Why I Believe the Easter Story
By Keith Phillips
By the time Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross, He had suffered one of the most torturous forms of execution ever conceived. His back and sides were a crosshatch of deep lacerations from flogging. There were holes through His hands and feet from the spikes that had pinned Him to the cross, and there was a gaping hole in His side from a spear thrust clear to the heart. Smaller wounds bore witness to other parts of the ordeal—gashes from a mock crown made of thorns and scrapes from when He had fallen under the weight of the cross as He had struggled to carry it up the hill to the Place of the Skull, where He had then been crucified between two common criminals.
The authorities handed Jesus’ body over to a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea. Considering that Joseph was a member of the Jewish High Court, the Sanhedrin, which had brought the false charges against Jesus, one would have expected Joseph to be counted among Jesus’ enemies, not His friends. More surprising still, Joseph wanted Jesus buried in the tomb he had bought for himself in preparation for his eventual death. The body was wrapped in a shroud and put in the tomb, and the entrance was sealed with a great stone. Fearing that His disciples might steal the body and spread rumors that Jesus was alive, those who had plotted His death persuaded the authorities to post guards day and night.
Because Jesus had been crucified on the eve of the Passover, there was no time to prepare His body for burial according to Jewish custom before it was put in the tomb. The Passover was followed that year by the weekly Sabbath, and any work on either holy day was against the Jewish law, so it was not until dawn of the third day that some of Jesus’ women followers were able to return to the tomb to prepare His body for burial. When they got there, the body was gone.
It took encounters with the resurrected Jesus for His disciples to understand what had taken place. He had risen from the dead! Word spread quickly.
Jesus’ enemies countered with what to most people must have seemed like a much more logical explanation—that His disciples had stolen His body to give credence to their claim that He was alive. The guards who had been at the tomb were even bribed to testify that they had fallen asleep, giving Jesus’ followers an opportunity to snatch the body.
Considering that the people behind the “stolen body” version of events were the very same people who had brought the false charges against Jesus and pressured the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to condemn Him to death, and considering also that those announcing the risen Savior were willing to stake their lives on that claim, who would you believe?
The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection name at least 16 people who were eyewitnesses to the risen Savior. Over a 40-day period, Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs.” (Acts 1:3; 13:31) Once He was seen by over 500 people. (1 Corinthians 15:3–8)
The apostle Peter testified: “We did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)
The apostle John testified: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled … we declare to you.” (1 John 1:1,3)
It is hard to refute eyewitness testimony, especially when those testifying are willing to suffer persecution and even martyrdom for what they claim to have witnessed, as Jesus’ first followers were. People don’t give their lives for what they know to be a fabrication.
Eyewitness testimony is powerful, but it involves an element of faith; we must take the witnesses at their word. Circumstantial evidence also involves an element of faith; we must believe that the conclusion it points to is more plausible than any other explanation. But empirical evidence—evidence that is verifiable by experience or experiment—is proof positive when it is put the test and it passes. Here is empirical evidence for the case of the Resurrection:
Hours before Jesus was crucified, Peter denied Him three times. Afterwards he and the other disciples went into hiding for fear that they would be recognized as His followers. Even after seeing the risen Jesus several times over a span of 40 days, they remained powerless and directionless. At one point, Peter and some of the others returned to their old lives as fishermen. (John 21:1–3)
But 10 days after Jesus ascended to Heaven, the disciples were suddenly and dramatically transformed. While the other disciples stood with him, Peter preached to a crowd in Jerusalem that probably included many of the same people who had been in the mob that called for Jesus to be crucified. That sermon resulted in over 3,000 new believers. (Acts chapter 2) A few days later Peter preached again and won over 5,000 more. (Acts chapter 3; 4:1–4) How do you explain the change that had come over the disciples?
The answer is found in something Jesus told His disciples the night before He was crucified: “A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also. At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” (John 14:19–20) Before Jesus died, He could only live with His followers, but ever since God raised Him from the dead, His Spirit lives in all who receive Him as their Savior—“I in you.” Jesus dwelling in His disciples effected a greater change in them than seeing Him in His resurrected body.
And unlike eyewitness testimony or circumstantial evidence, we can put Jesus’ “I in you” claim to the test. If it’s true, we should get the same results as the disciples.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” the resurrected Jesus told the apostle John. “If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him.” (Revelation 3:20) When I first heard that as a 20-year-old agnostic, I decided to put Jesus to the test. I opened the door to my heart and asked Him to come into my life, and He did. No, He didn’t suddenly appear in bodily form, as He did to His disciples and others shortly after His resurrection, and I didn’t see a blinding flash of light or hear Him speak in an audible voice, as the apostle Paul did when he first encountered the risen Jesus, but that simple, awkward prayer, If You’re real, show me, was the start of a relationship that has deepened over time to the point that I can no longer imagine my life without His loving presence.
That, to me, is greater proof that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4) than if I had seen Him exit the tomb or touched His nail-pierced hands. I believe the Easter story because I have experienced it.
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The Resurrection proclamation could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact.
—Paul Althaus, German theologian (1888–1966)
[The narratives of the Resurrection found in the four Gospels] have all the artlessness of simple honesty. They furnish just such testimony as the facts would warrant, and such as plain people convinced beyond any question or doubt would give. They have all the signs of veracity.
—Doremus Hayes, U.S. theologian and author (b. 1863)
This band of disciples was beaten and weary, yet almost overnight it transformed itself into a victorious faith movement. If this had occurred simply on the basis of auto-suggestion and self-deceit, it would have been a much greater miracle than the Resurrection itself.
—Pinchas Lapide, Jewish theologian (1922–1997)
I have been used for many years to study the histories of other times, and to examine and weigh the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, than the great sign which God has given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.
—Thomas Arnold, English historian (1795–1842)
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