“Can We Believe in the Resurrection?” sermon by Shiao Chong
Preached on April 19, 2020 for Fellowship CRC, Etobicoke; Text: John 20:1-10, 19-31
Many people today can probably relate to the apostle Thomas when faced with the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Non-believers they will probably say, “Show me the proof! Show me empirical, scientific, measurable, and something that I can see, touch and know for certain that this is true then I’ll believe it! Otherwise, why should I believe you?” And I don’t blame them. When it is something as miraculous and as far-fetched as the physical, bodily resurrection, I don’t blame anyone if they are skeptical and would like some tangible proof.
And let’s face it – the resurrection of Jesus is something that is difficult to believe. Even the apostles, like Thomas, couldn’t believe it either. Ancient people back then knew as well as we do that dead people don’t come back to life.
So, do we have any proof that Jesus rose from the dead? Or have we been believing a fiction?
Today, I will give some rational reasons that support our belief in the resurrection. We may not have proofs beyond any doubt but we do have good rational reasons to believe in the resurrection. It is not irrational. For the sake of time, I will give you three reasons why I think the resurrection of Jesus was not made-up by the early Christians. Here are my three reasons:
- If the apostles made it up, why make women the first eyewitnesses?
- If the apostles made it up, why make up a resurrection that went against conventional Jewish resurrection beliefs?
- If the apostles made up the resurrection, why didn’t their opponents show the body to disprove the story?
There are more than these three reasons but I will just look at these three today. Let’s look at them more closely.
Why Women Eyewitnesses?
My first point: why women eyewitnesses? In our gospel of John it was Mary who first saw the empty tomb. But this is consistent among all four gospels that women were the first eyewitnesses. During the first century in Judaism, women were generally not regarded as credible witnesses. [Following is drawn from Discovering Biblical Equality, p. 140] Ancient Roman law treated women as “weak” and “light-minded”. First century Jewish thinkers had a similar perspective. For instance, a Jewish philosopher of the time, Philo, declares that “the judgments of women as a rule are weaker.” The Jewish historian Josephus proclaims that Jewish law states, “Let no evidence be accepted” or the “testimony of women be admitted, on account of [their] levity and boldness”. Rabbinic law stated that women did not have to testify and women as witnesses were in the same class as dice players, moneylenders, traffickers and slaves, among other things. Generally, rabbinic tradition disqualified women as credible witnesses, especially in practice, if not in theory.
So, this begs the question: if the apostles were making the resurrection up, why would they choose women as their first eyewitnesses to the most important central event in their belief? If they know that women were not the most credible witnesses, why choose them as your primary witness? It will be like today, if I was to make up a story and I choose to have a drunk as my first eyewitness! You would say that I wasn’t very smart. If I want to make sure that people find my story credible, I would make a police officer or some other upstanding citizen as my first eyewitness. Then people might believe me, right?
It doesn’t make sense, if the apostles were making this up to use women as their primary witnesses. All four gospels consistently had the women at the empty tomb first. So, I think they did that because, as embarrassing as it may be for them, it was the truth! Which brings up another question: despite the fact that women were the primary eyewitnesses to the resurrection in a culture that undervalued women’s testimony, yet, many people believed in the resurrection of Jesus. Makes you think, doesn’t it? This fact makes it unlikely that this was made up.
Against Conventional Jewish Resurrection Beliefs
Secondly, this resurrection story went against conventional Jewish resurrection beliefs. Now, if we, today, in the Western world, are going to make up a story about a near-death experience, we would probably say that the person had an out of body experience, saw a bright shining light and so forth. That’s the conventional ideas that we have about near-death experiences. People expect that. Now, if the Jewish apostles were making the resurrection up, we would probably expect them to come up with something that most Jewish people at the time would believe about the resurrection. They would use conventional beliefs or ideas about the resurrection to make their story believable, right?
So, what did Jews in the first century believe about the resurrection? [Following drawn from N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, p. 37, 43] First of all, most Jews believed that after you die, God would take care of the soul until, at the last day, on judgment day, God would give his people new bodies when he creates the new heaven and new earth. That is what Martha, for instance, assumed Jesus was talking about in their conversation outside Lazarus’ tomb in John 11 – as Martha says, “I know [Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” (v. 24) Martha’s statement reflected the typical conventional Jewish belief – that there will be a bodily resurrection at the last day. But here’s an important point – this belief means that everybody will be resurrected at the end time as a large-scale resurrection, everybody altogether. Nobody thought that the Messiah was going to be resurrected first, all by himself, many years, or even centuries, before the last judgment day. In fact, most Jews wouldn’t believe that the messiah would die, let alone die on a cross! So, nobody was expecting the messiah to resurrect either!
Secondly, most ancient Jews were not clear as to what this resurrected body looks like. Some of them believe that the new body will be glorious, and most of them don’t know what this means except maybe that the new body will be shiny. Daniel 12:3 is the text that most ancient Jews would look to for ideas about what the resurrected bodies might look like: “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” So, if the ancient Jews were pressed to suggest what this resurrected body might look like, they would most likely think that it would be shining like the stars – a glorified body that shines with glorious light.
