Can it really be that our lives depend on whether a certain dead man rose to life thousands of years ago? John tells us he wrote down accounts of Jesus’ life that we might believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and, by believing, have life in his name (John 20:31).
John’s most astounding account begins before dawn on the first day of the week when a woman found an empty tomb. On the third day after Jesus was brutally tortured, horrifically executed, and quietly buried, he was not where Mary Magdalene knew he had been laid. God did not leave the first witness to the resurrection weeping in suspense by the tomb for long. The Answer finds her and greets her by name, “Mary.” And she knew. Jesus was alive.
Nearly all contemporary historians agree about four key facts: Jesus was buried at a known location by a member of the Jewish court that condemned him; Jesus was missing from that location three days after burial; a multiplicity of individuals and groups attested to encountering the risen Jesus at different times and circumstances; and the disciples believed Jesus was risen despite their Jewish preconceptions that the Messiah would not be executed as an accursed heretic.(1) We can be confident that the resurrection is the best explanation of those historical facts.
John and the other earliest accounts follow up the empty tomb with a crowded list of witnesses to the risen Jesus. He appeared multiple times to his disciples, and from small groups of people to hundreds (John 20:11-21:23, 1 Corinthians 15:6). He ate with them, cooked for them, walked with them, and prepared them to continue his mission. These accounts were written during the lives of the witnesses, and any one of them could have denied them if false.
Instead, we see these witnesses radically changed. The disciples turned from men and women who were hiding in fear and hopelessness after Jesus’ death (Luke 24:21; John 20:19) into a people who boldly and courageously proclaimed his resurrection publicly (Acts 2:24, 3:15, 4:2). Perhaps a grief-stricken disciple or two could have been mistaken or misled, but it is a tall order to deny the risen Jesus on these grounds considering the many men and women who saw him on multiple occasions.
At the death of Jesus, the disciples had every reason for hopeless despair. Their tradition taught them about a conquering Messiah, not one that would die like a criminal. The explanation for their change is that they saw Jesus in his resurrected body and were commissioned to be witnesses of this paradigm-altering news (Acts 2:32).
Even Jesus’ opponents admitted the empty tomb when they had to claim that the disciples must have stolen the body (Matthew 28:13). Assuming a plucky group of disciples could have overcome Roman guards and a massive stone to take the body without a trace, it is hard to imagine they could then preach with such radical authority of Jesus’ resurrection while knowing he had not risen, especially when their message earned them persecution, marginalization, and death. Who can find an example of even one person who has suffered and died with courage, hope, and joy for a message they know is a fraud?
Before arriving at the resurrection, John recounted Jesus’ own predictions of his death and resurrection both explicitly and indirectly. He declared himself to be the Living Water to drink and never thirst (4:14), the Bread of Life to eat and never hunger (6:35), the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (10:11), and the Resurrection and the Life (11:25). With such bold statements, the events of Jesus’ life would inevitably prove that either he was a lunatic and a deceiver, or that he was who he said he was.
For the foregoing reasons and many more, we can be confident that Jesus is who he said he was. Jesus’ resurrection is divine verification of his extraordinary life and claims. Our reasoning minds can be encouraged by the evidence while our souls are quickened with the gift of faith given graciously by the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus rose, we know the death our sin earned was finished on the cross, and we are raised to new life in him. Because he rose, the mission he calls us to join has been validated and will continue unto completion. We can rejoice that our faith is not in vain.
(1) Craig, William Lane. “The Resurrection of Jesus”. Reasonable Faith. Accessed 30 Sept. 2017. <http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-resurrection-of-jesus>.