What’s Your Problem with the Resurrection?
April 23, 2000
The year: AD 60. The place: The palace of Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea by the Sea. The setting: The Apostle Paul has been in jail for two years. Now he stands in chains before the mighty Agrippa, great-grandson of Herod the Great, the malevolent king who attempted to butcher the baby boys in Bethlehem. Paul’s case has been referred to Agrippa by Festus who confesses he cannot understand the charges against Paul. With his Roman background Festus cannot comprehend why the Jews hate Paul and why Paul keeps talking about “a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25:19). There in that one sentence is the whole problem of Easter. Paul believed it, the Jews didn’t believe it, and the Romans couldn’t understand it. The Jews said Jesus was dead, Paul said he was alive, and poor Festus doesn’t have a clue. So he passes the case along to Agrippa for his review.
Paul’s explanation to the king is very simple. He affirms that as a Jew and as a Pharisee he shares in the hope of what God had promised to the Jewish people. Those promises were so great that of necessity they went beyond the grave. That is, the promises cross the generations and assume that God will raise his believing people. Then he asks a question that resonates across the centuries: “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8).
What a question for Easter morning! Is it truly incredible (the Greek word means “against belief”) that God should raise the dead? Which is more reasonable, that God raises the dead or that he doesn’t raise the dead? It may interest you to know that this doctrine was troublesome from the beginning. Acts 4:2 tells us that in the earliest days of the Christian movement the Jewish leaders “were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.”
Reasons to Doubt
It is still a problem today. Unbelief always has a thousand excuses. Some people refuse to believe that God raises the dead because they have never seen it happen and they only believe what they see. Others say, “I can’t do it and I don’t know anyone who can do it, therefore I don’t think it can happen.” I freely admit that in one sense experience is on the side of unbelief. Go to any of the many cemeteries in this area and stroll through them. They are quiet, peaceful, serene, and beautiful. Nothing much happens in the cemeteries except an occasional funeral. And that’s our problem with the idea of the resurrection. Funerals we have aplenty, where are the resurrections?
I believe the issue is not fundamentally intellectual or scientific or mechanical or biological, as if we had to somehow understand how the dead could be raised. In the end the problem is a matter of the heart. Many people simply do not believe what God has said. Others worship their own intellect. If they can’t explain something, they assume it can’t be true.
From Dust to Life to Dust to Life Again
But is it incredible (“against belief”) to believe that God raises the dead? I answer one question with another. If God can create, why can he not re-create? We know that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. This life we have is a temporary respite from the dust behind and the dust to come. If God once gives life to the dust, can he not do it again? Cannot the watchmaker repair his broken creation?
To argue in such a manner on Easter Sunday may be helpful but it is not totally satisfying. When we face our own death, and even more when we face the death of those we love, we need more than arguments from logic or philosophy.
The First Easter Morning
And that brings us back to the New Testament, to the question of what really happened on that first Easter Sunday morning. The accounts vary in their details but the main outline is absolutely clear. Early on Sunday morning, while it is still dark but just as the sun was about to come up, a group of at least five women (led by Mary Magdalene) set out for the tomb of Jesus. They intended to anoint his dead body with spices since in the rush to get him to the tomb before sundown on Friday, they had not been able to finish all they wanted to do. It is clear that they expected to find a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers with a dead body inside. To their shock when they arrived they found the tomb open and Jesus’ body gone. Quickly returning to the other disciples, they spread the news that someone had taken the body of Jesus.
An Empty Cocoon
John and Peter ran to the tomb. John got there first. Peter arrived seconds later and went inside. What they found surprised them. The body was indeed gone but the graveclothes were lying exactly where they had been placed on Friday just before sundown. The Jewish custom of burial involved wrapping the corpse with strips of linen interlaid with a combination of gummy resins that when hardened formed a tight shell around the body. This made grave-robbing much more difficult. The head was wrapped in a piece of cloth, perhaps swirled around the face like a turban.
