Peter J. Leithart reflects on the real meaning of Easter. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute, Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct Senior Fellow at New St. Andrews College. This article is from the First Things website. Leithhart acknowledges that much of it is drawn from a chapter of N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, and from Tim Keller’s The Reason for God.)
Some 2000 years ago, Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem and was placed in a nearby tomb . On the third day after His death, women came to the tomb to dress the body and found the tomb empty, heard from angels that Jesus had risen from the dead, and shortly after encountered Jesus Himself. The Jesus appeared to His disciples, and to many others.
It really happened.
Of course, there have been alternative explanations, legions of them over the 2000 years since the women first discovered that the tomb was empty. But none of the alternative explanations makes sense. It really happened.
That Jesus’ tomb was empty is as well-established a fact as anything can be. If Jesus’ body had been in the tomb, someone would have had the bright idea of producing it to prove that the apostles were lying. Even the Jewish leaders didn’t deny the tomb was empty. They acknowledged that, as they had acknowledged the fact of Jesus’ miracles, but tried to explain it away. Matthew tells us that the Jewish leaders paid the soldiers who guarded the tomb to tell everyone that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body, and this story spread widely.
But that makes no sense of the evidence we have. The disciples were as surprised as anyone that the tomb was empty. They couldn’t believe it either. Besides, not only was the tomb empty, but Jesus kept showing up in the oddest places – in rooms with locked doors, on the road to Emmaeus, then moments later in Jerusalem with his disciples. The body-stealing theory doesn’t wash.
Modern people, especially scholars, have concocted similar stories to explain the events of Easter. The alternative explanations keep coming. According to some, belief in the resurrection was common among gullible ancient people. We can flip a switch and turn on an electric light; we can click a button and send an instant communication to someone on the other side of the world; we can climb into a metal tube and a few hours later emerge in Paris, or on the moon. Ancient people might have believed that bodies popped from graves regularly, but we can’t. We’re too sophisticated to believe that dead people come back to life.
This too is nonsense, and arrogant nonsense at that. Ancient people had eyes and brains, and they could without much difficulty conclude that dead bodies normally stay dead. For many ancients, the idea of a body coming back to life was not only impossible; it was appalling. Their whole hope was that they could get rid of their bodies once and for all. Death was a liberation, the soul’s release from the prison of the body. News of resurrection would not be good news.
The real divide, NT Wright reminds us, is not between ancient and modern, but between Jewish-Christian and everyone else. Many of the Jews in Jesus’ time did believe in the resurrection of the body. But Jews knew that resurrection is not a daily occurrence. One of the central beliefs of the early Christians was that dead people normally stayed dead. That’s what made Jesus’ resurrection so astounding.
But the alternative explanations keep coming. According to others, the disciples saw visions of Jesus and interpreted them as bodily appearances. Distraught in their grief over Jesus’ failure, they adjusted the world so they could live with the disappointment. It was a kind of wish-fulfillment: They were so hopeful that Jesus would rise from the dead that they projected their hopes onto the world.
Visions and dreams of the dead were known in the ancient world, and still occur today. But dreams and visions such as this do not give rise to the belief that the person is risen from the dead. Quite the contrary: If we have a vision or dream of a loved one who has died, the vision or dream is confirmation that they are still dead.
Once again, the disciples were as surprised as anyone at the news of Jesus’ resurrection. They knew all about dead bodies, and they knew all about dead messiahs. Messiahs were common, and the Romans captured and killed many of them. But “in not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming that their hero had been raised from the dead . . . . Jewish revolutionaries whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest themselves, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option. Unless, of course, he was” (Wright, Who Was Jesus?). Despite Jesus’ repeated teaching about His resurrection, the disciples were not hoping for it. They didn’t project their hopes because they were hopeless.
But the alternative explanations keep coming. According to still others, the early Christians used Old Testament stories and archetypes and symbols to explain their experience of Jesus. They had faith in Jesus, and felt that Jesus was still with them, and then made up stories out of Old Testament materials to express that faith.
