The resurrection can bring to mind so many associative memories: from decorating Easter eggs with PAAS dye and wax crayons, to poignant and precious moments with family, to particular Easter services that moved hearts and changed lives. And of course there is the music: Christ the Lord is Risen Today and Low in the Grave He Lay, as well as less formal favorites as When We All Get to Heaven and I'll Fly Away.
There are so many memories and emotions connected to Easter, but it all rests on one simple, propositional truth. Our Baptist Faith and Message puts it this way: "Jesus was raised from the dead with a glorified body and appeared to His disciples as the person who was with them before His crucifixion."
Southern Seminary's Abstract of Principles puts it this way: "He was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended to His Father, at whose right hand He ever liveth to make intercession for His people."
Most importantly, the Scripture puts it this way: For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
The resurrection of our Lord and Savior is more than just the object of sentimental reflection or the center of doctrinal statements. The Bible indicates the resurrection that took place almost two thousand years ago has ramifications that span the millennia to impact our lives today, and indeed all of eternity. Let's consider together a few of these truths.
The Resurrection is the Irreducible and Irreplaceable Foundation of the Christian Faith
Sometimes we grow complacent over that which becomes familiar, even if it is precious and essential truth. If we are not careful, we can lose sight of the truth that the reality of the Christian life — every aspect of it — hinges on the reality of the resurrection. Paul indicated as much when he wrote: ... and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without foundation, and so is your faith. ... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Therefore those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. If we have placed our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17-19).
Lest we forget, the hope for the Christian rests on the resurrection. The faith of the Christian rests on the resurrection. The redemption of the Christian rests on the resurrection. Without the reality of the resurrection, we would be most pitied indeed.
The Resurrection is a Real, Historical Event
The evidence for the historical reality of the resurrection continues to mount and is overwhelming — which presents a formidable challenge to atheists and agnostics. That's why they fight this doctrine so desperately.
In Basic Christianity, John Stott lists and answers several of their challenges to the biblical account: that the women went to the wrong tomb; that Jesus merely slipped into a temporary coma; that someone stole the body, whether common thieves, disciples, or authorities, either Jewish or Roman.1 And the list of alternative explanations goes on and on. In the late 1950s, Michael Clark suggested the resurrection was simply a "telepathic projection."2 In the 1970s, Newark's former, and infamous, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, said the doctrine grew out of an experience Peter had months after the crucifixion, when he realized it was a demonstration of God's love. Thus, he merely "saw Jesus alive in the heart of God."3 And the 1990s were full of anti-resurrection rhetoric from the likes of Marcus Borg, who said that "the discovery of Jesus' skeletal remains would not be a problem," and John Dominic Crossan, who speculated that Jesus' body became a "corpse for wild beasts."4
This sort of downgrading was commonplace in the twentieth century, an era when Bultmann sought to "de-mythologize" the resurrection, and when Barth called it "a parable of our eternity ... not an event in history."5 Alas, it continues with a vengeance in this century: In 2007, HarperSanFrancisco released, with much fanfare, a book called The Jesus Family Tomb, reporting that a box with Jesus' bones had been found.
The critics will remain, but they face a maddening array of evidence, not the least of which was the willingness of the disciples to boldly proclaim the resurrection at the cost of their lives. And, of course, the Bible records ten public appearances of Jesus between the resurrection and ascension,6 as well as the "epiphanies" in Acts, where both Stephen and Paul saw the risen Lord on high.7
If the critics are relentless, so are the apologists. In 2008, Broadman & Holman responded with a book answering the "Jesus bones" claim. Archaeologists, philosophers, New Testament scholars, and statisticians responded point by point, with great effect.8 And though the skeptics rail against such defenders of the resurrection as William Lane Craig, Peter Kreeft, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, and N.T. Wright,9 the Lord always vindicates His truth.
The Resurrection Keeps Science in its Place
Those who worship the work of scientists are inclined to seal that work off from biblical criticism while giving it free rein to undermine the plain teaching of Scripture. After all, they say, "The Bible is not a book of science or history," and so they let materialists have their way with the text, whether construing creation as evolution or demons as psychoses.
To this end, the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard proposed a policy of "nonoverlapping magisteria" (NOMA), whereby the domains of science and religion are mutually exclusive. He declared:
"The net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap ... we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven."10
Unfortunately for Gould, his fellow skeptics, and theological liberals in their thrall, God is not so nicely domesticated as that. At will, He "breaks" the laws of science with miracles. Zoologists assure us that donkeys can't talk and fish don't offer internal habitations for men. Really? Ask Balaam and Jonah. Physicists tell us that people don't walk on water. But Jesus did. Linguists and anthropologists insist that people can't acquire new language comprehension instantly, but these scholars weren't at Babel or Pentecost.
Of course, science and resultant technology are wonderful. God established and sustains an orderly universe full of discoverable wonders and useful regularities. Indeed, that is the very ground of the possibility of modern science. But when scientists like Gould try to put religion in its place, they presume to put God in His place — a foolish enterprise indeed since His place is wherever He pleases to declare it.
As for the physiologists and forensic pathologists who insist that dead people can't come back to life, they need to read the final chapter of each Gospel and get ready to witness billions of exceptions to their rule on Judgment Day.
The Resurrection is Portrayed and Proclaimed in Believer's Baptism by Immersion
Romans 6:4 says that we are buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. In the act of immersing the new believer, we see vividly the believer's identification with Jesus' death; and correspondingly when the believer is raised up from out of the water, we see vividly his or her identification with His resurrection. It's difficult to square that image with alternate forms of baptism.
