I’m not one of those who say, in asserting the truth of the resurrection, that no one would die for a lie. The line of reasoning goes like this: the disciples, clearly afraid of dying with Jesus the week before, are transformed by the His resurrection and become extremely devoted advocates of Jesus as messiah and Lord such that each of them eventually dies a martyr’s death. If, as some claim, they had stolen the body and made up this business about Jesus rising from the dead, they might have done a lot of the things they did, but they would have stopped short of dying for something they had just simply made up. No one dies for a lie.
At the risk of sounding like the fictional T.V. doctor Gregory House, whose mantra is “Everybody lies,” it’s been my observation that not only do people lie but they will do a lot to cover up their lies. Last fall there was a high school football player who told a little white lie, that he was being recruited by some pretty serious Division I universities when in fact he wasn’t. The lie spun out of control, and pretty soon it was too big for him to deny, so he had to carry on with the charade, going so far as to participate in a big signing ceremony where he announced his choice of college. If officials at that university hadn’t told reporters that they had never even recruited him much less sign him, who knows how far he would have taken it. He probably would have packed up and moved out there, and then make up some chronic injury to explain why he never played.
Yeah, I know, this falls short of dying, but it shows the length that people will go to save face. And what’s the saying, tell a lie often enough and you will begin to believe it. So, yeah, I can believe a scenario in which Jesus’ disciples might have stolen his body, lied about his resurrection, then watched as a Jewish cult quickly grew into a large movement in which others, passionately believing the lie, sacrifice their lives. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that a person would rather die than to have to admit that you stood by and watched innocent believers die for something you knew you had made up. Who knows, maybe by this time they believed it themselves.
But that’s not what I think happened. I believe the resurrection is a historical reality. Jesus’ body was transformed, it took on a different physicality, but it was still a physicality. It wasn’t just that his spirit had been released from his body so that he could go live in heaven with the rest of the Trinity. The disciples experienced a physical Jesus who walked with them and talked with them. They could touch him. They gave him food and he ate it. (Luke 24:41-43)
It’s tempting to point to the resurrection as proof that Christianity is true, but to a skeptic there is circularity to that claim: Christians believe in the resurrection because we believe Christianity is true, and we know Christianity is true because the resurrection is proof.
It’s also tempting to then say that the statement “Jesus rose from the dead” is a faith statement that is not subject to empirical investigation. But that sounds an awful lot like, “I believe in the resurrection because, well, I just do, and nothing you can say will change that.”
Surely we’ve got more than that.
Our modern Western Enlightenment worldview says that the only kind of truth is empirical truth, but that’s not true. There is another kind of truth that we all know is real even if it cannot be subjected to empirical methods, and that is relational truth. The things that go on between my wife and me—our love for one another, our faith in each other, our hurts that we have inflicted on each other as well as the ways we bring out the best in each other—these things are all real. They are true. And only Pam and I really know them. We can try to explain them, but ultimately words fall short. And if you want to be skeptical, you can say that it’s not really love that we are experiencing but “enlightened self interest,” and there is probably nothing we could say or do that could convince you otherwise. But we know. We know.
Theologian Marcus Borg says, “The central meaning of the Easter experience or the resurrection of Jesus is that His followers continue to experience Him as a living reality, a living presence after His death.” Yes, and not just a spiritual presence. The relationship they had with him before his death continued after his death, albeit in a different form, a different physicality. Following Jesus isn’t primarily about believing a set of doctrinal statements about him, it’s about a relationship with him that is real. When you are in that relationship, there is no doubting that it is real, that it is true, and that it is more than just wishful thinking. It is something you know.
Jesus is alive. It’s a relational statement. And I know it's true.