But this fails to explain in any number of respects. If Jesus had died and not risen, the disciples would have concluded that Jesus’ mission had ended. They would have concluded that their hopes were wrong - that Jesus was not the son of David they expected. A dead Messiah was, for Jewish belief, a failed Messiah. So, faith in Jesus could not come before belief in His resurrection. Belief in the resurrection must have come first.
It fails too because the resurrection accounts in the gospels are NOT constructed out of scraps of the Old Testament and traditional Judaism. Jesus was raised on the third day, as the creed says, according to the Scriptures. But the resurrection accounts don’t read as stories made from Old Testament materials. Would a first-century Jew have told a story in which women were the first to learn of the resurrection and encounter the risen Christ? Hardly. Would first-century Jews have described Jesus in the matter-of-fact way they do? Wouldn’t they have expected a risen Jesus to be glowing with uncreated light as He did at His transfiguration?
Besides, the Jews who believed in resurrection saw it as a national hope, a hope for the restoration of Israel. “Resurrection was not a private experience” (Wright), but was a hope for “the complete renewal of the whole world” (Tim Keller). So, “if someone had said to any first-century Jew, ‘So-and-so has been resurrected from the dead!’ the response would be, ‘Are you crazy? How could that be? Has disease and death ended? Is true justice established in the world? Has the wolf lain down with the lamb?” (Keller). Jews would not have naturally gravitated toward a story of a single man rising from the dead, a resurrection that apparently left the world more or less as it had always been.
None of the alternative explanations works. None of them can explain the rise of early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the persistence of belief in Jesus in the face of massive murderous threats, the dramatic change in the disciples that took place after Easter and Pentecost.
The only plausible explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead. The only explanation that fits the evidence is that it really happened.
And if it really happened, since it really happened, then the world is a very different place than we might have thought. If it really happened, then the world is the kind of place where there is not only life after death, a disembodied existence in heaven, but what NT Wright calls “life after life after death,” embodied life in a new heavens and new earth. Since it really happened, then the post-Enlightenment effort to explain the world by scientific naturalism will never be successful. Things happen that our science cannot explain, and there is more in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in philosophy.
Since it really happened, then the power of tyrants is shattered. The worst the tyrant can do, his ultimate threat, is to kill. The power of tyranny is the power of death. But since death is reversible, since dead people do come back to life after life after death, then the tyrant’s sword is finally useless and certainly not fearsome.
Since it really happened, then Jesus is who He always said He was, the Son of God, the King who would sit on the throne of David. If it really happened, Jesus is sitting on that throne right now, ruling all things. He is the new KURIOS, the new world ruler, the new emperor, to whom all principalities and powers are called to submit. Since it really happened, then the universe is being governed by Jesus, and there is no corner of the globe, no edge of the universe, where He is not king. Nothing is outside His rule, and we have nothing to fear.
Since it really happened, we have been given a preview of the end of the age. Jews believed that resurrection was an event of the end, which it is. But the end has already begun. Jesus has been raised, the firstfruits of the resurrection, and that means that the end has come. The end will be resurrection, restoration, a new creation. The end will not be disembodied spirits in a disembodied world. The end will be this world transfigured into the new creation, into a new heavens and new earth.
Since it really happened, then no situation, and no person, are hopeless. No marriage is beyond repair, no child beyond recovery, no pagan beyond the reach of the gospel, no sin beyond forgiveness, no womb permanently sealed, no one and nothing beyond restoration. Since it really happened, giving up is simply not an option, because if bodily death is reversible, so are all the other little deaths that we suffer in life. Since it really happened, hope is not a delusion, but the driving power of abundant life.
Since it really happened, then we’ve got a load of work, because not everyone has heard the news that God has conquered death. Jesus is King and Lord, and He sends us out to announce that He rule. He establishes the church to be the first form and bearer of His kingdom. He intends to overcome all evil and sin, all injustice and wickedness, and calls us in the power of His resurrection to share in His war against all that damages His good creation.
Go to the darkest shanty town of the darkest city on the darkest continent, and there too the Risen Jesus is king. Wade into the waste of the most ruined life, and there too Jesus is the Living Lord. Sort through the wreckage your own sin has caused in your own life, face it in faith and hope, and you will see resurrection life at work through the Spirit, and the liberating power of God’s forgiveness.