I am not an intellectual. I realise that there are many well-reasoned atheists who could tare strips off me in a debate about the reasons for God. Nevertheless, I believe that there is good evidence to support the Christian faith, and there are some excellent proponents on the Christian side. For example, you could look up the debate between the William Lane Craig and the atheist Christopher Hitchens. Similarly, there is a DVD circling around our church of the debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. I find it interesting that it is the Christians who are keen to get people watching these intellectual contests.
Some of our friends will be surprised that there is a case to be presented for Christianity. Therefore you will already have scored points if you can articulate some of the evidence and direct them to some of the leading Christian thinkers. Many of our friends have bought the lie which says that religion is just superstition, or fairy-tales on a par with Santa and the Tooth-fairy. Many people think that faith is synonymous with blind faith—that it has no relationship to either reason or evidence.
We could point to the mysterious origin of life; and the fact that scientists have no proven explanation as to how life begun (in fact even if they can come up with an explanation for life that will not rule God out of the equation for it will merely reveal the process of life coming into existence and not rule out there being a creator behind this process). We could point to the fine-tuning of the universe and amazing mathematical odds that are needed for a planet which could sustain life (interestingly, in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins repeatedly speaks of the ‘luck’ that was needed in creation). We could point to the moral argument for God, which asks where our sense of right and wrong comes from. We could show how the Christian message explains the dignity and fallen-ness we see in humanity (we are special, created in the image of God, and yet we all are guilty of breaking even our own standards of morality). We could point to the search for transcendence that is evidence in every ethnic grouping (as a friend used to say, ‘if a new tribe was found anywhere in the world you can be sure that they will have a god or gods’). We could point the human search for the meaning of life (as Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias points out, our canine friends don’t sit around pondering the essence of doggy-ness). We could highlight the great many early copies of the New Testament documents, which come various geographical locations, and point to how we can be sure what was written in the originals. We could point out that Jesus fulfils all prophesies in the Old Testament concerning the promised Messiah (for example, there are descriptions of his death that are consistent with crucifixion even though the Romans hadn’t invented crucifixion when these prophesies were written). We could point to non-Christian historical sources that mention Jesus and the existence of those who followed him. We could point to the dramatic emergence of the Christian church and the amazing change that occurred in the lives of Jesus’ first disciples. We could even point to the existence of modern miracles (I have a section in my blog entitled ‘amazing things that God does’ that I believe demonstrate the existence of miracles today).
However, Christian apologists, professors William Lane Craig and John Lennox both point to the resurrection of Christ as the greatest piece of evidence for the Christian faith. This is what we are going to think about as we look at this evening’s passage. In fact we are going to focus on just one aspect of Jesus’ resurrection—the empty tomb! We will begin by thinking about some of the apparent discrepancies between various accounts of the resurrection; we will then look at some of the reasons for why this story seems athematic; and finally we will think about what are the implications of a risen Christ.
The apparent discrepancies concerning the empty tomb
A careful reading of the resurrection accounts contained in the four gospels reveals apparent discrepancies. For example, John tells us that it was early morning when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. However, Mark tells us that it was sunrise. This isn’t really a big problem. It was dawn, twilight, when darkness turns to light.
Similarly, John only names Mary Magdalene, whereas the other gospels mention other women. Again, this is easy to reconcile; the fact that Mary Magdalene is mentioned does not preclude the possibility that she was not on her own. In fact, look at verse two; she implies a group of people when she declares ‘we don’t know where they have laid him.’
A more difficult objection surrounds the fact that in John’s Gospel the women rush to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved (who is the apostle John), whereas in Mark’s account the women didn’t tell anyone. There must have been some delay and hesitation before they went to tell the disciples.
Some sceptics have raised the objection that it was illogical that the women would have gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus, given that a large stone blocked the entrance. These large circular stones fitted into a groove, so while they were easy to roll into place it would take several strong men to remove it from the entrance. The women couldn’t have opened the tomb. However, such cold reasoning does not engage with the reality of grief. It is natural for these women to want to be close to their friend. The visiting of tombs to pour oil over a loved one is a historical Jewish practice, and the custom of the time dictated a responsibility to mourn at the tomb during the first three days (as the soul of the deceased was thought to be still present). Matthew tells us hoped that someone would help them (they asked, ‘who will help us remove the stone?’).
