The Ultimate Question
The Ultimate Question355
The Ultimate Question
Main Idea: Despite various attempts to explain away the resurrection, Scripture's account remains the most plausible, and it establishes Jesus' lordship over all things and all people, summoning us to trust in Him and surrender to Him.
Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
- Possible Explanations
- Jesus didn't die on the cross.
- Jesus' tomb was not empty.
- The disciples stole the body of Jesus.
- The disciples were delusional when they claimed to see Jesus.
- Jesus died on the cross and actually rose from the grave.
- Startling Implications
- He has authority over life and death.
- He has authority over sin and Satan.
- He has authority over you and me.
- He reigns over us supremely.
- He loves us deeply.
- He will judge us eternally.
- Personal Questions
- Do you believe in the historical resurrection of Jesus?
- Do you surrender to the universal authority of Jesus?
We live in a day when religion is looked at as a matter of preference or opinion. Many people believe that all religions are fundamentally the same; the differences are only superficial. Simply go about your life and choose what works best for you, and along the way, the question of truth can be completely avoided. Living that way is a huge and costly mistake.
Belief is irresponsible and empty if it's not based in truth. People say, "What is true for you may not be true for me," but no one really believes that. After all, what would you think if you went to withdraw money at the bank, and the teller said, "I don't feel like you have money356 in your account"? How the teller felt wouldn't matter to you if you needed money. Whatever is true for you had better be true for the teller as well: either you have money in your account or you don't. The last thing we want banks to do is to give out money based on how they feel!
In most areas of everyday life we know instinctively to operate on the basis of truth instead of feelings and preferences. Yet, when it comes to the most important questions in life, questions that deal with grand, eternal realities, why would we want to disregard the question of truth? Do we really think God governs the world based on what we prefer? Matthew 28:1-15 reports to us the event in all of history, and our response to it should be based on truth, not feelings. Our eternity hangs on whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually happened.
The Ultimate Question
Below we'll consider some of the theories offered to explain the events narrated in Matthew 28:1-15. Matthew gives us a rather brief and straightforward account of the resurrection, though the events recorded in these verses are nothing short of supernatural and spectacular. Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" (v. 1), likely the same Mary mentioned in 27:61, were the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection (Blomberg, Matthew, 426).63 They came to the tomb after the Sabbath to anoint Jesus' body (Mark 16:1), when they unsuspectingly stumbled upon the truth that would change the course of history: the empty tomb. An angel whose appearance was "like lightning" had descended from heaven, causing a great earthquake (Matt 28:2-3). He rolled back the stone and sat on it, allowing the women to look inside. At the sight of the angel of the Lord, those guarding the tomb were "so shaken from fear of him that they became like dead men" (v. 4). The angel told the women to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised. Leaving with "fear and great joy" (v. 8), these unlikely witnesses to the greatest event in history ran toward Galilee.
On their way to Galilee, the women were met by the risen Christ. They took hold of Jesus and worshiped Him (v. 9), to which He responded, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brothers to leave for357 Galilee, and they will see Me there" (v. 10). The women told the disciples (Luke 24:10; John 20:18), and Peter and John rushed to verify their story (John 20:3-10). Matthew also tells us that the guards reported these events to the chief priests of the Jews (v. 11). After assembling with the elders, the chief priests agreed to bribe the guards to give a different account of these events, namely, that Jesus' disciples had come and stolen the body (v. 13). This lie, Matthew tells us, continued to circulate among the Jews (v. 15).
At least two aspects of this account are worth noting before we look at alternative explanations to the resurrection. First, the women were unlikely witnesses to the resurrection because (in general) their testimonies weren't highly valued in that culture (Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 698-99). If Matthew and the other Gospel writers were trying to persuade people of a hoax, then choosing two women as the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb was a strange choice. If you were going to make up a story about the most significant miracle the world has ever known, would you put forward questionable witnesses as evidence?
Second, notice in verses 11-15 that the guards didn't deny that Jesus' body was missing from the tomb. Their main concern was coming up with an alternative explanation. Not even the Jewish leaders could produce the body of Jesus, something that would have put an end to the disciples' supposed charade. But no one actually denied that the tomb holding the crucified Jesus was now vacant. It would have been foolish to deny the truth because it would be easy to disprove such a denial. A better explanation was and is needed for the fact of an empty tomb.
To this day, the ultimate question for the Christian faith and for our individual lives is this: Did Jesus rise from the dead? We're not talking about resuscitation or reincarnation, but resurrection. In other words, was Jesus dead for three days, and did He afterwards rise up and physically walk out of the tomb? That is a question of truth, not preference. Jesus either did or did not rise, and the ramifications are eternal.
