I once had the opportunity to share the gospel with a young Hindu woman. A native of India, she was a university medical student preparing to become a physician. She was unfamiliar with the Bible and curious about what Christians believe. In response to her questions, I explained about Jesus’ life and teachings, and how he was crucified. “A few days after that,” I continued, “Jesus came back to life again.”
Stunned, she stopped me and said, “You know, that’s medically impossible.”
I don’t remember my exact response. I wish I had said, “Yes, but without God, medicine would be impossible!” My Hindu friend was surprised to run into someone who actually believes Jesus died and came back to life.
Do we fully appreciate what Easter affirms? After all, for someone to rise from the dead, lifeless cells must regenerate. Cold flesh must become warm and supple again. The heart must beat again without stimulation from electrodes or paddles. The brain and nervous system must reboot, lifeless eyes rewire themselves, and healthy blood flow again through arteries and veins.
Yes, Christians believe all of this actually happened. We follow a Jewish rabbi who was
more than a carpenter. He claimed to be God, taught soul-stirring lessons, fulfilled prophecies, performed miracles, and sealed the deal by dying on a cross and rising from the dead.
Throughout history God has done “awesome things that we did not expect” (Isaiah 64:3), and there’s nothing more astonishing than the resurrection. Yet it shouldn’t have surprised Jesus’ disciples, because he foretold it on several occasions.
Sometimes he spoke of it by using word pictures. He would be in the heart of the earth just as the prophet Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish (Matthew 12:40). The temple of his body would be rebuilt in three days (John 2:19-22).
Other times he spoke plainly about the resurrection, predicting “he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). The disciples still didn’t comprehend what he meant, and they privately discussed what “rising from the dead” might mean (Mark 9:10). Surprise, gentlemen! This wasn’t a mysterious figure of speech. Jesus meant exactly what he said.
The heavenly Father delights in preparing surprises for those he loves—things our eyes haven’t seen, ears haven’t heard, and minds haven’t conceived (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10). Jesus’ resurrection is one of those divine surprises. Such an astonishing reality should never become commonplace. Easter should always surprise us a bit.
Can reasonable people believe the resurrection actually happened? Yes! If we approach the subject without bias and ask a series of basic questions, the evidence makes a compelling case.
“How could a miracle like this occur? Dead bodies don’t come back to life.”
The creator who designed life in the first place can renew life whenever and however he chooses. If we believe in God, it’s only a small step from creation to Easter, a short distance from Genesis 1 to Matthew 28.
The self-evident fact that life doesn’t come from nonlife presents a bigger problem for the atheist than it does for the believer. If you deny the existence of God, how do you explain how life originated in the first place? By believing in the living God, Christians find a rational explanation for the origin of life—and we recognize the possibility of resurrection as a rare but purposeful exception. If God created natural laws, he can intervene in them.
“Can we be sure Jesus actually died on the cross?”
His death is well attested by historical evidence. The governor Pilate verified it. A Roman centurion certified it. The piercing of his side with a spear assured it.
Jesus died between two thieves, but two noblemen buried him. Following funeral customs of the time, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped the body in linen with about 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes and placed it in the tomb (John 19:38-42). There was no time to buy a burial plot, no need to make long-term arrangements. (It was going to be a short stay.)
Jesus’ tomb was sealed in a public location under the watchful eyes of guards posted by the governor, but three days later the tomb was empty. (The soldiers’ duty was to guard a dead body, and they let him escape!)
“What evidence indicates that Jesus appeared alive again after rising from the dead?”
The kind of testimony used in law courts today corroborates the fact of the resurrection.
• The eyewitnesses were numerous. They saw the Lord over a period of 40 days while he provided “many convincing proofs that he was alive” (Acts 1:3). More than 500 people saw the risen Lord at the same time (1 Corinthians 15:6), which rules out the idea that these were private visions or hallucinations. Lee Strobel explains:
To put it into perspective, if you were to call each one of the witnesses to a court of law to be cross-examined for just 15 minutes each, and you went around the clock without a break, it would take you from breakfast on Monday until dinner on Friday to hear them all. After listening to 129 straight hours of eyewitness testimony, who could possibly walk away unconvinced?1
• The eyewitnesses were skeptical at first, and Thomas wasn’t the only doubter. When the women came running with news of the resurrection, at first the apostles considered the report “nonsense” (Luke 24:11). Even when the risen Christ showed them his hands and feet, “they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement” (Luke 24:41).
They were thrilled to see Jesus alive again, but it seemed almost too good to be true. As any reasonable investigators would do, they reacted cautiously and required compelling evidence before they were persuaded.
