Should Christians Celebrate Easter?

Every year it comes up about whether Christians should celebrate Easter or not. People have seen parallels in pagan religions and have concluded that Easter should be forgotten. I think that some of the parallels have been overstated, but for the sake of argument, let us assume that all the claims are true. Let us say that it was named after a pagan goddess, was timed according to a pagan date, that it originally was a celebration of pagan hopes of renewal and that it was filled with all kinds of other pagan stuff. Does this make Easter something to avoid?

I think we need to get some perspective. Does any Christian attempt to celebrate the original pagan elements? Since most Christians don’t even know about the parallels, that is unlikely. What is it that most Christians are consciously thinking about at Easter? Most would be thinking of Jesus’ death on the cross, his atoning sacrifice, the mourning of the disciples and the resurrection of Jesus. I cannot see anything sinful in celebrating our hope in Christ. As far as I am concerned, biblical truth of the crucifixion and resurrection trumps any supposed pagan origins that have been buried for centuries. The church has long been active in Christianizing what was there before and I hope we keep doing it.

Lent: Cloak Sunday

Cloak Sunday? I must have made a mistake, it is supposed to be Palm Sunday. But take a closer look.

“Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” (Matthew 21:8 ESV)

“And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields.” (Mark 11:8 ESV)

“And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road.” (Luke 19:36 ESV)

The emphasis of three of the four Gospels is on the cloaks and not the branches. The emphasis on the branches really appears in John.

“So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”” (John 12:13 ESV)

I believe that the triumphal entry included both cloaks and branches but in the original setting, the cloaks were far more important. So why does John emphasize the palm branches? If you read through John, branches are a major theme all the way through. It was natural for John to focus on the branches.

So why are cloaks more important? Any one get a branch and once it was trampled and destroyed, it made no difference. But most of the people at the entry were poor people. They did not have closets full of cloaks. When they threw their cloaks on the path, it was a real sacrifice. The cloaks could be ripped up or they could be lost in the sea of cloaks.

This leaves the question to us, what is our worship? Do we give the palm branches that we do not miss or do we give the cloaks that we value dearly?

Lent: Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross?

In order to try and explain the resurrection, some claim that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. This is often called the swoon theory. Why do I believe that Jesus really died on the cross?

The swoon theory argues that Jesus only passed out on the cross. But if you understand crucifixion, you will know that is not possible. Crucifixion kills by making the person so weak that they are no longer able to raise their body to catch a breath. It is possible that Jesus passed out but that would only mean that he died a few minutes after.

Assuming someone got Jesus down between the fainting and the death (which is extremely unlikely) and had him buried, what then? What are the chances that Jesus would recover in the tomb? Jesus would need intensive care to survive. Days in a tomb without medical help, food or water would have finished him off if the cross didn’t.

There is a reason that almost every scholar accepts the crucifixion of Jesus. It is one of the surest facts of ancient history.

Lent: Did God Turn His Back on Jesus?

It is common to suggest that when Jesus was on the cross, that the Father turned his back on Jesus. There are two arguments for this, both of which I think are wrong.

The first argument is that Jesus quotes Psalm 22, where it talks about God forsaking him. The problem with this is that Jesus was not the first say these words. They were written by David. This Psalm entered into the worship of Israel and expressed the feelings of worshippers in times of distress. There is no reason to believe that David or any of the other Israelites who recited this Psalm were ever completely cut off from the presence of God.

The second argument is that Jesus took on the sin of the world and since God is holy, he could not look upon his Son. The problem is that the Bible never says this. The other problem is that God never turns away from sin in other circumstances. The world has always been full of sin and yet God continues to look upon us.

We must be careful not to argue doctrines that are not taught in the Bible.

 

Lent: Why Did Jesus Die?

As this is the first Sunday in Lent, I thought I would start a series looking at different aspects of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Why did Jesus die? That depends. Do we mean from the perspective of the Jewish leaders, the Romans or God?

The Jewish leaders (and I draw a distinction between certain leaders and the Jewish people) wanted Jesus dead for a couple of reasons. One was out of jealousy for the popularity that Jesus had with the people. It was not just that the people liked him but Jesus made these leaders look foolish in front of the people. Another reason was the cleansing of the Temple. The action of Jesus in the Temple was unacceptable to the leaders and it was a direct challenge to their authority. The official charge may have been blasphemy but these others were the real reasons.

The Romans had no interest in the religious debates of the Jews. They executed Jesus (don’t call Jews “Christ killers” because it was the Romans who did the actual killing) because he was a threat to the peace of Judea. Jerusalem was filled with visitors and it would not have taken much to spark a riot. Jesus was a charismatic leader who some were calling a king. It was in their political interest to execute Jesus before things got out of hand.