If Jesus didn't rise from the grave, then we as Christians are wasting our time. Our faith is a lie, and we are simply fools playing a religious game. In 1 Corinthians 15:19 Paul says that we are to be "pitied more than anyone" if we have hoped in Jesus in this life only. But if Jesus did rise from the grave, then the situation is drastically different. Most people think that the burden of proof lies exclusively on Christians to give evidence of the resurrection, but that's not entirely true. Yes, there's a358 burden of proof on those who believe in Christ, but there's also a burden of proof on unbelievers. Consider below what must be explained.
There's no question, even among the most secular of scholars, that around 2,000 years ago an entirely new religious movement and community were formed—almost overnight. And immediately, hundreds of people started claiming that Jesus rose from the grave, even when it meant they could die for such a claim. A fast-growing movement of people, which now makes up one-third of the world's population by some estimates, survives as a result. So how do you explain that? If you don't believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then there's a burden of proof to provide some other convincing explanation for how the church began. We need to consider several alternative explanations with the following question in mind: "Which is most plausible?"
Plausibility should be the criterion for "proving" the resurrection, because there's virtually nothing in history that can be established with 100-percent certainty. For instance, can we really know with 100-percent certainty that George Washington was the first president of the United States? Is it not possible that he was just a mythical figure that people wrote about and invented in order to encourage the citizens of a new country? Now we're almost certain this is not the case, but we can't say with 100-percent certainty that he was president. Someone once said, "We can't know with 100-percent certainty that all of us were not created five minutes ago, complete with built-in memories and food in our stomachs." You can see how much of a headache it is to establish perfect certainty for any past event! The question is "What is most plausible?" or "What can be established with the most certainty?" Several possible explanations have been given.
Possible explanations for Jesus' resurrection have been proposed throughout history, with some dating back to the first century. Below we'll consider five different explanations that have been put forward by various individuals and groups. First, some say that Jesus didn't die on the cross, a claim that comes in different forms. Muslims, for example,359 say that Jesus didn't go to the cross, but rather the individual who died on the cross only looked like Jesus. According to the Quran, this is what Mohammed taught. This is a point where the two dominant religions in the world—Christianity and Islam—diverge, and notice that this is a point of truth, not of preference or ideology or opinion. Despite what Mohammed said six centuries after it happened, those much closer to the historical situation (Christian and non-Christian alike) reported that it was indeed Jesus who died on the cross.
Another version of this first explanation holds that Jesus didn't actually die on the cross. It was, in fact, Jesus of Nazareth who went to the cross, but instead of dying, He was only hurt (really, really badly). As the theory goes, Jesus fainted and became unconscious, at which time the soldiers thought He was dead. However, due to the time constraints with the Passover feast, they took Him down before He actually died and they quickly buried Him. Later, Jesus regained consciousness and escaped from the tomb. This explanation certainly explains away the supernatural element of overcoming death, but consider what it requires. It assumes that Jesus went through six trials, no sleep, a brutal scourging, thorns thrust into His head, nails thrust into His hands and feet, and after hours on a cross, He had a spear thrust into His side. Then, as if that weren't enough, He was wrapped in grave clothes and put in a tomb with a large stone rolled over the entrance. This tomb was guarded by armed Roman soldiers. In that situation and in that physical condition, are we really expected to believe that Jesus regained consciousness, stealthily nudged the stone out of the way, quietly hopped out of the tomb, tiptoed past the guards standing nearby, and coolly went about His way? This scenario seems highly unlikely, if not ridiculous. Needless to say, we can safely label this explanation as implausible.
A second explanation for the resurrection is the idea Jesus' tomb was not empty, often described as the "Wrong Tomb Theory." This theory states that the women went to a tomb that first Easter morning, but in their grief and shock over Jesus' death, they went to the wrong tomb and mistakenly thought Jesus had risen. Presumably, everyone else began going to the wrong tomb as well, leading them to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. And since that time, everybody's been going to the wrong tomb. If they had only checked next door!
The idea that Jesus' tomb was not empty fails on multiple levels. The last thing Roman or Jewish authorities wanted was for a group of people to claim that their leader had risen from the dead, which is why360 guards were posted at the tomb according to Matthew 27:62-66. Is it really plausible that they guarded the wrong tomb? In reality, no one would have believed in Jesus' resurrection if the tomb was not actually empty. Someone could have identified the correct tomb, and the entire Christian movement would have been shut down from the start. We stand on pretty firm historical ground that the tomb was empty, though that in and of itself doesn't "prove" the resurrection of Jesus.
