Christ is Risen: How Do We Know?

Belief in Christ’s Resurrection Suggests We Live in an Open Universe.

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The traditional Eastern Orthodox depiction of Christ’s resurrection from the Church of the Chora in Istanbul, 14th century.

During this holiday weekend, Christians around the world will shout out the ancient Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Critics of Christianity–as well as sometimes our own doubting selves–keep asking the question: How do we know that it is true? Is it just one vast delusion or even an egregious lie?

Categories of Evidence

The New Testament offers three categories of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The first is its stories of the empty tomb. When men and women on Easter morning come to the tomb where Jesus was buried, they find it open. Entering in, they find the grave clothes but no body in repose.

They also encounter strange figures in the tomb, which some gospel writers identify as angels. These strangers offer the meaning of the empty grave clothes. Jesus has risen, the angels tell them (see Matthew 28:1-8).

The second category of evidence the New Testament writers offer is the personal encounters various disciples have with Jesus. These include the encounter Mary Magdalene has with Jesus in the garden (John 20:1-18), the encounter the eleven disciples have with Jesus on Easter evening behind locked doors (John 20:19-23), and the encounter two disciples have with Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).

The gospel writers suggest that these encounters are more than ghostly visions by emphasizing very material things that Jesus does during these encounters. Luke, for example, tells us that the risen Jesus eats a fish in the presence of his disciples (Luke 24:41-43). John says that Jesus invites doubting Thomas to place his finger in the wound scars on his body.

What is fascinating to me about these two categories of evidence is that they depend upon each other for their full persuasiveness. The empty tomb, for example, has been challenged ever since ancient times. People have charged that someone stole Jesus’ body, or his disciples moved it.

The empty tomb is not persuasive by itself. But if you balance it with the stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, then the empty tomb begins to take on more persuasive power.

Likewise the stories of the encounters with the risen Jesus have been challenged. Some charge that they represent wishful thinking on the part of the disciples or possibly some kind of group hallucination.

Those challenges become harder to sustain when the evidence of the appearances is combined with the evidence of the empty tomb. If the tomb was truly empty of a body, then the appearances may be something more than ghostly apparitions.

So we find the two categories of evidence do not work well alone. They must work in tandem to support each other.

The Evidence of Changed Lives

The New Testament also offers a third category of evidence. That is the changed lives of the disciples.

The gospels are blunt that the resurrection of Jesus comes as a surprise to his disciples. They do not expect it. Instead the picture we get in the gospels of the disciples after the crucifixion is one of fear and disillusion.

The gospel of John, for example, says that when the risen Jesus appears for the first time to his eleven disciples on Easter evening, they are gathered in fear behind locked doors. They were afraid for their own lives.

When Jesus encounters two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s gospel, and they tell him of the events that have just happened in Jerusalem, they conclude their narrative with what I consider some of the most despairing words in the Bible: But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:21). That word had speaks volumes about their true feelings.

And the gospel of John tells us that after the events of the crucifixion, the disciples return to their old jobs of fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21). It’s as if now that their hopes have been dashed, they return to old, abandoned occupations.

Yet when we turn the pages after the Gospel of John, we find in Acts stories of these same disciples boldly preaching about Jesus despite all orders from the ruling authorities to cease. When the Sanhedrin orders Peter to stop preaching, he (the one who had denied Jesus three times out of fear) refuses, saying, We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

The other writings of the New Testament show these same disciples as well as others confidently presenting their message without any cowering fear for their own lives. Despite fierce opposition from both Jewish and Gentiles sources, they continue to boldly scatter out into the world with their message.

How do we account for this dramatic change? Something clearly happened that changed the way they looked at life and how they felt about their lives. Something extraordinary, in fact.

Identifying that something is one of the greatest challenges any historian of Christian beginnings faces. The New Testament attributes the change to the impact of Jesus’ resurrection and his subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit. These changed lives then become the third category of evidence. For me personally, it is the most convincing of the three categories of evidence.

The Challenge to Our World View

Whether any one individually finds these three categories persuasive will depend in large part on how willing we are to concede that we may live in a far more open and mysterious universe than we commonly imagine.

Those of us who are heirs of the Enlightenment live with an understanding of the world where the world’s natural processes are governed by scientific laws of nature. These laws not only describe how the universe operates but also have the universe must operate. The picture of the universe they give us is of a universe that is a closed system. And it permits no exceptions to its iron laws. This is why Enlightenment thinkers were convinced that all miracles were impossible.

This is the common vision of the world that I suspect most people absorb from their rather rudimentary education into the sciences. In that vision something as exceptional as a true resurrection is impossible. It cannot be believed.

To even concede the possibility of a resurrection, therefore, involves a willingness to accept that the Enlightenment view of the universe as a totally closed system may just be wrong. Modern science as it has developed in the 20th century with such things as relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. gives evidence that scientists may not be able to be so dogmatic about the universe as scientists sometimes seem to be.

Life and the universe may be just more open and mysterious than we are able at the moment to understand. If we accept the Easter proclamation as true, then we must be prepared for all our presuppositions about the universe and life to be shaken. And that includes our presuppositions about how we should live. An open universe becomes an invitation into a journey that will constantly shake us up and startle us, but at the same time astound us with its beauty and surprising hopefulness.

May I wish you all an Easter of joyful surprises.

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