How can modern doubters believe that Jesus rose?
Revealed in the stars
‘What would make you believe in God?’ The atheist I put this to had clearly been asked the question before. He answered instantly: ‘If God rearranged the stars in the sky to spell out the Ten Commandments, then I’d believe.’
Here the bar of proof was set to galactic heights. How should I respond? My first thought was to point to the current arrangement of the stars. The heavens are already miraculously well ordered. They might not spell out, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but incredibly, and against near infinite odds, they do not kill — they permit life. It’s the kind of marvel that makes ‘messages in the stars’ look like a cheap parlour trick. But I didn’t voice that thought. Instead, a second answer occurred to me. I simply asked him, ‘Would you like such a God?’
He answered forcefully: ‘No! I could never like God. But if he proved his existence, I’d have to acknowledge it.’ There was something I agreed with here. If God simply wielded omnipotent powers to make us behave, I could not love such a God either. But that’s not how faith arises in the Bible.
In the most famous transition from doubt to faith, Thomas cried out, ‘My Lord and my God,’ but it wasn’t a grudging concession, it was a joyful, hope-filled acclamation (John 20:28). Through the resurrection, Thomas encountered a God he was glad to worship.
What about today’s Thomases? Can we persuade modern doubters that Jesus is Lord and that he rose from the dead? Can we persuade them that it’s good news?
Let me point to three realities: the Heavens, History and Him.
When sceptics doubt the empty tomb, there are usually deeper issues at play. It’s not simply the historical sources they question. A modern Thomas doubts even the possibility of life from the dead because, most fundamentally, they doubt the possibility of a life-from-the-dead God. For that reason, I often begin with ‘the heavens’.
Here are four ‘heavenly’ miracles a doubter already believes:
Miracle 1: Everything has come from nothing.
Miracle 2: Order has come from chaos.
Miracle 3: Life has sprung from non-life.
Miracle 4: Consciousness has emerged from mindless matter.
Each of these is an Easter miracle: they all involve life-from-the-dead powers of gargantuan proportions. Yet modern sceptics deny the Easter God who would make sense of such miracles. Christians believe that Jesus came to life in that Jerusalem tomb, but atheists must believe that all life rose from a ‘grave’ of nothingness, of mindless physical forces and the primordial soup. More than this, such resurrection miracles must have happened without a life-from-the-dead God to perform them.
At this point, we realise that the resurrection of Jesus is not an absurdity. Easter reveals a God who can explain what would otherwise be absurd.
The basic historical facts can be agreed by all but the most ardent sceptics: Jesus was tried and executed under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate in around AD30. He was killed and placed in a tomb which was empty three days later, at which point his followers had many and varied experiences of the risen Christ. Those experiences went on for forty days and then stopped when they claimed he had returned to heaven. The body was never found, and the Christian movement began right away in Jerusalem – the preaching of the empty tomb being foundational.
In addition, the history of the church since Easter Sunday deserves attention. The ‘Jesus movement’ has been the largest, most diverse sociological phenomenon the world has known. There is an expanding ‘universe’ of believers, so the question becomes: When was the big bang? If we trace it back, the explosion happened at Easter. Something occurred that Sunday to change utter nobodies who followed a total loser into world-changers. What was it? The most credible explanation is the one they insist on: Jesus really did rise from the dead.
Children often play the game, ‘Who would win in a fight between [insert the names of two superheroes]?’ In these hypothetical battles, we weigh the strengths of the two opponents and declare a winner. The Bible asks us to do the same with its two candidates for ‘Lord’: Jesus and death. If Jesus isn’t Lord, death is. After all, death has never lost a battle, standing victorious over kings and empires. But a Christian is someone who encounters Christ in the Scriptures and begins to say, ‘I think Jesus is stronger. Death may be undefeated in billions of bouts, but I think, somehow it’s met its match in Jesus.’
How can we have such an encounter, twenty centuries after the first Easter? The Bible is key. Even during Christ’s Easter appearances, he ensured that people grounded their experience of him in Scripture (see Luke 24:13-32). When he confronted Thomas, he told him, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (John 20:29). How can we believe without seeing? Two verses later John writes: ‘These things are written that you might believe.’ In God’s word, we meet the risen Christ. He impresses himself upon us, not as a dead teacher but as a living Lord. By the Spirit, he makes himself present to us with death-defying power, and then we know: ‘Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered.’
Revealed in the scars
What will persuade doubters to believe? The same thing that persuaded Thomas. When he confessed Jesus as Lord he was looking, not at stars, but at scars — the war-wounds of Christ who had gone to hell and back for him. For twenty centuries doubters have met the same Christ in the Scriptures. As we have encountered this battle-scarred Warrior, we have been convinced that his love is stronger than the grave. Wonderfully he is Lord. And if he’s Lord, it would be incredible if he didn’t rise.