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How do we Know?
that Jesus was Raised from the Dead
F. Earle Fox
Resurrection Sunday - 4/8/12
Is. 25:1-9; Ps. 93; Col. 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-10
Hymns 94 (1), 98, 85, 91, 96 (1)
“How do you know?” That is the question
thrown at believing Christians, especially about the resurrection of Jesus from
the dead 2000 years ago as at this day. We Christians tend to get defensive at
such questions, partly because we are often not sure how to answer them, and
partly because we are not even sure that there are good answers. The
seeming intellectual success of secularism has scared us.
There is today, in Isaiah 25, a feast on a mountain, with good wine, fat things full of marrow, and... a veil covering all nations which will be destroyed on that mountain. Death will be swallowed up, all tears will be wiped away, and the reproach of His people will be taken away from all the earth.
That covering or veil is important, like a shroud, a funeral shroud over a body or casket. The world has died and covered with a shroud. The shroud is an apt symbol for the wall between the fallen world and God, a closed system with no communication to anything outside or from anything outside, such as God.
Psalm 93 tells of the Lord who is mightier than the sound of many waters roaring on the sea shore.
In the Gospel according to John, we enter the tomb which had been sealed with a large stone and guarded by a lethal team of Roman soldiers, the tomb of a crucified man... who is no longer there, only a linen cloth lying with which He had been wrapped, and the “sudarium”, a handkerchief, with which His head had been wrapped, lying by itself. The disciples go home not knowing what to make of it all, not expecting a resurrection.
In Colossians, we are imagined to have risen with Christ from the dead, and told to seek those things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, for our life is hid with Him in God, and we will appear with Him in glory. The shroud has been removed.
All of these are events in the world, but having eternal
and cosmic consequences.
How did we come to rise with Christ from the dead? How did we get dead, and if we died, how did we rise with Him?
All those are very challenging thoughts.
One way we got dead is as God described to Adam in the Garden of Eden, that if he, Adam, ate from the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil, he, Adam, would die. Adam did not die right away, but he and Eve cast themselves into a world that was dying, with no way out once you got in. A labyrinth. Without God, we in the Fallen world are walking dead men.
But that is different from dying to self, that is, letting go of our dependency relationships in that world which is all we have known, but which is what we must do to exit that terrible place. In order to live well, that is, in the Kingdom, we must know how to die well in the world. Yet, if that fallen world is all we know, then dying to self seems like suicide. We must have someone come in from the outside to rescue us, to lead us through that death to self.
But the only person on the outside is God, with whom we have lost touch, so He must come in by His own initiative. He must want to come in to save us. He must love us that much, even knowing that those who are captive to Satan will deny and kill Him. Even His friends whom He is saving will run away when it happens.
But if the Son of God can find fallen humans who have sufficient moral and spiritual conscience left in them to want to follow Him, who can, with His help, give up their worldly dependencies and obedience and choose Him to trust and obey, then, bonded to Him, He can lead them through their own spiritual death-to-self into life.
When we bond to someone, and they die, then something in us dies as well. So, we become, as Paul says, buried with Christ in His death so that we can be raised in His resurrection. If we are bonded to Jesus, to Him-Who-Is, rather than to just another human being, then when Jesus dies and rises again, then we, bonded to Him, having first died with Him, can then rise with Him. He draws us through our own death to the other side of the closed circle, the shroud of death. The power of the death-shroud is neutralized.
We are drawn in heart and mind to things above, to things
outside the closed circle of the Fallen world. Riding on Jesus coattails, we,
going out in heart and mind, piercing through that veil in Isaiah 25 which
covers all nations.
But this spiritual journey is even more exciting. We are
told in the creed
and in I Peter 4:6, that Jesus descended into hell, with the purpose of preaching the Gospel to those who had died before and and to others who could not have known of Him from their life on earth.
Hell, in this case, does not mean the place of the damned, it means the Hebrew "sheol", that pallid and dark place where the dead went. The Hebrews apparently only slowly began to think that there might be a resurrection from such a place.
And we in our still Medieval imaginations have come to think of "down" as leading eventually to that place of the damned, perhaps influenced by Greek mythology. But at the bottom of all things is not hell, at the bottom of all things is the Hand of God, holding all things in existence. You cannot fall past the bottom.
