The death of Christ definitely made no sense to those who lived through it. Even today it is a very strange to think that such a foundational religious figure could go out in such an awful way. Even stranger is the way that such a death is not seen as a shameful thing his followers prefer not to speak of, but rather a great victory.
When you look at most respected religious leaders they tend to die in their twilight years as respected and honored leaders. Most died peacefully and surrounded by their devoted followers. Moses got to assemble all the tribes of his people together for a farewell address then he climbed to the top of Mount Nebo and died overlooking his people entering the land of promise. Gautama Buddha died at the ripe old age of 80 surrounded by his followers after reaching the state of Parinirvana. Muhammad lived to be 63 years old and died with his head resting on the lap of his wife Aisha. His death bed is now a beautifully adorned mausoleum.
There might be some pain involved in passing, but most religious leaders tended to go out old, respected, and in a state of peace with some reassurance that they had succeeded. This is not so with Christ. Christ died a criminal, tortured, humiliated, killed, and buried in a sealed tomb. He died alone, hanging nailed to a cross with murderers. His death was humiliating, and left his body broken, and defiled. His death seemed to come too soon, he died just barely into his 30’s with none of his devoted followers (except for maybe John) remaining with him during his suffering. Jewish onlookers would have taken Christ’s death as a sign of God’s rejection of his so called son of God, and Christ himself experienced the spiritual pain that comes from being completely separated from God when we hear him cry “My God, My God why have you forsaken me!”
This looks, by all accounts this looks like the end of the life of a man who was a complete failure. No “kingdom of God” was built that anyone could see. The temple, as far as everyone could tell was still there, and man was no closer to his maker than he had been yesterday. Christ’s people had abandoned him, his followers had ran in terror, and his heavenly father had given him up to the powers of death and sin that he had come to defeat. If this was the end I guarantee you that we would have never heard of this rebellious first century Palestinian Jew.
Luckily this is not where the story ends.
The cross without the resurrection is just sin taking another victim. A cross with a resurrection is the greatest triumph this world has ever seen. Sin is vanquished, justice is served, death defeated, and a new covenant and the kingdom of God have arrived. It is without a doubt the biggest surprise ending in history.
But how do we know that the resurrection is not a fabrication? How can we be sure that we are not following a bunch of swindlers and liars who fabricated a resurrection? Is there any reason to believe the resurrection?
The resurrection is absolutely necessary for Christianity to hold any merit. Without an empty tomb and a risen savior we are forced to see Christ as nothing but some strange spiritual guru who pissed off all the wrong people. Without a resurrection Christ was just some nice guy who died for nothing. Even Paul was aware of this:
“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
– 1 Corinthians 15:14
So why do I feel safe believing in the resurrection? I’m going to give an answer to that that might seem strange at first, but hopefully it will make sense eventually. My answer is that Easter is just too strange for me to believe it is a lie. What I mean by this? Well if one was going to fabricate the resurrection of their savior, I really doubt they would have bothered to include some of the strange details that are included in the post-resurrection Christ accounts.
One strange detail that jumps out right away is that no one recognized the risen Christ. If I wanted to convince you that I had seen someone risen from the dead the first thing I’d want to establish would be that I could recognize him when I see him. Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus and is not recognized right away, he appears to the mourning Mary Magdalene and is confused for a gardener, he appears over and over and everyone always has to do a double take to realize it’s him. Thomas, one of the twelve men who had been in Jesus’ inner circle, had to touch his wounds before he would believe it was actually him. This is a very strange detail if you wanted to describe the triumphant risen son of God, and yet it’s the strangeness of this detail that make it more real for me.
Speaking of Jesus appearing to women, that’s a weird twist of events in and of itself. If you wanted to make up a victorious resurrection myth would you have the risen son of God appear to a bunch of women who didn’t even recognize him at first? Maybe the strangeness of this isn’t clear to modern readers, but the fact that the risen savior was first seen by women was a big deal in first century Palestine. Anyone writing this with the goal of fictionalizing an epic narrative probably would have had Christ appear before his loyal male followers, or appearing on top of the synagogue in full glory for all the world to see, or really anything more than some women in mourning. Defying expectations seems to be on a list of Christ’s favorite past times, and similar to how low class shepherds were the ones to first welcome him into this world as he slept in a barn so to was the resurrected Lord greeted first by common women (one of the lowest classes of the day).
Another strange detail is that no one bothered to dig up the body. Obviously I believe there was no body to be found, but surely skeptics were everywhere. The disciples were making radical claims that he had risen from the dead and it’s clear from Acts and other early church and secular accounts that they caused quite a fuss by doing so. Jews and Roman authorities alike were not fond of early Christianity and when you read some of the extreme persecutions that the early church went thorough it’s amazing that Christianity lived long enough to reach the 2nd century. Yet it seems like this entire movement could have easily been nipped in the bud. All the Romans had to do was open the tomb and produce a body. Surely if there was a body to produce it would have been easier to dig up a dead jew than put in all the work in manpower it would have taken to try to dismantle the early church.
Critics of this opinion usually point to two counter theories. The first being that Christ’s tomb was lost or that he was buried in a mass grave. I think it’s safe to reject the mass grave theory since the gospel authors were wise enough to mention the name of the tomb giver, Joseph of Arimathea as a means to show that the tomb was not unknown of. People weren’t unclear about where Christ was buried, Joseph and Nicodemus were listed by name almost as witnesses to the tomb. I just don’t think the mass grave theory holds up.
Modern critics have tried a different approach and argued that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but the disciples probably stormed the tomb and stole the body to fuel their fantasy. One problem right away I see with this is that this theory is the notion that the disciples would even bother attempting to do something like this. Peter was too afraid to admit that he knew Christ during the trial, and yet after his Lord is dead he would risk raiding his tomb? If Peter would not defend Christ when he was alive, why on earth would he risk doing so when he knew him to be dead. These twelve men that abandoned Christ in his time of need are expected to come together and pull an Oceans 11 heist on a body just to keep their story alive? For what purpose?
There is no reason for the disciples of Christ to continue this charade after their leader was killed. I’m pretty sure, had they not seen the resurrected Lord, these men would have gone back to their old lives and tried to forget the wasted years they spent following the now dead prophet. Until Peter was told by the resurrected Christ to become a “fisher of men” he seems to have done just that. None of the accounts we have of the disciples makes me fell like they were the type to devote their lives to a cause they knew was lost. Heck, they had a hard time devoting their lives to a cause even before their leader was brutally killed. The Bible rarely skims over the flaws of it’s “heroes” and if there is anything I know about the disciples it’s that they were often afraid, skeptical, confused, and in need of constant reassurance. I believe fully that these men knew in their heart that they had seen the risen son of God.
As far as history and tradition can tell us, each of the disciples died in a rather harsh way. Some were crucified, others burned, some beheaded… the only one we know of who lived to an old age was John, and he died deserted on the island of Patmos after several attempts at killing him failed. These people would rather die than deny the resurrection, could this be said of a bunch of grave robbers who wanted to continue a delusion or scam? I have a hard time believing so. Many early Christians from both church and secular accounts faced death instead of denying what happend on Easter Sunday, if nothing else we can say that these men and women genuinely believed with everything they had.
Easter is very strange. No one saw it coming, no one predicted victory in death, and yet in spite of all of this victory still came. This strange twist of fate that people to this day have a hard time wrapping their mind around, is an event that eye witnesses refused to deny. It was a truth that those who believed were willing to give every fiber of their being in defense of. It was and is a truth that, as strange as it may seem, has stood the test of time and the voices of criticism. It is my personal doubt killer and the most beautiful event in history.
Happy Easter everyone!