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By Jonathan Dodson, Brad Watson
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson
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Doubting the Resurrection
And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.
One out of every five Americans does not believe in a deity. The "none" category in religious polls has doubled over the past ten years, and less than half of the population attends religious services on a regular basis. As statistics rise on the decline of Christian faith in America, you may find yourself wondering if Christianity is really worth believing. After all, the Christian faith makes some audacious claims.
AUDACIOUS CLAIMS OF THE GOSPEL
Some of Christianity's most audacious claims are made right at the center of the faith—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though particulars vary, the gospel is something all Christians agree on: "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day" (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). At first glance, the death of Jesus of Nazareth is easy enough to embrace. While there has been considerable debate over the so-called "historical Jesus," it is beyond dispute that Jesus existed in history. It is also well documented that the Roman authorities crucified people regularly, and in fact, Jewish historian Josephus documented Jesus' death. What ruffles feathers is the God-sized claim beneath his self-sacrifice. Jesus asserted his death was necessary for humanity. His insistence that we all need an atoning representative troubles our dignity. Jesus represented all of us? What gives him the right? Who says we need a representation or sacrifice anyway?
The bull's-eye of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus. We don't have to dive deep to surface doubt regarding the resurrection. Its surface value is, well, incredible. The notion that a first-century Jewish man, crucified between two common criminals, was actually God and rose from the dead is hard to believe. In our experience, people don't beat death, especially after being in a grave for three days. In light of recent horror trends, we might be more inclined to believe in a zombie emerging from the dead than a resurrected and fully restored person. Yet, at the center of historic Christian faith is the belief that a Jewish man named Jesus was "raised."
If you doubt the resurrection, I'm glad. Anything worth believing has to be worth questioning, but don't let your questions slip away unanswered. Don't reduce your doubts to a state of unsettled cynicism. Wrestle with your doubts. Find answers. If you call yourself a believer, don't settle for pat proofs, emotional experiences, or duty-driven religion. Keep asking questions. Those who haven't questioned their faith can easily become doctrinaire, even detached from the everyday struggle of faith.
Whether you are a skeptic, believer, or somewhere in between, press into your doubt or push back on your faith. Question your faith and question your doubts. Determine good reasons for believing or not believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If he really did defeat death, it changes everything. Doubt well and you can walk away from skepticism, cynicism, or blind faith into intellectual security, perceptive belief, and deeper commitment. You can know that you have honestly doubted the resurrection.
OTHERS WHO STRUGGLE TO BELIEVE
If you struggle with belief in the resurrection, you're in good company. The story of the resurrection includes many doubters—Jesus' friends, contemporary Greeks and Romans, and countless Jews. In order to doubt well, we will examine the suspicions of each of these groups. As we do, let's climb into the story to get our facts straight.
The resurrection story is rooted in a historical account of events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth in first-century Palestine (modern-day Israel). Three of Jesus' disciples and one doctor turned historian, Luke, wrote the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They report these events from four different vantage points, narrating the life, ministry, death, and alleged resurrection of Jesus. These various perspectives on the gospel story make it difficult for some to find the Gospels reliable.
Yet, to be fair, we rarely bring this same criticism to a story that is reported differently in several newspapers. Why? Because we innately realize that different people capture different (and similar) details in any given happening. These varying perspectives and reports can actually enrich our understanding if they are read together. Moreover, discrepancy in accounts does not render an event mythical. For instance, historians frequently note there are two conflicting accounts of Hannibal's crossing the Alps. Yet, no historian questions the historicity of Hannibal's crossing. Without getting bogged down into too much detail, I will bring these perspectives together to summarize the resurrection story. While much more can be said on the reliability of the Gospels, I will leave that to more qualified scholars.
A Skeptical Account of the Resurrection
The gospel authors tell us that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection years before it occurred (see, for example, John 2:22). Apparently, Jesus knew a torturous death was coming, and he moved toward it—not away from it. He was arrested in the evening as he met with his disciples in a garden to pray. Suddenly, he was interrupted by clanging armor and flaming torches. Roman soldiers moved in to arrest him at the behest of religious leaders (the Pharisees and Sadducees), who charged Jesus with sedition, a dangerous accusation in the Roman Empire.
How did the soldiers know where to find Jesus? Unflatteringly, the gospel writers include a subplot of betrayal. Judas, one of Jesus' twelve key disciples, sold his master out to the authorities for about a month's salary. As the soldiers and traitor approached, Jesus' disciples scattered, leaving him to face trial alone. Jesus was quickly tried in the early, predawn hours of Friday morning and then crucified on a Roman cross that afternoon. He was buried that same night in a borrowed grave.
