Easter is special for a lot of reasons. It seems to be a culmination of events that led to an ultimate beginning rather than an ultimate ending. Everything about our faith kind of works like that- both forward and backward, both already and not quite yet. What sets our faith apart is that we believe in a God that conquered death-physically- and therefore has the key to real life. Somehow we think the miraculous birth, the teaching, the signs and wonders, and the fulfillment of prophecies might have all somehow been invalid if it not for the resurrection. If Jesus didn’t raise from the dead, then maybe He was just like any other prophet, for He couldn’t have been the Messiah.
So we spend our Easters trying to prove the resurrection, maybe more so that we can prove ourselves rather than prove God. We focus on stories, facts, tradition, and whatever we can grasp to prove that Jesus is who He says He is, as if He needs our help.
There are several accounts of the resurrection seen in The Bible. Many people may not realize this, but The Bible is not organized chronologically, either by the order in which events occurred or by the order in which the books were written. The earliest written record of Jesus’ resurrection appears in 1st Corinthians 15, written by the Apostle Paul, approximately 53-57 years after the crucifixion. 1 Corinthians 15 certainly describes the significance of the resurrection, making it clear that if Christ did not raise from the dead then our faith is futile and we are still dead in our sin, separated from God.
When we compare the resurrection account in 1 Corinthians to those in each Gospel account, we can see that none of them quite agree on the details. Mark was the first Gospel written around 70 A.D., and Matthew and Luke followed roughly 10-40 years later, using Mark as a reference to expand upon. John came last and contains mostly different accounts than the three Synoptic Gospels. Most scholars accept that each Gospel writer was most likely not an eye witness to Jesus life, ministry, crucifixion or resurrection, despite the fact that John calls himself the disciple Jesus loved. If we’re honest with ourselves, and if we truly seek to understand the truth of the resurrection, we can’t help but scratch our head at points.
In each account, the eye witnesses that visit the tomb are different; the only constant is Mary. Even among those witnesses, what they witnessed varies. In Mark and John the eye witnesses present at the open tomb claimed to have seen a risen Christ there, while in Matthew and Luke they did not.
When Jesus appeared later, there are discrepancies about how and where. Mark says Jesus will appear in Galilee, while Matthew says he did appear in Galilee. Luke says the appearance was not in Galilee but Jerusalem. John originally wrote that the appearance was in Jerusalem, but in an appendix added much later, there was a Galilean appearance.
How did Jesus appear? Well, everyone has a different perspective on that, too. Paul says that Jesus appeared to him as a vision, drawing comparison to the way in which Jesus appeared to the earlier disciples, proving that there was already a strong oral tradition surrounding the matter despite the lack of written record. Mark never describes an appearance. Matthew describes multiple appearances; at least the one at the empty tomb was physical because the witnesses grabbed onto his physical body, while other appearances seem to transcend the realm of physicality with Jesus floating, hovering, etc. Luke records that Jesus materialized with two companions on the road to Emmaus, then dematerialized, again seeming to transcend what we know as the laws of physics. In the Gospel of John, we get a Jesus who can walk through walls, as well as a physical body that Thomas can physically touch.
So how do we reconcile all that? How do we describe away the inconsistencies among the accounts of the resurrection, which makes our faith what it is? It’s literally unbelievable. If we want to seek truth regarding a deeply significant theological event, we have to be willing to actually study the topic we seek to understand. If our faith hinges upon the fact that Jesus raised from the dead, we might hope that our own scripture and tradition could be a little more consistent and reliable.
Unfortunately many Christians dislike critical thinking. We often like to sweep the inconsistencies under the rug, chalking them up as another reason to just have faith. I don’t know if you could tell, but I like to study stuff, and I like to make connections, and sometimes I like nothing more than highlighting inconsistencies. When we become certain about what we believe, we’ve lost the point. When we seek to prove what we believe, we value certainty and control over the continual search for truth.
When it comes to the resurrection, many think it happened, many think it didn’t happen, and many admit that they’re just not sure. If we really think about each of those positions, they’re all more similar than they seem. The minute we know, we’ve lost it. It’s often impossible to wrap a 21st century mind around the concepts of 1st century authors and to understand why they wrote what they wrote in the way they wrote it. To the Bronze Age understanding, the world was flat and existed in three separate layers across nearly all religious traditions. When the Biblical authors wrote that Jesus descended into Hell, that was the understanding that He went into the earth, where dead people and evil or bad spirits lived. The second layer was for the living, and the ascension up into the heavens could have been a physical move toward the sky or simply the only way the author knew how to communicate that Jesus left the layer of the living for heaven where positive spirits lived.