The real reason that Jesus died is that this was God’s plan. Humanity was separated from God and only something radical could fix this. This was the sacrifice of God’s Son. Some would say that it was cruel for the Father to allow his Son to die. This is based on a simplistic understanding of the situation that does not take into account the Trinity or the resurrection. If God chose this as the way, our job is to respond to the gift and not to complain about the way God did it. God loved us so much that he gave his one and only Son.

Seeing is Believing

seeingisbelieving

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of being able to speak at a conference in Belgium on the resurrection. One of the speakers was Gerd Ludemann.[i]  Although I knew I had some different opinions than Ludemann, I was eager to learn from such a well-known scholar.

Ludemann began his presentation with an argument for the historicity of Peter’s denial of Jesus.  He did a fantastic job of demonstrating that we should take the Gospel accounts of this event seriously and that the denial has the ring of truth. Ludemann then went on to talk about the emotional toll this must have had on Peter.  I agree that it must have been extremely difficult for Peter and that the guilt must have been overwhelming.  Ludemann went on to cite some modern psychiatric studies that have shown that people under tremendous emotional strain can hallucinate and can see the things they need to see to get through their difficult time.

I need to make a confession.  If Peter was the only one to whom Jesus appeared, I could see this as a reasonable option.  It seems entirely plausible that Peter could have broken under the strain.  The problem is that Peter is not the only one to whom Jesus appeared.  This is where the hallucination theory breaks down.[ii]

When trying to understand what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion, it is essential for us to examine 1 Corinthians 15:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–8 ESV)[iii]

This passage includes an appearance to Peter (Cephas) but also identifies a number of other witnesses.  Any theory as to what happened to Jesus must take all of these appearances into account.  The first group after Peter is that of the twelve.  Of course Peter is one of the twelve and with Judas dead, there were only eleven at this point.  What this passage is saying is that there was a specific appearance to Peter and then another appearance to the rest of the group that was known as the twelve.  The Gospels give an account of these appearances.  What is interesting is that these appearances were not used to add to the prestige of the twelve but to demonstrate their weakness.  We are told that Thomas doubted the resurrection because he had been absent at the first meeting (John 20:24-29).  In case people want to be overly critical with Thomas, we should remember that more among the twelve had their doubts (Matthew 28:17).  These doubts fall under the criteria of embarrassment, the kind of details that historians look for when determining historicity.

We also find in this passage a reference to an appearance to more than five hundred people.  We do not know where this appearance fits with the Gospel accounts or if it is a separate tradition.  What is important is that there were many witnesses, far more than could be explained by the hallucination theory.  Paul seems to indicate that most of these witnesses were still available to be interviewed if anyone has doubts.

The next reference is to that of James.  This is significant as James was the brother of Jesus and eventually the leader of the Jerusalem church.  What is interesting about James is that he did not start off with such leadership potential.  We meet James in the Gospels as one of a number of brothers (Mark 6:3) from a family that was explicit in their disbelief in Jesus’ messianic identity (John 7:5).  Again using the criteria of embarrassment, the lack of belief seems to be historical.  If that is the case, how does James go from being an unbelieving and even a mocking brother to becoming the leader of the Jerusalem church?  The answer is the resurrection appearance that he experienced.  There was no psychological reason for James to create an imaginary appearance, as the truth of Jesus’ messianic identity would only increase James’ sense of guilt over not believing.  The best explanation is that James did encounter the risen Jesus.

The next group mentioned is that of the apostles.  Many people assume that the twelve and the apostles are the exact same group.  While there is overlap, in reality the twelve were a subset of the apostles.  This larger group of apostles probably included Joseph and Matthias (Acts 1:23) and may have included other individuals identified as apostles such as Barnabas (Acts 14:14).  This group tells us that not only did many laypeople witness the risen Jesus, so did those who were leaders in the church.

Paul then goes on to add himself to the list of witnesses.  Although Paul’s encounter with Jesus is recorded in Acts (9:1-9; 22:4-16; 26:9-18), he also describes it in his letters:

“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:13–17 ESV)[iv]

