By Nic Bertsch
It's that time of the year again. Time for chocolate bunnies, painted eggs, and no school for the kids. That's right, it's Easter. In fact, very often those things are the only reason for the season in the minds of many non-Christians. Far too often I have personally encountered people who have no idea what actually happened on Easter weekend. It is a sad reality that the culture in which we find ourselves is extremely ignorant about the most important event in human history. This event created the movement that has impacted more people and cultures and countries than anything else. This event was the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Starting in Israel, Christianity spread like wildfire. By the 300s, the pluralistic, thoroughly depraved Roman Empire was converted, without any bloodshed except that of the Christians themselves. The spread continued across the Middle East and Europe, and eventually came to be the foundation on which our culture was shaped as well. All of the freedoms and values we have come to enjoy are based on Christian values. Things like religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of association, women's equality, and social justice don't come from Islam or Hinduism, and they certainly don't come from atheism. All of these things are rooted in a Christian worldview, and that worldview comes from the fact that over 2000 years ago, a group of people radically proclaimed that a man who had been executed through the most painful means ever created had been raised from the dead.
The difference between this claim and the claims of every other religion is that it was testable. The people Jesus had trained to follow after Him could have said He had been raised in spirit, or that He was alive in their hearts, or maybe even that He had been reincarnated as someone else. But they didn't. They claimed Jesus was physically alive. They claimed to have seen Him, talked to Him, touched Him, and eaten with Him, and they challenged people to prove them wrong. And it wasn't just the disciples of Jesus either. Hostile people like Jesus' brother James and Saul of Tarsus said the same thing. There was no reason for this at all, unless they believed Jesus had actually risen from the dead. None of these people had anything to gain except rejection, imprisonment, torture and death.
As Paul said, "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Corinthians 15:14 NIV). This is a bold statement that sets the entire Christian worldview up for failure if someone can prove the resurrection false, and yet no one has. There have certainly been those who have tried, but their speculative theories and radical skepticism have done a poor job of accounting for the strong historical evidence that exists. Virtually all scholars, Christian and non-Christian, hold some facts to be virtually undeniable:
- Jesus existed.
- He died by crucifixion.
- His tomb was empty and His body was never recovered.
- His disciples and hostiles like Paul and James claimed to have seen Him risen from the dead.
- His disciples were transformed from cowards, into martyrs that started the explosion of early Christianity.
There are only so many ways to explain this kind of data, and most have been tried and found wanting.
Was the Body Stolen?
This theory raises more questions than it answers. Who would steal the body? The Romans wanted Jesus dead, and so did the Jews. The disciples had nothing to gain by stealing the body except death, which they got. This doesn't explain why Paul would convert, and it doesn't seem logical to say that the disciples who stole the body would then go and die for something they knew was false. People may die for something they believe is true, but not for something they know is false.
Did the Disciples Hallucinate?
This is a popular explanation, but once again explains the data poorly. Jesus appeared to groups of people, not just individuals. Groups of people don't all hallucinate the same thing. If He was a hallucination, then it could have been shown to be false by producing Jesus' body, but the tomb was empty. Why would a hostile like Paul also hallucinate the same thing? Also, while it is true that many people claim to see deceased loved ones after they have died, no one is ever convinced that their loved ones have actually risen from the dead physically.
Maybe Jesus Never Actually Died?
This claim is made by some Muslims and has also been put forth by various skeptics. This theory has massive problems, though. Jesus' death by crucifixion is one of the most well-attested events in history. There is almost no one in the scholarly world who denies that Jesus died by crucifixion. But how does this theory deal with the evidence? It seems hard to believe that if Jesus somehow survived His horrible beating and crucifixion that He could then convince His disciples that He was risen from the dead. They might have been impressed that He could survive such a beating. They might have sent for a doctor. But it seems irrational to think they would be convinced of a resurrection. For more on this, see my article, "Did Jesus Die on the Cross?"
There are other theories out there, but these ones are the most common. However, there is no explanation that does a better job of explaining the historical data than the resurrection of Jesus. All that is necessary to accept that Jesus rose from the dead is for people to suspend the inherent bias against supernatural events that most in Western culture are oppressed by. After all, it is extremely dishonest to investigate a miracle claim by starting with the assumption that miracles never happen. Many radical skeptics of the resurrection, once they were able to put their anti-supernatural bias aside and stop assuming that it couldn't have happened, have come to believe it actually did happen.
It seems to me that accepting that the death and resurrection of Jesus as true is not as hard as people claim it is. We believe all kinds of things with much less evidence than we have for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. What is hard for many people to understand or accept is why? Why did Jesus have to die? Why does it matter if He rose from the dead? The answer to those questions is what really challenges the fallen heart of human beings.
Jesus did not deserve to die. We did. Every single person has broken, or will break, God's law. Worse yet, if we don't want to live by God's standards, we can set our own, and we will still be guilty of breaking them. We are broken and guilty, and every honest person knows it. If God is perfectly just, then He is justified in punishing every single person. God is also not obligated to offer anyone a pardon, any more than any human judge has to offer a pardon to someone who has broken the law before he can send them to jail. This is bad news for all, and it is this bad news that answers the first question: why did Jesus have to die? He died the death that we should have, and because He was God, He was the only one who could satisfy the debt.
When Jesus appeared alive three days after being executed, it showed His disciples several things. It showed them that He was God as He claimed to be. It showed them that death was not the end. And it showed them that the price had been paid for our debt with God, and that all we needed to do was accept the pardon.
It was that understanding that transformed them into men and women that would proclaim this message to their dying breath. It was that message that started the movement that changed the face of the world. That is why the death and resurrection of Jesus is the most important event in human history, and that is why Easter really matters.