“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, losing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”—The Apostle Peter, Acts 2:22–24 (ESV).
Hundreds of millions of faithful Christians across the globe are celebrating Easter, the anniversary of the event Christians believe in that – if true – marks a singular status for the person for whom they are named. They say Jesus Christ was bodily resurrected from the grave days after he was publicly executed, and that his rose from the grave to an eternal and indestructible life.
Each year Christians celebrate what they see as three seminal factual events as forming the turning point in all of history, all centered around Jesus of the Nazareth. The first is Christmas, which celebrates the Incarnation: That when Jesus was born, he was Almighty God taking human form to live among the people he had created. The second is Good Friday, which – as Breitbart News explained last week – is about the Crucifixion: That Jesus was tortured, beaten, died upon a cross in a public display, was pierced with a spear to confirm his death, and later buried in a tomb. Christians believe that through this, Jesus made himself a sinless sacrifice, dying in the place of countless imperfect humans to pay the penalty for their sins.
The third event is Easter, which celebrates the Resurrection: That on the third day after his ruined body was put into the tomb, Jesus Christ emerged whole and alive, and appeared to hundreds of his followers for days afterward, before ascending into heaven.
This last one is the most contentious of the three defining events of Christianity because it is the one that can most be contended against. There is no question that Jesus was born. His birth is a fact, but observers of the birth could disagree about whether the infinite Deity was cohabiting in that human body alongside a perfect human nature. (The theological term for this doctrine is called the hypostatic union.)
Similarly, the historical evidence is overwhelming that in A.D. 30, after several years of a very public ministry, the rabbi named Jesus was arrested, flogged by professional soldiers who knew how to administer such torture, nailed to a wooden cross, hung there for most of a day before a large crowd, and once he seemed dead, was impaled by one of those soldiers just to confirm that the death sentence had been carried out. Roman soldiers who failed to successfully execute someone condemned to death could find themselves executed as punishment; these soldiers thus had tremendous incentive to make sure they got the job done.
But while there is no reasonable doubt about the fact that Jesus died upon the cross, people can argue about the theological significance of it. Two thieves were likewise executed on crosses alongside Jesus that day. A person observing all three executions could not visibly discern whether one of those deaths somehow restored humanity to the God of the universe.
Easter is different. The fact of the resurrection itself – if true – means that something unprecedented in human history had happens. A body that is dead, and damaged beyond repair (without any possibility of modern medical care), and left sealed in a tomb for days, does not come back to life. It is never happened, because it is impossible. If a body that was truly dead came back to life, that observable fact proves something supernatural and miraculous.
It is a belief that human death is tied to sin, that eternal life can be found in Jesus through the forgiveness of sins, and that Jesus’s own body is the visible proof. In the words of Hebrews 7:16, Jesus “has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.”
None of these words inherently mean that Jesus’ resurrection actually happened. They do mean, however, that observant Christians do not base their faith on a set of moral teachings or ethical principles; the Christian faith is based on a factual claim of what happened on a stony hill outside Jerusalem, and the tomb cut into the nearby rock (all of which a person can still visit today).
Each of the four gospels in the Bible recounts these events. From the Gospel according to Luke:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them… And he said to 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.
… And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road ….
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They save him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning with Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
—Luke 24:1–50 (ESV).
The factual claim of the resurrection is the central belief of the Christian faith. And for 2,000 years, critics have struggled the explain how the ordinary people referenced in the gospel story – who had fled and hid after the crucifixion on Good Friday – burst back onto the public scene fearlessly proclaiming that they had seen the risen the Christ, living the rest of their lives – and many of them losing their lives – sharing this message, saying that they no longer feared death.
“There in the ground his body lay, Light of the World by darkness slain. Then bursting forth in glorious day, up from the grave he rose again! And as he stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me. For I am his, and he is mine – bought with the precious blood of Christ.”—Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, In Christ Alone (2001)
Story cited here.