Someone once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Who first said it is disputed. It has been attributed to P. T. Barnum, to a banker, and to other possible sources. Whoever said it first, it captures the spirit of skepticism perfectly. The skeptic, i.e., the one who doubts everything and everyone but himself will not credit any authority beyond himself and his own sense experience, i.e., what he knows from his own eyes, ears, nose, and touch. Such an approach to knowing things is not without its difficulties. Our senses are generally reliable but they are not infallible. Sleight of hand works because the sleight of hand artist is able to distract us or create an illusion.
Of course, when pressed, the skeptic cannot really meet his own test. After all, how, on his own terms, does the skeptic really know that he exists? He depends on someone one else to tell him. Most of us have awakened from a dream that, weird as it might have been, seemed completely real. Yet when we awakened we realized that it was not real at all. Yet, few skeptics are so radically consistent and to be completely skeptical about everything—even themselves and their own sense experience. They tend to apply their skepticism selectively. It is often aimed at the heart of the Christian religion, the resurrection.
The Apostle Paul recognized how central the resurrection of Christ is to the Christian faith. He wrote:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:12–14; ESV).
If there is no resurrection from the dead, if Christ has not been raised, then the Christian faith is empty, meaningless. It all hinges on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It will not do to make the resurrection a metaphor for human renewal or the changing of the seasons or some other sentiment. The Christian faith is a claim and something that really happened. It is a historical claim. We say that a Jewish rabbi was handed over by the Jews to the Roman authorities and that he was crucified and buried on Friday and that he was raised early on Sunday morning, the first day of the week.
The gospel writer Luke was one of the most skilled and careful historians in antiquity. He recorded the scene when the disciples found the empty tomb:
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 all the rest (Luke 24:1–9; ESV).
Luke did not describe a metaphor or a figure of speech. Luke narrated the story of a missing body. The disciples went with the intent of finishing the care of the body for burial. They had run out of time on Friday before sunset, before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. Now it was Sunday morning and so they brought spices fully expecting his corpse to be where it had been laid—in the tomb purchased by Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50). In the narrative he takes us into the tomb. We see the puzzled disciples. They were stumped for the same reasons that you and I would be stumped: “Now that is odd. We put him here. What happened?” Luke, ever the careful historian—he does not appeal to the supernatural carelessly when ordinary providence will do—tells us that something remarkable happened. The Lord answered their question. They recognized what kind of person it was, an angel. They were properly afraid. The angel spoke sense. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” Jesus did not belong to the class of tomb dwellers any longer because he was no longer dead. The angel reminded them of Jesus’ own words, which took on new significance, not that they fully understood everything.
Luke’s narrative is based on ordinary, universal sense experience. The disciples were in their right minds. They were sad, as anyone would be at the loss of a leader and a friend but they expected him to be dead. They did not expect him to be alive. In other words, the resurrection was not a projection of their hope and wishes. They were forced to the conclusion by the empty tomb and the words of the angel. That was part of their sense experience too. It would not be rational to say, “Well, that could not have happened.” “Could” is not a particularly scientific word. “I did not expect that to happen” is more scientific but if science is about anything, it is about facts and the fact before them—however hard it was to explain—was that the tomb was empty. They were at the right place. Jesus’ body should have been there but it was not. The angel said, “He is not here. He is risen.” They heard those words not magically or subjectively (e.g., “my truth” or “my experience of the angel”). No, they all experienced the angel with their senses just as they had experienced the empty tomb and the sunshine and everything else that day. The angel’s appearance was a supernatural event just as the resurrection was a supernatural event but it was not a magical event nor was it a gnostic secret. It happened in the real, objective, external world, the same world that you and I experience with our senses every day.
Believing ones senses is not for suckers. It is the way we ordinarily live. Of course, as we have already seen, our senses, though generally reliable, do not define what can or cannot happen. They merely help us make sense of what is happening. To rule out the resurrection of Jesus a priori as impossible is not science any more than it was science to say before 1540 that the sun cannot be at center of our universe. Great lots of people thought that the idea that earth revolves around the sun was rubbish. Well, that rubbish turned out to be true and all the authorities had to change their minds when presented with new evidence. It took longer than one might think to persuade people to account for the evidence. So it was with the resurrection. The evidence is that the tomb was empty.
We have a considerable body of evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
…and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Cor 15:5–8; ESV).
Paul made this claim in public. This is not a claim like so many others that could not have been tested at the time. He was not claiming that “I heard about this event way over there that no one can verify.” He was saying that some of the witnesses were still alive. He claimed that he himself, on the road to Damascus, had seen the risen Christ.
The Jewish authorities knew that Jesus had been raised. Were there no evidence they should not have paid the soldiers to keep silent about what they saw.
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day (Matt 28:11–15; ESV).
The guards had to be paid to cover up the truth. Had Jesus’ body been stolen they should have sent the guards to track down the disciples and do what Roman authorities did to criminals. They had no compunctions about torturing people to get the truth. In this case, they had every incentive to find the disciples and torture them until they told where they had hidden the body. Had the body been stolen, the guards who failed would have been put to death and new troops dispatched to recover the body. There was no such investigation because there was no stolen body. There was only the risen Jesus.
More than that, Jesus’ body was not the only only one raised in this episode. Matthew says that, at the moment of Jesus’ death:
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many (Matt 27:51–53).
Again, these were verifiable claims. Matthew knows that had they not happened, his account could be easily falsified but he made the claim because it really happened. He knew that his claim could be sustained by the evidence.
Christianity is not a religion for suckers, for rubes, for the easily persuaded. It is a religion for those who follow evidence, who went looking for Jesus’ body and upon not finding it looked for an explanation. This is not to say that Christianity is a matter of mere calculation. It is a religion. It is a series of claims about ultimate truth revealed by God and unless the Holy Spirit gives new life to one, it is impossible to be born again (John 3) and to trust in Jesus for salvation. It is important for believers to know, however, that their faith is not a fairy tale or the product of the fevered imaginations of first-century folk given to mythology. It is grounded in empirical (sense-experience) evidence and historical facts. Indeed, one would have to be a sucker to disregard the evidence.