First century Christianity was based on a firm belief in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The early apostles spoke as if the resurrection were the most earthshaking event of global consequence since creation. Yet major church organizations cheerfully admit that the resurrection of the dead has no central part in their doctrine and that their theology doesn’t really emphasize it. Is it logical for a 21st century Christian to actually believe in the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ?
Wouldn’t it be weird if a political pollster were asking a person what he thought of former U.S. President George Bush and the person replied: “Oh I thought he was such a wonderfull warm human being, so filled with love! Of course, his administration never really accomplished anything, and he did pull the wool over the eyes of the general public. But what a marvelous person he was! Sure, he was a little hypocritical, and there was this mountain of fraud, but I really believe in that man”?
Ridiculous? Odd? Utterly hypothetical? Right! It should go without saying that I don’t think anyone at any time has ever said such words about George Bush. But millions upon millions of human beings have, in effect, mouthed similar words about Jesus Christ.
Millions believe on the name of Jesus Christ. It is everywhere present. It is part and parcel of the Sunday-newspaper church page. You’ll find it painted on roadside signs and carelessly splashed on huge rocks. That name is continually pronounced by world-famous evangelists and occasionally even by past presidents at prayer breakfasts.
Yet almost no one believes the man Himself. People believe on the person of Christ, but they don’t believe what He plainly said, not then, not today! Take for example the sign of the prophet Jonah. Jesus predicted about Himself: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s (Greek, great fish) belly: so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
Who believes that today? And how can you possibly cram three days and three nights into a period half that time, from Friday sunset to Sunday morning?
Christ staked His very Messiahship on the fact that He would be buried for a period of 72 hours. Yet the whole of modern churchianity disbelieves this sign by its annual observance of the pagan Easter tradition.
Here is the historical record of disbelief. “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31). But did they do what He told them? Did they continue in His word? As a matter of fact, no! The account continues: “I know that ye are Abraham’s seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not” (vs. 37, 45). The very same people who believed on Christ, who believed on His person, who perhaps believed that, humanly, He was a wonderful man, didn’t believe what He said, and even sought to kill Him because of what He said.
Prior to their conversion, not even His own disciples really believed some of the things Jesus said. They were utterly incredulous about some of His major pronouncements. True, they did have a rudimentary understanding of Christ’s basic Messiahship. Simon Peter knew, for instance, that Jesus Christ was the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Son of God. He even told Jesus: “Thou art the Christ” (Mark 8:29). But Peter’s comprehension proved defective when it came to really understanding Christ’s death, burial and coming resurrection. Notice further: “And he (Jesus) began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (V. 31).
Poor, presumptuous Peter simply could not stifle his immediate reaction. “And Peter took him (Jesus), and began to rebuke him” (v. 32).This couldn’t happen to his Master, not while “good old Peter” was still around. Peter’s actions prove that he had no idea of what Christ was really talking about.
The disciples just couldn’t get it straight in their minds that Jesus did not come to set up the Kingdom of God right then and there. They were not psychologically conditioned to a suffering Redeemer. Always in the hidden recesses of their minds was the thought of throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression, a concept deeply enmeshed in the mentality of their age.
After Jesus fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, a great, incomprehensible miracle, the people could only envision making Him a king by force (John 6:5-15).After all, with such miraculous power behind Him, He could accomplish wonders with a small army and a few swords.
The disciples’ understanding failed to improve with time and the chronological scheme of things. Even Jesus’ continual repetition of the grim events that lay in the immediate future could not convince or convict them. Several days later, following the transfiguration, Jesus emphatically told them to tell no one about it “till the Son of man were risen from the dead. And they kept that saying within themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean” (Mark 9:9-10).
Some time later they all passed through Galilee where Jesus continued to repeat it to His disciples: “The Son of man is (will be) delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day. But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him (about it)” (vs. 31-32).
As time rushed by, Jesus became increasingly aware of the immediacy of His last great trial. He had told His disciples: “Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44). Christ really wanted, with all His being, for these men, His closest friends to deeply understand what He was about to go through. Humanly, He wanted them to share the terrible agony of anticipation. “But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not” (v. 45).
Face to face with the greatest trial of His life, He didn’t even have the comfort and loyalty of His very closest friends. They understood precious little of what was going on. Yet Jesus kept reminding them of it, repeating it almost incessantly, as if He were urging them to somehow react to His words.
On His final trip to Jerusalem the disciples finally began to be afraid, but they still didn’t “get it” (Mark 10:32). So Jesus repeated it yet once more: “And he took again the twelve, and began to tell them what things should happen unto him.” And then he repeated the whole scenario in its entirety once again (vs. 33-34).But their minds were on who among them was to be the greatest, who would sit on Christ’s right and left hand, who was going to have the most authority (vs. 35-45).That their leader was going to die a horribly excruciating death, be buried for three days and three nights, and then rise again from the dead, simply escaped them until every last detail of those events had been performed and accomplished.
Shortly after Jesus and His disciples partook of the New Testament Passover symbols of bread and wine, He sternly told them: “All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered” (Mark 14:27).
Then Jesus again repeated His previous assertions that He would be resurrected back to life: “But after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee” (v. 28). Then Peter impetuously issued his renowned statement of “undying loyalty”: “Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.” Yet, as Jesus predicted, Peter was to deny that he even knew Christ three times before the dawning of the next day. That is how much faith he had in Christ’s future resurrection when all the chips were down.
