Easter is a popular holiday for people, but for more and more in our culture today, the meaning of Easter is lost. They would see it as a fun time to celebrate spring and the tradition of giving candy and gifts in a pretty basket. But celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? Not so much. For many the thought of Jesus rising from the dead is not something they can believe in. How do they explain their belief? They might say that people in ancient times didn’t have our scientific knowledge about the world, and that people back then were more superstitious and believing in magical kinds of things happening than we do today. They might say that Jesus’ followers were heartbroken by his death, that they believed in their hearts that he had risen spiritually, even though he really didn’t come back alive physically. They might add that over the decades, these feelings turned into legendary stories that deified Jesus, alleging that Jesus never claimed to be God. Then those stories were written down to become the four Gospels that include details of Jesus doing miracles and resurrecting from the dead in order for Christians to bolster their belief in him as the Messiah.
The above view sounds reasonable to the average contemporary person, but only because they ignore key historical components of the New Testament’s testimony. The skeptic’s claim is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s recording of Jesus’ resurrection is the result of a re-telling of events that developed long after the events themselves. Like with the children’s “telephone” game that I played in one of my elementary school classes when the teacher whispered something in the first child’s ear--and then by the time it went to the last child, the message was completely different and fabricated from what was originally spoken--so do those skeptical of the gospel message think something similar occurred in the four Gospels. How shall we respond? For one thing, anthropological studies show that the ancients were very accurate in transmitting historical accounts verbally. But, more importantly, the first accounts of the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses are not found in the gospels, but in the letters of Paul.
One of Paul’s letters, in particular, First Corinthians, was written 20 years after Christ. And in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 we read an account that actually takes place within 5 years after Christ. Paul refers to the gospel message he had preached to them years earlier, which, at the time of his writing First Corinthians, is now tradition. The apostle writes: Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Paul is not speaking of some legendary story about Jesus put together after decades of retelling that changed the facts. No, he speaks of the historical empty tomb, the resurrection of Jesus, and he lists some of the eyewitnesses to whom Jesus appeared. Not just individuals and small groups, but Jesus appeared even to 500 people at once. And most of them were still alive, so that if the readers of 1 Corinthians wanted to check up on Paul’s version of the facts, they could still find those people alive and inquire of them.
Those who claim that the gospels are mostly made-up stories about Jesus need to back up what they say with evidence. The burden of proof for believing in the resurrection of Jesus is not only upon believers; those who disbelieve also have a burden of proof that must be met if what they say is to be believed. The evidence of the empty tomb and those whose lives were transformed from cowering to courage after they saw Jesus is powerful evidence for believing in the Christian understanding of Easter’s meaning.
Blessings to you as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection!