Everett A. Henes
There are plenty of issues within the church over which we can disagree. The doctrine of the Resurrection, however, is not one of those issues. The historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is essential to Christianity.
Addressing this question, J. Gresham Machen writes, “The great weapon with which the disciples of Jesus set out to conquer the world was not a mere comprehension of eternal principles; it was an historical message, an account of something that had recently happened, it was the message, ‘He is risen’ ” (Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 28–29).
The historical Resurrection, Machen explains, makes all the difference. The disciples were not merely convinced that Jesus had risen in their hearts. He had actually risen from the dead and had appeared to them as proof. For that reason, they were called to be reliable witnesses to this fact (Acts 1:8).
Of course, Machen is not alone in putting such an emphasis upon the historicity of the Resurrection. The apostle Paul declares to the church at Corinth, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:14, 17). It is not merely a matter of personal opinion, then, whether or not Jesus physically rose from the grave. For Christians, it is something that we confess as absolute truth.
This does not mean, however, that everyone has believed the story of the Resurrection. It is often thought that miracles were accepted in the days before science supposedly disproved such things. C. S. Lewis spoke of this as chronological snobbery. This is the view that previous generations were more superstitious and less intelligent than our own. However, our age is not the first to doubt the occurrence of miracles, particularly the resurrection of Christ.
When we turn to the Bible, we find that reactions to Christ’s resurrection are varied. What they all have in common is initial surprise and misunderstanding, and sometimes there was even outright doubt. This was for the simple reason that, contrary to modern skeptics, people in the first century did not believe that people rose from the dead. This sort of response to the Resurrection is seen in several instances. We can examine an example of each: surprise, misunderstanding, and doubt.
It was early on that Resurrection Day when Mary Magdalene and other women brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body. They had been there, near the cross, when he died. They had even followed those who took him to the tomb, so they would know where to go to do this (Luke 23:55). Jesus had died on a Friday, and they could not come to anoint his body on the Sabbath, so they waited until early Sunday morning to make the journey.
As they approached the tomb, discussing who would roll the stone away so they could get in, they came upon a startling scene. There was a young man (whom they didn’t know to be an angel) dressed in a white robe and sitting by the tomb. Mark tells us that the women were alarmed. Who could have done such a thing to their Lord’s burial place? The angel told them not to be alarmed, because Jesus had risen. He then instructed them to go and tell the disciples about what had taken place. Mark 16:8 gives us their response: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Despite the Old Testament promises of the Resurrection and despite Jesus’ own testimony to his disciples that he would rise from the dead, they did not grasp at this time what had taken place. Instead, they were filled with fear and trembling. This was hardly the response of an ancient superstitious people. On the contrary, their response is understandable, given what they had expected to find at the tomb. Their surprise and fear, though, turned to joy when the Lord himself appeared to them (Matt. 28:9–10).
The picture of the disciples misunderstanding what had taken place comes from Luke 24 and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. There we learn that two disciples were walking together and talking about what had taken place in the preceding days (the trial, conviction, and death of Jesus). Without their knowing who he was, Jesus himself joined them in their walk and asked them what they were talking about and why they were so sad. Dismayed at the stranger’s question, Cleopas responded, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (v. 18).
Upon further questioning by Jesus, the disciples explained how they “had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21). But now that Jesus was dead, even though his body was missing from the tomb, they felt that hope was gone. They misunderstood so much about what needed to take place. So Jesus told them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (vv. 25–26).
In Luke’s gospel, the word “necessary” is an important one that often occurs when Jesus speaks of the works that he must accomplish. It was necessary, he said as a child, for him to be in his Father’s house (Luke 2:49). Later he would declare that it was necessary for him to preach the good news of the kingdom of God (4:43). Just as it was necessary in those situations, so it was also necessary for Jesus to die. The disciples misunderstood because they believed that the death of Jesus meant the end of everything he had promised. The opposite, though, was true. The death and resurrection of Jesus meant that everything God had promised, from the very beginning, would come to pass. Once their eyes were opened, Jesus vanished. They ran to tell the others, and it was there that Jesus appeared to the majority of the disciples.
A final example of reacting to the Resurrection is found in John 20:24–29. This is the famous incident with “Doubting Thomas.” The other disciples had already seen the risen Christ. They had already believed in the Resurrection. The exception to this, we learn in verse 24, was Thomas, who was also called Didymus. He had not been with them when Jesus previously appeared. They assured him that Jesus had risen from the dead, but Thomas responded, “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” (v. 25). Thomas, we can say, was an empiricist when it came to validating the resurrection of Jesus. The others had reported to him that they had seen the risen Lord with their own eyes. But Thomas wanted more. He wanted to touch the wounds that Jesus sustained through the course of the crucifixion. His position could not be stronger: “Unless I see … I will never believe.”
As the meeting in that room continued, Jesus appeared and stood among them. He turned to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27). Jesus offered him the very thing that he requested. It wasn’t because Thomas had lacked the evidence; rather, it had more to do with his own unbelief.
However, Thomas’s response was surprising. We would expect him to walk up to the Lord and examine all of the wounds he had sustained, to make certain it was him. After all, that’s what he said he wanted. He needed to see and touch. But there, in the presence of the risen Christ, his eyes were opened in a different way. Instead, Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). He no longer doubted, but believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.
These accounts are not stories that we set aside as fables or myths, like many do. They are evidences of the Resurrection itself. But they are evidences that only work within the framework of Christianity itself. One must believe that God has created the world and that he upholds, sustains, and governs all things by his powerful word. Moreover, one must also believe that Jesus is the one sent by the Father to redeem a people for himself (Eph. 1). He is the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8 KJV).
Our final example provides us with the Bible’s own reasoning for including these accounts. John writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31). Luke writes something similar at the beginning of his gospel (Luke 1:1–4).
The accounts that we have reviewed confront us with an absolute claim: Christ has risen from the dead. Without this reality, there is no forgiveness of sins. The question that remains is: How will we respond?
The author is pastor of Hillsdale OPC in Hillsdale, Mich. Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the ESV. New Horizons, April 2012.