Why I believe in God (5): The Empty Tomb
Resumé of previous articles
None of us argues their way to faith, but after we’ve come to faith, we may well find that we have to justify it to ourselves. But how?
- Because we recognise that the Apostle Paul was absolutely right when he spoke of a sense of deity being indelibly inscribed on every human heart.
- Because of the bankruptcy of the alternatives to belief in God. It is hard to believe that before there was a world there was absolutely nothing; and equally hard to believe that before there was a world there was some eternal, inanimate, self-existent ‘matter’ which exploded to produce the beautiful and ordered universe science explores today.
- Because God has left his footprints not only in the physical creation but in human history, and particularly in the story of his people, Israel. The Exodus and the other great moments of Old Testament history remind us that God not only made the world, but remains engaged with it. People actually met him and spoke with him.
- Because God personally showed himself in history when his Son, Jesus Christ, took our nature and lived among us a fully human life in which there shines the glory of the divine
When men crucified Jesus, they thought that would be the last word. Even his disciples thought the same, and went home disconsolate and demoralised. It turned out, however, to be only the word before the last. God would have the last word, the Empty Tomb, and it spoke a great twofold message. It declared God’s vindication of his disgraced Son; and it proclaimed in the most unmistakeable terms that behind the natural sequence of cause and effect there lies a living, loving and powerful Intelligence who can interrupt and even reverse the sequence at will.
Here again we move not in the realm of philosophy but in the realm of history, and specifically in the records of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
But before looking at these we should pause over another remarkable appearance: the Transfiguration. There are accounts of it in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Mt. 17:1 – 13, Mark 9:2 – 13, Luke 9:28 - 36), but the stand-out account is the personal recollection of the Apostle Peter as recorded in 2 Peter 1:16 – 18. For him, the story was no cleverly devised fable. He was personally present, as were James and John, and he saw with his own eyes the transformation in the appearance of the Lord as the glory of the divine, normally veiled by his lowly human condition, shone momentarily in his human form. Never had they seen such brightness, and never had they been more afraid or more disorientated.
But not only had they seen something extraordinary. They had also heard something extraordinary: the voice of God speaking from the Majestic Glory and bearing unforgettable testimony to the honour and excellence of his Son. ‘This,’ said the Voice, ‘is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’ (Mk. 9:7).
We are separated from this moment by what the 18th century German thinker, Gotthold Lessing, called ‘the broad ugly ditch of history’; but Peter wasn’t. He was there, he knew what he had seen, and he knew what he had heard, and now he is resolved to devote what is left of his life to ensuring that the church never forgets it (2 Pet. 1:15); and so sure was he, and so certain, that he would eventually seal his witness with his life.
Here again is history testifying to the extraordinary and pointing to a glory which was there before ever there was a world; and not only so, but a glory which helps us understand how there can be a world at all.
It would have been good, thought Peter, in his very human way, to remain on the mountain where Christ’s glory shone so brightly and their own prospects seemed so promising. But they couldn’t. Down they had to go, and to a very different world in which the ‘beloved Son’ would very soon be betrayed, arrested, condemned, crucified and deserted even by God himself. By nightfall on Good Friday he would lie cold, lifeless and unrecognisable in a borrowed tomb. The world was rid of Jesus, the most turbulent of all prophets.
But it wasn’t. The women who had followed him from Galilee had taken careful note of where he was buried and waited impatiently for the Sabbath to be over so that they could go and anoint his body (Mk. 16:1 – 8). Their names (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) are carefully recorded, making it easy to falsify their story had it not been true; and their behaviour on Easter morning has the moments of irrationality we might expect in people who have lost a loved one in appalling circumstances and aren’t really in control of their own grief. After all, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had already anointed the body (Jn. 19:39 – 40); and then there was that enormous stone at the mouth of the tomb. They knew they could never move it, yet they pressed on regardless.