Satan has tried to make it look like he has the last word standing there in hell at the bottom of the pit. He does not. He has tried to make our "letting go and letting God" seem suicidal -- that if we "let go and let God", trusting Him to catch us, we would fall instead into hell. So the shroud of death has been placed under to catch us as well as over us. But Satan is a liar. That is not how it works.
When we drive downward, we meet not hell, the disintegration of all things, rather we meet bed rock, that rock upon which Jesus told us to build our house, which will not be swept away by the storms of life. If we "let go and let God", we fall into the Hand of God, not into the fires of hell or a black hole of oblivion. At the bottom is the Light of God, not darkness.
So, we might assume, the resurrection of the Son of God was the return from connecting with that very Hand of God which is the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of all life, all existence. And so as we ourselves pass through what might be the dark night of our soul to the Hand of God, we too can rise, now steady on that Hand, to the throne of the Father in Heaven above. Resurrection power. Let go and let God. That gives a powerfully positive meaning to our dark nights. Press on with God.
And in doing so, we are no longer "of the world". Even though we remain "in the world", we are "of" God Himself, standing on His life-giving power, something the world cannot give. The shroud of death, the covering over all nations, the closure of the circle -- has been destroyed on that mountain of God.
But how can we know these astonishing things to be true? There is nothing at all in the secular or pagan worlds which can produce these kinds of events and conditions among humans. Is there some way the Biblical world can explain them?
There are two ways we know such things. The
first is by ourselves living in that reality,
knowing by direct experience. We become personal witnesses. The
second is by examining the relevant evidence.
First – Living in that reality:
The early Christians did not “reason” their way to the Good News. They ran headlong into it because of their relationship with Jesus Christ. It was not that the disciples did not reason or think, they did a lot of both, especially in their discussions with Jesus and one another. But they did not, as the Greek philosophers, reason about reasoning, they just did it.
As powerful as the resurrection was in their lives, that was not what energized them to turn the Roman world upside down. The birthday of the Church, which Peter later remembers as the “beginning”, was Pentecost, the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus to send them “another Comforter”, the Holy Spirit. It was the experience of the living God changing their lives, giving them the two primal stabilities, which convinced them that there really was a Good News. They knew from their own experience. They did not have to reason their way to it. They began to see its reasonableness only after living in it.
St. Paul three times uses the word ‘guarantee’ (RSV) of
this inner experience, a prelude to the coming fullness of the Kingdom, a
promise of even greater things to come when the King Himself returned again.
And second, there is the objective, reasonable, scientific evidence for the resurrection power of God. Here, we are looking at the testimonies of other people who have made such claims. We may believe them because we trust them. Or we may want to examine their testimonies to see whether they logically and factually measure up to reality:
Everybody who was on the scene agrees that the body of Jesus was placed dead in the tomb on Good Friday. Everybody agrees that the body was not in the tomb Sunday morning. Virtually no one is disputing these facts.
So the question is, What happened? Why do we believe this seemingly outlandish tale that the tomb become empty because God did something? And how do we know?
Besides the Biblical account, there are only a very few possible alternative explanations. A challenger might say that what the Jewish leaders paid the Roman guard to say was true, that the disciples stole the body and lied about a resurrection. Or, one might say that the disciples were emotionally unbalanced, that they honestly believed that He rose, but were persuaded by hallucinations of His presence.
Christians are often put off by such assertions, and, without the common sense and intellectual boldness to ask the challengers to provide believable evidence supporting their assertions, they allow the challenge to go unrefuted. Challengers need to supply independent evidence that the disciples were indeed dishonest or unbalanced emotionally, not just assert their own doubts. But no such evidence is available, so the challenges fail. They are merely arbitrary assertions – the very thing Christians are (too often rightly) accused of doing.
Furthermore, the Biblical evidence tells us that none of the disciples were expecting a resurrection. The only persons showing concern for an empty tomb where those who had killed Jesus, Pilate and the Jewish leaders. Even when the tomb was empty right in front of their eyes, they had a hard time believing.
The New Testament is typically direct and honest about the disciples weaknesses and failures, as all through the Old Testament with the Hebrews and their leaders. That is not typical of pagan writings about themselves. They rarely reported their own misdeeds and failures, or those of the local king, rather they inflated their reputations. You will not read about Egyptian defeats, only about their victories. But the Hebrews report with embarrassing regularity on the Hebrew defeats and sins.
The evidence, in other words, does not support the theories that the disciples were either dishonest and lying, or that they were pathologically disoriented and only imagined that they saw Jesus alive. There is no independent evidence to suggest that the disciples were anything but well balanced, emotionally and morally secure persons, given what they accomplished, probably well beyond the average.