What we know about Paul is that he was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the church, met Jesus and went on to become one of the greatest evangelists and theologians of the Christian church.  This has to be explained somehow.  Could Paul have converted because he was impressed with the Christians and how they treated one another?  This is extremely unlikely.  The Jewish community would have been just as tight knit and there is every reason to believe that Paul was content as a Jew.  Could Paul have felt guilty over his violent treatment of the Christians?  There is no indication of this.  Paul likely saw himself as being faithful to the example of Phineas who was willing to kill for what he believed (Numbers 25:8).  It is important to remember what Paul was doing when he converted to Christianity.  He was burning one bridge without having the next bridge built.  By becoming a Christian, Paul was abandoning his Jewish community and yet he had no reason to believe that the Christians would embrace him.[v]  To make such a radical decision would require an extraordinary reason.  It is unlikely that Paul hallucinated, as he probably did not know Jesus during his earthly ministry.  It is unlikely that Paul invented the story of meeting Jesus as he suffered tremendously for his faith.  The only explanation for the conversion of Paul is that he encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Although it is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians, another important appearance of Jesus is that to the women.  The fact that it is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians is significant as it shows that it added nothing to the testimony from an ancient perspective.  In the first century, there was no value in a woman’s testimony and yet the Gospels agree that it was to women that the risen Jesus first appeared.  There is no reason for the Gospel writers to invent this detail and so it likely goes back to a historical event.[vi]

Believers and skeptics will continue to debate about what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Some with a naturalistic worldview will see the resurrection as impossible while others with a worldview open to the supernatural will see it as possible.  Aside from philosophical bias, one must still deal with the historical problem of the appearances.  The resurrection of Jesus is not described as a dream or a feeling but as physical appearances to real people.  The fact that there is such rich evidence from the eyewitnesses points to the historical nature of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.


[i] All of the presentations from this conference can be found in G. Van Oyen and T. Shepherd (eds.) Resurrection of the Dead:Biblical Traditions in Dialogue (Leuven: Peeters, 2012).

[ii] Although this essay touches on the hallucination theory, it is not the focus.  For more on the hallucination theory, see William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), pp. 384-87 and Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), pp. 495-519.

[iii] This is likely an early creed being passed on by Paul.  See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 722-37.

[iv] For more on Paul’s encounter with Christ, see Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 32-35.

[v] The church was hesitant to accept Paul as we see in Acts 9:26.

[vi] For more on the presence of the women, see N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 607-8.

This article was done in partnership with the Canadian Apologetics Coalition. Bloggers from across Canada have put together a cumulative case for the historical Resurrection of Jesus. Here are the other articles:
By Tim Barnett | Sunday, March 24th
Tim Barnett (BSc, BEd) is a high school science teacher and the founder of Clear Thinking Christianity. His passion is to train Canadian Christians–both young and old–to think clearly about their Christian convictions because Christianity is worth think about. God willing, Tim will start his MA in Philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary this fall. Website: www.clearthinkingchristianity.com.
By Tawa Anderson | Monday, March 25th
Tawa Anderson was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, where he earned his BA in Political Science at the U of A (1997), and his MDiv from Edmonton Baptist Seminary (2000). He served as English pastor at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church from 2001-2008 before returning to school to earn his PhD in Philosophy, Apologetics & Worldview from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky). Tawa now serves as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University (Shawnee, Oklahoma), and returns regularly to Canada to preach, teach, and visit family and friends. Person blog:www.tawapologetics.blogspot.com.
By Paul Buller | Tuesday, March 26th
Paul enjoys discussing and teaching on philosophy of science, philosophy of ethics and theology among other related topics. He is an engineer, husband and father of two. He is the author of Arguing with Friends: Keeping Your Friends and Your Convictions.
Website: www.whyjesus.ca
By Kelly Madland | Wednesday, March 27th
Kelly Madland is a wife, mom, and community apologist who has hosted a local
apologetics conference called ‘Thinking Clearly About God’ in Kamloops. She has been leading a bible study on campus at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She is also a part of the Ratio Christi Canada development team, and is looking forward to completing her Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics in 2014. Personal blog: www.thinkclearly.ca.
By Justin Wishart | Thursday, March 28th
Justin Wishart is the general editor and blogger for Faith Beyond Belief and lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is most interested in issues surrounding Christian philosophy, particularly epistemology and early Christian thought. Justin is a husband and a father. He currently works as a mechanic and enjoys many hobbies such as camping, hiking, and creating music. Website: www.faithbeyondbelief.ca.
Contending for Easter: Seeing is Believing [PART 6]
By Stephen J. Bedard | Friday, March 29th
Stephen J. Bedard (MDiv, MTh, MA, DMin (cand.)) is the director of Hope’s Reason Ministries and an instructor at Emmanuel Bible College and Tyndale University College. Website: www.hopesreason.com.
By David Haines | Saturday, March 30th
David Haines was born and raised in Ontario, Canada. He holds a BTh from Covington Theological Seminary and an MA in Philosophy from Southern Evangelical Seminary. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at University Laval. Personal blog is: www.philosopherdhaines.blogspot.ca. Website: www.associationaxiome.ca.
By Jojo Ruba | Sunday, March 31st
Jojo Ruba is committed to equipping Christians to be good ambassadors for Christ. He does this as a youth pastor with Faith Builder International Church in Calgary as well as a public speaker and executive director of Faith Beyond Belief. His experiences speaking at public forums, university debates and in Christian settings have helped him understand how we can better communicate the truth of the gospel. Through Faith Beyond Belief, Jojo shares solid tools to help Christians engage their culture with compassion but without compromise. Website: www.faithbeyondbelief.ca

Jesus Gets a Raise

As Christians will be celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday, I thought I would share the chapter from Experiencing God Without Losing Your Mind that deals with the resurrection.  This will give you a sense of what this book is like.  You can pick up this book in its entirety either as an e-book or in the print edition.

Jesus Gets a Raise

I still remember my first Easter after having made a personal faith commitment to Jesus.  You could not wipe the smile off my face.  I had enjoyed Easter before.  It was nice to have a day off and chocolate is one of the best things in the entire world.  But this Easter was different, as for the very first time I believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Why is this so important?  There are all kinds of miracles in the Bible.  What is so special about the resurrection of Jesus?  The resurrection is the foundation for the Christian faith.  The Apostle Paul puts it this way: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” (1 Corinthians 15:13–18)

So the resurrection is important.  That is fine as a theological statement but how do we make sense of the resurrection?  As my Dad used to say: “Once you’re dead, you’re dead, there ain’t no coming back.”  When our loved ones die and we bury them, we do not expect them to show up on our doorstep.  Why should we look at the resurrection of Jesus any differently?

Should we look at the resurrection as a parable, as a symbol of hope for overcoming despair?  Or should we look at the resurrection as a historical fact?  We will look at this, first by examining possible alternatives to the resurrection and then investigating the evidence for the resurrection.

The fact that dead people do not ordinarily 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 mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim.  It was part of the claim itself.

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 712.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, what are the alternatives?  One is that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.  This theory suggests that Jesus simply passed out, was buried under the assumption that he was dead, recovered while in the tomb and later escaped.  There are a few problems with this.  One is that the Romans were experts at execution and it is highly unlikely they would make a mistake.  Secondly, it is physically impossible to only pass out on the cross.  Death on the cross comes from asphyxiation.  As the person weakens, they are no longer able to raise themselves up to get a breath and so they suffocate.  If a person passed out (which was likely), then that would hasten their death, not prevent it.  If a person was taken down under the mistaken impression that they were dead (which is unlikely), their wounds would be so severe that they would die in the tomb.  The disciples interpreted Jesus’ resurrection not just as a return to life but the beginning of the resurrection that all people would experience.  If Jesus came to them all bloody and barely alive, they might have interpreted things differently.  The case for the survival of the crucifixion is very weak.

Since the exact moment of death by crucifixion was uncertain, executioners could ensure death by a spear thrust into the victim’s side, such as was dealt to Jesus.  Moreover, what the theory suggests is virtually physically impossible.  The extent of Jesus’ tortures was such that he could never have survived the crucifixion and entombment.  The suggestion that a man so critically wounded then went on to appear to the disciples on various occasions in Jerusalem and Galilee is pure fantasy.

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), p. 374.

Assuming that Jesus did die on the cross, what other alternatives are there?  One is the suggestion that the disciples made up the story of the resurrection.  The problem with this is that all of the disciples suffered and most were killed for what they claimed was true.  Why be martyred for what you know is false?  One could counter that there are terrorists today who are willing to die for what they believe.  That is true, but there is an important difference.  The difference concerns religious belief vs. eyewitness knowledge.  A terrorist may sincerely believe something will happen to them in the afterlife if they are killed, but the disciples died with knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection from first hand experience.  It is difficult to see how they would be willing to die for what they knew was false.

Perhaps the disciples really did believe that Jesus rose from the dead but they were actually mistaken.  We hear of examples all the time of widows who think they see or feel the hand of their recently departed spouse.  Our minds can play tricks on us and the disciples were grieving the loss of Jesus.  This would be very possible if only one or two people claimed to have seen the risen Jesus.  However, the New Testament claims that hundreds of people saw Jesus, including people who were not emotionally connected to Jesus.  To believe that so many people could share the same hallucination is a stretch.

The alternatives to the resurrection are weak in their explanatory power.  But could someone really rise from the dead?  We would have to have some very good evidence for such a thing.  Let us take a look at some of the evidence we do have for Jesus’ resurrection.