Evidently Peter and John saw the graveclothes lying on a ledge in the tomb almost like an empty cocoon after the butterfly has emerged. The headcovering was still in place as well. It must have looked as if the body has simply vanished, somehow passing through the graveclothes without disturbing them. Not long after that Jesus appeared to Mary. Then to the women. Then to Peter. Then to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Then to the 11 disciples. A week later he appeared to Thomas who believed in spite of his own doubts, crying out, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
Quickly the word spread, “He’s alive!” This became the watchword of the early church. The apostles ended up as martyrs for their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After 2000 years we can safely say that when the evidence is fairly examined with an unprejudiced mind, the only logical conclusion is that Jesus died on Friday afternoon and that he literally, physically, and bodily rose from the dead on Sunday morning.
Will We Believe God?
That brings me back to the basic question once again. Is it incredible to believe that God raises the dead? Not if we believe in God! In the end we come back to this: Will we believe the testimony of God? If not, no other arguments will suffice. If yes, no other arguments are needed.
But I pause to confess that our real problem is not with the empty tomb 2000 years ago. Most of us will say, “Yes, I believe Jesus rose from the dead.” Almost everyone believes that. A Harris Poll conducted in 1998 reveals that 88% of all Americans say they believe in the Resurrection of Christ. Our deeper struggle comes when we stand by a casket and look down at the face of someone we loved. Many of us wonder at that moment, “Is it possible that I will see this person again?” Death seems so final. And the statistics argue against a resurrection. Everyone dies eventually. You don’t hear much about people being raised from the dead. Death seems to win every time.
How will we deal with this problem? Here is my answer. It comes as a series of statements.
Grant that God is God.
Grant that he is Omnipotent.
Grant that he knows all things.
Grant that he has promised to raise the dead.
Grant that he raised his own Son.
Then consider this final statement: If God can raise Jesus from the dead, he can do anything. As Spurgeon put it, “Difficulty is not in the dictionary of the Godhead.” If God can raise Jesus on Easter Sunday, then he can also raise your loved ones who now rest in the grave. It is not any harder for God to raise 10 million people than to raise one. If you can raise the dead, you can raise the dead. Numbers, location, cause of death, location of the remains. None of it matters to God. This line of reasoning answers questions about those whose bodies were destroyed in a fire or who were lost at sea. God will have no trouble reassembling the atoms that make up the molecules that constitute the bodies of those who died believing in Jesus Christ. He’s God, and he can do it.
Starting in the Right Place
Perspective is all important at this point. God never asks us to start from the year 2000 and reason backwards to the empty tomb. It never works to start with your loved ones and then try to figure out how God can raise them. The question is unanswerable. Instead God tells us to start at the empty tomb and to reason forward from there. We are to start with what we know (that Jesus rose from the dead) and reason to what we don’t know (exactly how he will raise the dead in Christ). What he did for Jesus he will also do for those who follow Jesus in faith.
Four Stones of Unbelief
Having said that, it must be admitted that there are those who vigorously reject what I am saying. For a moment let’s consider four stones that unbelievers roll in front of Jesus’ tomb in order to keep him at arm’s length.
Stone #1 is the stone of atheism. This view says that the dead have ceased to exist. We live, we die, and that’s the end of the story. We come from nowhere and we go nowhere. This life is all there is. Against this we have the universal testimony to the immortality of the soul and the clear testimony of God’s Word that this life is not the end, but the beginning. We will all live forever somewhere.
Stone #2 is the stone of humanism. This view argues that no power exists to raise the dead. This would be quite correct if it read “no power on earth.” People who say this believe that science and the human intellect are the final arbiters of truth. If we cannot produce it ourselves, it must not exist. Such a view simply rules God out of the picture a priori.
Stone #3 is the stone of rationalism. This view suggests that God would not interfere with the laws of nature. It supposes that if there is a God, he is so uninvolved with his creation that, having once set the universe in motion, he will never directly intervene. This notion flies in the face of everything the Bible reveals about who God is. He not only established the universe, he also upholds it by his powerful word. The only reason there are “laws of nature” is because God established them. Because he is the Supreme Lawgiver, he can momentarily suspend the laws of death and decay and replace them with higher laws regarding resurrection. If God is God, this must be true.
Stone #4 is the stone of liberalism. This view declares that God nowhere promises a resurrection and that the resurrection of Jesus is a myth created by the early church to explain away the death of Christ. It contradicts both the historical record and common sense, not to speak of the clear teaching of the Bible. This view appeals only to those who reject the resurrection and then want to find a reason to justify their unbelief.
