You head to the local library looking for a book to read over the long weekend. Something with drama, mystery, intrigue, torture, murder. You want to read about some allegations of grave robbery, insider plots, religious corruption, political power plays. And you’re keen to spice it up with some angels and demons, astrology, ghostly appearances, the spiritual underworld, ancient signs, the dead coming to life, and claims to divinity. “Where will I find something?” you ask.
The librarian brings you a book. It’s a little bit dusty. Doesn”t get borrowed too often. You look at the cover and it says Holy Bible. She opens it for you and points to The Gospel of Matthew. Where did she get it from? Is this Fact or Fantasy? Is it found in Fiction or Non-fiction? Is it History or Legend? Biography or Novel? Was it next to Harry Potter and The Twilight series, or was it down with The Works of Josephus and Suetonius?
What do you think?
Reading these requirements sounds like we’re dealing with fiction and fantasy, not history and reality. This is the kind of stuff you find in airport novels, B grade movies, low rating TV dramas. It’s not the kind of book you take seriously. Or is it?
I can tell you most people don’t. Even in many churches. The last 100 years or more has seen embarrassed churchy people talking these things down. Bishops denying that Jesus was born to a virgin. Theologians writing books claiming that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead. It’s just his idea that lives on and that’s what we mean by resurrection. Many will say, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. The ideas are nice, they’re moral, they’re a good story, they’re nice for children. And hey, we get a few public holidays, so don’t worry about it!
Let me be open with you. Unless this is non-fiction, historical, factual, and continues to have relevance, then I’ve backed a complete loser. I’ve invested all my hopes, plans, priorities, aspirations, on this being truth. When I discovered that I had a terminal illness, the weight of these issues became enormous. I experienced doubts, fears, and confusion. I had big questions. Real questions, not just theoretical or ideological questions. They were intense, existential, of utmost significance. I engaged in investigation and reinvestigation. I had bet my life on this. Is it true?
I hadn’t just staked my future on this being real. I’d been living my life on the basis that it is. I’d been teaching that this book explains life. I’d been calling others to take it seriously. I’d been an advocate, an ambassador, a preacher of these things. Was I a fraud? Inadvertently even? Am I mistaken? Some say it doesn’t matter. I say it does!
In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, one of the first Christian preachers had this to say about the substance of the events described in the gospels:
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
This is not just the idea of Christ living on, keeping his memory alive, but his physical bodily resurrection. Real death followed by real coming back to life. If it didn’t happen then there’s no point me trusting that it did or trying to persuade people that it still matters.
15 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 these things are simply one big misunderstanding then the early Christians were guilty of perjuring themselves. They were liars, perpetuating myths about Jesus, brainwashing people with ridiculous notions. And therefore I’m guilty of doing much the same thing. Gullible, deluded, or just plain deceptive.
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
When it comes to death – and let me tell you this is something that I take very seriously – I believe what happens afterwards really matters. If there is a God, and he takes me seriously, and I’m asked to give an account for how I’ve treated Him, then my only hope is in Christ dealing with my sins in his body on the cross. No point claiming I’ve been good. I haven’t. No point backing my religious behaviour. It’s pathetic. My hope is only in Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection. If this didn’t happen, then I don’t have a leg to stand on before God.
18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
There’s no hope for countless people who’ve already gone to their grave believing in Jesus. And what about those who’ve done so at gun point, who’ve been burned alive, crucified upside down, or thrown to lions? When all they had to do was change their minds! Recant! All they had to say was “No, I don’t really believe it!” They could have lived.
19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
What a waste! Why would you spend your life living for a fiction, trying to persuade others. It’s really pretty sad! In fact, we may as well take these words seriously…
32 If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
That’s right. No point wasting my life on God, Jesus, hoping for resurrection, and a life beyond the grave. May as well simply focus on and enjoy what I’ve got now, because that’s all there is, and it’s not going to last that long.
What do I believe? I believe in the death of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I believe in the ongoing significance of these events. I believe that my sin against God has been dealt with and that I have real hope for all eternity. As it says in 1 Corinthians 15:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
I believe the evidence needs to be considered carefully. Weighed up seriously. These events make sense of promises written centuries before. They tie in so well with the words of the Bible that predicted them happening. When these words were first written, it was less that a generation after the events described. There were people alive who claimed to be eye-witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. You could question and cross examine them.
Cephas (Peter) had spent so long with Jesus, he was hardly likely to be mistaken. The twelve weren’t expecting him to appear. They were cowering in a room, in fear of their lives, after Jesus was killed. Five hundred people claimed to have seen Jesus on one occasion. You can’t explain this as mass hallucinations. And you could have asked some of them about who and what they saw. James, the brother of Jesus, would have been hard to convince. Not to mention Thomas, who wouldn’t believe without physical evidence. And Paul (or Saul as he used to be known) was so persuaded of the resurrection that he went from imprisoning Christians to joining them in prison. I understand a few lawyers would love this quality of evidence.
And then there’s the circumstantial evidence. How do you explain the missing body? The empty tomb? The wrong tomb? Surely, they’d just go to the next one. The authorities stole the body? All they had to do to stop the early Christians was produce it. The disciples stole the body and pulled off a conspiracy? Likely! A pathetic bunch of eleven cowards overthrowing imperial guards and then perpetuating lies that they go on to die for? Surely, at least one would have cracked to save himself!
There are many more pieces to the puzzle. Lot’s more circumstances to consider carefully. They keep pointing me to the conclusion that the accounts of Jesus are non-fiction, factual, historical records of real events. And these events are worth staking your life on.
This Easter, please consider.