Easter: The “mother of all facts”

I recently completed a book manuscript about the topic of the resurrection. In this Easter blog, I simply want to quote a few paragraphs from the book that will, if all goes well, be available just a few months from now. If the publisher (Stanborough Press Ltd) follows my suggestion the title will be: ‘I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Our resurrection depends on the great Life-giver who died and was raised—as we remember once again in a special way during the Easter season.

In this book I do, of course, raise the question how we can be sure that Jesus did indeed come back to life? Do we really have hard facts? Can we be sure of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection? In my book I devote a long chapter to this crucial question. Below I quote the few final paragraphs of this chapter: 

Speaking of hard facts, there is one fact of irrefutable historicity: a group of people, who were totally exasperated after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, became convinced that Jesus had risen and that they should no longer seek the Living One among the dead (Luke 24:5). Some might say that this conviction was based on a cleverly concocted conspiracy or a collective hallucination. But another explanation, namely that the resurrection actually happened, sounds far more reasonable and credible. Let me quote a few lines from a book about Jesus by Philip Yancey, who catches the amazing development in a few powerful sentences:

That Jesus succeeded in changing a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists, that eleven men who had deserted him at death now went into martyrs’ graves avowing their faith in a resurrected Christ, that these few witnesses managed to set loose a force that would overcome fierce opposition, first in Jerusalem and then in Rome—this remarkable sequence of transformation offers the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection.[1]

N.T. Wright put it succinctly in these words: “The disciples were hardly likely to go out and suffer and die for a belief that was not firmly anchored in fact.”[2]Many other authors have stressed the same point. What made a man like Peter who, in Jesus’ darkest hour had avowed that he did not even know the man who was arrested and tried by the Jewish elite, change into the apostle who, only a few weeks later, told a large multinational, multicultural crowd in Jerusalem that Christ was alive? What convinced the doubting Thomas that the Lord was truly risen and gave him the courage to become a missionary to India, where even today some four million “Thomas Christians” are a testimony to his radical conversion? Not all ancient traditions are reliable, but there is good reason to think that most, if not all, of the original apostles, except John (who for a number of years was banished to the Greek isle of Patmos), met a martyr’s death. What propelled them to pursue a career that would end in opposition, torture and ignominious death? How do we explain that James, one of the half-brothers of Jesus, became a prominent leader in the early church, while he earlier flatly rejected Jesus’ ministry? (John 7: 5; Acts 15:14-21). The explanation lies in the extraordinary, undeniable Easter event.

This is echoed by a rather unexpected voice, namely that of the Jewish theologian and Israeli historian Pinchus Lapide (1922-1997). He did not become a Christian, but he did firmly believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. It is, he said, the only explanation for the birth and further rise of Christianity. He confronts his readers with these pressing questions:

How can it be explained that, against all plausibility, his adherents did notfinally scatter, were notforgotten, and that the cause of Jesus did notreach its infamous end at the cross?

In other words: How did it nevertheless come about that the adherents of Jesus were able to conquer the most horrible of disappointments, that Jesus, despite everything, became the Saviour of the Church, although the predictions were not fulfilled and the longed-for Parousia did not take place?[3]

Lapide concluded that the explanations of many resurrection-denying theologians fail miserably to explain “the fact that the solid hillbillies from Galilee . . . were changed within a short period of time into a jubilant community of believers.” He continued: “When this scared, frightened band of the apostles, which was just about to throw everything away in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when the shepherds, peasants, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their Master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.”[4]

[1]  Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 216.

[2]  Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope(London, SPCK, 2011)., p. 73.

[3]  Pinchus Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Augsburg: Fortress Publishing House, 1982), p. 123.

[4]  Ibid, p. 129.