But when they reached the tomb an awesome sight confronted them. Not only had the stone been moved, but when they entered the burial-place they saw an angel calmly sitting there, all in white. It tried to calm their fears: ‘You’re looking for Jesus, the One who was crucified. He’s not here. Look! That’s where they laid him, but the place is empty.’ (MK. 16: 6). There was nothing there, and never since that day has anyone been able to put anything there. Jesus’ tomb remains a void which the best efforts of the Jewish and Roman authorities, sceptical historians and radical biblical scholars have never been able to fill. Contemporary records remain silent, none daring to offer any suggestion as to where it might, after all, be lying. Nor has anyone been able to offer a better account for its disappearance than the one offered by the angel: ‘He has risen,’ (Mark 16:6). And when Mark tells us that the women fled ‘for they were afraid’, the emotion is perfectly natural. They had encountered not only the unexpected and the amazing, but the seriously scary and uncanny: the eruption of the divine into human history. And everything in the story fits.
Resurrections aren’t proved by voids
But just as wars aren’t won by evacuations, resurrections aren’t proved by voids. The Empty Tomb was followed by a series of appearances by the risen Christ. We have no reason to think that any of those to whom he appeared was a victim of wishful thinking. Not one of Jesus’ followers expected ever to see him again. Nor were the appearances confined to particular types of individual, or groups, or locations. He was seen by a remarkably diverse range of people: Mary Magdalene; Peter and John; the Eleven all gathered together; the two disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus; James, Jesus’ brother, who had once thought him mad (Mk. 3:21); and Thomas, who refused point-bank to believe the story told by his colleagues (Jn. 20:25). On one occasion he was seen by a gathering of 500 people (1 Cor.15:6), many of whom, according to St. Paul, were still living when he wrote his First Epistle to the Corinthians some time before 60 a.d. Had the case been subjected to a judicial review, it would have taken many, many months to hear the testimonies, cross-examine the witnesses and listen to the hostile testimony of expert psychiatrists arguing that each of the 500-plus eye-witnesses was as mad as a March hare.
Clearly, the personalities of those privileged to see the risen Christ varied widely, but there is no evidence whatever that any of them was neurotic or delusional; and certainly no evidence that these appearances turned them into incoherent fanatics. On the contrary, they went on to produce the world’s most enduring and widely read literature. Few today could give the names of the great Roman writers of the first century: millions are familiar with Matthew, Peter and John, all of whom saw the risen Christ and went on to write letters and histories which have stimulated the world’s finest minds for centuries. Besides, as is often remarked, they were prepared not only to tell what they had seen, but to suffer and die for it: not simply because they knew it to be true, but because they believed that the One they had seen was the very one before whom they would stand on the day of final judgement.
But no less remarkable than the variety of personalities to whom Christ appeared is the
variety of circumstances. He appeared to Mary Magdalene in the very garden in which he had been buried (and in such a lowly form that she mistook him for the gardener). That same evening he met up with two men on the road to Emmaus: men who had clearly looked to him as the Messiah, and whose hopes had been cruelly dashed by the crucifixion. They immediately retraced their footsteps and returned to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what they had seen, only to find that they already knew that the Lord had risen; and as they discussed the news, Jesus suddenly stood among them, even though the doors were locked. Thomas wasn’t present on that occasion, and when told the story, he dismissed it instantly, declaring that unless he could see and feel for himself the marks of the nails in Jesus’ body, he would never believe. A week later, Jesus again appears to the disciples, still meeting behind closed doors. This time Thomas is present, and Jesus offers him the visible, physical proof he had laid down as a condition of believing. Ashamed of his doubts, Thomas can only exclaim, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (Jn. 20:27)
John (Jn. 21:1 – 14) tells of another, remarkably leisurely, occasion when, early one morning, Jesus revealed himself to a group of disciples by the Sea of Galilee. They were fishing, and he stood on the shore, unrecognised. When they landed, he approached them and asked if they had any fish. No! They had caught nothing. He told them to change their tactics and cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They take a huge haul, and only then do they recognise that it is the Lord. When they return to land they find that he has already prepared a barbecue, and they enjoy a hearty breakfast.
It is remarkable that the Gospel of John, which begins with a sublime proclamation of Christ as the eternal Word of God, should end with this, the most physical of all the New Testament accounts of the resurrection.