Finally, when a mob of soldiers arrived to secure Jesus’ arrest, the disciples “all forsook him, and fled” (v. 50). It had been a good thing while it lasted, but now the jig was up.
Psychologically, they were anything but prepared for the trauma of Jesus’ imminent suffering, burial and death. And His resurrection? That was the last thing on their minds. This is absolutely demonstrated by the events that followed.
The final chapter of Mark records that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. They were shocked to find the stone rolled away. Then an angel, appearing as a young man, told the two women: “Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place (the empty tomb) where they laid him’ (Mark 16:6).
Mary Magdalene rushed over to tell Jesus’ disciples the good news. She found them absolutely shattered, hopelessly bogged down in a state of acute emotional shock. “And she went and told them that had been with him (the eleven disciples), as they mourned and wept. And they, when they had heard that he was alive believed not” (vs. 10-11).
Later, Jesus did appear to two of His disciples who went to tell the rest, but “neither believed they them” (v. 13). Jesus’ disciples weren’t waiting around with bated breath to hear of some great miracle. Each of the Gospel accounts shows their stubborn, almost numbed reluctance and absolute unwillingness to believe that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead!
Matthew’s account says: “And when they (actually) saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted (even then)” (28:17); Luke’s account: “And their words (Mary Magdalene’s and the other women’s) seemed to them (the eleven) as idle tales, and they believed them not” (24:11); John’s account, Thomas said, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (20:25).
The apostle John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and one of the twelve, penned an enigmatic statement in his Gospel: “For as yet they (the disciples) knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9).Why didn’t they know? Jesus told them about it over and over again as had been absolutely proved from several plain, impossible-to-be-misunderstood quotations from Mark’s account alone. The only plausible explanation, then, is that this scripture constitutes another crystal clear affirmation that the disciples didn’t have the faintest idea of what Christ was talking about. They were utterly bewildered by His continual declaration that He would be resurrected.
Yet some religionists would have us believe that the same disciples not only contrived in advance to steal His body, but in fact stole it! The biblical record shows instead that they were in no mental or emotional shape to steal anything. The disciples were shocked into a state of trauma by the fast-moving events of these hectic three or four days. Yet this tired, old, worn-out fable persists even to this day.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us what really happened. Following Jesus’ burial, the chief priests and the Pharisees approached Pilate with a proposition. Seemingly, they had better memories than the eleven disciples. They told Pilate: “Sir, we remember what that deceiver said, while he was yet alive. After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day (is over), lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as you can. So they went and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch” (Matt. 27:63-66).
Then, after Jesus had already risen, some political hanky-panky quickly followed: “Some of the watch (the soldiers on guard) came into the city” and informed the chief priests that the tomb was empty. Plotting with the elders, the chief priests then bribed the soldiers to say, “His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day (right up to the time Matthew wrote his Gospel)” (Matt. 28:11-15).
However, all logic literally screams out the fact that the disciples did not steal Jesus’ body. Remember again His disciples’ stubborn reluctance to believe He had risen again. Even when Jesus had appeared to them after His resurrection, Peter had said: “I go a fishing” (John 21:3). They all thought it had been nice while lasted, but now they were about ready to go their own ways, back to their respective jobs, and previous positions, and simply give up the whole thing.
Knowing these facts, is it then even remotely possible to believe that these same disciples could have been so filled with power and deep-down conviction of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ that they went out fervently preaching it against all opposition, and even at the expense of their lives?
Would men be torn limb from limb, thrown to wild beasts, perhaps drawn and quartered, and even hung upside down in horrible martyrdom for something they knew to be a carefully contrived, deliberate hoax? Certainly not! No, not by the wildest stretch of a fool’s imagination could the happenings recorded in the book of Acts have taken place if these dedicated men had known they were suffering such terrible tortures for a cause they knew to be a lie, for a leader they knew to be a hoaxer, and for a hope they knew to be false.
The mere suggestion that Christ’s disciples stole His body so defies all logic, reason and the true facts that it is ludicrous. Remember another ironclad fact: The early New Testament apostles, who first preached and published the story that Jesus had stepped out of His tomb, firmly believed it to be totally true. They were not resting their faith on the empty tomb alone, but upon supernatural, miraculous appearances of the risen Christ on many different occasions.
Doubting Thomas had actually investigated His wounds. Jesus had appeared to over 500 brethren at the same time. He had suddenly appeared in a room, with locked doors, where the disciples were meeting.
Jesus Christ of Nazareth was seen alive after His resurrection, not once or twice, but at least ten times, as recorded in the New Testament. He was seen not just by one individual alone, whose words might be doubted, but by groups of two, seven, ten, eleven and even 500 people at once!
The real basis of the true Christian faith was the literal, bodily (though an immortal spirit-body) resurrection of Jesus Christ. For some thirty years afterwards, these people had no written records of Christ’s resurrection. Rather, they had personal attestation, living eyewitnesses, and private experiences of their own upon which to base their faith. They rested their case on what they knew they had seen with their own eyes.
The resurrection of Jesus was a much discussed, well-known event at least in that immediate area of the Middle East. Remember what the apostle Paul said before King Agrippa: “For the king knows of these things (the events surrounding and including the resurrection of Christ) before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him: for this thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).
If you simply can’t bring yourself to believe it, you are denying the very cornerstone of Christianity. “If Christ be not risen, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (ICor. 15:17).
This concludes Part I. Be sure and look for Parts 2 and 3.