The third explanation is that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. That's exactly the conspiracy theory that the Jewish authorities (with the help of the guards) propagated from the very beginning according to Matthew 28:11-15. This explanation is unlikely, though, for at least two reasons. First, it is unlikely that these timid, scared Galilean disciples outmaneuvered a guard of highly skilled Roman soldiers in order to do that which all the Jewish and Roman authorities were trying to make sure would not happen. Second, the very idea of a resurrection was preposterous to many, so why would the disciples concoct such a risky plan in order to proclaim an event that no one had categories for? Many would-be Messiahs were executed in the first century, yet in no case do we find any of their followers claiming that their leader had risen from the dead. A resurrection like the one the disciples were proclaiming was not a part of the religious environment of Jesus' day. In much Greco-Roman thought, the goal in life was to be free, liberated from the body, so the last thing you would want was to come back into the body. For many Jews, the idea of individual resurrection back into a world of sickness, decay, and death was inconceivable. The kind of resurrection that Jesus experienced was not even an option. So why would the disciples steal Jesus' body and then tell people that His body had been resurrected?
When the facts of the empty tomb and the sightings of Jesus are taken together, the alternative theories for the resurrection become more implausible. If you only have an empty tomb but no sightings of Jesus, then you have something strange going on, but not a resurrection. It might be assumed that the body was stolen. On the other hand, if the disciples stole the body and then claimed that Jesus was alive, and yet nobody saw Him, then it would have been concluded that these men were fabricating a story. But if people actually saw Jesus after He had died on a cross, and if the tomb was demonstrably empty, then we have deeper questions that must be answered.361
This leads to the next possible explanation for Jesus' resurrection. Some scholars have argued that the disciples were delusional when they claimed to see Jesus. The people of Jesus' day didn't have the scientific knowledge we have today, the theory goes, so they were more prone to believe in the supernatural. In their pain and grief over Jesus' death, the disciples still believed that Jesus was somehow guiding them and leading them. They even had visions in their minds of Jesus speaking to them. They may or may not have believed that Jesus was still physically alive, but they believed He was alive spiritually. This myth supposedly grew over the years, and it eventually morphed into the idea that Jesus rose from the grave physically. Some scholars have even argued that the disciples were hallucinating when they claimed to have seen these events. However, these and other theories concerning the mental state of the disciples don't account well for the shift in the disciples' worldview that occurred overnight. Think about it: there was no process, no development, no debate or discussion, yet in a relatively short time, thousands upon thousands of people believed that Jesus rose from the grave. It's one thing to claim that the disciples were delusional, but how do you explain their influence and the dramatic change in their behavior in the days after the resurrection?
In addition to the 12 disciples, hundreds of other people claimed to have seen the risen Christ. Unlike the reported miracles today, this was more than one individual who claimed to have seen a Christ-like image in the clouds. Jesus ate with people, drank with people, and talked with people. Hallucinations don't eat or drink! This was not just spiritual imagination, it was physical presence. Maybe a few people could have been deluded into thinking they had seen Jesus, but Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to "over 500 brothers at one time" (1 Cor 15:6). In other words, Paul says, "Go ask them what they saw. You can verify this!"
Suppose I told you the following story: In preparation for the Masters, the most prestigious golfing tournament of the year, professional golfer Phil Mickelson called me in order to get some tips and to play a practice round. I showed him how to drive the ball further, and in the middle of our round, I hit a hole-in-one on a par 3. Phil was so impressed that he asked me to be his caddy for the Masters. The only reason I couldn't do it was because I already had a busy schedule for that week, but rest assured, this actually happened. Would you believe me? If not, how would you discredit my story?362
To discredit this ridiculous story, you could easily go to Phil Mickelson and say, "Do you have any clue who David Platt is or how terrible a golfer he is?" To which he would say, "I have no clue who David Platt is and I'm pretty sure he's a terrible golfer." (And that you could verify—on both counts!) You could also speak with people who have seen me play golf to either confirm or discredit my claims.
In a similar way, individuals in the first century were able to investigate the claims of the resurrection by speaking with the apostles and the hundreds of eyewitnesses who had physically seen Jesus. In fact, these eyewitnesses to the risen Christ were openly telling people about what they'd seen, and some were even losing their lives for it. Proclaiming the resurrection was not in their best interest. As Pascal said, "I believe the witnesses that get their throats cut" (Keller, The Reason for God, 210). It is, therefore, highly unlikely that the early Christians fabricated the idea of the resurrection. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has said,
The early Christians did not invent the empty tomb and the "meetings" or "sightings" of the risen Jesus.... Nobody was expecting this kind of thing... nobody would have invented it.... To suggest otherwise is to stop doing history and to enter into a fantasy world of our own. (Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 707)
Given the implausibility of the explanations that we've seen so far, there's one explanation that remains: Jesus died on the cross and actually rose from the grave. If you claim that the physical resurrection of Christ did not necessarily cause this radical shift in history, then what did? The burden of proof is on you. There's evidence for this view outside of the Bible as well, evidence that is granted by virtually all historical scholars, even those skeptical of religion. For instance, few people would actually dispute the following facts:
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- His followers believed that He rose from the grave and appeared to them.
