Imagine driving a car without looking through the front windscreen. The windows in our car are always steamed up when I get in, and it takes several minutes until the blowers clear them. If I’m in a rush I’m tempted to start driving as soon as there’s the smallest patch of clear windscreen that I can just about see through! – but I know it would be madness to try. And yet that’s what many people do in life – live without looking ahead, without seriously considering what lies beyond death – it’s madness.
The Christian vision for the future is unique. Only in Christianity do we become more after death than we were before. The Christian hope is that one day we will be – not unmade, but remade. And this hope is a certain hope because it’s based on something that’s already happened – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Most people in our society dismiss the resurrection of Jesus as a myth – like Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy. If pressed they might say it was invented by his followers to keep his memory alive, maybe his followers even sincerely believed it – they were more gullible back then. But many today don’t have any great arguments against the resurrection; it’s just not on people’s radar of questions to think about.
Those who have thought about it may say Jesus’ followers were so convinced he was the Messiah that after his death they began to feel he was still with them in some sense – guiding them, living on in their hearts. Some thought they’d had visions of him, and over the decades this developed into stories that he’d risen physically that were eventually included in the four gospels.
Evidence for Easter
But historians, whether Christian or not, are generally agreed that three of the gospels were written within 30 or 40 years of Jesus’ death, John’s gospel within 60 years. They were written while many of the eye-witnesses were still alive. Luke mentions – without naming – a lot of minor characters, but when it comes to the resurrection he carefully names the women who went to the tomb: ‘Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them’ (Luke 24:10), as well as naming one of the travellers on the road to Emmaus – Cleopas. Why is that? Luke wants his readers to know he got his information from eye-witnesses – ‘and I’ll name them for you, so you can go and chat to them if you want’.
People have often pointed out that if Luke were making this up he wouldn’t have had women as the first witnesses. Women in that society had very low social status, their testimony wasn’t admissible evidence in court. But there’s no spin here, no tabloid headlines, sensationalist reporting. Luke and the other writers are remarkably restrained and understated; they’re just recording the facts.
When the apostle Paul talks about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 he writes that Jesus once appeared to more than 500 brothers at the same time – ‘most of whom are still living’ (v.6). Like Luke he’s saying ‘you can go and speak to them yourself’.
The biggest problem with dismissing the resurrection is that you then have to find some other explanation for how the Christian church ever got started. The truth is, even Jesus’ most devoted followers were just as sceptical as many today when they were told on that first Easter Sunday that Jesus was alive. They certainly weren’t expecting it – slapping each other on the back saying ‘I can’t wait ‘til Sunday!’ They were in hiding, terrified in case what had just happened to Jesus happened to them too. At the time the Greeks didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection – they believed the physical was evil and death meant liberation of the spirit from the body. The Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end of the age but there was no expectation of someone – not even the Messiah – being resurrected in the middle of history.
But the evidence was so overwhelming that, these once doubting and terrified disciples led a movement that within decades had spread across southern Europe. Within a few of centuries it was the official religion of the Roman Empire. And at the heart of their preaching was the resurrection, most of them died for that very belief – Blaise Pascal said: ‘I believe those witnesses who get their throats cut’! The apostle Paul says Christian faith stands or falls on the resurrection. He admits that without the historical, physical resurrection of Jesus Christianity has nothing to offer: our faith is futile, we’re still in our sins, and we’re to be pitied more than all men (1 Cor. 15:17, 19). All the authorities had to do to stamp out Christianity was discredit their resurrection claims, produce the body, alternative eye-witnesses. But no-one did, no-one could.
Is there any meaning to life?
The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything. The Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote a slightly shorter book than some of his others called A Confession – about his own search for the meaning of life. He says at one point:
My question – that which at the age of 50 brought me to the verge of suicide – was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man… a question without an answer to which one cannot live. It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today and tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?… Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’
The resurrection of Christ gives a resounding ‘yes’ – there is meaning to life; death is not the end. Jesus’ resurrection allows us to look ahead with hope, certain hope. His resurrection is ‘the firstfruits’, Paul writes, guaranteeing the resurrection of all who trust in him.
And Jesus’ resurrection shows us what sort of hope we have. Jesus’ body rose. Our ultimate hope is not to be spirits set free from ageing and decaying bodies, but to have renewed, glorified bodies. Paul speaks of redemption – not from but of our bodies (Rom. 8:23). We’ll have bodies like the ones we now have in some ways, but free from sickness and pain, sin and death. No more pills, glasses, hearing aids, walking sticks or wheel chairs. God will wipe every tear from our eyes. That’s a great hope to have if you’re suffering now. The Christian can always say ‘the best years are yet to come’. As American pastor Tim Keller says to sceptics – even if you don’t believe it, you should surely want it to be true!
This is a very different sort of vision of life after death to the one portrayed in cartoons of spirits floating about on clouds, playing harps. Our ultimate future is physical, in a physical world. Heaven is not our final destination, the new creation is. It will literally be heaven on earth. God will live among us, we will be his people and God himself will be with us and be our God (Rev. 21:3).
What a great hope! That’s the hope Easter brings.
 Leo Tolstoy, A Confession, quoted in Tim Keller, The Reason for God, 2008, p201.