Louis Berkhof writes, ‘For modern liberal theology the resurrection of Jesus, except in the sense of a spiritual survival, has no real importance for the Christian faith. Belief in the bodily resurrection is not essential [they say] but can very well be dropped without affecting the Christian religion’ (Systematic Theologyp.349).
Is that true? Or would Christ’s failure to rise from the dead be catastrophic for our Christian faith?
Can we trust the New Testament?
In answering these questions we must begin with the New Testament Scriptures. What is at stake here is their trustworthiness. The resurrection of Jesus permeates the New Testament.
In each of the four Gospels, for example, we have a resurrection narrative – a historic account of the rising of Jesus to life and his appearances to his disciples.
In the book of Acts the resurrection is the dominant theme of apostolic preaching, while in the epistles it undergirds all that is written. The authors of these letters were apostles of the risen Christ – writing to his church on his behalf. They unfolded the riches of his salvation, declared the details of his purpose, rebutted the errors of his opponents, and explained his future plans.
The resurrection is the great presupposition of all their writing. If, therefore, it didn’t really happen, the New Testament’s trustworthiness is in ruins. We have no basis for placing confidence in it.
Can we trust Christ?
Then there is the Lord himself. What are we to think of our great Teacher if the resurrection is a myth? Over and over again he said that although the authorities would put him to death, he would rise again on the third day.
As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish (he claimed) so the Son of Man would be three days and three nights in the grave. If men destroyed the temple of his body he would raise it again in three days. So Jesus taught. If he then remained in the grave, how impossible it is to regard him as an authoritative and infallible guide to truth!
But the truth or otherwise of Jesus’ resurrection has deeper implications – it profoundly impacts his role as Saviour. Before he breathed his last he cried, ‘It is finished!’ All that needed to be done to propitiate God’s wrath and save his people from their sins had been accomplished.
But was he right? Had he actually done enough? Not if he didn’t afterwards rise from the dead! If Jesus remained under the power of death he was still under judgement – receiving the wages of sin. The wrath of God was not yet exhausted, there was still punishment to bear, and the salvation of sinners was not yet fully accomplished.
Can we trust our salvation?
This in turn has profound implications for our salvation. How plainly Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 15. ‘If Christ has not been raised,’ he declares, ‘our preaching is useless and so is your faith’ (v. 4). Later he says it again: ‘If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (v.17).
And no wonder! The Christian’s confidence for salvation is wholly in Jesus. But if he is actually dead, such confidence is horribly misplaced. A ‘Saviour’ who remains in the grave has failed to atone for our sins and is in no position to save us. And that would spell death for our Christian hope.
The return of Christ from heaven (in the same manner as his disciples saw him enter heaven); the believer’s resurrection after the pattern of Christ’s own resurrection; the possession of a body as glorious as his – all this is stripped from us if Christ is still dead.
No uncertain voice
In answering our opening question – How important is the resurrection of Christ? – the Bible speaks with no uncertain voice. It tells us plainly that it is allimportant. The nineteenth-century Scottish theologian Ralph Wardlaw put it thus: ‘The resurrection is manifestly one of the main pillars of the Christian edifice. Were it overthrown, the entire structure would infallibly come to ruin’ (Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, p.616).
Against this background you can appreciate why our Lord acted as he did after the resurrection. Luke tells us that Jesus ‘presented himself alive after his suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by [his disciples] during forty days’ (Acts 1:3).
Since his resurrection was so foundational to the Christian faith, he was anxious to put its truth beyond all doubt. So he did not return to heaven immediately. He remained with the disciples for no fewer than forty days and gave them a whole series of convincing proofs that he really was alive.
As we survey the New Testament records we find that there are basically three strands to the evidence for the resurrection: the empty tomb, the message of the angels and the appearances of the risen Jesus.
There are many indications in the Gospels that the Lord’s resurrection was not expected by his followers. One example is the behaviour of the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee.
We read, ‘On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb’ (Luke 24:1). These spices were for the Lord’s dead body, and it was a dead body they expected to find.
But it wasn’t there. ‘They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,’ says Luke, ‘but when they entered they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus’. The tomb was empty.
An empty tomb is not, of course, proof of resurrection. ‘If, for instance, a corpse was to go missing from a mortuary,’ one writer points out, ‘the empty mortuary would in itself be no evidence of resurrection. Considered by itself, the empty tomb was ambiguous testimony, capable of several different interpretations’ (Murray J. Harris, Easter in Durham, p.23).
What did it mean?
You can see this from the Gospel narratives. When, for example, the risen Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene, she thought he was the gardener and said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him’ (John 20:15).
Far from proving that Jesus was alive, the empty tomb suggested to Mary an entirely natural explanation. But it was not left unexplained. Angels were sent from heaven to account for its emptiness!
Addressing the women who came bearing their spices they said, ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!’ (Luke 24:5-6). Then they reminded the women that this was exactly what Jesus had promised.
But even this was not enough. The disciples would have to see Jesus for themselves before they were convinced that he was alive. So, that same evening, as the disciples gathered behind locked doors in fear of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and spoke to them.
Lest they should think they were seeing a ghost, he showed them his hands and his feet and ate with them. This really was their Master!
Beyond all dispute
A week later, when Thomas was present, he appeared again. Next he appeared to his disciples by the seashore and later still on a mountain in Galilee where he gave them the Great Commission.
He appeared to individuals like Mary Magdalene and Peter and to two disciples making their way to Emmaus. He appeared frequently to the apostles as a group, and on one occasion to ‘more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time’ (1 Corinthians 15:6).
And it was these appearances that clinched the reality of his resurrection. Together with the fact of the empty tomb and the message of the angels, they put the matter beyond all dispute.
Christianity has a living Saviour. The first Christians were persuaded of it through the proofs of the resurrection, as we are persuaded today through the testimony of the Scriptures.
With this confidence we invite sinners to turn from their sins and trust in Christ – who though he was dead is now very much alive. Those who do so will find their trust is not misplaced.