- The lives of Christ's followers were radically changed as a result of seeing and following the risen Christ.
Concerning this last point, it is significant that even the most hardened advocates against Christianity (like Paul) became the strongest advocates for Christianity after seeing the resurrected Christ. Gary Habermas363 is probably the most renowned scholar on the resurrection of Jesus. He notes,
In particular, when the early and eyewitness experience of the disciples, James, and Paul are considered, along with their corresponding transformations and their central message, the historical Resurrection [of Jesus] becomes the best explanation for the facts, especially because the alternative theories have failed. (As cited in Boa and Bowman, Faith Has Its Reasons, 196)
From the earliest days of the church, the Bible tells us that people have worked to cover up Jesus' resurrection. Yet, every proposed explanation has fallen short. If, on the other hand, the resurrection is true, if Jesus did indeed die on the cross and actually rise from the grave, then the implications of these truths are startling. We'll consider some of these implications below.
Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That doesn't minimize anything else Jesus did, especially the cross; however, we can only see the significance of the cross and the rest of Christ's perfect work through the lens of the resurrection. When Matthew records for us the events of chapter 28, he is, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, making claims that change the world. We'll begin by looking at three implications concerning the authority of Christ based on the resurrection.
If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, then we don't have to worry about a thing He said, because it was a lie. But if Jesus rose from the dead, then we must accept everything He said, for His authority is absolute. Jesus closes this chapter and the Gospel as a whole by claiming, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth" (v. 18). Jesus' absolute authority based on the resurrection means that He has authority over life and death. Shortly before His own death, Jesus told His disciples the following:
No one takes it [My life] from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. (John 10:18)364
That's an astounding statement: Who among men determines when they live? None of us decides when we will come into this world, and when we die, none of us has the power to say, "I'm coming back to life." But that's precisely what Jesus did, and if He did rise from the dead, then He has absolute authority over life and death.
If Jesus rose from the dead, then we must also admit that He has authority over sin and Satan. All men die because they sin, for death is the payment for sin (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23). However, Jesus is one man in all of history who died without sinning; so why did He die? Jesus died for our sins, in our place (1 Pet 2:24). After His death, Jesus rose from the grave, not only in victory over death, but in victory over sin. First Corinthians 15:55-57 teaches us that sin is the "sting of death":
Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Sometimes it's easy to think of Jesus' authority in an abstract sense without making a personal application. However, the fact that Jesus has authority over life and death, as well as over sin and Satan, leads to one unavoidable conclusion: He has authority over you and me. That is, He is our rightful Lord and Master. Paul speaks to this reality in Romans 10:9-13, what we might refer to as the foundational confession of Christianity:
If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation. Now the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on Him will not be put to shame, for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
So what does it mean for Jesus to have absolute authority over you and me? First, it means He reigns over us supremely. Jesus is the sovereign Ruler over our lives. This is the case whether we believe it or not. Just as the grass is green, regardless of whether or not you believe it, so also Jesus is Lord over you regardless of your approval. Many times Christians say, "I've decided to make Jesus the Lord of my life." I hate to break it to you, but you didn't have a choice in the matter. Jesus is Lord365 over your life. Scripture says that one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10-11). The question is not whether or not Jesus is Lord; the question is, "Will you submit to Him as Lord now or when it is too late?"
Second, not only does Jesus' authority mean that He reigns over us supremely, but also that He loves us deeply. Remember that the purpose of the resurrection is grounded in Christ's love for us. God sent His Son to pay the price for our sin, and the resurrection lets us know that our hope of salvation is not some made-up story, some fanciful myth. The resurrection of Jesus validates everything He said, taught, and told us He came to do. In Galatians 2:20 Paul speaks of the Son of God who "loved me and gave Himself for me." Believers should rejoice in Jesus' love demonstrated in both His cross and His resurrection.
Third, Christ's authority over us means that He will judge us eternally. Jesus speaks of His role as judge in John 5:21-23:
And just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son also gives life to anyone He wants to. The Father, in fact, judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all people will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.