Referring to that graphic imagery portrayed in baptism by immersion, the nineteenth century Cambridge professor and chaplain to the queen B.F. Westcott wrote, "So thoroughly was the faith in the resurrection of Christ inwrought into the minds of the first Christians that the very entrance into their society was apprehended under the form of a resurrection."11
The Resurrection Sets Apart Sunday as Our Day of Worship
For centuries, the Jews set aside Saturday, the last day of the week, the Sabbath, for worship and rest. This was in keeping with the creation account and the fourth of the Ten Commandments. But then John writes from Patmos, I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet (Revelation 1:10). The Lord's day? What's that? Well, it tracks with Paul's instruction to the church in Corinth: On the first day of the week, each of you is to set something aside and save to the extent that he prospers, so that no collections will need to be made when I come (1 Corinthian 16:2).
Why the first day? The answer is simple: As Mark 16:2 records, Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they went to the tomb at sunrise. And there they discovered it empty. In those earliest days of the church, Christ's followers marked the day of His resurrection as a special day, recognizing it as a newly-ordained alternative to the Sabbath, and His followers have done the same since.
The Resurrection is the First of Many Resurrections
Because Jesus rose from the dead, those who place faith in Him will also be raised from the dead. Paul writes in Colossians 1:18, Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. And as John explains, We know that when He appears, we will be like Him (1 John 3:2).
It is in His glorious and triumphant resurrection that we find the hope — that confident assurance — that the dead who have entrusted themselves to Him will one day experience a glorious and triumphant resurrection. Remember once again Paul's explanation to the Corinthians:
Now when this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
Which leads to our final point:
The Resurrection Marks Satan's Utter Defeat
Some today view God as perhaps well intentioned but somewhat limited in His ability to confront evil. Rabbi Harold Kushner popularized this view in his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. He posited a finite God who was doing the best He could, so those who suffered loss had no reason to blame Him. He was struggling manfully against the darkness or pockets of chaos right alongside His followers.
Obviously such a conclusion could never be drawn from the pages of Scripture — there we find an all-powerful God Who is consistently victorious over the forces of evil.
Consider the duel on Mt. Carmel. There, Elijah squared off against 450 prophets of Baal, daring them to best the God of "Abraham, Isaac, and Israel" by calling down fire on their sacrifice. They danced, shouted, and even cut themselves to get their phony god's attention, but nothing happened. Then it was Elijah's turn. For effect, he first had the altar soaked with water. Then, at Elijah's plea, Yahweh's fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell facedown and said, "Yahweh, He is God! Yahweh, He is God!" (1 Kings 18:38-39).
Now, fast forward to the Passion Week. Through the instrumentality of lies, hatred, fear, greed, and ambition, Satan assaulted Jesus, the Son of God. He threw everything he had at Him, even engineering his brutal execution. But Christ defeated death!
Remember the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel. On that dark and gloomy Friday afternoon, Satan struck a painful blow to the heel of Christ; but on that glorious Easter morning, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ struck a mortal blow to the serpent's head!
And all who come to know that blessed truth can hardly resist falling facedown before Him, exclaiming, "Jesus, He is God! Jesus, He is God!"
Some may be inclined to bemoan these days as dark days. Indeed, at times the darkness that surrounds us seems to swell to such a point that we struggle to remain focused on the greater reality — the reality that our King, Jesus the Christ, voluntarily entered that tomb late that Friday as a dead man, but exited it alive on Sunday as the Triumphant Victor over death and the devil. And the brilliance of that blessed reality is more than enough to shatter all vestiges of darkness, past or present, into billions of harmless pieces and to chase every lingering shard into oblivion.
In the days of the Soviet Union, a Communist leader once attempted to discredit the resurrection before a large gathering. When he finished, an Orthodox priest stood up and asked if he could reply.
He was warned that he was only allowed five minutes. "Five seconds is all that I require!" He turned to the audience and gave the traditional Orthodox Easter greeting: Kristos vahskryes! ("Christ is risen!"). Back with a deafening roar came the traditional reply: Vahistinu vahskryes! ("He is risen indeed!").12
1 John Stott, Basic Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008), 59-63.
2 Merrill C. Tenney, The Reality of the Resurrection (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) 186-201.
3 John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth of Reality (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 257, 259.
4 William Cook, "Eaten by Wild Dogs or Raised from the Dead: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ," Faculty Address, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
5 Tenney, 186-201.
6 S.J. Andrews, The Life of our Lord Upon the Earth, rev. ed. (New York: Scribners, 1891), p. 596, quoted in Robert Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Mentor: Ferne, Rossshire, UK), 607.
7 George Dana Boardman, Epiphanies of the Risen Lord (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879).
8 Buried Hope or Risen Savior? Edited by Charles L. Quarles (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2008).
9 See, for example, the exchanges in The Empty Tomb (Amherst: Prometheus, 2005) and The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue, Robert B. Stewart, editor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).
10 Stephen Jay Gould, "Two Separate Domains," Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Second Edition Edited by Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (New York: Oxford, 2001), 502.
11 B.F. Westcott, The Gospel of the Resurrection, p.111. Quoted in H. A. Williams, Jesus and the Resurrection (London: A. T. Mowbray, 1961), 9.
12 Peter Walker, The Weekend that Changed the World (London: Marshall Pickering, 1999), 200.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston Baptist Church in Evanston, Illinois, and is Professor of Christian Apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.