Easter Life and the Facts of History

Easter commemorates and celebrates a historical event unlike any other: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But what is the significance of the resurrection? And how can we know it really happened?

The four Gospels report that Jesus predicted his death, burial, and resurrection. He was born to die. All of his wondrous teachings, healings, exorcisms, and transforming relationships with all manner of people—from fishermen to tax collectors to prostitutes to revolutionaries—would be incomplete without his crucifixion and resurrection. Shortly before his death, “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priest and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). Peter resisted this grim fact, but Jesus rebuked him. There was no other way (vs. 22-23). For, as Jesus had taught, he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

And give his life he did, on an unspeakably cruel Roman cross—impaled for all to see before two common criminals. We call this day Good Friday because it was good for us; but it was dreadful for Jesus. Before I became a follower of Christ, I always associated this day with the Alaskan earthquake on Good Friday, 1964, one of the largest ever in North America. I was there in Anchorage. After the death of Jesus, the earth quaked on the first Good Friday as well, heaving with a significance that far exceeds any geological upsurge in world history. As Jesus’ disciple Matthew recounts: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split” (Matthew 27:50-51). When the guards at the crucifixion experienced the earthquake and the other extraordinary phenomena, “they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’” (v. 54). Yet another miracle was waiting, waiting—as the dead Messiah was pried off his bloody cross, embalmed, and laid in a cold, dark tomb, guarded to the hilt.

We call this day Good Friday because it was good for us; but it was dreadful for Jesus.

All seemed to be lost. The one who had boldly claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), the prophet who had announced that “God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)—this man now had died. The man who had raised the dead was dead.

On the first day of the week, two women, both named Mary, came to visit the tomb of their master. They had stayed with him as he died; now they visited his tomb in grief. Yet instead of mourning a death, they celebrated a resurrection announced by an angel, who rolled back the stone sealing the tomb and charged them to look at its empty contents. He then told them to tell Jesus’ disciples of the resurrection and to go to Galilee where they would see him. As they scurried away, Jesus himself met them, greeted them, and received their surprised worship (Matthew 27:8-9). He directed them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v. 10).

The rest is history, and it changed history forever. The fact that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection puts the lie to the notion that the idea of Jesus’ resurrection was concocted at a later point to add drama to his life. Women were not taken to be trustworthy witnesses in courts of law at that time (although Jesus always respected them). If someone had wanted to create a pious fraud, they never would have included the two Marys in their story. Moreover, all four Gospels testify to the factual reality of the resurrection. They were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) or those who consulted eyewitnesses (Luke and Mark); they were people in the know, not writers of myths and legends (see Luke 1:1-4; 1 Peter 1:16).

After the resurrection, the gospel of the risen Jesus was quickly proclaimed in the very area where he was crucified. This upstart “cult” would have been easily refuted by someone producing the corpse of Christ, which both the Jewish establishment and the Roman government had a vested interest in doing, since this new movement threatened the religious and political status quo. But we have no historical record of any such thing having occurred. On the contrary, the Jesus movement grew and rapidly spread. Christian Jews changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. Pious Jews would never do such a thing on their own initiative, because it would set them against their own tradition and their countrymen. Nor would they have ceased offering the prescribed sacrifices their Scriptures required had not Jesus proven himself to be the final sacrifice for sin, the lamb of God (see John 1:29 and the Book of Hebrews). The resurrection best accounts for this change in their day of worship, their manner of worship, and the transformation at the core of their lives. Moreover, the two key rituals of the earliest church—communion and the baptism—both presuppose the historicity of the resurrection and are very difficult to explain without it.

The two key rituals of the earliest church—communion and the baptism—both presuppose the historicity of the resurrection and are very difficult to explain without it.

The Apostle Paul, a man revolutionized through an encounter with the risen Christ (Acts 9), taught that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Paul listed many witnesses of the risen Christ, some of whom were still living when he wrote (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), and confidently affirmed that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (v. 20). He also proclaimed that Jesus “through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).

Easter is the core of Christian faith and life. Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no gospel message, no future hope, and no new life in Christ. With the resurrection, Christianity stands unique in all the world: no other spiritual movement is based on the resurrection of its divine founder. When Jesus announced, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 10:25), he meant it and he demonstrated it. Let us, then, leave our dead ways and follow him today and into eternity.

5 thoughts on “Easter Life and the Facts of History

  1. If the Easter story is historic, how come all that we know about it is from Christian sources? There are no extra-Christian historical documents that mention any of the events cited in the New Testament. The only mention of Christians and Christianity are from such sources as Josephus, who only mentioned the actions of Christians, not the supposed actions of a Jesus. Would you be as accepting of the claims of any other religion if it followed the pattern of Christian scripture: oral tradition transferred to writing decades after the supposed events happened by unknown authors?

    • Some points to ponder:

      The early years of the Roman Empire are one of the best-documented eras of ancient history; Jerusalem was a center of education; Jesus is claimed even to have had scribes following him and that the population at large was aware of him.[65] Yet not one single non-Christian document written before 93 CE mentions any “Jesus”, or even the crucifixion of a holy leader of the Jewish people in the 29-36 CE period.[66] This includes well-documented records from the Romans regarding criminal activities and crucifixion records.[67] “Jesus” (or “Yeshu” or “Yeshua” or “Joshua”) was a very common name, with many contemporary troublemaking preachers of that name.[68] But even with that in mind, nothing of relevance seems to exist or if it did the Christian copyists didn’t see fit to preserve it.