For all who believe in Christ, the truth of Christ's judgment is good news. It's good news because you can be saved from eternal judgment if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (Rom 10:9). Christ's role as judge is also good news because the resurrection reminds us that this world is not all there is. If our only expectations are for this life, then we have no hope in the face of tragedy in this world. Furthermore, Christ's judgment means our efforts for justice in this world become meaningful. Pastor and author Tim Keller explains,
Each year at Easter I get to preach on the Resurrection. In my sermon I always say to my skeptical, secular friends that, even if they can't believe in the resurrection, they should want it to be true. Most of them care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviating hunger and disease, and caring for the environment. Yet many of them believe that the material world was caused by accident and that the world and everything in it will eventually simply burn up. They find it discouraging that so few people care about justice without realizing that their366 own worldview undermines any motivation to make the world a better place. Why sacrifice for the needs of others if in the end nothing we do will make any difference? However, if the resurrection of Jesus happened, that means there's infinite hope and reason to pour ourselves out for the needs of the world. (Keller, The Reason for God, 211-12)
All of us have built-in longings and desires for meaning and purpose, and this tells us that this world is not the entire picture. Neither disease nor natural disasters have the last word in this world; because of the resurrection, Jesus does. And He will have the last word in the lives of each of us for all of eternity.
Based on everything we've seen about Jesus' authority, the ultimate question in the universe—Did Jesus rise from the dead?—becomes a very personal question. We can think of this personal application in two parts based on the truth we saw above in Romans 10:9. First, do you believe in the historical resurrection of Jesus? Romans 10:9 says that you must "believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead" in order to be saved. This is a point where the message of Christianity is radically different from every other religion. Scripture doesn't give us a list of things to do, boxes to check off, or rituals to follow. There is only truth to be believed. If you don't believe the truth of the gospel, then the burden of proof is on you to disprove the resurrection.
The second part of this personal application also has to do with Romans 10:9, as there is more involved in salvation than believing in the resurrection. To be clear, there's no work involved on our part, but there is a confession to be made. In the area where I pastor, the overwhelming majority of people would say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but there are undoubtedly many of them who are not saved from their sins. We know that mere intellectual assent doesn't save, for even the Devil himself believes in the resurrection of Jesus, and he is not saved from his sin. I could ask the Devil, "Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?"
He'd say, "Yes."
If I were to ask him, "Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?"
He'd say, "Yes."367
If I were to ask him, "Do you believe Jesus died on the cross and rose again?"
He'd say, "Yes."
If I were to ask him, "Do you believe Jesus is the only way to be saved?"
He'd say, "Yes."
If I were to ask him, "Will you commit to live a moral life and come to church and get involved in leadership?"
He could say, "Yes."
The crucial question is this: "Will you repent of your sin and surrender your life to Jesus as Lord?"
The Devil would clearly answer, "Absolutely not." We would do well to stress this aspect of submission in our own evangelism today.
In our day we urge people to assent intellectually to Jesus, pray a certain prayer, get involved in a particular church, live a relatively good life, etc., all with the promise (either explicitly or implicitly) that they will be saved. That's a lie. Scores of professing Christians have believed half of Romans 10:9, and they think they are saved from their sins, when in fact they are not. They give lip-service to Jesus, but their lives are not surrendered to His absolute authority. That's why we must ask the question, "Do you surrender to the universal authority of Jesus?" This is what it means to "confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord'" (Rom 10:9). To confess with your mouth is not about saying some magic words; rather, it's about a heart condition that says, "Yes, I believe Jesus died on the cross for my sin and rose from the grave as my Savior, and my life belongs to Him as Lord." Eternity depends on our answer to that question.
Reflect and Discuss
- What is the logical problem with the claim that truth is based on preference or opinion? How could you use such a discussion in an evangelistic encounter?
- How would you respond to the following statement: "I'm a follower of Christ, but I don't believe Jesus rose from the dead"?
- Is it enough to say that Jesus rose spiritually, but not bodily/physically? Why not?
- Explain the contention that the Christian faith stands or falls based on Christ's resurrection.368
- Explain the connection between Jesus' resurrection and your own salvation.
- How does the truth of the resurrection fit into a presentation of the gospel?
- Why is it unlikely that Mary and Martha would have been included in Matthew's resurrection account if this were a fabrication? How does their appearance in this Gospel bolster the trustworthiness of Matthew's account?
- Does affirmation of Jesus' resurrection necessarily imply that one is a follower of Christ? Explain your answer.
- How does the resurrection speak to Jesus' lordship?
- How should the resurrection inform your reading of the entirety of Matthew's Gospel and the ministry of Jesus?