In the decades before and after Jesus’ life and death, there were dozens of messianic movements in Israel. In almost every case the messianic leader was killed, in many cases by execution, and after the leader’s death each of these movements invariably collapsed. Everybody went home, and that was it. Of all those dozens of movements, only one did not collapse after the death of the leader. Not only did it not collapse, it exploded: In the course of about 300 years it had spread through the entire Roman empire.
Out of all those messianic movements, what made the Christian faith different? Christians would say it is because of what happened after the leader of this movement was killed. So what did happen to cause explosive growth in Christianity after its founder’s death?
Jesus died in mid-afternoon and the Sabbath began at sunset. The Jewish law permitted no work on the Sabbath, which meant they could not bury the body of Jesus that night or the next day. So Joseph goes to Pilate, hoping to be able to bury the body in time. Joseph, though a Pharisee, shows enormous courage and independence of thought by asking for Jesus’ body. Mark reports:
Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid. (Mark 15:44–47)
The way Mark reports the burial is significant: He is “certifying” that Jesus was really dead. Joseph of Arimathea is named here as an identified witness who actually had Jesus’ body wrapped up and sealed it in a tomb. A Roman centurion (who would be an expert) bore witness of Jesus’ death to Pilate (who would be the legal authority on the matter). Finally, two women are cited as eyewitnesses to the burial. So multiple experts and witnesses prove He was really dead.
The resurrection was as inconceivable for the first disciples, as impossible for them to believe, as it is for many of us today. Granted, their reasons would have been different from ours. The Greeks did not believe in resurrection; in the Greek worldview, the afterlife was liberation of the soul from the body. For them, resurrection would never be part of life after death. As for the Jews, some of them believed in a future general resurrection when the entire world would be renewed, but they had no concept of an individual rising from the dead. The people of Jesus’ day were not predisposed to believe in resurrection any more than we are.
Celsus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the second century A.D., was highly antagonistic to Christianity and wrote a number of works listing arguments against it. One of the arguments he believed most telling went like this: Christianity can’t be true, because the written accounts of the resurrection are based on the testimony of women—and we all know women are hysterical. And many of Celsus’ readers agreed: For them, that was a major problem. In ancient societies, as you know, women were marginalized, and the testimony of women was never given much credence.
Do you see what that means? If Mark and the Christians were making up these stories to get their movement off the ground, they would never have written women into the story as the first eyewitnesses to Jesus’ empty tomb. The only possible reason for the presence of women in these accounts is that they really were present and reported what they saw. The stone has been rolled away, the tomb is empty and an angel declares that Jesus is risen.
What was the resurrected Jesus like? Well, Jesus’ resurrection body had “flesh and bones.” He was not a ghost. The disciples were able to recognize Him and to touch Him. He spoke with them. But could they all have been having a group hallucination?
No, because the disciples were not the only ones who saw and touched Jesus. Paul makes a long list of people who claimed to have seen the risen Christ personally, and notes that “most of them are still living” (1 Corinthians 15:6).
Moreover, there has to be some explanation for how the cowardly group of disciples was transformed into a group of leaders. Many of them went on to live sacrificial lives, and many of them were killed for teaching that Jesus had been resurrected.
Jesus had risen, just as He told them He would. After a criminal does his time in jail and fully satisfies the sentence, the law has no more claim on him and he walks out free. Jesus Christ came to pay the penalty for our sins. That was an infinite sentence, but He must have satisfied it fully, because on Easter Sunday He walked out free. The resurrection was God’s way of stamping PAID IN FULL right across history so that nobody could miss it.
On the Day of the Lord—the day that God makes everything right, the day that everything sad comes untrue—on that day the same thing will happen to your own hurts and sadness. You will find that the worst things that have ever happened to you will in the end only enhance your eternal delight. On that day, all of it will be turned inside out and you will know joy beyond the walls of the world. The joy of your glory will be that much greater for every scar you bear. So live in the light of the resurrection and renewal of this world, and of yourself, in a glorious, never-ending, joyful dance of grace.
from King’s Cross by Timothy Keller © 2011. Excerpted with permission from Dutton, Penguin Group (USA) Inc.