The best place to begin is this passage from Paul: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–8)  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written around 55 AD, which makes it one of our earliest Christian writings.  Not only that, but most of this passage (omitting Paul’s statement about himself) was not written by Paul but was rather an earlier creedal statement that some scholars have dated to within a few years of Jesus’ death.  This tells us a number of very important things.  We can see that belief in the resurrection of Jesus was a not a later legendary addition but was a part of the Jesus story from the very beginning.  We also find that appearances by Jesus were not a rare or isolated experience.  More than five hundred people had seen Jesus after the resurrection.  Paul speaks as if the Corinthians could go to Jerusalem and start talking to eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus.  For Paul, we are firmly in the area of history rather than just spirituality.

Two of the people that Paul mentions deserve special treatment.  The resurrection appearance to James and Paul carry more weight than just two more names on the list.  James was the eldest of Jesus’ half-brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3).  We also know that James and the rest of his brothers did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah (John 7:1-5).  Yet by the time we get to the book of Acts, we have James as the head of the Jerusalem church, taking on important leadership roles regarding the direction of the church.  What happened?  Only one thing could have brought about such a radical transformation and that is the risen Jesus appearing to James.  While we would love the details of that meeting, even the hints that we have are enough to demonstrate that an unbeliever such as James did see Jesus alive.

And if the Gospels accurately report that Jesus was chided and rejected by his brothers who thought him at times crazy, it seems more likely that Jesus’ execution as a criminal and blasphemer would have supported their continued unbelief rather than their conversion to a faith that the especially pious James would have regarded as apostasy.

Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p. 517.

One could perhaps argue that James was feeling guilty and saw what he wanted to see (although that still does not explain the confidence required to take on leadership).  Paul is a different story.  Paul had absolutely no emotional attachment to Jesus and probably had never met him during his earthly ministry.  Paul (originally known as Saul) was not a spiritual seeker looking for a religion to meet his emotional needs.  Paul was very satisfied as a Pharisee and he was so zealous for his beliefs that he actively persecuted the Christians (Acts 8:1-3).  Paul was actually involved in the death of some Christians and yet a few years later we find him as the most active evangelist/theologian/pastor/missionary in the Christian church.  What happened?  Luke describes it this way: “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.” (Acts 9:3–7)  Paul was no gullible fool who could be easily led astray by an emotional experience.  Paul had the best of both Jewish and Greek education.  Yet, Paul really believed that he saw and heard the risen Jesus.  It is easy to miss the impact of this.  By becoming a Christian, Paul was cutting himself off from his Jewish community.  But because of his violent persecution of Christians, Paul was far from assured of a place within the Christian community.  Paul was burning one bridge without knowing if it was possible to build another.  One does not make such a decision unless very certain that it is based on fact rather than fantasy.  It should be noted that both James and Paul were certain enough of having met the risen Jesus that they both were martyred for their faith.

Another piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is found in the Gospels.  The Gospels agree that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb of Jesus.  To our modern minds that is no big deal, but in that culture this is significant.  If the disciples wanted to invent a resurrection story, they would have constructed it in such a way as would be most convincing in their culture.  In that culture, women had no value when it came to being a legal witness.  To have women as the first to discover the empty tomb would be a bit of an embarrassment.  A male disciple, a scribe or Pharisee, even a Roman soldier, would carry more weight than a woman.  But the authors recorded what they knew had happened and that was that women discovered the empty tomb and that a woman was the first to speak to the risen Jesus (John 20:11-18).

The final piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is the existence of the Christian church.  The first century Jewish historian Josephus records the activities of a number of Jewish messiahs.  The pattern is clear: the so-called messiah is killed, the people scatter and the movement is dead.  No Jew would look at the execution of their leader and conclude that this was a movement worth staying with.  Unless something else happened.  It is only in the case of Christianity that these people saw the death of their leader as a victory rather than a defeat.  The reason for this is that they were very aware from a multitude of eyewitnesses that Jesus did not remain in the tomb but was risen from the dead on the third day.

After the death of Jesus the entire Christian community suddenly adopted a set of beliefs that were brand-new and until that point had been unthinkable.  The first Christians had a resurrection-centered view of reality.  They believed that the future resurrection had already begun in Jesus.  They believed that Jesus had a transformed body that could walk through walls yet eat food.  This was not simply a resuscitated body like the Jews envisioned, nor a solely spiritual existence like the Greeks imagined.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 217.

Discussion

 

Do you believe in ghosts?  Why or why not?

Have you ever thought you have seen a departed loved one?  How real was it?

How important is it for Jesus to have physically risen from the dead rather than the resurrection simply being a spiritual metaphor?

How do you think the disciples felt as they watched Jesus die on the cross?

How do you think the disciples felt as they discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead?

How would you have responded if you were James and you saw Jesus alive after his death?

How do you think the resurrection of Jesus helped Paul as he was persecuted for his faith?

Read Luke 24:36-49.  What do we learn about the resurrection of Jesus?

Read Acts 2:29-36.  Why did Peter include the message of the resurrection in his preaching?

Read 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.  How does Jesus’ resurrection affect us?

Contending for Easter

A group of Canadian apologetics bloggers, called the Canadian Apologetics Coalition (including myself) are running a series of blog posts leading up to Easter.  Here is a preview of what you can expect.

The following blog posts will be released on the dates leading up to Easter 2013:

Contending for Easter: Putting It All On The Line [PART 1]

By Tim Barnett | Sunday, March 24th

Tim Barnett (BSc, BEd) is a high school science teacher and the founder of Clear Thinking Christianity. His passion is to train Canadian Christians–both young and old–to think clearly about their Christian convictions because Christianity is worth think about. God willing, Tim will start his MA in Philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary this fall. Website: http://www.clearthinkingchristianity.com.

Contending for Easter: The Gospel Truth: Or Is It? [PART 2]

By Tawa Anderson | Monday, March 25th

Tawa Anderson was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, where he earned his BA in Political Science at the U of A (1997), and his MDiv from Edmonton Baptist Seminary (2000). He served as English pastor at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church from 2001-2008 before returning to school to earn his PhD in Philosophy, Apologetics & Worldview from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky). Tawa now serves as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University (Shawnee, Oklahoma), and returns regularly to Canada to preach, teach, and visit family and friends. Person blog: http://www.tawapologetics.blogspot.com.

Contending for Easter: They Sought To Kill Him, But Did They Succeed? [PART 3]

By Paul Buller | Tuesday, March 26th

Paul enjoys discussing and teaching on philosophy of science, philosophy of ethics and theology among other related topics. He is an engineer, husband and father of two. He is the author of Arguing with Friends: Keeping Your Friends and Your Convictions. Website: http://www.whyjesus.ca

Contending for Easter: The Unlikely Undertaker [PART 4]

By Kelly Madland | Wednesday, March 27th

Kelly Madland is a wife, mom, and community apologist who has hosted a local

apologetics conference called ‘Thinking Clearly About God’ in Kamloops. She has been leading a bible study on campus at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She is also a part of the Ratio Christi Canada development team, and is looking forward to completing her Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics in 2014. Personal blog: http://www.thinkclearly.ca.

Contending for Easter: Come, See Where He Lay [PART 5]

By Justin Wishart | Thursday, March 28th

Justin Wishart is the general editor and blogger for Faith Beyond Belief and lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is most interested in issues surrounding Christian philosophy, particularly epistemology and early Christian thought. Justin is a husband and a father. He currently works as a mechanic and enjoys many hobbies such as camping, hiking, and creating music. Website: http://www.faithbeyondbelief.ca.

Contending for Easter: Seeing is Believing [PART 6]

By Stephen J. Bedard | Friday, March 29th

Stephen J. Bedard (MDiv, MTh, MA, DMin (cand.)) is the director of Hope’s Reason Ministries and an instructor at Emmanuel Bible College and Tyndale University College. Website: http://www.hopesreason.com.

Contending for Easter: How To Turn A Skeptic Into A Believer [PART 7]

By David Haines | Saturday, March 30th

David Haines was born and raised in Ontario, Canada. He holds a BTh from Covington Theological Seminary and an MA in Philosophy from Southern Evangelical Seminary. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at University Laval. Personal blog is: http://www.philosopherdhaines.blogspot.ca. Website: http://www.associationaxiome.ca.

Contending for Easter: Why Canadians Still Need Easter [PART 8]

By Jojo Ruba | Sunday, March 31st

Jojo Ruba is committed to equipping Christians to be good ambassadors for Christ. He does this as a youth pastor with Faith Builder International Church in Calgary as well as a public speaker and executive director of Faith Beyond Belief. His experiences speaking at public forums, university debates and in Christian settings have helped him understand how we can better communicate the truth of the gospel. Through Faith Beyond Belief, Jojo shares solid tools to help Christians engage their culture with compassion but without compromise. Website: http://www.faithbeyondbelief.ca

