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He has been raised: Why not believe it?

According to Mark (16:1-8) the women went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning and found it empty. A young man dressed in a white robe, obviously a heavenly messenger, was sitting there and they were frightened.

Though he told them to take a message to the disciples they fled from the tomb in terror and amazement and, at least, for some time, they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. Who wouldn't be afraid, struck with a deep sense of awe, wondering in both hope and dread what it could mean.

The empty tomb is perhaps the hardest thing of all to accept in this strangely contradictory world today. It is not so difficult for people to believe in some kind of spiritual resurrection, but the disappearance of the body, unless it was stolen in spite of the guard of soldiers, is not easy to fit into our view of the physical world. I don't know how you find it, though I know some who worship here sincerely seeking God find belief in the resurrection difficult. For others it is a question of what kind of resurrection we are talking about.

There is plenty of evidence that people who knew Jesus well believed that they met with him after he had died. We read some evidence of this today: Peter's preaching recorded in Acts [eg 10:34-43], and Paul's letters, especially where he refers to how he had handed on what he himself had received concerning the witnesses to the resurrection [1 Corinthians 15]. These witnesses included his closest friends and others who did not know him so well: they included Mary Magdalene, Peter, the disciples as a group and many others, Paul says as many as 500. We find quite detailed accounts in the gospels [Mark 16, Matthew 28, Luke 24, John 20 and 21]. Many of these records are independent of one another, and some are derived from several independent sources. The various gospels and letters, though some influenced others before they reached their final written form, are records of the beliefs of the church in different, quite widely separated centres for several generations before they were all brought together in what we know as the New Testament. There is even some reference in literature outside the Bible, and at an early date, to the fact the followers of Jesus believed he has risen from the dead.

Given the extent of this evidence of what they believed and very fact of their survival as a loyal confident group of followers after his death, and their great power to influence others, it is not at all unreasonable to believe that they did at least have a sincere belief in his resurrection. You might ask whether they were mistaken, you might perhaps want to claim that what they saw wasn't what they thought it was, and I will come back to that, but it is very difficult given an open mind on the evidence to deny that people who should have known what they were talking about did sincerely believe what they passed on to others of their own experience. To reject their testimony, you would need to have good reason to think they were either mistaken or deliberately deceptive. As to deceit, is the fruit of their labour what you would expect of blatantly dishonest people? Their integrity has the ring of truth about it, not least in their sacrificial service of others.

Why is disbelief so attractive?

We have come through a period of liberalism, a time, I think which is now coming to an end, in which teachers of the faith, and listeners wishing to believe in a way that is compatible with modern thinking, went to great lengths to rationalize accounts of Jesus appearing alive after he had died, so as to give some acceptable humanistic explanation of what is recorded. Such compromise with the current wisdom of the age is the beginning of disbelief, because it assumes that present day views of the world must necessarily have more authority than the witness of the apostles. If you test one thing by reference to another then one has less authority than the other. Once you start saying that you will accept only the evidence that fits with your preconceived ideas, you are well down the road to skepticism. Then, once disbelief is established, alternative explanations of what people reported are sought.

In support of non-believers who are anti-Christian, and who must begin their disbelief by denying the resurrection, there is an extraordinary amount of popular literature offering all sorts of crazy explanations, like those of Barbara Thiering, or "The Passover Plot", or indeed in 2005-6 Don Brown in the "Da Vinci Code" and associated fantasies. They all involve complex conspiracies, setting aside the evidence from the early church and imagining plots to deceive people who would have known Jesus very well. Why is it that people who resist spending an hour or two to read the gospel accounts will spent money on those books and devote many hours to studying them? Most of these theories only make sense if you start from the position that the gospel record cannot be true, so they seek to invent explanations of what is found in scripture because they believe it cannot be true. It is strange mixture of skepticism and credulity.

Why is it that there is such a widespread belief today in "alternatives"? I am told by people who work in the book trade that in bookshops anything that is "alternative" sells well. Why? Why do books on ancient primitive religions, or "new age", or almost any kind of superstition, sell very well in this modern "scientific" age. Why do people believe in astrology, for which it is hard to find any objective evidence, or even in UFOs taking people off to other places. Such beliefs can have tragic results as we have seen from time to time in the news of many people losing their lives in cults with "alternative" beliefs? Why is any alternative to a plain ordinary mainstream Christian view preferred? When I have looked into alternative cults that have led people to their deaths it has struck me as significant they put up front an attack on "organised religions", as "killers of souls", when they were themselves far more organised for death than one would wish any human group to be. Why should there be such a readiness to believe the most crazy things, like UFOs coming with a comet, and yet have such an intense disbelief, even hatred of the Christian faith?

I think the answer is that God has made us with a capacity for faith, as spiritual beings capable of entering into a relationship with himself. It is in our nature as human beings to have faith, to trust in God, and ultimately to love God, to adore and serve him in fellowship with other spiritual beings. We get into trouble when we deny our true nature as creatures with the potential to become children of God. To put it another way, people are inescapably religious, whether we like it or not. If you don't have good religion, you will have bad religion, even if you have to make a religion out of not having one. So the age of "scientific skepticism" has become a new age of superstition. What a confusion we have when people who can make a living out of computers, the modern icons of scientific thought, end up expressing their deepest beliefs and their autonomy as self-conscious, self-determining individuals by surrendering their lives in a closely organised ritual of death in hope of escape to another world. It is the very antithesis of progress, going back hundreds of years.

Why not be open to the possibility of resurrection?

Would it not be more sensible to make use of your capacity for belief by accepting what God has provided for you, rather than your trying to cook up some set of beliefs for yourself. That is what all this search for alternatives is. A preference for our own way, rather than God's way. Do we not know that God has so made us that we cannot be compelled to believe the truth? But we can chose to accept the truth that God offers. We are so often too proud to accept what God has offered to us. It is that pride in ourselves, ultimately as our own gods, which leads to alterative beliefs, the intense emotion and strange irrationality, with which the claims of God are rejected in favour of various alternative forms of spirituality, ideologies or "designer religions". Does it not make more sense to accept our being creatures who are able to live in fellowship with our Creator as he is made known to us in Jesus Christ?

Instead of starting with disbelief and a preference for what we human beings can do for ourselves, why not come to the evidence with an open mind, ready to discover what may be offered to you. If you are ready to accept it you will find that he offers you a way of fulfilling your potential to become a child of God. If you can believe that Jesus came through death, that no evil even death could defeat his love of humanity, so that through his sacrifice he is able to draw all people to himself, then you can believe that you too can be raised to a new life after death and know God in fellowship with Christ and those who are joined with him in faith. The way is open for you to follow, if you can believe that he went through it first. On the other hand if you do not believe that it was possible for him to go through ahead of you, what hope do you have? Would it not be very foolish to rule out the possibility in advance just because miracles seem a little old fashioned? If you are inclined to doubt, why not come to the evidence ready to learn the truth whatever it may be? Why close your mind in advance when the truth might be better than you could have imagined.

You can work on it yourself. It is worth the effort. I cannot go over it all now. It is there in the scriptures (in the references I gave at the beginning and widely scattered in other places) and in the experience of Christian people through the ages in their awareness of Christ's presence. As we will sing in a few minutes, it is experienced in the fellowship, most clearly at the Lord's table in the holy communion, and in the service of others.

Yes, you might say, I can understand people knowing God in the person of Christ through a spiritual experience of his presence in acts of devotion, and even symbolically in serving others, especially if it is done in his name, but is not resurrection more than that? What about the empty tomb? As far as the witness of the apostles in the scriptures is concerned, you will see that the appearance of the risen body of Jesus was different enough from his previous earthly appearance for him not to be easily recognized, at least on some occasions, even by those who knew him best. For example, Mary (John 20:15) thought he was the gardener until he called her by name. The two who walked with him in the road to Emmaus talked with him at length and recognised him only when at table he broke the bread, and then he vanished from their sight (Luke 24:13-31). He even appeared in a closed room when the doors were locked (John 20:26).

We do not know what the body of his resurrection was like. According to Paul we should expect a risen body, our own included, to be different from our earthly bodies, just as the life of a new plant is in a difference form the life from the seed that was sown.

Paul draws a close parallel between the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of our resurrection to a new life (see 1 Cor 15:12-19) so we should not expect him to have believed that the body of Christ's resurrection was the same as his earthy body.

We don't know what Paul saw on the road to Damascus or later. We are only told that he saw a blinding light and heard Jesus speak to him. Yet the disciples were sure they had not seen a ghost for he invited them to touch him and he eat food in their presence. (Luke 24:37-43). They remembered that he challenged Thomas when he doubted to touch him (John 20:27), and John's first letter begins with the testimony of their sensory experience, probably in reference to both his earthly life and resurrection:

The evidence is that they had no doubt that they met him again in some kind of earthly presence, not only a disembodied spirit, and there was an empty tomb, but we do not know the form in which he appeared to them. There is a mystery that must remain, at least for now. It was probably the same for them, but the reality of their experience was a powerful inspiration, sufficient to send them out to the ends of the earth, so that we too might be ready to look for him and to greet him in awe and wonder, ready to worship and serve him as the one who made it possible for us to know God and enjoy him for ever.

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