The following poem was written by a soldier during World War I. It powerfully expresses what must follow if Easter is not true:
If death ends all, then evil must be good,
Wrong must be right, and beauty ugliness.
God is a Judas who betrays his Son,
And with a kiss, damns all the world to hell—
If Christ rose not again.
Dead End on Cemetery Road
Not long ago the St. Paul Pioneer Press published a picture that was apparently meant to give readers a chuckle. It showed a street sign named Cemetery Road. Underneath was another sign that read Dead End. That picture captures the way most people think about death. They believe that Cemetery Road leads to a Dead End from which there is no escape.
Against this pessimism stands the promise of Easter:
If death is not the end …
If God is God …
If God has promised …
If Christ be raised from the dead …
What then follows from all this? If Christ has truly been raised from the dead, then these things follow as surely as night follows day:
If Christ be raised from the dead, all his promises can be trusted.
If Christ be raised from the dead, he is alive today.
If Christ be raised from the dead, he is with us now.
If Christ be raised from the dead, all things end well for those who follow him.
This is the best news of all. If you know Jesus, “all things end well.” Today may be filled with tears, tomorrow with troubles, and the day after that with difficulties galore. But if you know Jesus, then in the end when all is said and done, when we finally come to the last bend in the road, “all things end well.”
“Pillow my head on no guesses when I die,” Joseph Cook declared. He’s right. We may live with guesses and dreams and imaginations and speculative theories while we are alive. But when we take our last breath, dreams and wishes won’t do. We must know! We must be certain! We must be sure about what happens next! And the only One who can tell us what happens after we die is someone who has died and come back to life. The only person in that category is Jesus Christ. He alone can be trusted.
This week I ran across two epitaphs that graphically portray the difference between dying without Christ and dying with him. The first describes someone who truly has no hope:
Don’t bother me now
Don’t bother me never
I want to be dead
For ever and ever.
The second one comes from Newbury, Massachusetts and speaks for itself:
In a state of perfect oblivion
Who died Sept 2, 1811
Death has decomposed him
And at the great resurrection Christ
Will recompose him.
One of my favorite stories involves the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. Most of us know him as the man who single-handedly rallied the British people in the darkest days of World War II when the armies of Hitler were poised to cross the English Channel. By the power of his words he gave courage to an entire country. Before he died he planned his own funeral service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The service itself was magnificent in every way, filled with biblical liturgy and great hymns. Just as the benediction was pronounced, an unseen bugler hidden in one side of the dome began to play Taps, the traditional melody signaling the end of the day or the death of a soldier. As the mournful notes faded away, another bugler on the other side of the dome began to play Reveille, the traditional melody signaling the coming of a new day. “It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the morning.” It was Sir Winston’s way of saying that though he was dead, he expected to “get up” in the day of the resurrection.
On Easter Sunday morning, God sounded reveille and the Jesus rose up from the dead. Because of that day, Cemetery Road is no longer a Dead End. It is merely a temporary resting place on our voyage to eternity with God.
Good News From the Graveyard
I now end where I began. What’s your problem with the Resurrection? Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? If God is God, then he can raise the dead. He did it for Jesus, he can do it for you.
But some people still try to keep Jesus in the tomb. What stone have you rolled in front of the tomb to keep Jesus at arm’s length? It may be the stone of despair, the stone of bitterness, the stone of doubt, the stone of skepticism, or the stone of unbelief. It’s too late! Jesus came out of the tomb 2000 years ago, and he never went back in.
10 – 9 – 8 The earth starts to shake
7 – 6 – 5 A bright light shines
4 – 3 – 2 – 1 The stone rolls away and
Christ the Lord is risen today.
Stones cannot hold him, Death cannot keep him. He is alive forevermore.
There is good news from the graveyard this morning.
Good news that the tomb is empty.
Good news that Jesus rose from the dead.
Good news that the Devil couldn’t hold him.
Good news that death has lost its sting.
Good news that the grave has lost its victory.
Let the people of God rejoice. Christ the Lord is risen today. Amen.