church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

In my previous blog piece, “Why I Am a Christian (Part 1)” I examined the question of why one should believe in the physical Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  I looked at the essential historical reliability of the Gospels portraits of Jesus and His claims to be God.  I concluded that given the number and audacity of those claims, there were only three live options on the table:  either He was a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord.  I suggested that His many miracles made sense of and supported the third option.

But some people in the past have counter-suggested that those many miracles were accomplished with supernatural help from the devil (see Mark 3:22).  One wonders if this early Jewish counter-suggestion will find many supporters today in a climate which mostly writes off the possibility of the demonic.  But unpopularity is no proof that something is not true.  I therefore would like to bring in another piece of evidence for the truth of Jesus’ claims to be God—namely His Resurrection from the dead on the third day after His death.

I take His death on the cross under Pontius Pilate as beyond serious historical dispute.  The Romans made mistakes, of course, but they did know how to kill people.  When Pilate first heard that Jesus was dead, he was surprised, for it usually took several days for crucified people to die.  He therefore made sure that He was dead, summoning the centurion in charge of the execution to hear the facts for himself (Mark 15:44).  Jesus certainly was dead, as were the others.  Usually criminals were left on the cross to die slowly and in their own time, but the day after the crucifixions was an important Jewish holy day and Jewish sensibilities would not let them remain on the cross until then.  It was therefore decided to finish them off quickly by breaking their legs.  When the centurion came to Jesus, however, and saw that He was already dead, he didn’t break His legs.  But he did ram his spear into His side, puncturing His heart so that blood and water spilled out (John 19:31f).  Anyway, Jesus was dead.  Like I said, the Romans knew how to kill people.

Even assuming astonishing Roman incompetence, it defies common sense to imagine that Jesus was not dead, but that having merely swooned and having been buried alive, He would without medical attention later revive in the tomb, knock on the door, and present Himself as alive from the dead with such power as to convince everyone that He had been raised by God to immortal life.  But even assuming this, then what happened to Him after the forty days?  Did He vanish up into heaven?  Did He walk to India?  Did He enter a witness protection programme and live to the end of His days under an assumed name?  His vanishing act is more problematic to history than His miraculous survival and premature burial.  Such suggestions are acts of historical desperation.  Count on it:  Jesus died on the Cross and was buried.  His burial is attested by the Gospel narratives (e.g. Mark 15:44-47, John 19:38-42) and by the Jewish counter-narrative (Matthew 28:11-15).  More on this latter below.

I submit three pieces of evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.  The first is that of the empty tomb.

The Acts of the Apostles presents us with the obvious, disputed by no one, that the apostles immediately claimed to everyone in Jerusalem that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead, and that they had repeatedly seen Him and ate with Him over a period of forty days, at the conclusion of which they had seen Him taken up into heaven (Acts 1:1f, 10:39-41, 13:29-31).  The Sanhedrin did not appreciate the apostles’ claiming that Jesus was the Messiah who had been unjustly condemned by them, and so they persecuted the apostles, arresting them, and threatening them.  The historical question is:  why?  Why do all this to squelch the nascent Jesus Movement when all they had to do to end it once and for all was to produce the corpse?  After all, the apostles were proclaiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead leaving His tomb empty about five minutes’ walk from that tomb.  If Jesus’ corpse were still in the tomb, it would have been easy for the Sanhedrin to roll away the stone, produce the body, and crush the Jesus Movement at a stroke.  Why didn’t they do it?

Obviously they didn’t do it because they didn’t have the body.  Okay:  so where was the body?  It was admitted by all that the body was buried in sealed sepulchre and that Roman guard of soldiers had been placed  there to keep it secure for at least a while.  And it was admitted by all that the tomb was now empty.  The Jewish explanation was that “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while the guards were asleep”.  This story is recounted in Matthew 28:11-15 as the Jewish explanation for the empty tomb that was current down to writing of the Gospel (verse 15).  We may be sure that this last bit anyway was true.  The Evangelist was unlikely to open himself up to contradiction at this point by misrepresenting the Jewish explanation.  That was their story, and they were sticking to it:  the disciples came at night and stole the body after all the Roman guards dozed off.

Let’s look at this story more closely.  Even at first glance it would never hold up in court.  A junior lawyer would ask the guards, “If you were all asleep, how could you know what happened to the body?”  But even granting that their guess was true that it was the disciples who stole the corpse, there are other problems.

Specifically, this story asks us to believe that an entire guard of Roman soldiers all dozed off, despite the Roman punishment for guards sleeping on guard duty.  And that they all dozed off at precisely the same time.  And that they all dozed off so soundly that the disciples coming, unsealing the tomb, moving the large stone, and running off with the corpse woke none of them up.  And that the disciples, risking their lives by this act of unsealing the tomb and stealing the corpse, took the time to undress the corpse and fold up the grave clothes and deposit them neatly in place (see John 19:6-7).  Why would the disciples risk their lives by staying to undress the body and neatly fold up the clothes?  The whole thing is harder to believe than the Resurrection.