On this occasion Jesus clearly spent considerable time with the disciples, and it is clear from the opening chapter of Acts that this was not unusual. In the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension he resumed his teaching ministry, patiently clarifying what he had earlier taught about the kingdom of God, commissioning them as his witnesses, making plain the universal range of their mission, promising that they would shortly be empowered for this mission by the Holy Spirit, and directing them to remain in Jerusalem till that promise was fulfilled (Acts 1:1 – 9). There is nothing rushed here: his classes even left time for questions (and sometimes not very apt ones, Acts 1:6 – 8).
The series of resurrection appearances ends with the Ascension of Jesus, recorded in Lk. 24:50 – 53 and Acts 1:9 – 11. Gathered at Bethany, the disciples receive Jesus’ final benediction and stand transfixed, gazing heavenwards till a cloud (the symbol of the divine presence) takes him out of their sight. But whereas the women on Easter morning had fled from the tomb traumatised, the disciples on this occasion returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Lk. 24.52). Yet the Ascension was a defining moment. They would never see him again in this life, nor would any of those who would come to believe in him through their ministry. They would love him, but they would do so as those who had never seen him. (1 Pet. 1:8).
The Damascus Road
But there is one clear exception to this: the appearance of Jesus to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1 – 19). He himself describes it as ‘untimely’ (1 Cor. 15:8, ESV), and this was probably one of the reasons why some of members of the church in Corinth regarded him as a second-rate apostle. He himself is clear, however, that what happened to him was not some mere visionary experience. It was an actual appearance of the risen Christ. He had seen the Lord just as Peter and James had seen him.
There can be no doubt that this was the origin of Paul’s faith in Christ. Up to this point the persecution of the church had been his profession, the extinction of Christianity his consuming passion. Jesus was a fake, a fraud and a blasphemer, and yet his movement was gathering momentum at such a rate that he was now, in Saul’s view, a threat to both his religion and his nation. There is no sign here of any predisposition to believe that this man, this Jesus whom God had so clearly cursed, might have risen from the dead; no sign of self-doubt; no hint that Saul’s attitude had begun to change and that he had begun to think that perhaps the rumours about Jesus were true; and there was certainly nothing in Judaism, nor in the other religions of his day, to prompt him towards believing that a crucified man had risen from the dead.
Never did Paul’s enmity against Christianity burn more intensely than it did on that journey to Damascus, his mind filled with thoughts of hatred and slaughter. But then came a spiritual thunder-clap. In the full flush of fanaticism, he is arrested by the One he knew was dead. A light from heaven falls on him and he falls to the ground confused and blinded. A Voice speaks. It knows who he is, and it knows his mission: ‘Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ he cries. ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.’
He has seen the risen Christ, and seen him with such evidential force and clarity that for him he will gladly lose all things, even his very life.
Saul of Tarsus is a historical figure and, as such, proof once again that God is to be found not at the conclusion of elaborate philosophical arguments but within the history of redemption. Yet his experience on the Damascus Road was not only a historical event; it was also a historic one, on which the whole subsequent human story would turn, as Saul travelled the known world preaching, writing, organising, and carrying the extraordinary message of a crucified Messiah to regions which still lay in the grip of paganism and polytheism. It is a thrilling story, but its roots lie in this encounter with a dead man who had risen. The one he hated, he now loved; the one he had seen as the enemy of his people was now their Messiah; the one from whom he had recoiled as a blasphemer was now God’s beloved Son, vindicated in the wonder of his resurrection.
From this point onwards, Saul of Tarsus would live for Christ. For him he sacrificed his academic and political career. For his sake he would face flogging, shipwreck, privation, contempt, imprisonment and execution. For him he would use his mighty intellect. For him he would do whatever it took to make people listen to his gospel.
Why so much space to the resurrection?
Why devote so many paragraphs to the resurrection? Not in order to prove the resurrection itself, but to use the fact of the resurrection as a pointer to something even greater: the existence of a living, loving, intelligent and powerful God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who can make the dead live and who, as the great guarantor of Moral Order, will one day put everything right. Sometimes that moral order seems to be completely overthrown. Lawlessness crucified Christ, but God raised him from the dead, and by doing so he gave history an entirely new colour. The past, in the form of the Empty Tomb, has given us a new and vibrant hope of a future under the guidance of a Good God (1 Pet. 1:3).