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The Greatest...Surprise?

Now we come to the crunch. For we are told that when men had rejected and crucified Jesus, God publicly set his seal on him by raising him from the dead! However improbable such an event may seem, the evidence for his resurrection continues to withstand the most careful scrutiny. In outline the facts are these:

  • Following his death, thousands came to believe he was alive again. It was this infectious belief that spread like wildfire across the ancient world.
  • The belief could have been snuffed out at source if the Romans or the Jews had displayed Christ's corpse, but the body was not produced.
  • More than 500 people were said to have seen him on one occasion. Individuals of different types and temperaments said they had met him and stuck to their story even though it cost them their lives. Whatever had actually happened, they became convinced he had risen. Committed to the importance of truthfulness, they said this was the greatest truth of all: 'God has raised Jesus from the dead'.
  • The central claims that he vacated the tomb on the third day and appeared to his disciples are part of the little creed referred to earlier, which was composed within a few years of the events themselves. It is the earliest official statement of what Christians believed. We are not dealing here with some wishful thinking which developed a generation later.
  • No modern understanding of hallucinations or illusions can begin to make sense of the resurrection appearances - and even if they could, they offer no explanation to account for the missing body.

To explain away all the details you would have to imagine a sequence of events such as this:

He didn't actually die on the cross. He somehow recovered, removing the burial bindings and the stone which lay in front of the tomb. He managed to pass sleeping guards and deceived his naive followers into believing that he had conquered death, even though he remained mortally wounded. Finally, he must have died somewhere presumably without anyone ever knowing - for pilgrims never flocked to his tomb.

Such an explanation is difficult to believe at every point - and could hardly have been the launching pad for the extraordinary lift-off of the early church.

The other explanation that fits all the facts - the greatest teacher, living the finest life, performing the most astonishing deeds, making the highest claims and defeating even death itself - is the Christian conclusion that here in the centre of history God has uniquely made himself known, and has done so in personal terms that anyone can understand.

The alternatives are sharply focussed. Either Christ was raised from the dead or he wasn't. He either vacated the tomb as reported or he remained dead despite the stories. Such an event could not have been true for some people but not for others, neither could the truth of the matter be influenced by personal preference! If it is true, it is true for everyone - whether we like it or not..

Furthermore, everything hangs on it! This was quite clear to the apostle Paul who wrote: 'If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless. We are witnesses who have committed perjury before God... and you are still in your sins. We are the most unfortunate of all people.' In saying that he would have committed perjury before God, Paul implies that he saw himself as giving his evidence under oath. It speaks about his personal integrity and the seriousness of what he is saying. It is one thing to ask if you or I would ever commit perjury. It is another thing to ask if the great apostle Paul did.

The evidence, then, for believing in God is focused here in the person of the risen Christ. As John wrote in his Gospel, 'No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made him known'.

'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that all who put their trust in him might not perish but have eternal life.'

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