The life of Jesus follows a general pattern of movement from humiliation to exaltation. The movement is not strictly linear, however, as it is interspersed with vignettes of contrast. The birth narrative contains both ignominy and majesty. His public ministry attracts praise and scorn, welcome and rejection, cries of “Hosanna!” and “Crucify Him!” Nearing the shadow of death, He exhibited the translucent breakthrough of transfiguration.
The transition from the pathos of the cross to the grandeur of the resurrection is not abrupt. There is a rising crescendo that swells to the moment of breaking forth from the grave clothes and the shroud of the tomb. Exaltation begins with the descent from the cross immortalized in classical Christian art by the Pieta. With the disposition of the corpse of Jesus, the rules were broken. Under normal judicial circumstances, the body of a crucified criminal was discarded by the state, being thrown without ceremony into gehenna, the city garbage dump outside Jerusalem. There the body was incinerated, being subject to a pagan form of cremation, robbed of the dignity of traditional Jewish burial. The fires of gehenna burned incessantly as a necessary measure of public health to rid the city of its refuse. Gehenna served Jesus as an apt metaphor for hell, a place where the flames are never extinguished and the worm does not die.
Pilate made an exception in the case of Jesus. Perhaps he was bruised of conscience and was moved by pity to accede to the request for Jesus to be buried. Or perhaps he was moved by a mighty Providence to ensure fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that Jesus would make His grave with the rich or of God’s promise that He would not let His Holy One see corruption. The body of Christ was anointed with spices and wrapped in fine linen to be laid in the tomb belonging to the patrician, Joseph of Arimathea.
For three days the world was plunged into darkness. The women of Jesus’ entourage wept bitterly, taking but small consolation in the permission to perform the tender act of anointing His body. The disciples had fled and were huddled together in hiding, their dreams shattered by the cry, “It is finished.”
For three days God was silent. Then He screamed. With cataclysmic power, God rolled the stone away and unleashed a paroxysm of creative energy of life, infusing it once more into the still body of Christ. Jesus’ heart began to beat, pumping glorified blood through glorified arteries, sending glorified power to muscles atrophied by death. The grave clothes could not bind Him as He rose to His feet and quit the crypt. In an instant, the mortal became immortal and death was swallowed up by victory. In a moment of history, Job’s question was answered once and for all: “If a man die, shall he live again?” Here is the watershed moment of human history, where the misery of the race is transformed into grandeur. Here the kerygma, the proclamation of the early church, was born with the cry, “He is risen.”
We can view this event as a symbol, a lovely tale of hope. We can reduce it to a moralism that declares, as one preacher put it, “The meaning of the resurrection is that we can face the dawn of each new day with dialectical courage.” Dialectical courage is the variety invented by Frederick Nietzsche, the father of modern nihilism. Courage that is dialectical is a courage in tension. The tension is this: Life is meaningless, death is ultimate. We must be courageous, knowing that even our courage is empty of meaning. This is denial of resurrection bathed in the despair of a truncated existential hope.
However, the New Testament proclaims the resurrection as sober historical fact. The early Christians were not interested in dialectical symbols but in concrete realities. Authentic Christianity stands or falls with the space/time event of Jesus’ resurrection. The term Christian suffers from the burden of a thousand qualifications and a myriad of diverse definitions. One dictionary defines a Christian as a person who is civilized. One can certainly be civilized without affirming the resurrection, but one cannot then be a Christian in the biblical sense. The person who claims to be a Christian while denying the resurrection speaks with a forked tongue, and we should turn away from such.
The resurrection of Jesus is radical in the original sense of the word. It touches the radix, the “root” of the Christian faith. Without it, Christianity becomes just another religion designed to titillate our moral senses with platitudes of human wisdom.
The Apostle Paul spelled out the clear and irrefutable consequences of a “resurrectionless” Christianity. If Christ is not raised, he reasoned, we are left with the following list of conclusions (1 Cor. 15:13–19):
1. Our preaching is futile.
2. Our faith is in vain.
3. We have misrepresented God.
4. We are still in our sins.
5. Our loved ones who have died have perished.
6. We are of all men most to be pitied.
These six consequences sharply reveal the inner connection of the resurrection to the substance of Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus is the sine qua non of the Christian faith. Take away the resurrection and you take away Christianity.
The biblical writers do not base their claim of resurrection on its internal consistency to the whole of faith, however. It is not simply a logical deduction drawn from other doctrines of faith. It is not that we must affirm the resurrection because the alternatives to it are grim. Resurrection is not affirmed because life would be hopeless or intolerable without it. The claim is based not on speculation but on empirical data. They saw the risen Christ. They spoke with Him and ate with Him. Neither His death nor His resurrection happened in a corner like Joseph Smith’s alleged reception of special revelation. The death of Jesus was a public spectacle and a matter of public record. The resurrected Christ was seen by more than five hundred people at one time. The Bible presents history on this matter.
The strongest objection raised against the biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection is the same objection raised against other biblical miracles, namely, that such an event is impossible. It is ironic that the New Testament approaches the question of Christ’s resurrection from exactly the opposite direction. In Peter’s speech on Pentecost, he declared: “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24).
To set forth the principle stated here, I must indulge myself with the use of a double negative. It was impossible for Christ not to have been raised. For death to have held Christ would have required the supreme and unthinkable violation of the laws of death. It is viewed by modern man as an inexorable law of nature that what dies stays dead. However, that is a law of fallen nature. In the Judeo-Christian view of nature, death entered the world as a judgment on sin. The Creator decreed that sin was a capital offense: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17) was the original warning. God granted an extension of life beyond the day of sin, but not indefinitely. The original sanction was not completely rescinded. Mother Nature became the paramount executioner. Adam was created with both the possibility of death (posse mori) and the possibility of avoiding it (posse non mori). By his transgression, he forfeited the possibility of avoidance of death and incurred, as judgment, the impossibility of not dying (non posse non mori).
Jesus was not Adam. He was the second Adam. He was free from sin, both original and actual. Death had no legitimate claim on Him. He was punished for the sin imputed to Him, but once the price was paid and the imputation was lifted from His back, death lost its power. In death, an atonement was made; in resurrection, the perfect sinlessness of Jesus was vindicated. He was, as the Scriptures assert, raised for our justification as well as His own vindication.
Hume’s probability quotients discard the resurrection because it was a unique event. He was right on one count. It was a unique event. Though Scripture relates other resurrection accounts, such as the raising of Lazarus, they were all in a different category. Lazarus died again. The uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection was tied to another aspect of His uniqueness. It was tied to His sinlessness, a dimension of the person of Jesus that would be even more unique if uniqueness were capable of degrees.
For God to allow Jesus to be bound forever by death would have been for God to violate His own righteous character. It would have been an injustice, an act that is supremely impossible for God to commit. The surprise is not that Jesus rose, but that He stayed in the tomb as long as He did. Perhaps it was God’s condescension to human weakness of unbelief that inclined Him to keep Christ captive, to ensure that there would be no doubt He was dead and that the resurrection would not be mistaken for a resuscitation.
The resurrection sets Jesus apart from every other central figure of world religions. Buddha is dead. Mohammed is dead. Confucius is dead. None of these were sinless. None offered atonement. None were vindicated by resurrection.
If we stagger with unbelief before the fact of resurrection, we would do well to consider the plight of the two walking to Emmaus that weekend. Luke records the event for us (Luke 24:13–35.). As the two men were walking away from Jerusalem, Jesus joined them incognito. They presumed to inform Jesus about the events of the crucifixion and showed obvious impatience with His apparent ignorance of the matters. When they related the report of the women concerning the resurrection, Christ rebuked them:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
When the two had their eyes opened and they recognized Jesus that night, they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
A Christian is not a skeptic. A Christian is a person with a burning heart, a heart set aflame with certainty of the resurrection.