After the resurrection Jesus ate broiled fish (Luke 24:42, 43). Why did Luke bother to tell us what was on Jesus’ dinner menu? He wanted to show that Jesus’ resurrected body was real.
The gospel is grounded in things heard, seen, and touched (1 John 1:1). The evidence satisfied skeptics like Saul of Tarsus, who was no friend of Jesus until the risen Lord changed Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle. Jesus’ brother James didn’t believe in him at first, but he turned to faith after encountering the risen Lord (compare John 7:5 and 1 Corinthians 15:7). Soon after the resurrection of Jesus, “a large number of priests” who previously rejected Jesus’ messianic claims “became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
• The eyewitnesses were credible. Commonsense fishermen like Peter and John were convinced that Jesus arose. So were highly trained scholars like Paul, and ordinary women like Mary Magdalene. Critics like to highlight discrepancies in the resurrection narratives, but viewed another way, the witnesses’ varying accounts provide independent testimony about the fact of the resurrection while providing different perspectives on the details.
• The eyewitnesses put their own lives on the line. They had little to gain by believing in Jesus’ resurrection. Why should the apostles lie and die for a crucified leader they knew was rotting in the grave? As Paul put it, “If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:32). The resurrection changed Jesus’ disciples from fearful huddlers in an upper room to bold witnesses in Jerusalem’s streets.
Frank Morison’s classic book Who Moved the Stone? concludes:
Test it where we will, this story has the peculiar and authentic ring of truth. It does not read like a story invented many years afterwards to lend color and support to the Christian theory of the resurrection. It looks far more like an original recollection of an actual event.”2
“What does the resurrection say about Jesus?”
One of my college professors put it well, “Anyone who could die as Jesus did, and then come back to life, is whoever he says he is!”
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then the master teacher was mistaken about his main message, for he claimed to be the Son of God and pointed to his resurrection as the crowning evidence. If the body of Jesus lies decaying in a Middle Eastern tomb, then baptism and the Lord’s Supper lose their meaning. A dead Savior can’t save anyone, commune with anyone, or answer anyone’s prayers.
There would be no good news if the story of Jesus ended at the cross. But if the resurrection actually happened, it towers above other historical events. It validates Jesus’ claims about himself. He was “appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).
Peter climaxed his Pentecost sermon by declaring, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:32). The resurrection of Christ is the dominant theme of the New Testament, from the joyful “He is risen” of the Gospels to the expectant “He is coming soon” of Revelation.3
Jesus’ resurrection gives new purpose to life, new meaning to suffering, and new hope in the midst of sorrow. It changes how we think about our own aging and dying. As Philip Yancey puts it, “The Bible never belittles human disappointment . . . but it does add one key word: temporary.”4 Because Jesus conquered death himself, he can conquer it for us.
I felt sad when my father died. The night before his funeral, I stood with my family next to Dad’s casket and spoke with the visitors who lined up to pay their respects. Arriving home later that night, I distracted myself by watching TV, flipping mindlessly through the channels. On a normal evening there’s a lot of foolishness on TV, but when your heart aches as you say goodbye to someone you love, television seems even more frivolous than usual.
That night PBS happened to show a documentary about the Hubble Telescope. Awe-inspiring photos appeared on the screen while scientists described what they have found in deep space: mind-boggling galaxies aglow with reds, yellows, blues, and greens. I don’t know whether the scientists who produced the documentary are believers, but that night their words and pictures reinforced my faith.
If a telescope made by human hands can reveal such marvels—if scientifically verifiable evidence points to a universe vastly beyond our comprehension—why should I doubt that God could raise his Son from the dead?
And why doubt that Jesus has prepared an eternal dwelling place for my dad and for all who love the Lord?
Easter calls us to surrender our hearts, lay aside our skepticism, and replace it with hope. We’re headed for a place where suffering stops, tears stop, loneliness stops, sin stops, mourning and misery stop. Even death itself stops.
And joy goes on, because Christ is risen indeed!
1Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).
2Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987; first published in 1930).
3Only the fact of the resurrection can explain the phenomenal growth of the early church. And in a Jewish culture where the Sabbath Day was so highly regarded, only something as significant as the resurrection could cause the followers of Christ to begin gathering on the first day of the week (instead of the seventh) to worship their Lord. Jesus’ resurrection was the early church’s central message and its driving motivation. “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33).
4Philip Yancey, Disappointment With God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988).
David Faust serves as associate minister with East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. His weekly Bible study appears in The Lookout and at www.lookoutmag.com.