Doctor Kenneth Kantzer tells the true story about a friend’s mother. The first heard of the death through a trusted mutual friend, who reported that the woman had been standing waiting for a bus, and had been hit by a another bus passing by. She was fatally injured and died a few minutes later. Soon they heard further news. The woman’s grandson said that she had been involved in a collision, thrown out of the car in which she was a passenger, and killed instantly. It looked like there were discrepancies between the stories, but they were both actually true. The woman had been waiting for the bus, was hit by another bus, and was critically injured. She was then picked up by a passing car who attempted to rush her to the hospital. But in their haste this car collided with another vehicle and she was killed. Selected information about the event conveyed the most important details but did result in accounts of the event that looked different. The gospel accounts of the resurrection do not give us an exhaustive account. The writers select the information they include. Therefore, they will sound different. However, there are ways that they can be harmonised with each other.
Marks of authenticity
Ironically, the differences in the accounts of the resurrection point to the authenticity of these records. Even though the four gospels circulated together from an early date, the church never tried to harmonise them to make them sound more authentic. An Australian policeman, who examined this evidence, was convinced because gospel accounts read like reliable testimony—if the accounts had read word for word he would have suspected collusion. Historian Michael Grant, of the University of Edinburgh, said, ‘True, the discovery of the empty tomb is differently described by the various Gospels, but if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.’
One sign of the authenticity of the gospels’ account of the resurrection is the fact that they each show women to be the first witnesses of the empty tomb. In that culture women were looked down upon. A woman’s testimony was not admissible in court. If you were making this story up you would have never placed women at the scene.
The description of the disciples’ actions rings true. There is some debate as to the significance of the fact that John ran faster than Peter; it may simply be due to the fact that he was the younger of the two men. Then John stops at the entrance but Peter rushes straight in. A more reflective John, and an impulsive Peter, is a fit for what we know of these two from all four gospels.
But did they really find the tomb to be empty? They must have. The church could never have taken off in Jerusalem if Jesus remained in the tomb; all the authorities would have had to do was present the body. Indeed, the earliest denial of the resurrection assumed the tomb was empty. Matthew tells us that the Jewish authorities spread the rumour that the disciples had stolen the body. It is very significant that Matthew adds that, this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day (Matthew 28:15b). Matthew’s readers can see for themselves that this rumour was spread to explain the empty tomb.
However, the idea that the disciples stole the body is absurd. Were the guards who were commissioned to watch the tomb the sort of men who would fall asleep on the job? Would if we possible to move the large stone from the entrance without waking the guards? Why would the disciples have stolen the body? If they stole the body then they would have known that the religion they would live the rest of their lives for was a sham. Would they really have been willing to die for a lie? Why would anyone else have stolen the body? Jesus’ enemies wouldn’t have stolen the body because the last thing they wanted was anyone to think that he had risen from the dead.
Interestingly, in the nineteenth century an inscription was found which has been entitled, ‘Edict of Nazareth’; this dates from ad 30-40. This edict warns that robbery from, or desecration of tombs was an offense carrying the death penalty. Historians think that something very unusual must have happened around that time to cause such a severe edict to be issued. Professor John Lennox suggests that the most likely background to this edict is the events surrounding the empty tomb. Sir Norman Anderson, who served as the dean of the Faculty of Laws at the University of London, summed up his thoughts on the resurrection declaring: ‘the empty tomb, then, forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves.’
Seeing is believing!
William Lane Craig writes, ‘Against the dark background of modern man’s despair, the Christian proclamation of the resurrection is a bright light of hope.’ What’s so important about the resurrection? It Jesus has been raised from the dead then he is who he claimed to be and his people can trust his promise that we too will be raised from the dead. If Jesus has not been raised from the dead then Jesus’ people are a pitiful joke.
The disciple whom Jesus loved saw and believed—what did he see? He saw the grave clothes folded up. There was a lot of grave robbery at that time—thieves targeted the expensive linen grave clothes. But robbers would not have taken the body and left the cloth; they would have left the body and taken the cloth. Robbers wouldn’t have left the tomb in such an orderly condition. Yet again we have another mark of the accounts authenticity; the gospel writers never hide their failings, in verse ten we read, they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. Those ignorant disciples now believe that Jesus has been raised but they fail to see that this was inevitable given that the Old Testament spoke of both the suffering, and the eternal reign, of the promised Messiah.
John saw and believed. He writes this gospel that we might do the same. He doesn’t encourage blind faith, but records the evidence and challenges us to respond to it. Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:30-31).
The evidence is presented to us and everything depends on how we respond to that evidence. If you want to become better at sharing the evidence and answering people’s questions then why not sign up for one of the small groups that will be focusing on faith sharing.