Easter commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross to pay for our sins and celebrates his resurrection from the dead on that first Easter Sunday morning. Yes, our annual chocolate festival has a deeply spiritual meaning. So, it seems to me, it’s really worth asking the question: do you believe that the resurrection of Jesus really happened? Or do you merely regard it as a quaint religious myth?
I am involved in several online discussion forums where I regularly engage in dialogue and debate with sceptics, and in those online forums the historicity of the resurrection is a consistently hot topic. And rightly so, because if Jesus really did rise from the dead, it answers the “God question” incontrovertibly. Atheists and sceptics understand the centrality of the resurrection for the Christian faith and so they focus a great deal of their energy on trying to discredit it. But on this key issue, they are (and have been throughout history) spectacularly unsuccessful.
You see, in order to discredit the resurrection, sceptics not only have to ignore the considerable written historical evidence corroborating the event (evidence that I have documented in other posts and in several of my books), but they also have to contend with a rather thorny problem: if the resurrection is a myth, where is the body? Seriously, where is it? This is a huge problem for those who contend that Jesus died and stayed dead.
The New Testament, together with several non-Christian first century writers such as Phlegon of Tralles and Gaius Seutonius Tranquillus, all record the extreme displeasure of the Roman and Jewish authorities when the news of Jesus’ resurrection started circulating. In fact, they record the attempts of these authorities to quash the rumours of the resurrection. Significantly, and I mean VERY SIGNIFICANTLY, they were never able to produce the dead body. Surely, it would have been the obvious trump card! If Jesus was still dead in the tomb, the authorities could simply have said, “No, you foolish Christians! He isn’t risen. Here is his rotting corpse! Come and see! It’s still in the tomb! Now go away and stop bothering us!” But they didn’t. They couldn’t. Because the body was no longer there. This is the first important point. There really was an empty tomb on that first Easter Sunday morning. The historical evidence for both the empty tomb and the inability of the authorities to produce the body is indisputable and uncontested by any serious historian.
The inability of the first century authorities to produce the dead body of Jesus is made even more significant by the extreme measures that the Jewish and Roman authorities undertook to ensure that Jesus’ body stayed securely in the tomb. The Jewish leaders had been aware of Jesus’ previous claims that he would rise from the dead so, at their instigation, the Romans posted a Roman guard at the tomb. This detail is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel and is corroborated by inference in Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue with Trypho”, a slightly later historical polemic. Significantly, the posting of the guard was not to stop Jesus rising from the dead (because the authorities didn’t believe he would) but to stop the disciples from stealing the body in order to perpetrate a fraud.
Now, let’s be really clear about this. The posting of a Roman guard was a HUGE thing! The Roman guard was a sixteen-man unit that was governed by very strict rules. Each member was responsible for six square feet of space. The guard members could not sit down or lean against anything while they were on duty. If a guard member fell asleep, he was beaten and then burned to death. But he was not the only one executed, the entire sixteen-man team was executed if any one of the members fell asleep while on duty! This guard was a SERIOUS security step by the authorities to prevent any hint of a resurrection.
Furthermore, historical records indicate that not only was a huge stone rolled across the entrance, but the tomb was then sealed with a Roman seal. This was the seal of the emperor himself. It meant that anyone who broke the seal and opened the tomb would be put death. The Romans did everything possible to ensure that the dead body of Jesus would stay safely in the tomb!
Given these facts, it is inconceivable that a bunch of frightened, bedraggled disciples could have overpowered 16 trained, lethal, hardened Roman soldiers, carried off the body and perpetuated a myth. It really is ridiculous! But if the disciples didn’t steal the body, where did it go? And why were the authorities never able to produce the body?
Thallus and other ancient writers record an earthquake that shook the tomb and the entire region on Easter Sunday morning, causing the stone to roll away, revealing an ALREADY EMPTY TOMB. Matthew’s gospel also records that a supernatural apparition appeared as the stone was rolled away, accompanied by a thunderous voice, seemingly from heaven, and that the entire Roman guard were so terrified that they fell to the ground (Matthew 28:1-4).
Historical records also describe numerous subsequent public appearances by the risen Jesus, over a period of 40 days, sometimes involving crowds of up to 500 people at once. The Jewish writer, Flavius Josephus, confirms some of these post-resurrection appearances, in his book, “The Antiquities of the Jews”.
If sceptics are going to persist in maintaining that the Easter story is a myth and that Jesus did not rise from the dead, they have to reject not only the substantial evidence of these and other historical records, but also common sense itself. Where did the body go?
Far from being a quaint religious myth, the resurrection of Jesus is substantiated by an impressive body of historical evidence. The Easter story is real history. The resurrection of Jesus really did happen. And that changes everything.
I believe that the body of Jesus WAS snatched from the tomb. It was snatched from death. It was snatched and restored to life by God himself. Jesus’ resurrection confirms his deity and his Lordship over all creation – even over death itself. Jesus is his own body snatcher! And he promises that everyone who turns to him in faith and repentance will have their bodies snatched from death, too. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me will live, even though they die.” (John 11:26).
That’s pretty cool!
If you haven’t checked out the Easter story for yourself, why don’t you “visit” one of the many excellent online church services this weekend and take time to consider the implications of this story for your own life.