On Sunday, after the Jewish Sabbath, two women visit Jesus' tomb to pay their respects and anoint his body with oils. Not knowing how they will remove the large stone from the tomb when they arrive, they are shocked to find his tomb uncovered and the stone rolled away. One of the gospel writers, Matthew, tells us that a dazzling white angel appeared, accompanied by an earthquake, to remove the stone. The two Marys meet the angel, who disarms some of their fears and doubts when he says to them: "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay" (Matthew 28:5–7). Anticipating their disbelief, the angel guides them to see the proof—the tomb is empty!
The women believe the witness of the angel, who reminds them of the words Jesus had spoken just a few days earlier: "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Luke 9:22). Their faith refreshed, the women return to tell the remaining eleven disciples.
What happens next is intriguing. As the women report seeing the resurrected Christ, their story is met with scorn: "These words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale, and they did not believe [the women]" (Luke 24:11). When they hear the claim that Jesus has risen from the dead, they think it is idle talk, foolishness. They do not believe. They question. Hearing the report, they don't rubber-stamp the claim in blind faith. They respond like you and I would—skeptically. No wishful thinking here. They doubt. Impetuous Peter runs on ahead to see for himself. They question. Their faith is tested. And the doubting has only just begun.
As the report of Jesus' missing body spreads, people begin to wonder what has happened to it. Some claim the body was stolen. Even Mary Magdalene, a close follower of Jesus, assumes this until Jesus appears to her. Mary is feeling defeated by the death of her beloved teacher and is distraught to find his body missing. In her grief and confusion, she mistakes Jesus for a gardener. His voice doesn't register, not until he calls her by her name (John 20:15–16).
Mary isn't alone in her disbelief. Others struggle to believe her resurrection report, even after Jesus appears to them (Luke 24:36–43). His followers mistake him for a ghost, so Jesus proves his physical existence by eating a piece of fish before their very eyes, and they all believe, except Thomas. The Gospel of John informs us that Thomas was not present with the rest of the disciples when Jesus first appeared to the group. As a result, the disciples report their thrilling experience of the risen Christ to Thomas, who is incredulous. He insists on proof for this audacious claim: "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe" (John 20:25).
In response, Christians have derided Thomas for his demand for evidence, calling him a pessimist and double-minded. But who can blame him? After all, didn't the other disciples get to see the risen Christ before coming to certain conviction? Thomas critics will be quick to point out his stubborn insistence that he not only see but also touch Christ, and not just his body, but his wounds as well. Obstinate skeptic! But aren't you glad there was someone there who didn't just take the word on the street, someone who valued proof, someone who knew that the wounds couldn't be faked? I am.
Put yourself in Thomas's shoes. If you had spent every day with Jesus for roughly the last one thousand days, knew his mannerisms, loved the timbre of his voice, embraced his teachings, seen his miracles, and wept at his death, and then heard from trusted friends that Jesus had risen from the dead, proving that he is not a spirit, wouldn't you be a bit skeptical? You might even demand proof. But what if Jesus appears right in front of you, and then, without a word, he quotes your earlier demands back to you: "Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe'" (John 20:27). Then you might quiver, perhaps even cower, like a child expecting a stern parental rebuke. How would you expect Jesus to respond?
Now, put yourself in the shoes of Jesus. You've spent all this time with Thomas, poured out your soul to him, prayed relentlessly for him, taught him numerous times about your impending death and resurrection, and then he doubts you, even after the other ten disciples have assured him of your resurrection and seen you eat a fish. Do you think your patience would run a little thin? I know mine would. I expect Jesus to rebuke Thomas, making him an example for everyone else, telling him to accept it and get with the program.
But that's not what Jesus does. Instead, Jesus has room for Thomas's doubt. He even invites Thomas to place his hands on his tender crucifixion wounds, to feel the truth. This scene is palpably human and curiously divine. We can identify with Thomas's response, but Jesus' tender patience is superhuman. In the History Channel's docudrama The Bible, this scene is touchingly captured with the resurrected Jesus slowly making his way over to Thomas, placing his hand gently on his shoulder, and saying: "Do not disbelieve, but believe" (John 20:27). Jesus has patience for doubt.