The evidence goes further to indicate that the religion they promoted led to an astonishing transformation of the Roman Empire, almost entirely by peaceful persuasion – unheard of in pagan culture. Where were changes in societies, but commonly by force of arms, rebellion, and invasion. The Christian way led to the flowering of Western culture, giving us blessings beyond all imagination of either pagan or secular possibilities -- that is, beyond the limited and distorted possibilities of the closed circle of the Fall. Most of the good things which happened over the centuries of Western Civilization could have happened only under the tutelage of the Biblical worldview and God.
And that is primarily because the two fundamental stabilities of all created persons can be given only by a God such as seen in the Bible. The stability of being and moral stability require the Biblical foundation. The incapacity of the pagan or secular worlds to provide those two stabilities is fatal to human welfare – and to their case for being the truth.
That leaves standing only the explanation given by the
disciples, that the tomb was empty because
Jesus was in fact resurrected from the dead. That is the
reasonable explanation, which can be denied only if one
refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a creator God who can do such things.
But that refusal would itself be nonsense because the evidence runs full flow in
favor of the Biblical God over against the only real alternative, random, chance
evoluton, not against it. The secular people win only because they have
cooperating with them Christian leaders who are either incompetent to handle the
issues, or who have no backbone to stand up and speak the truth. “A mighty
fortress is our God...” Indeed, then why has the Church so often cowered in
front of the enemy, locking itself behind church walls, scared to death to
witness in the public arena? Thanks be to God that is slowly changing.
If to the easily available positive evidence for the resurrection you add the evidence coming from the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium (the handkerchief or sweat cloth which Romans used, one of which was used to wrap the head of Jesus after the crucifixion), then it is well past time that Christians got over their inferiority complex about science, evidence, and all that. The actual, on-the-ground scientific evidence is decisively on the side of the Christian story, and lines up exactly with that profound life-changing Pentecostal experience which sent the disciples off as apostles.
But it is not sufficient only to find out that our view is indeed supported by the evidence -- unless we are willing also to find out that the evidence might to contrary our view. If we are wrong, we should want to know – exactly what Elijah (I Kings 18:17 ff.) and St. Paul (I Corinthians 15:12-20) insist on. If we are not preaching the truth, we must stop and change our preaching to fit the truth, come what may.
The early Christians quickly ran into Greek philosophers and rightly adopted their debating and reasoning skills to communicate their Gospel, and so began to develop a Biblical theology which could speak to the Roman empire. If modern Christians had likewise busied themselves with being good scientists with regard to religious matters, instead of hiding from science, we would have discovered by at least two centuries ago that the Biblical story has the most amazing scientific credibility, and that we can tell the people about our faith with the greatest of confidence.
The Shroud of Turin trumps the shroud of death which is spread over all nations. The mountain on which the Shroud of Death was destroyed was Golgatha, the Place of the Skull, the small hill just outside of Jerusalem near where the body of the crucified Jesus was wrapped in that fine linen shroud.
The disciples had begun with a three-year series of powerful discipleship experiences with Jesus, learning, asking, reasoning, arguing, culminating in the gift of the long-promised Holy Spirit (to which we look forward to celebrating some 50 days away). All along the way they witnessed things which could be done only by God Himself, just as God had done among the Hebrews in centuries past.
So, how can we know that Jesus left the tomb by the power of God? Just as the disciples – by the union of revelation (the word of God), by experience (being open to the presence of God at our deepest level), and by reasoning (clear thinking based on the available evidence). All three must be united to make it work. Speaking the truth in love in this way is wielding the Sword of the Spirit, and will be convincing to all persons whose hearts and minds are open to the truth, who themselves are truth-seekers. Thanks be to God! Pray that you and we all will go through this kind of discipleship to Jesus.
Father, we pray that as Resurrection Morning dawns around the world, as the sun makes its daily journey, there will be a wave of worship of You sweeping around the world, a wave of repentance, forgiveness, cleansing, healing, and of resurrection power in the lives of Your people. Show us how to make a difference with the Sword of the Spirit, and give us courage and stability in the power of Your Holy Spirit to do so. Make us no longer ashamed to be known abroad as your disciples, and give us bold, true, and graceful words for Your fallen people; in His name who, as at this season, died and rose for us, Jesus Christ. Amen.
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