      Numerous people who should have written about Jesus who either did not or whom the Christians did not preserve any words include:

      Philo (ca. 25 BCE – ca. 50 CE): In nearly every list of people who should have mentioned Jesus but didn’t, he appears. Philo had strong connection to both the Priesthood in Judea and the Herodian Dynasty; even if he himself didn’t live in Jerusalem he had communication with those who did. Eusebius in his The History of the Church even claimed Philo not only knew the apostles but met Peter himself in Rome. Philo wrote a five volume account (c40 CE) regarding his embassy to Caligula and the events leading up to it and yet the volume that covered Pontius Pilate’s rule of Judea in detail was one of the three volumes not preserved by the Christians, so if Philo did mention Jesus the Christian copyists didn’t preserve it.

      Damis, author of Apollonius of Tyana, a philosopher and mystic who was a contemporary with Jesus.

      Seneca the Younger’s On Superstition (c.40 – c.62), which covered every cult in Rome, was not preserved. The only reason we know it did NOT talk about Christianity at all is because Augustine in the 4th century complained about it. But if the book could have been as early as 40 CE then there would be no reason to expect notice of what at that time would have been a very small group. Despite this, Seneca’s lack of mention was sufficiently troublesome to some early Christians that they forged correspondence between Seneca and Paul of Tarsus. Jerome, in de Viris Illustribus 12, and Augustine, in Epistle 153.4 ad Macedonium, both refer to the forged communication.

      Pliny the Elder, who wrote Natural History (77 CE), the oldest known encyclopedia. It has 37 chapters, spread over 10 books, and mentions hundreds of people (major and minor characters alike) – and yet, it contains no reference to either Christ or Christians. Pliny the Elder also wrote a history of Rome, from 31 CE to the then-present day (sometime before his death in 79 CE) with a volume for each year. This work, however, was not preserved by the Christians.

      Celsius’ The True Logos (2nd-century) is known only through Origen’s rebuttal in the 3rd century.

      Froto, a 2nd century teacher, friend, and correspondence to Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180), wrote ‘Discourse against the Christians’ which is only known through Minucius Felix’s Octavius rebuttal of the 3rd century.

      Juvenal, Martial, Petronius, and Persius, Roman satirists who favored topics similar to Jesus’s story.

      Cassius Dio’s Roman History has the sections covering 6 to 2 BC and 30 CE missing.

      Pausanias, whose massive Guide to Greece includes mentions of thousands of names, including minor Jewish figures in Palestine.

      Historians Epictetus and Aelius Aristides, who both recorded events and people in Palestine.

      Clovius Rufus’ detailed history of Nero, which would have documented the active persecution of Christians by Nero, was not preserved.

      Tacitus: the entire section covering 29-31 CE of the Annals: “That the cut is so precise and covers precisely those two years is too improbable to posit as a chance coincidence.”[69]

      Papias (2nd century): Five volume Explanations of the Stories of the Lord (c 130 – c 150) which is known only through all too brief references and quotes. And what we do have makes him come off as very gullible and that he knew of the apostles only via people who had claimed that they knew them. [70]

      Hegesippus: Five volume Memoirs (c 180) that covered various legends about the early churches and apostles as well as a list of the first bishops. As with Papias known only through all too brief references but enough to show that any actual history had been replaced by myth and legend. [71]


      • thomraff
        in response “ to ponder “

        re Early years – seems Jesus ‘came out of the woodwork’ and was on the scene suddenly and just as quickly left – as a criminal of the state –
        wouldn’t it be ‘criminal’ to write about ‘Jesus’ – both the Romans and Jewish leaders wanted to suppress the ‘group’ – these were ‘tuff times’ for all the ‘rebelling Jews’ – as we see what eventually happened when the walls came tumbling down …and then ‘all Jews were suspect’ – having ‘literature’ would demonstrate ‘criminal intent’ to ’stir folks up’ for rebellion
        Furthermore, Jesus didn’t write anything and ‘the message’ needed to be passed face to face- disciple to disciple.

        re “ Numerous people who should have written about Jesus who…”

        Philo is just going to know and write about the ‘rich boys’ … did he write about “The Egyptian” who had gathered a few thousand outside Jerusalem – Paul is thought to have been this guy when he was arrested ? Josephus mentions a number of these ‘characters’ with large followings – I don’t remember Philo ‘researching’ these ‘rebels’ ….

        re Damis – Actually the question should be whether Philostratus would have written about Jesus. Does he mention Simon Magus ? yet Damis and Philostratus were writing about disciples of the great Pythagorian philosopher, and certainly not a Jew who might take equal honors ! In other words, it seems likely they would deliberately not mention ‘a Jew’ and in any way support the Jewish theology and weaken the case for ‘philosophers’.

        re Seneca the Younger’s On Superstition (c.40 – c.62) – as relevant above-
        he’s writing about Rome > did he include any Jewish cults- the Essenes ? Pharisees? ….

        Pliny the Elder, who wrote Natural History (77 CE)
        How much did he write about the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple ? How many of the High Priests does he list and what happened after the destruction of the Temple. Does he explain how the ‘animal sacrifices’ continued and who actually was in control afterwards.
        ( Do any of your sources recount the history of what happened to the Sanhedrin ….

        Have any of these writers written about the differences in the Jewish sects
        and a comparison of the Jewish beliefs of the ‘after life ‘ ?
        Have any written a comparison of the Greek beliefs in the ‘transmigration of the soul’ with the Essenes or Pharisees various nuances ….

        How many Pop music critics wrote about Ed Sanders, Tuli and the Fugs ?

        “ A Whiter Shade of Pale “ is one of the most played songs of all time from the sixties – how many music fans know who wrote the lyrics ?

  2. Pingback: Easter Life and the Facts of History — Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. | Talmidimblogging

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s