A couple of weeks ago I along with many others witnessed an incredible car crash. A county police car barreled directly into the passenger side door of a black four door sedan, where a boy on a coach pitch baseball team was sitting. The driver, blinded by the sun, made a left turn to go into the park directly into the path of the police cruiser that was traveling at least 45 miles an hour. The police officer probably didn’t even have time to hit the brakes until after impact if at all. There were no skid marks on the road, at least that I remember.
I actually only saw the immediate aftermath when my attention was drawn that way by what sounded like a cannon going off. It was all quite surreal as the baseball park with kids and coaches practicing on several different fields went completely silent before screams of horror consumed the silence. Amazingly, both the boy and the driver only suffered minor injuries. The boy a bump on the head and a cut from a small piece of glass on the forehead, the driver a couple of broken bones, which is bad enough, but it all could have been so much worse.
Already since then I’ve noticed that people recollecting the story of what happened don’t all tell it in exactly the same way. The details of what people remember are different, and it seems mostly due to the fact that different people focused on different aspects of the event. Some of the differences undoubtedly may be due to faulty memories or different ways of interpreting the events based on previous experiences. What I described as something that sounded like a cannon going off, someone else may have described as sonic boom. Immediate interpretations of why this crash had happened may have differed as well. Some, probably very few if any, may have actually seen the collision as it happened, but most people, including me, only saw the immediate aftermath after we heard the sound. I initially wondered whether the police car had intentionally ran the black sedan off the road in a high speed chase. Too much “Smoky and the Bandit” I guess! It didn’t take long for me to dismiss that wild theory though. The testimony of those actually involved cleared that up pretty quickly.
Even with all the differing descriptions and the fact that nobody probably saw the actual crash itself, I have met no one who insists that there was really no car crash after all, and that the couple of hundred people there just had a psychological, “spiritual” experience.
As William Lane Craig so aptly demonstrates (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NAOc6ctw1s) and N.T. Wright (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqc7–CaCpM) so thoroughly reveals (see also his book “The Resurrection of the Son of God”), the earliest followers of Jesus insisted on the following facts: 1. Jesus was crucified and buried. 2. His Tomb was found empty early on the first day of the week. 3. They saw and conversed with him alive again in bodily form. 4. Because of these things they believed that he was in fact raised from the dead. As Craig and Wright show that they believed these things is a fact of history and the best explanation for why they believed so deeply, to the risk, and in many cases the actual loss of their, own lives, is because it was true. Despite the fact that no one actually saw what happened in the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, from the facts surrounding the event they concluded that something actually did happen in the tomb, namely that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Yes, the stories that were told afterwards differed in some details, but the four versions that we have in the gospels all agree one major point as the explanation for why the tomb was empty and why his earliest followers, first the women such as Mary Magdalene, then all but one of the twelve apostles whom he had chosen, and a few hundred others (1 Cor. 15:6) all saw him alive in flesh and bone (Luke 24:39). They insisted that he was actually bodily raised from the dead.
Then as now, especially in the Greco-Roman world, this was difficult to believe. Not that someone might continue on in some sort of “spiritual” existence, if you will, but that the dead could actually be raised to live again forever in flesh and bone. Many Jews, but not all, held out a hope of resurrection, but not pagans.
That’s why some of the Gentile converts in Corinth began to doubt and flat-out deny the possibility of resurrection. In response, the apostle Paul wrote what we now know as 1 Corinthians 15. Paul was a devout Pharisee and at one time a mortal enemy of Christianity before he encountered the risen Jesus while on his way to carry out persecution against Christians in Damascus (see Acts 9; also Galatians 1). He would become the most prolific proponent of the Christian faith throughout the Mediterranean world. He was called by Jesus himself to be an apostle to the Gentiles within 5 to 7 years of the crucifixion. He spent time conferring with and learning from Jesus first followers such as Peter, and Jesus’ half-brother, James, who apparently only became a follower after Jesus’ resurrection. Paul reminded the Corinthians, who were denying the physical resurrection of Jesus probably in exchange for a more “acceptable” spiritualized version, of the content of the faith that he received from Jesus’ first followers and his brother, James: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to a few hundred people (see 1 Cor 15:3-8).
He insists that the resurrection, which has to do with bodies, is the linchpin of the Christian faith, without which it makes no sense, and actually makes liars of the first apostles (1 Cor 15:12-34). In other words, a faith without the bodily resurrection is an empty faith. The resurrection as a physical event is essential to the Christian faith.
In spite of Paul’s clear assertions in 1 Corinthians, a Yale student at a William Lane Craig lecture said that one of his professors marked him down and chastised him on a paper in which he interpreted 1 Corinthians 15:4’s phrase “raised on the third day” as meaning raised from the dead. How silly of him! According to the student, the professor remarked that “raised” could be interpreted to mean something other than bodily resurrection from the dead, such as the inspiration of Jesus’ teaching and example in the disciples’ hearts. The student said the professor even went so far as to say that Paul never says “raised from the dead.” Rudolph Bultmann and John Shelby Spong might be proud, but not the apostle Paul, John or Luke.
All one need do is continue reading the rest of 1 Corinthians 15 to see that raised is obviously shorthand for raised from the dead and the later part of it shows that it definitely has to do with bodies, no doubt transformed bodies, but still bodies nonetheless. Other New Testament accounts make it clear as well that Jesus was raised from the dead so that his body was no longer in the tomb, and that his first disciples touched and felt his flesh and bones and saw him consume physical food in a very physical way (see Luke 24:39; John 20:27; see also Matthew 28 where “raised” is a couple of verses later defined to mean “raised from the dead”). How important is it that we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead leaving an empty tomb behind after his body was revivified and transformed into an immortal and incorruptible, yet still physical body?
Romans 10:9 indicates that it makes an eternal life and death difference. “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (ESV).
Sound like it’s really important, doesn’t it? As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3, it’s one of those things that is of first importance. One’s very salvation depends on it.
As the student’s professor above (if the student was conveying what was said accurately, as I’m aware that sometimes a student might misunderstand a professor) insisted that Paul never says ”raised from the dead”, I had a professor who, apparently to promote universalism, insisted that for Paul there was no “if/then propositions when it comes to salvation. I immediately thought of a couple verses right off the top of my head, and Romans 10:9 was the very first one. Ironically, it also shows that the “if/then” proposition has one’s very salvation in mind and the implied “then” side of the proposition also includes the belief in the resurrection from the dead in addition to confession that Jesus is Lord.
So not only is the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead an essential for the Christian faith, it is also necessarily an essential belief for one to be saved. We see this move in “doubting Thomas” who after finally believing, even though in his case it was after seeing with his eyes, he confesses with his mouth regarding Jesus, “My Lord and My God!”. Why is this belief so essential?
Quite simply because without it one will still cling to the very life that Jesus insists one must lose in order to save (see Mark 8; Matthew 6 & 16; Luke 9 & 17 etc.). Remain in doubt about the resurrection of Jesus, which is the guarantee of the disciple’s own future resurrection, and we will still be in bondage to the fear of death, the fear of losing one’s life or livelihood (see Heb 2:14-15). The threat of death, the greatest weapon of the evil one and the worldly tyrants that he inspires, keeps the fearful conformed to this evil age that is passing away rather than living as citizens of the age to come as fully as possible in the here and now. It is this that keeps people on the futile treadmill of the courses of this world, still dead in sin and trespasses (See Eph 2). It is the resurrection, the actual event, and the resurrection only that has the power to deliver us from this fear that keeps us clinging to our sinful nature that is perfectly suited for this world but completely incompatible with the world to come, the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21).
Does this mean there is no room for doubt? No there isn’t, but there is a porch. Doubt is inevitably the prelude to faith, but it shouldn’t be the main theme of one’s “faith” and life in Christ. Doubt may be the porch, and maybe it even makes its way into the foyer, but it doesn’t get comfortable in the living room and take up permanent residence in the bedroom. In some progressive circles it seems that it’s the other way around. They seem to want to keep people comfortable with doubt so they provide sleeping bags for the porch and don’t mention some of the more compelling reasons for coming on in to the house to join the rest of the family of God.
Barbara Brown Taylor is only bringing some sweet tea to the front porch when she says, “What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening, not in the empty tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.” If there was no miracle in the tomb then there would be no encounter with the living Lord, because he would not be living but still dead. What happened in the tomb is no mystery for those who will simply believe what the New Testament says over and over and over again. God raised Jesus from the dead, which N.T. Wright spent about 800 pages trying to explain, must mean that God reanimated and transformed the dead mortal and corruptible body of Jesus of Nazareth into the immortal and incorruptible body of Jesus, the risen Lord of all (see N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God”).
Eventually, as Jesus told Thomas, we must move from doubting to believing (John 20:27), from believing that the resurrection is a remote but unlikely possibility in the back of the mind, to believing that God raised Jesus from the dead from the bottom of the heart. Then and only then, like Thomas (John 20:28), we will be moved to confess that Jesus is Lord and so be saved, set free from this evil age that is passing away and transformed into a new humanity, a new creation in Christ Jesus fit for God’s new creation that began with the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead on that first day of the week long ago. What do you say? Want to get off the porch and come on into the house? The door is unlocked and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the key.