April 2019 Pastoral Letter
Going where the evidence leads
It would be possible to prove that the Christian faith is false.
Does that surprise you?
In fact, it is a point made by the Apostle Paul when he makes clear that the Christian faith stands or falls by the resurrection:
And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 1 Corinthians 15:17
So if you disprove the resurrection then the Christian faith, in its entirety, disintegrates. This is quite remarkable, because it means that the Christian faith rests on the claim that certain things happened in history (in particular, the resurrection). This makes Christianity unlike most other religions and world views, which tend to be based on ideas, rather than events. It comes as a surprise to many that Christianity makes a specific claim to be falsifiable: if you disprove the resurrection, you negate Christianity.
A friend told me that he had been asked to speak about the Christian faith to a rather mixed, and even hostile, group in Edinburgh. During the question time afterwards someone said ‘If the bones of Jesus could be found and identified would you not have to abandon your faith?’ To which he replied ‘I expect I would, but if the evidence is to the contrary, what about you?’ The fact is, with the Christian faith, we can follow the evidence.
How do you go about determining the truth of a past event? In fact it is something that academics do all the time when they study unrepeatable past events, such as the Norman invasion of 1066, or the coming of Columba to Scotland in the 6th century and building a monastery on Iona around 563AD, or the extinction of the dinosaurs. These events cannot be repeated, in the way that a scientist repeats an experiment in the laboratory, but, instead, academics follow a reasoning process rather like that followed by Sherlock Holmes, whereby the evidence is examined and you then infer the best explanation, whilst dismissing less likely conclusions.
So what is the evidence to examine regarding the resurrection of Jesus?
1. First, the death of Jesus. Before there can be any resurrection, there needed to be a death, and some have suggested that perhaps Jesus never really died. There are a number of non-Christian sources which record the death of Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived in the 1st century, refers to the execution of Jesus by crucifixion and similarly, early in the next century, the Roman senator Tacitus writes of how Jesus was crucified at the command of Pontius Pilate.
Turning to the Biblical references, John describes how the Jewish authorities did not want the bodies of those being crucified to linger into the Sabbath, and so the order was given to hasten their death by the custom of crurifragium, or breaking of the legs. This prevented the victim from breathing and thus hastened death. John explains that the Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs because they found him already dead, but, to make sure, they pierced his side with a spear.
Fascinatingly, John records how this injury produced a flow of both blood and water. John would not have realised the significance of this, but modern medicine knows that this happens because of massive blood-clotting which takes place in the main arteries after death.
The balance of evidence, both biblical and extra-biblical, both Christian and non-Christian, is that Jesus was killed.
2. Jesus was then buried. Significantly, he was buried in an identifiable tomb. This is important because if Jesus’ body had been placed in a common grave, its subsequent absence would hardly have been noticed. In fact, two prominent members of Jewish society, members of the ruling Sanhedrin, Joseph and Nicodemus, buried Jesus in a tomb belonging to Joseph. The whereabouts of this tomb was not only known to them but to the women followers of Jesus who witnessed the burial. In accordance with custom, Jesus’ body was wrapped in burial cloths which were interlaced with around 35kg of spices. These people clearly regarded Jesus as dead, and did not expect him to remain anything other than dead. In addition, the embalming with cloth and heavy spices would be the end of anyone who might still be trying to breath, especially one who had been scourged almost to death and then brutally crucified. The idea, suggested rather desperately by some, that Jesus merely fainted looks ridiculous in the face of the evidence.
The tomb was secured by a large flat stone and, acting on the orders of Pilate, officially sealed and guarded. This was done to prevent anyone claiming, or manufacturing, a resurrection - Jesus had, after all, repeatedly predicted his resurrection.
The evidence clearly points to the dead body of Jesus being placed in a tomb.
3. There is then the empty tomb. The Gospels are united in their testimony that the tomb was found empty by the women who came early on the Sunday morning to complete the embalming process.
Wonderfully, Matthew tells us that the first group to announce that the tomb was empty was not the followers of Jesus but the Jewish authorities who put it about that the body had been stolen whilst the guards slept. They had a real problem on their hands - the fact that Jesus’ body was NOT in their hands!
There is an additional piece of evidence which seems perhaps to be extraneous, but is actually rather significant. John tells us that when he arrived and looked into the empty tomb, along with Peter, he noticed that the grave cloths were still there. This seems to have had a stunning impact on him. John realised not only that the body was missing but the grave cloths were lying in such a way as to suggest that Jesus had simply passed through them. This was no case of grave-robbing, but something much more deeply mysterious. Grave-robbers would certainly not have left the valuable spices wrapped among the cloths, far less have gone to the trouble of removing them in the first place.
Of course, there are those who seem determined to dismiss the Gospel accounts. In doing so, they simply express their prejudice and predisposition to scepticism. Typically, they refuse to examine the evidence of the authenticity of the Gospels. The late Patrick Moore, best known as the amateur astronomer and presenter of ‘The Sky at Night’ once wrote a book about the star of Bethlehem. Whilst Moore made no secret of the fact that he was not a Christian, and neither did he believe the Bible, yet he wrote scathingly of those who were quick to dismiss the Gospel accounts out of hand:
‘I do not think we can go very far down this road, because the implication is that the entire New Testament is baseless. This idea would not appeal to historians, either Christian or pagan, or even to archaeologists.’
The historian Michael Grant writes:
‘True, the discovery of the empty tomb is differently described by the various Gospels, but if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary source, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.’
4. Finally, there are the resurrection appearances. On numerous occasions over a period of some 40 days, believers claimed to have seen, talked with, touched and eaten with Jesus. As a result, previously terrified, crushed and disappointed followers suddenly became bold in proclaiming the message of a risen Christ to a hostile world. The evidence for their experience is so strong that the atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann writes:
‘It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.’
In fairness to Ludemann, as an atheist he does not believe in resurrection. However, he follows the evidence and finds it irrefutable that the disciples had some experience, which he says must have been visions. His conclusion is strongly disputed by psychologists who tend to know more about the kind of people and circumstances that generate spurious visions.
What is the best explanation for the evidence? How best can we explain the transformation of the disciples from fear and disillusionment into a movement that spread around the world? The early church was clear in its answer: the bodily resurrection of Jesus. That is where the evidence leads.
However, the Christian faith is more than the intellectual assent to the credibility of the resurrection. The Christian faith involves a personal encounter with Christ. That faith is not merely a recognition of the truth of these historical events but an experience in contemporary life of our acceptance and trust in Jesus as both Saviour and Lord.
Where has the evidence and the challenge of Christ led you?