel told them what had happened and still they did not believe it.
Mark puts it this way: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (16:8)
And John says that when Mary left she found Peter and John and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2)
Luke adds the final detail that when the women told the rest of the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead, “They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” (Luke 24:11)
Nonsense. Of course. No one rises from the dead. Not after three days. Not after being beaten and scourged. Not after being crucified. Not after hanging on a cross for six hours. Not after having a sword thrust in the side. Not after being covered with 150 pounds of spices and wrapped in a suffocating burial cloth. Not after being sealed in a tomb.
No. The odds are against it. It’s impossible.
He was such a nice man. He meant well. He did so much good. We all loved him. We walked with him down the dusty roads. We saw him walk on water. We laughed when he told off the Pharisees. Oh, those were great days in Galilee. How about the time he did that miracle with the loaves and fishes? We thought that was great.
Sure, he said he’d rise again. We all believed it. I think he believed it too. He had never been wrong before. Sure, we believed it. Why not? He said he was the Son of God. We’re going to miss him. Wouldn’t it have been great if he had risen? What a kick! Nobody would believe it. Well, he tried, we all know that.
And Mark says, “When they heard that Jesus was alive … they did not believe it.” (Mark 16:11)
Simple. It’s too hard to believe otherwise. It goes against nature. So they didn’t.
His Best Friends Didn’t Believe It!
We all know the rest of the story. But I don’t want to get to that just yet. I want to point out that the people who knew Jesus best and loved him most had grave doubts. They could not and would not believe it.
These are the words of Alfred Edersheim, author of perhaps the greatest book on the life of Christ written in the English language:
What thoughts concerning the dead Christ filled the minds of Joseph of Arimathea, of Nicodemus, and of the other disciples of Jesus, as well as the Apostles and the pious women?
They believed him to be dead, and they did not expect him to rise again from the dead–at least, not in the accepted sense of it. Of this there is abundant evidence from the moment of his death, in the burial spices brought by Nicodemus, in those prepared by the women … in the sorrow of the women at the empty tomb, in their supposition that the body had been moved, in the perplexity and bearing of the apostles, in the doubts of so many, and indeed in the express statement, “For as yet they knew not the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.”
The evidence leads us to this conclusion: The people who knew Jesus best and loved him the most had grave doubts on Sunday morning, did not expect a resurrection and had to be convinced against their own will!
What finally convinced them? Jesus did! The tomb was empty … the angel said he had risen … all that could be explained. But Jesus himself appeared to them … alive from the dead. The same Jesus … the one they had watched die … he appeared and they saw him, talked to him, touched him, heard his voice, looked into his face, watched him closely. It was true! Jesus had come back from the dead. Against all their expectations, the truth came home to them … Jesus had risen from the dead!
And that brings us back to our original question: Can a person who calls himself a Christian ever doubt the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Yes indeed, for the ones who knew him best and loved him most doubted at the first.
It’s no sin to doubt. Sometimes doubts come not from hatred but from love. The first disciples loved Jesus so much they refused to believe the truth at first because they didn’t want to be disappointed. They didn’t want to sully the memory of Jesus by believing wild rumors that might not be true. No, you can’t blame them at all. Love made them doubt … and then it made them believe.
There was a disciple whose name was Thomas. We call him Doubting Thomas. Somehow he missed that first meeting on Easter Sunday. I think he was so heartbroken that he simply went off by himself to suffer alone. When the news came of Jesus’ resurrection, he couldn’t believe it. After all these years, Thomas has gotten a bad reputation, but he’s really no worse than the others. They didn’t believe at first, either. He said, “Unless I see him and unless I touch him, I will not believe.”
We tend to look down on Thomas … but Jesus didn’t. He said, “Put your finger here. See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” Then he said, “Stop doubting and believe.”
Jesus didn’t put him down. He said, “Go ahead, see for yourself, make up your own mind.” Stop doubting and believe.
Doubters are welcome at the empty tomb! Our Lord welcomes Easter questions!
No Bones About It
I was looking through a list of church ads and found one from a Lutheran church that I liked very much. It said, “The tomb is empty … No bones about it.” That sums up it, doesn’t it?
All that Christianity asks is that men be consistent with themselves. Sift the evidence, judge the record, examine the testimony, then come to your conclusion.
It’s all right to doubt, but don’t let your doubts keep you away.
Jesus himself asked this question of those who come to him, “What do you think of Christ? Whose Son is he?” Before you answer, here is the evidence for you to consider. Go to the tombs of the founders of the great world religions. Call the roll:
Mohammed … … “Here”
Buddha … … … .”Here”
Confucius … … . .”Here”
Moses … … … . . “Here”
Jesus Christ … . . .
No answer … Because he is not there. The tomb is empty!!! Doubt if you will, but the tomb is still empty because he is not there. He is risen, just as he said.
In the early church Christians greeted each other this way: One would say, “He is risen.” Another would answer, “He is risen indeed.”
It is true … and we have staked our lives upon it!
Can a person who calls himself a Christian ever doubt the resurrection? The answer must be yes for the ones who knew him best and loved him most doubted at the first.
Stop Doubting and Believe!
But we cannot leave the matter there. Thomas bowed Jesus and said, “My Lord and my God.” Then John said, “These things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name.” (John 20:31)
No one can remain neutral forever You can bring your doubts to the empty tomb … but you have to make a choice! You can’t stay on the fence forever.
Doubting is no sin, but at some point you’ve got to stop doubting and start believing.
Either you believe or you don’t!
This is Easter Sunday morning. It’s a wonderful day to make a choice. It’s a great day to stop doubting and start believing.
You know that Jesus died … there is no doubt about that. You know that he died for you. You know that he rose from the dead.
The question God is asking you is very simple: What have you done with my Son?
Jesus said, “Stop doubting and believe.”
We thank you for the beauty of Easter.
We rejoice that our deepest questions are answered with the simplicity of an empty tomb.
Lead us into the garden of the resurrection
where we may meet our risen Lord!
May we never again live as if Jesus were dead.
May those who doubt now believe and find life through his name. Amen.