If you doubt the resurrection, you are in good company. Jesus understands your doubts, and he welcomes them. To those who are skeptical and struggling with belief, Jesus remains ready to receive your questions. He will listen to your doubts. He also implores belief, as he did with Thomas. He even extends a special grace to those who believe but have not seen him (John 20:29). Even so, you may still find yourself on the side of doubt. It is not easy to accept the notion that someone has risen from the dead. As a warm concession, some people embrace the historical Jesus, even admire his life example, but remain incredulous. The resurrection is a dividing line—a parting claim.
The resurrection is like a river that parts a road. People are on the road approaching the river. Arriving at the river of the resurrection, you look across it to where the road continues and see quite a few cars are parked there. In your doubt, you can't imagine how people got to the other side of the river. How did they get across? How can rational people come to the belief that Jesus died and rose from the dead?
A Global Perspective
Truth be told, the parking lot on the other side of the resurrection is overflowing. Resurrection-believing Christians are all over the world. Today there are approximately 2.2 billion Christians in the world, almost a billion more Christians than Muslims (who adhere to the world's second largest religion, Islam). Christians around the world claim a personal encounter with Christ and a relationship with a resurrected Jesus. Many of them are so devout they have suffered for their belief in the resurrected Christ. These believers come from a broad array of cultures and ethnic backgrounds. What are we to make of this? Are they all suffering from a mass delusion?
While Christianity is the world's largest (and most ethnically diverse) religion, is this reason enough to jump ship on your beliefs? Does the sheer number of believing, praying, suffering Christians make the resurrection true? No, not at all, but it should at least put it in the realm of possibility. Of course, we could also say the same thing about Islam. However, Muslims do not claim a resurrected messiah. Allah, the name for God in Islam, is not a God who suffers for humanity and conquers death. In Jesus, we see God crucified and raised to life. According to the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus is a preview of things to come (1 Corinthians 15).
The resurrection isn't restricted to Jesus either. All who have faith in him will eventually gain a resurrected body to enjoy a "resurrected" world. This is certainly a hopeful idea. And if billions of people and thousands of cultures have found hope in the resurrection, might there perhaps be something to it? After all, how did all those diverse people and ethnic groups come to believe a claim as implausible as the resurrection of Jesus?
Today, the majority of the Christian population has shifted away from the West to the South and the East. The current statistical-geographical center of global Christianity is, quite literally, Timbuktu, Mali. That's Africa. The largest Christian nation is now China. It is worth noting that the current center of global Christianity is found among cultures that affirm the supernatural. Their worldviews don't automatically preclude supernatural events. In fact, people in the global South will tell you that they experience inexplicable, transrational events on a regular basis. This is not typical in the West, where we rule out the supernatural. We rarely see extraordinary things (or at least admit to them). Instead, we begin with the assumption that the supernatural is not possible.
Is this position truly open-minded? It certainly seems biased and closed off to possibilities we may not have personally experienced. Shouldn't we at least be open to the possibility of Jesus rising from the dead? In fact, many are willing to believe in the supernatural teachings of Buddha, Vishnu, and Eckhart Tolle, but what about Jesus? If we are to consider fairly the plausibility of the resurrection—whether it happened or not we must begin with its possibility. Possibility is the only intellectually honest place to begin. But let's not abandon critical thinking. Let's begin by taking a look at what other skeptics said, those who were alive at the time of Jesus' alleged resurrection. Did they find the resurrection plausible? How did some of them get across the river of doubt?
There were two major groups of skeptics around during the time of Jesus—Jews and Greeks. Let's begin with the Greeks. For the most part, the Greeks were open to the supernatural. Although Greek philosophy evolved over time from Homeric belief in gods like Zeus to Plato's belief in philosophy like the Forms, the Greeks still believed there were forces greater than nature at work in the world. However, views of what happened at death varied. Some Greeks, like Homer, believed that a human being becomes a disembodied, witless spirit destined to roam Hades. You may remember the Underworld from high school mythology, a gloomy place of postmortem existence where souls roam in the shadows, devoid of sunlight. For Homerians, death was not a welcome prospect.
Other Greeks anticipated escape from the world at the point of death. The Epicureans believed the soul was composed of particles that disintegrated upon death. For them, there was no existence after death at all. Death was welcomed but not with the hope of life.
Those who followed Plato believed that the soul was immaterial and good. Upon death the soul was liberated from the body into a Hades altogether different. For Platonists, Hades was not a place of gloom but a place of delight, of extended philosophical discussion. In the thought of Plato, death was welcomed with the hope of escaping the body.
Excerpted from Raised? by Jonathan Dodson, Brad Watson. Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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