Then there is the question of motive:  why would the disciples do this?  What did they have to gain?  Come to that—what did they gain, apart from arrest, flogging, persecution, and (for most of them) martyrdom?  The disciples had no motive whatsoever to perpetrate the fraud even if they could somehow have pulled it off.  And how is it that none of them ever broke down and told the secret to anyone?  Such conspiracies are notoriously hard to cover up and keep secret, especially when they involve large numbers of people.

This then is the first piece of evidence—the empty tomb.  The alternative Jewish explanation is harder to believe than the Resurrection itself.

The second piece of evidence is the psychological change in the disciples.  St. John reports that after Jesus’ crucifixion the disciples in Jerusalem had the doors locked for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).  We might have guessed this even apart from Johannine reportage—Jesus had been executed by Rome as an enemy of the state and His movement was therefore regarded as seditious and dangerous.  This would have been all the more so since some might have remembered that at His arrest one of His disciples struck back with a sword, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave (John 18:10, 26).  (It hardly mattered that the swordsman was doubtless aiming to take off his opponent’s head, not his ear; Peter, after all, was a fisherman, not a soldier.). Jesus’ movement was dangerous and His followers were equally so.

Given this understandable and entirely justifiable fear and desire on the part of His disciples to hide, one asks:  what caused the change in them?  In just a few short weeks, they were not only out from under the proverbial bed, but fearlessly speaking in the street, in the Temple, and defying to their faces the very Sanhedrin which just before had Jesus executed and which was then persecuting them.  They answered that they had met their Lord, risen from the dead.  If they were lying, how then to account for the change in them, the sudden transformation of scared rabbits into bold lions?  If it was not the Resurrection, then what was it?

Finally, we consider third piece of evidence, the sudden conversion of Saul of Tarsus.  Saul was firmly convinced that Jesus had been a false prophet, a liar, and a threat to Israel.  The Sanhedrin had been entirely justified in turning Him over to the Romans for execution and for trying to crush out His movement.  Saul was there at the lynching of Stephen (technically his stoning was illegal, since only the Romans could inflict the death penalty) and he had heartily approved of his murder.  More than that, he was so zealous in trying to eradicate the new Jesus Movement that he obtained letters to journey north to Damascus to arrest Jesus’ followers that he found there (Acts 9:1f).  Accordingly, he left Jerusalem for Damascus and when he arrived in the city he entered the synagogues there and began telling everyone that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God.

To which everyone in Damascus and elsewhere said, “Wait. What?”  “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21).  Yep, that was him.  What happened to him anyway?

Saul (aka Paul) offered this explanation:  Jesus appeared to him in a vision outside Damascus, revealing Himself as the true Messiah, and when he arrived in the city, blinded and stunned by the vision, one of His disciples found him, confirmed Jesus’ message, laid hands on him to restore his sight, and baptized him.

This was not the only time Paul had visions of Jesus.  He had a vision of Christ while he was in Corinth (Acts 18:10), and a vision (possibly a different one?—Paul spoke of visions in the plural in 2 Corinthians 12:1) in which he was caught up to the third heaven and heard words he was not to permitted to share.  And he also did many miracles, confirming his divinely-given authority, just like the other apostles.

Once again we ask:  how to explain the conversion and the ministry of Paul?  Explanations of his conversion outside Damascus as being merely an epileptic fit make no sense.  Was this the first and only such fit he had?  Could he not tell a grand mal seizure from a vision in which a Man spoke to him and commissioned him?  And what about the disciple of Jesus who came and found him afterward, restoring his sight?  And what about Paul’s other visions?  And what about his many miracles?  There is no way to dodge it—something happened to Saul to turn him about 180 degrees and make him a visionary and a miracle-worker and promoter of the Christian message.  If one rejects His own explanation that he had seen the risen Christ, how do you explain it?

These then are the three pieces of evidence for the Resurrection of Christ that I (rather more briefly) shared with my daughter so many years ago after I tucked her in.  The evidence for the Resurrection (conclusive in my view) supports the claims of Jesus to be the Son of God, the Lord of Israel and of us all.

If you refuse the Christian explanation of these things and refuse to accept that Jesus rose from the dead, then please explain these things in some other way.  Explain how the tomb of Jesus was found empty on the third day.  Explain how the guards keeping the tomb could have all dozed off simultaneously and stayed asleep while the disciples unsealed the sepulchre, rolled back the stone, and rifled the tomb of its contents.  Explain too, while you’re at it, why they stripped the body and folded the grave clothes at the extra risk of their lives.  Explain what they thought they had to gain from it.  Explain why such a large conspiracy involving so many people could remain intact for years, even when those involved were persecuted for their testimony.  Explain what caused their change from terror to boldness.  Explain the miracles done by the apostles.  Explain what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus.  Explain his many visions.  Explain his many miracles.

I will not ask you to explain the experiences and answers to prayer of Christians throughout the world for two millenia, or the miracles of the saints.  I believe that explaining these other facts are enough to do without that.  As for myself, I cannot explain any of it without believing that Jesus rose from the dead as the Son of God.  And as I once shared with my daughter, that is why I am a Christian.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.