I am often asked—by skeptics, by agnostics, by atheists—how I could possibly believe Jesus rose from the dead. My answer? “There’s plenty of evidence that, yes, he did. He really did, literally and physically, walk out of his tomb.”
In the past few weeks, though, people might be ask a different question about the resurrection: Does it even matter? With COVID-19 threatening all that is precious to us, is this any time for religious or philosophical discussion? Who cares what happened to a Jewish rabbi 2,000 years ago?
In a word, we should all care, especially in a moment like this. The question of Jesus’ resurrection matters now more than ever.
But before we get to the Who cares?, let’s start with the evidence.
Jesus himself predicted his own resurrection on several occasions. Once, he said, “Destroy this temple [my body] and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Another time, he said, “the Son of Man [Jesus] must suffer many things…and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).
As the famous philosopher Karl Popper argued, whenever a “risky prediction” comes true, it counts as confirmation of the theory that supports it.
There is little doubt about the first part of Jesus’ prediction—his violent death. When powerful members of the religious, political, and military community conspired to kill Jesus, they nailed him to a cross. In order to ensure his death, his side was pierced with a spear. Out of the wound flowed both blood and water, suggesting that the spear thrust went through his rib cage and pierced his lung, causing blood and water to flow.
In fact, in an article entitled, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” the Journal of the American Medical Society concluded that the evidence suggests that Jesus was dead even before his side was pierced, and that the weapon used probably punctured his ribs, right lung, pericardium, and heart.
After Jesus died and was removed from the cross, he was embalmed and wrapped in nearly 100 pounds of spices and bandages. Then, he was buried in a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers.
The Romans had perfected crucifixion. They knew how to kill someone. Jesus was dead.
Had Jesus remained dead, none of us would have ever heard of him. But something happened. Stories began to circulate that people were seeing Jesus alive.
On occasion, this previously dead man appeared to one person, then to several people, and later even to large groups. He appeared during the day and at night. He walked and talked with some of them (Luke 24:13-24), taught the Bible to some of them (Luke 24:27; Acts 1:3), and ate meals with some of them (Luke 24:30; John 21:12-13). Even skeptics were won over when they saw him in person (John 20:27).
And when threatened to recant this testimony, one after another person refused. They went to their death insisting, “Jesus rose from the dead.”
Had these just been stories, they would have died out. But at the same time, Jesus’ tomb was suddenly and inexplicably empty. And alternative explanations for empty tomb all come up short.
Consider, for instance, the claim that religious or political authorities stole Jesus’ body from the tomb. This argument is nonsensical. If the authorities had stolen his body, they could have refuted the resurrection “rumors” by producing the body. They never did. Instead, they merely persecuted Christian leaders for claiming that Jesus rose from the dead.
“But what about the disciples?” you ask. “Perhaps they took the body.” This makes even less sense. The early disciples stood to gain nothing by lying about this. In fact, 11 of the 12 were killed for their belief that Jesus was the resurrected Lord. Why would they allow themselves to be locked up and killed for a lie?
So do I believe Jesus rose from the dead? In fact, I do. It’s based on faith but supported by facts. And, I should point out, if people have explanations for the early Christian movement other than the resurrection, this too is a statement of belief. The question is which belief is based on better evidence.
But why does it matter? More pointedly, what does an ancient empty tomb have to do with a global crisis?
One of the earliest Christian leaders, the Apostle Paul, said that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, the Christian faith was worthless (1 Cor. 15:14). Why? Because the resurrection not only proved that Jesus was who he said he was—God incarnate—but it proved that he could do what he said he could do—rescue us from death.
Think about that: Jesus’ resurrection is a promise that death doesn’t have to get the last word. Isn’t that a promise we all need in these days? We are currently surrounded by the threat of death, invisible yet menacing. Our society is gripped with fear. Our economy has ground to a halt. Our future is more uncertain than anything I have ever experienced.
I know that these desperate times require medical and economic and social solutions. But what COVID-19 has revealed is that we all need deliverance from our ultimate enemy—death.
Jesus knows the pain and suffering of death. He endured it for our sake. But the best news the world has ever known is that Jesus did not stay dead. He rose again, offering resurrection life to all who would follow him.
Life in the midst of death? That’s something we all need, and soon.