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Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

So Sunday has arrived!  The day on which the early disciples discovered an empty tomb, and a risen Lord.  Of course, there are those who have tried to explain away the resurrection of the Christ.  I deal with the major attempts in my book "Foundations of the Faith", but permit me to share a brief synopsis on this Resurrection Day.

One of the “alternative theories” that is offered is the one that claims that Jesus didn't really die! All that happened, it is suggested, is that He lost consciousness (or swooned) and then, in the cool of the tomb, He revived, made His way out, and showed Himself to the disciples as if He had risen from the dead! So, let's take a brief look at the evidence.

Think, first of all, of all of the physical torture that He had already endured. He had been awake for more than thirty–six hours (since the previous morning), and possibly closer to forty–eight when we remember that, two millennia ago, people tended to rise even before the sun. This would leave anyone physically exhausted. However, He had also been subjected to a number of ‘trials’ in which He was man–handled and abused. After all of that, He received a Roman flogging. This was certainly no picnic. He would have been stripped, at least to the waist; tied to a stake; and whipped up to thirty–nine times with a whip that had pieces of metal and bone attached to each of its many thongs.

However, more was to come. He now had to carry the crossbeam of the very cross on which He was to be crucified, all the way to Golgotha (Calvary), the place at which the death penalty was to be executed. Already, He was recognised by the Roman soldiers who escorted Him, as being so physically weak that they quickly compelled a visitor to Jerusalem, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the heavy crossbar on His behalf. Then, at Golgotha, He was tied, and nailed, to the cross which was raised to the vertical, and left hanging there in pain and agony, bruised and bleeding from the thorns that had been pressed into His skull; the lashes that He had received from the whip; the wounds made by the nails.

The final act in this drama was when the soldiers decided to “speed things up” by breaking the legs of the three victims (Jesus and the two thieves) in order that they might not find any relief by pushing their bodies upright and easing the suffocation by their own blood that was just one of the causes of death. When they came to Jesus, they were doubtless relieved to discover that He was already dead. However, as a form of insurance (because they were responsible, with their own lives, for the full execution of their gruesome task), one of them pushed his spear into Jesus' side, at an angle, that would almost certainly ensure that the heart would have been pierced.

Eventually, at the request of Joseph of Arimathea, the body was taken down. However, we have already noted that when he went to Pontius Pilate, the latter was surprised that Jesus was already dead and sent to the centurion in charge to check if this was so. The centurion, like the members of the execution squad, knew about death. None of them would have been easily fooled. They all knew that their own lives were forfeit if a prisoner escaped – even if it was by having revived from a swoon – and would, when ordered by the Procurator, have been extremely careful. Yet they allowed the body to be removed. This Man was most certainly dead!

However, let us, for the sake of argument, imagine that He had somehow fooled everyone. We must now assume that, having been wrapped up in the grave-clothes, and laid in the tomb, and the great stone rolled across the entrance to the tomb, He revived and, without any assistance managed, from the inside, and in His physically weakened state, to escape from the grave-clothes in such a way as to leave them looking undisturbed; roll the stone disc – probably some five feet (one hundred and fifty centimetres) in diameter, and six inches (fifteen centimetres) thick – up the slight incline that kept it in place; get past the guards who were on duty; find some suitable clothing; and appear to His disciples.  I would suggest that, to believe that all of that was possible requires a greater degree of ‘faith’ than to believe what the Gospel records teach!

Another suggestion is that it wasn't Jesus Who hung on the cross; that one of the disciples took His place so that He could appear as if He had risen from the dead (the usual Islamic explanation)! This requires a number of factors to come together. Jesus was not some non-entity. He was well known to the authorities. Accordingly, His ‘substitute’ would have had to be identical in build and appearance. This man would also have to be one of the disciple band. However, at this stage, the number of followers was relatively small, and most of them would have been known by others. Certainly, if there had been a ‘double’ that man would already have been marked out. Such a man would also have had to agree to take the punishment and death that was ahead. People at that time were all too aware of what crucifixion involved – let alone the previous flogging and other suffering – and it would have been an unusual man who would have volunteered to take another's place. Finally, there is the matter of the empty tomb – one aspect of the record that appears never to have been seriously questioned! Where was the body of this amazing ‘substitute’ going to be hidden while Jesus went around claiming to have risen from the dead? No, once again, the proposed ‘solution’ requires a greater leap of faith than does accepting the Biblical claim.

Yet again, there are those who suggest that the disciples stole the Body of Jesus, and then went about with these wild stories of His alleged appearances. This does have, at first sight, a measure of feasibility that is missing from the previous suggestions, and is the story which the Roman guards were bribed to repeat. They were even assured that they would not suffer the usual penalty for having ‘lost’ a prisoner (their own deaths) as the chief priests would square things up with the governor! (Matt.28:11–15).

Certainly, it could be argued that the disciples had a motive for so doing (although, remembering that they were scared for their own lives, such an action seems unlikely). But any police officer will assure us that, in investigating a crime, motive alone is insufficient. So, we must also ask about opportunity. How could the disciples have got past the guard and remove the body – and done so without disturbing the grave–clothes in any way? And is it reasonable to expect that a group of people, whose morale was completely gone, who were shattered and frightened, who were locked away “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19), would have made such an attempt in any case?

Of course, it is always possible, as others argue, that the authorities – Roman and/or Jewish – could have removed the body to a different location in order to ensure that the tomb did not become a focus point for other dissidents! There would have been no problem with the guards, and they could have arranged for the safe disposal of the body. However, if that had been what happened one must ask why, when the reports of the resurrection started to circulate, they did not simply produce the body and parade it around Jerusalem! Such a simple action would have stopped the spread of the Christian Church right at the beginning. The irrefutable fact that they didn't do so, is evidence enough that they had not removed the body!

What we may state, with certainty, is that none of the ‘alternative’ explanations for the resurrection of Jesus - and there are others! - stands up to any sort of serious investigation, and we are left with only one conclusion; one that explains so much more – the later appearances of Jesus; the amazing change in the disciples; the very existence of the church. It is simply this: “... the third day, He rose again from the dead ...”.

The Christ's resurrection is proved as well as any historical fact, and in that, on this Resurrection Day, we may rejoice!

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