SOMETHING MORE THAN HERE AND NOW:
“DON’T DEAD MEN STAY DEAD?”
I learned recently about the phenomenon of “Death Cafes”. Their website says: “At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” Two have happened here in Glasgow. These gatherings highlight how our mortality has become a taboo subject in our society – but whether we talk about it or not, the inescapable statistic is that 1 out of every 1 of us will die.
While many people prefer to keep this morbid reality out of sight and out of mind; others are on a quest to beat death itself! For example, the Russian inventor Dmitry Itskov has been christened: “The Immortalist”. Interviewed by the BBC, he stated his ambition: “Within the next 30 years I am going to make sure that we can all live forever… the ultimate goal of my plan is to transfer someone’s personality into a completely new body” – a robot body with a computer processor for a brain. If you ever dreamed of being the Terminator, well your opportunity might be coming!
Scientific progress may seem to offer a glimmer of hope – of mental life beyond physical death. However, not everyone is convinced about such projects. For example, professor John Gray says: “the technological pursuit of immorality is not a scientific project. It promises what religion has always promised…”. He argues it’s a childish fantasy, a secular version of the Christian hope of life beyond death, which we need to let go off.
I don’t agree! I’m fascinated by the fact that we are all born into a world of death and decay – history marked by the survival of the fittest. Yet we sense it ought not be like this – and we rebel against our mortality. It doesn’t make sense if we are just the natural products of this world, that we should feel so out of place in it! What if our longings for hope and dreams of life “happily ever after” and yearning never to be parted from those we love – aren’t an illusion but are telling us something more? What if they reveal that we were originally designed to live forever and that death is an unwelcome intruder?
That is the hope that you will find contained in Christianity. Not the wishful thinking of pie in the sky when you die – but a credible hope built upon the historical foundation of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
But maybe you’re here and you’re thinking: Doesn’t it sound too good to be true? That takes us to our question this afternoon: “DON’T DEAD MEN STAY DEAD?” The claim that Jesus has risen from the dead was as controversial in the 1st century as it is in the 21st century. The fact that dead people stay dead was not a new discovery by modern philosophers or scientists. Listen to Professor N.T. Wright in his mammoth academic work on the resurrection: “Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false … The fact that dead people do not ordinary rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it. The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was indeed, the start of a whole … new creation”.
Something had happened to these first Christians, which unprecedentedly turned a tiny sect at the distant edge of the Roman Empire into a global phenomenon within a generation. The question is what happened?
After a lifetime of studying these things, professor Richard Bauckham says when it comes to “exceptional” or “unique” historical events that go beyond the “limits of our common experiences” (for example the Holocaust) – “only the testimony of participant witnesses can give us anything approaching access to the truth of the event”. The good news for historians is that we do have access through eyewitness accounts to the exceptional event of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Have you ever checked them out?
If not, let’s look at one in the gospel of Matthew. I’ve chosen it because it acknowledges a conspiracy theory:
“Some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them: ‘You are to say: His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep. If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (v.11-15).
This story exists, because something had happened that need an official alternative explanation. But it’s FAKE NEWS! 3 facts Matthew records …
(1) AN INCOVENENIENT FACT
Matthew tells us that the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus were women. Why is that inconvenient? Well the 1st century was a man’s world – in which a woman’s voice and testimony was not admissible evidence in court. This matters, because if Matthew was in any way embellishing or fabricating this story, then surely the first thing he would alter is the gender of the first witnesses
But Matthew didn’t do that – he made this embarrassing admission which instantly gave people a reason to doubt the credibility of his resurrection account. Why? Well because he’s with integrity recording what really happened. Indeed, he even records the names of these women, because they were readily identifiable individuals in the Christian community. He’s encouraging his first readers to cross-examine these witnesses for themselves.
(2) AN UNDENIABLE FACT
Matthew tells us a basic fact that all historians agree upon: the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter Sunday morning. However, the really important question is: why was it empty? Any explanation has to adequately account for all the pieces of historical evidence. So for a few moments let’s become Sherlock Holmes to consider some possibilities…
(a) MAYBE JESUS DIDN’T REALLY DIE:
Unlikely, because the Roman soldiers at Calvary were expert executioners. Under Roman law, their lives depended on not allowing a prisoner to escape – so they had every reason to ensure Jesus was dead before burial. No, all the signs point to the fact: Jesus really died. And contemporary Roman historians like Tacitus and Lucian also record the fact of his successful execution.
(b) MAYBE JESUS DIED, BUT THE DISCIPLES CONSPIRED TO HIDE THE BODY:
This is the conspiracy theory that did the rounds in the 1st century. However, there’s at least two problems. Firstly, the difficulty of motivation: Matthew’s account admits that all of Jesus’ disciples abandoned Him in His darkest hour when He was arrested. It seems unlikely after his death that they would have a change of heart, summoning the courage to confront the soldiers at the tomb, and seeking to steal the body. Much more probable, like other failed Messianic sects of this time, after the Romans had eliminated the leader, his dejected followers would fade away into obscurity. So they had no motive!
Also there’s the difficulty of martyrdom. Matthew’s account also admits that Jesus’ followers did not understood Jesus’ predictions that He was going to die and rise again 3 days later – it didn’t fit into their intellectual or religious worldview: the Greeks thought that resurrection was both undesirable and impossible; while the Jews had no expectation of the resurrection of all people until the last day. Prof N.T. Wright argues that the unique belief in the resurrection of Jesus could not have spontaneously emerged in this context. Yet these first Christians suffered rejection, persecution and even martyrdom for their confession that they were eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. Something unexpected and profound had to have happened, which they considered worth reconstructing and sacrificing their lives for!
(c) That leaves us with the possibility: JESUS DIED AND ROSE AGAIN.
Sherlock Holmes would say: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
That takes us to the last thing...
(3) A TANGIBLE FACT: The appearances
It wasn’t merely the absence of a dead body in the tomb that convinced the first Christians that Jesus had risen again – instead it was the living presence of the Resurrected One!
Matthew records how Jesus appeared physically and tangibly to these women, and later to the disciples – as well as to other individuals, groups, and crowds over a period of weeks. These appearances not only transformed the lives of Jesus’ followers, but also of those who previously were sceptics (James) and enemies of Jesus (Paul).
On its own an empty tomb with a missing body could be dismissed as a mystery or tragedy… on their own, sightings of a dead loved one could be dismissed as grief induced hallucinations. However, together, these two facts powerfully compel us to consider the historical reality that Jesus rose again from the dead.
Jesus is living, walking, talking proof that death has been beaten, that indestructible life is available. The resurrected body of Jesus is the pattern for the Christian hope – resurrected bodies to enjoy newness and fullness of life in a new creation – where in JRR Tolkein’s words “everything sad will have become untrue”.
The Marys and Matthew have recorded their experiences, because they want you to know this isn’t too good to be true – it’s simply true! And it changes everything. If you place your life in the hands of Jesus, then He can carry you through the valley of the shadow of death, and bring you out safely onto the other side.
Let me finish telling you about Charles Foster. He is a barrister and part-time judge of the Crown Court in London. With his legal mind and with forensic scrutiny he has examined the evidence for and against the resurrection in his exhaustive book “The Jesus Inquest”. He concludes: “the merely historical evidence for the resurrection is very good… the historical resurrection is easily the most probably explanation for all the data that we have. You do have to believe some remarkable things if you don’t believe the resurrection. And I don’t have the faith to believe those things”.
The universal human desire for something more than the here and now, for the hope of life after death, is not wishful thinking – let me encourage you to investigate for yourself Jesus’ claim: “I am the resurrection and the life… whoever believes in me will live, even though they die”