Cross of Suffering

Introduction

Good Friday is about remembering Jesus’ death on the cross.  The cross is central to the Christian hope.  But why did Jesus die and why do we consider that death good?  Many Christians would respond by saying that Jesus died so we can go to heaven.  Well, that is fine as far as it goes but I would want to clarify it a bit.  The cross is not just about giving us a more comfortable afterlife.  The cross actually reconciles us to God and that means we are adopted into his family for eternity and not just the few decades we are on this planet.  But is that the full message of the cross?  Is the cross only for the moment of our salvation, that experience of saying yes to Christ and receiving eternal life?  I spend a lot of my time talking with non-Christians and skeptics.  This might surprise you but most skeptics are not hesitating because they are trying to pick an afterlife, heaven or hell, and they are having trouble making up their mind.  Many skeptics are not wrestling with things like the divinity of Jesus or the nature of the resurrection.  Many are still trying to figure out God and if he is worth worshipping.  Is there a good God?  Of course there is.  Check out the beauty of spring, the flowers and the trees.  Check out the joy of a newborn baby.  God is good!  But change things around a bit.  Take away your health.  Lose your job.  Find out your child is disabled.  A friend is sexually assaulted.  A loved one dies a painful death.  Is God still good?  I recently was talking with a self-proclaimed atheist.  After a bit of digging, I discovered that he did not necessarily have a problem with God existing.  His real problem is with Christianity’s claim that God is all-powerful and all-good.  To affirm that and then look at the evil and suffering in the world seems to naturally lead to atheism.  Even if there is a God, perhaps he is not worthy of worship.  How should Christians respond when skeptics ask where God is in the midst of suffering?  What about the Christian who came to faith in Jesus years ago?  They know they will be in heaven when they die, but right now life seems like hell.  Broken relationships, broken bank accounts, broken body, broken mind, broken heart.  Where is God?  Does he care?  Or is God only interested in that moment when we become a Christian and the moment we die and in between is completely ignorant of our suffering?  Does the cross have anything to say about this?

Events of the Cross

Sometimes a story can be so familiar that we lose the impact of what is actually being said.  Let us briefly recount the events leading up to and taking place on the cross.  Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with his triumphal entry.  People cheer and sing and it looks like Jesus has reached the pinnacle of his career.  Things quickly fall apart.  One of Jesus‘ inner circle of twelve disciples, a man named Judas, makes a deal with the religious leaders to hand Jesus over.  The leaders are afraid to arrest Jesus in public and they need to make their move quietly and out of sight.  For thirty pieces of silver, Judas could make that happen.  The mob comes to bring Jesus in.  Judas‘ signal?  A kiss!  That which is meant for affection is used for betrayal.  Jesus is given a mockery of a trial.  The decision was already made, they just had to find some evidence and witnesses to fit the verdict.  One of Jesus‘ closest friends, Peter, is asked directly if he is a follower of Jesus.  Not once, not twice but three times Peter denies knowing Jesus.  Jesus is beaten by his accusers, whipped and tortured.  He is hurt so bad that when it is time to go to the place of crucifixion, Jesus is too weak to carry his own cross.   Jesus arrives at the place of his execution, the place of the skull.  His hands and feet are nailed to the cross.  He is lifted up and Jesus waits for his body to weaken enough that he will no longer be able to raise his body up to get the next breath.  Meanwhile, fellow condemned men as well as spectators take the time to mock him.  To make matters worse, Jesus‘ mother is there to witness his sufferings.  Not only that, because of the attitude of his half-brothers, Jesus has to use his dying moments to arrange care for his mother after he dies.  Finally, Jesus comes to the end of his physical strength and breathes his last.  That is what we call Good Friday.

A Suffering World

I want you to keep that in mind as we think about the human experience.  We live in a world full of war and crime and natural disasters and poverty and injustice.  Many people are afraid to go to the doctor because they are afraid of bad news.  The divorce rate is at epidemic levels.  Children are abused.  There is so much bad that happens.  I will share a little of our story, not because I want to focus on myself nor do I want your pity.  I simply know my story better than I know your story and it is likely you will identify with at least parts of it.  Family is extremely important for us and when my wife and I got married, I had all sorts of ideas of what that would look like.  My wife became pregnant soon after we were married.  As soon as we knew, we started to buy baby clothes and I started to do baby illustrations in my sermons.  Then one day, right before a meeting at the church, we discovered that my wife was having a miscarriage.  It was devastating.  The doctor was cold, stating that it was a miscarriage in the same way he would have confirmed that bump on your finger was a wart.  The nurse dismissed us from emerg, in her words “good as new.”  We then went on have two healthy children named Logan and Abby.  Beautiful kids and we are very proud of them.  However, they also have severe autism.  They are nonverbal and will never do many of the things that parents take for granted that their children will do.  Some genetic flaw caused a mis-wiring of the brain and all the normal dreams were dashed.  My father, a wonderful man and generous parent, suddenly stopped producing his own blood.  He had to rely on regular blood transfusions for three years until his death.  He never even met his three youngest grand children.  My mother, a godly and loving Christian woman, died a painful death from esophageal cancer.  She only knew she had cancer for a few weeks.  Again, I am not looking for pity.  I want you see, as I am sure you already understand, that there is suffering in this world.  Many people go through horrors that I cannot even imagine.  The question is: Where is God?  Does God care?  Or does God just say: “Yeah, whatever.  See you in heaven.”?  We have to wrestle with this.  The answer is found at the cross.