No matter what conclusions we draw from the accounts of the resurrection, Jesus’ appearances, and His ascension into Heaven, there is no question about what it all meant to His followers. When the disciples saw Jesus after the crucifixion,they went from people who fled from Him in His time of greatest need to people whose understanding of God forever meant the image of Jesus.
Before Jesus came, the Jewish tradition had always taught that the coming Messiah would be a righteous King who would lead a holy war and liberate Jerusalem from all that opposed it. No wonder they mistook who Jesus was. He didn’t even put up a fight in the holy war, but He certainly liberated all who believed from the power of sin and the death they were required to pay for it. The Passion Week was a huge disappointment, but that was only because everyone was so focused on the facts, forgetting that God is God, and He works in metaphor and simile. Their search for truth had become focused on certainty and control, and they lost sight that God’s story is always more than it seems.
When Jesus was on the cross, He experienced separation from his Father for the first time in His life. Even after all the brutality he endured, being beaten and whipped within an inch of his life, being spat on, mocked, humiliated, most likely castrated, and having to carry his own cross to the sight of his murder, nothing was more excruciating than the loss of his Father’s presence. The world turned dark at 3:00PM as the light of the world was no longer sinless, for He had taken on our sin and was experiencing the consequence. We think of Hell as a physical place, but it may be the point at which we can truly cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as Jesus did in the midst of that separation. Even as He endured that hell, He prayed for the very people whose blood thirst led Him to that cross. He prayed for you and I, pleading for our forgiveness as the weight of our sin bore down upon His shoulders, leading Him to suffocate when His own strength literally became too little to pull Himself up out of the darkness. Facts and discrepancies seem to pale in comparison when we realize that Jesus’ death proves to us that the simultaneously downward and upward path of self-sacrificing love is truly our only hope.
As the Jews celebrated Passover every year at this time, they would select their best lamb and often bring it inside to live with them for a couple days before killing it for the celebration and spreading its blood over their doors as a sign that was meant to recreate the Lord’s passing over of the Israelite households as He brought the plagues against Egypt. Jesus became the final Passover lamb, having dwelt among us, and having shed his blood for the whole world. Each Passover, the High Priest would select a goat, lay his hands on its head and confess all the sins of Israel over it before leading it out into the wilderness; this was meant to represent the separation of Israel from its sins, bringing it back into righteousness and good standing with the Lord. Jesus died to appease the blood thirst for a scapegoat that mankind had created, representing that God’s final judgement has already happened. God doesn’t want to be a part of mankind’s sin accounting business, in which we keep track of our good and our bad, holding it against each other and against ourselves. I’m guilty of using my faith and personal convictions to hope that God is still going to “win” something on my behalf, but the truth is God has already won, and so has everyone who has put their faith in the finality of the work that Jesus did on the cross.
Imagine what the disciples must have thought when they saw Jesus appear after being publicly killed and buried. They probably thought, “Oh shoot, now He’s about to go off. Let’s go, Jesus, we got them now.” But no, Jesus came back to love, and to forgive. It’s counterintuitive to everything we might expect, but so is pretty much every aspect of God and faith.
Jesus’ resurrection from death represents His dominion over the realm of physical death, and it also represents His dominion over the power of sin, for which the wages is death. When Jesus calls us to pick up our own cross and follow Him, that’s a pretty hefty ideal. It means a lot of things, including the fact that we will also be included in the cycle of birth, death to sin, and resurrection in Christ. It means we will be misunderstood and maligned, abandoned in our time of greatest need, and at some point realize and experience how utterly separated we are from God. But it also means that God’s judgement in our lives has been made final. Jesus became the ultimate act of solidarity so that we could experience ultimate communion with God, walking and talking in relationship with Him as had never been done since the Garden of Eden. The resurrection of Jesus enables everyone to have a personal encounter with God that transcends the limits of human language and understanding, so that when we see Jesus we think of God, and think of God when we see Jesus.