But we definitely do not see that in the gospels’ description of Jesus’ resurrected body. There was absolutely no mention at all or even a hint of a shining body. It is a transformed body but not shining.
So, if the disciples made this up, just as in the case with the women witnesses, this might also be counter-productive if they want their story to be believable. There was no biblical precedent to their account of the resurrected body. If they, at least, referred to Daniel 12, make Jesus have a shiny resurrected body, then maybe people might believe them. But their description of the resurrected body was unique and different. And, furthermore, only Jesus was resurrected, without it being judgment day and this, again, is unique and no Jew would have expected that. Again, it’s not impossible for the Jewish disciples to brilliantly come up with such unique, unexpected and unconventional ideas but the odds make it unlikely.
Opponents Did Not Produce a Body
Finally, if the apostles or early disciples made up the resurrection of Jesus, why did their opponents not produce Jesus’ body to refute their story? I mean, it’s easy to prove that Jesus did not rise from the dead: just produce the body. The reason, I suspect, that the Jewish religious authorities did not do that was because they don’t have a body to show.
Matthew’s gospel described how the religious leaders bribed the soldiers guarding the tomb to spread a lie that the disciples stole the body. Yet, despite spreading that story, they still could not stop people from believing in the resurrection of Jesus. Probably because most people who knew the disciples knew they were not likely a group of people who can overpower fully armed and fully trained soldiers guarding the tomb.
Furthermore, if they were stealing the body, why would any thief take time to neatly roll up the cloth covering Jesus’ head and leave it on the side. In fact, why would any linen wrappings be left behind in the tomb at all? If I was stealing something, I wouldn’t take time to unwrap it at the scene of the crime. I would have taken it away to hide it as soon as possible, and maybe only unwrap it later. It doesn’t make sense to unwrap the body and then take the body away. An empty tomb is the most logical explanation as to why Christianity’s early opponents did not produce Jesus’ body to contradict the disciples.
So, it seems that the opponents did not have any decent evidence at all to contradict the claims of Jesus’ resurrection. Because, if they did, Christianity would not have grown or spread. People would not have believed the story that Jesus rose from the dead, especially when the primary witnesses were women, who were less than credible, and secondly when the resurrection story goes against most conventional wisdom, people would not have believed it and Christianity would not have grown and become a major world religion if there was even a shred of tangible evidence to the contrary. Because the claim of a resurrection is so outlandish and so far fetched that, I suspect, most ancient folks would not have believed it if it wasn’t compellingly true.
So, what are some implications of this? Well, first of all, we can say that our belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection is not irrational. We should not listen to skeptics who claim that our beliefs are superstitious or fantasy. As I have said, we have some reasonable reasons as to why the resurrection story is unlikely to be made up or the figment of the disciples’ imaginations. Our belief in the resurrection does not require us to ignore our reason or chuck our brains at the door; it is not irrational. Our belief is based on some sound good reasons. But it is still faith.
Therefore, secondly, even though our belief is not irrational, neither is it rationalistic. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. We are dealing with some mystery of faith here. Not all of our beliefs are purely rationalistic or logical. Our faith is not based on such logical, empirical proofs. They help our faith but they are not the foundation or the basis of our faith. Our faith, in many ways, is a gift from God. The Holy Spirit works in our hearts to produce a living faith in us. There is always an element of mystery to our spiritual lives.
Thirdly, our faith is not simply intellectual assent. It’s not like simply believing that 1+1=2. No, believing that Jesus rose from the dead should make a difference in how we live. Believing in Jesus gives us life, but it also means obeying him and submitting to him, like Thomas did, as our Lord and our God. Jesus did not rise from the dead to simply prove that he is God. Rather, Jesus rose from the dead in order to conquer death and to give us life. Jesus rose from the dead to make sure that life, and not death, but life has the last word. And it’s not only as a ticket out of hell, so to speak. Rather, Jesus’ resurrection is a deposit, a sign, that God’s new life, God’s kingdom of life, is real, and has already started breaking through into our world. So, if we believe that Jesus truly did rise from the dead, did triumph over death, then we believe that God is already at work in this world, not just sometime in the future, but already had and is continuing to work his resurrection life, his triumph over sin and death, into reality all around us. And we are called, in fact sent, to join him in that life-changing project. We are sent as Jesus was sent to bring God’s peace, to bring forgiveness, to bring faith into this world. If we truly believe in Jesus’ resurrection, we cannot simply continue living like we always have, or like everyone else, but we have a higher purpose and calling. And we have to live differently.
Let us pray. Dear heavenly Father, Lord Jesus and Holy Spirit. Forgive us of our sins, of our unbelief, of our doubts. But we thank you that you graciously accommodate us in our doubts and unbelief. We thank you that you rose from the dead, and that you are giving us new life and eternal life. Help us, Lord, to believe and live out of that truth. Help us to follow you as your ambassadors of peace, reconciliation, of love and of life. In Jesus’ name, amen.