Sharing in Suffering

Ravi Zacharias tells the story of Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and survivor of the Holocaust, when he was forced, along with a few others in a concentration camp, to witness the hanging of two Jewish men and one Jewish boy. The two men died right away, but the young lad struggled on the gallows. Somebody behind Wiesel muttered, “Where is God? Where is He?” Then the voice ground out the anguish again, “Where is He?” Wiesel felt the same question irrepressibly within him: “Where is God? Where is He?” Then he heard a voice softly within him saying, “He is hanging there on the gallows, where else?”  Hanging on the gallows.  As Christians, when the question is asked: “Where is God in my suffering?” we can say that God is hanging on the cross.

One of the most annoying things is when you are going through a very difficult time and someone says “I know exactly how you feel” and you know they have never experienced anything like this.  Does God know how you feel?  Of course God knows how you feel, God knows everything.  Does God know what it is like to commit adultery?  God understands the emotional and spiritual conditions that lead up to it, he understands the impulses in the brain and all the physiological aspects of adultery, but God does not understand adultery from experience.  He is only an observer.  But does God understand your suffering?  That is a different story.  God, in Jesus Christ, understands your suffering not just through a comprehensive knowledge of the facts but through the experience of suffering.  Betrayed by a friend?  Done that.  Worried about a family member?  Done that.  Treated unjustly?  Done that.  Abused physically and emotionally?  Done that.  Experience tremendous pain?  Done that.  Death?  Done that.                                Jesus Christ, God incarnate, knows suffering.  God does not ignore human suffering.  God comes to earth and experiences human suffering.  One of the most powerful moments on the cross is when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV)  This is the first verse of Psalm 22.  Many see Psalm 22 as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus.  There is definitely many points of contact between the words of David and the circumstances of Jesus.  We should see a prophetic role for this Psalm.  However, should we see David as consciously writing about future messianic events?  Or should we see David as speaking of his own experience, his own suffering, his own feeling of God-forsakenness?  There are many Psalms that contain similar messages, cries of abandonment and fear and pain.  While keeping the prophetic element, what if we saw Jesus as citing Psalm 22 not just as a proof text for his messianic identity, but as reaching out to this picture of suffering humanity and embracing it rather than avoiding it?  Maybe Jesus wanted us to know that he was entering into our experience.  You may not be convinced.  You may be thinking, forget the fellowship of suffering, Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin.  Period.  That’s it.  Let’s run with that for a minute.  Jesus is indeed the sacrifice for our sin.  There is no need for animal sacrifices because Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice.  The animal sacrifices of the Old Testament point forward to Jesus.  The book of Hebrews goes into detail on this.  But take a moment to think about how those animals were sacrificed in the Temple.  Do you think they were beaten and tortured and then killed slowly and painfully?  No, they were quickly and painlessly slaughtered without panicking the animal in any way.  If Jesus is only our sacrifice, then he could have had his throat slit and that would have been enough.  But we don’t look at the suffering of Jesus as just an extra add-on, in addition to the necessary death.  If you have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, you will know that the suffering Jesus experienced leading up to and on the cross is emotionally moving and in an instinctive way, we know it is important.  The suffering of Jesus matters.  That means that our suffering also matters to God.

Conclusion

How do we bring this all together?  Some people claim that the problem of suffering is the achilles heel of Christianity.  I disagree.  Of all the worldviews out there, Christianity is the only one that gives an adequate response to suffering.  Rational reasons for suffering are not enough, especially if you are the one going through the suffering.  What we really need to know is where God is when we suffer.  Christianity has an answer.  God was on the cross.  Jesus Christ, God incarnate, suffered on the cross.  His death paid the price for our forgiveness of sins.  But his suffering offers us hope in this life.  One of my favorite passages is this: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14–16 ESV)  Jesus knows.  He knows suffering by experience, he knows like no human being can.  But he knows something else.  Jesus knows that suffering is not the end.  On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead.  Sin and death were defeated.  Not only did Jesus rise from the dead, he promises that we will join him in the resurrection.  Here is the miracle of Christianity, Jesus invites himself to join in our suffering and then invites us to join in his resurrection.  As theologian Jürgen Moltmann said “God weeps with us so that someday we can laugh with him.”  I think that gives us a great reason to call this a Good Friday.