Easter: Did It Really Happen?

Big Idea: Easter passes the credibility test, and meets the deepest needs of the heart.

If you asked me if there are any deal breakers when it came to Christianity, then I’d have to say there’s one. It’s the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If the resurrection happened, then the implications are staggering. If the resurrection didn’t happen, then Christianity has no validity at all. I would stop following Jesus. I would shut down the church. I would do something else with my life, and I would encourage you to do the same.

I’m not alone in saying this. The Bible agrees with me. The apostle Paul, a man who once opposed Christianity, said this:

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. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)

If Christ has not been raised, all of Christianity comes crashing down. The Christian faith is futile. The forgiveness of sins is nonsense. Death is the end. Christians are pitiable. If Easter didn’t happen, then there’s nothing that can be salvaged from the Christian faith. It’s that important.

I remember standing beside the grave of a friend of mine, and reading the words of Scripture about the resurrection. In that moment, I realized that I am either perpetrating a cruel lie, or I am speaking the most profound truth possible. There’s really no middle ground. It’s either a vicious hoax, or it’s a truth that changes everything.

So today, I want to look at this. Was Jesus really raised from the dead? Did the resurrection really happen?

As we consider this question, I want us to be as honest as possible. We want the evidence to speak. We can’t just assume the answer. Intellectual honesty demands that we answer the question honestly.

We have to admit: it’s not easy to believe in the resurrection. David Bowie died on January 10, two days after his 69th birthday, after an 18-month secret battle with cancer. If I told you that I saw him at Massey Hall last week, you’d conclude that I was either lying or that I’d lost my tenuous grip on reality. Nobody visits cemeteries to see if the people there are still dead. People who are dead stay dead.

This applies to Jesus as well. The resurrection of Jesus has always been hard to accept. It was hard to accept in biblical times. They had no categories for people coming back to life here and now. This was true, whether you were Jewish or Greek. Nobody could accept it, even back then, until they were compelled by the evidence.

So let me be clear: It’s never been easy to believe the resurrection. If it’s true, it’s a profound truth that changes everything. If it’s not true, then it’s time to shut down the church. So we need to look at the evidence, especially given the fact that resurrections aren’t exactly an everyday occurrence.

So what I want to do is to ask two questions. They’re two very different questions. The first is one that’s more modern, more evidence-based. It’s simply this: Did it happen? The second question is more of a post-modern question: what does it mean? The first question is historic; the second is theological. The first is about its credibility; the second is about its significance. I’m asking this because the resurrection has to pass two tests: first, that it’s non-contradictory, and second, that it’s livable.

Does Easter pass the credibility test?

So first: did Easter actually happen? Does it pass the credibility test?

To answer this question fairly, we actually have to answer two separate questions. The first is: did he actually die? The second is: did he actually rise from the dead?

So did he die? Occasionally you’ll hear a strange story about someone who is thought to be dead, but who comes back to life. Just this week I read about a baby in India who was declared dead, and woke up minutes before cremation was to take place. Some people — skeptics and Muslims — suggest that Jesus only appeared to die, but like Westley in The Princess Bride was only mostly dead.

What can we say to this? There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus actually died. Norman Geisler, a man who’s studied this, writes “The evidence for Christ’s death is greater than that for almost any other event in the ancient world.” Out of all the evidence, I just want to highlight two pieces: the nature of crucifixion, and testimony from others.

If we understood what crucifixion was like, there would be no question about the fact that Jesus actually died. He had no sleep the night before he was crucified. He was beaten and whipped. He collapsed while carrying the cross. The prelude to his crucifixion was enough that it brought him close to death. But then he was crucified.

He bled from gashes in his hands and feet, and from the thorns that pierced his scalp. He lost a lot of blood over the six hours he was crucified. Crucifixion required that the person pull themselves up by the nailed hands and feet in order to breath. Eventually, you would tire and be unable to lift yourself up anymore. Experts say that this would kill someone who was in good health.

On top of that, Jesus was speared to prove that he had died. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (21 March 1986) said:

Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right rib, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.

The soldiers, who were trained executioners, pronounced him dead. It was common practice to break the legs of those being crucified to speed death, so that the person could no longer breath. In Jesus’ case, they decided it wasn’t necessary. Pilate, who was in charge of that Roman promise, double-checked whether Jesus was dead before giving permission for him to be buried. Then he was wrapped in a hundred pounds of cloth and spices, and buried in a tomb for three days. If he wasn’t dead by then, the lack of food, water, and medical treatment would have finished him off.

Not only that, but there’s lots of external evidence that he died. Both Jewish and Roman historians from that time record his death. There’s overwhelming evidence that Jesus died.

But what about his resurrection? It’s much easier to believe that someone really died than that they really came back from the dead. Well, there are a lot of reasons to believe that the resurrection really took place as well. Let me just highlight two lines of proof, although there are many more.

  • Appearances — He appeared to Mary Magdalene and to some other women. If you were made up the resurrection as a myth, you would never make up that he appeared to women first, because the testimony of women wasn’t accepted back then. The only reason to claim this would be if it was true, because it’s just not something you’d make up. But then Jesus appeared to the disciples, many of whom doubted at first. He ate with them. He ultimately appeared to 500 people at one time. Over 40 days, hundreds of people saw him alive. He was touched, and he ate food. Eyewitness accounts, especially by so many people, demand an explanation.
  • Effects — Then there are the effects of the resurrection. After Jesus was killed, all of his followers were scattered and afraid. Something happened to transform them into fearless men and women who transformed the Roman world, and were willing to die with courage for Jesus. Their dominant message — the thing they couldn’t stop talking about — was the resurrection of Jesus. Something has to account for that transformation, and the sudden growth and appearance of the church that spread throughout the Roman empire.

That’s not even getting into the other lines of evidence — the Scriptural predictions that were fulfilled; the fact that a heavily-guarded tomb was found to be empty, and a body missing; the fact that the authorities who killed Jesus didn’t organize a search or produce a body, but instead organized a coverup; and the conversion of skeptics like the apostle Paul, a persecutor of the church, and James, the half-brother of Jesus.

The evidence is so overwhelming that Norm Geisler says:

There are more documents, more eyewitnesses, and more corroborative evidence than for any other historical event of ancient history. The secondary, supplementary evidence is convincing; when combined with the direct evidence, it presents a towering case for the physical resurrection of Christ. In legal terminology, it is “beyond all reasonable doubt.”

Virtually everyone — Christians and skeptics alike — agree on four things: that Jesus died; that his tomb was empty, and the body never found; that Jesus’ disciples believed that they saw him resurrected from the dead; and that the disciples were transformed following their alleged resurrection observations. The case is so strong that there’s a burden of proof on those who disbelieve the resurrection to account for these facts. It’s not simply enough to believe that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. You have to come up with a plausible explanation for all of these facts, which is hard to do.

I heard recently of a teacher, a Christian, who was a little sneaky. He said to his students, “It’s about time that we disproved the resurrection!” He assigned them a research project, looking at the evidences for the resurrection and disproving them.

He knew what he was doing. The students came back, and many of them had come to believe the resurrection, because they found the evidence to be so compelling.

As someone put it:

The evidence for Jesus' resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live. (Wolfhart Pannenberg)

I’d encourage you to examine the evidence for the resurrection. The evidence is compelling, and it’s virtually impossible to explain away. Easter passes the credibility test.

But I don’t want to just look at the facts today. I want to ask a second question.

Does Easter change our lives?

I was reading this week about Francis Schaeffer, a American theologian, philosopher, and pastor. He believed that all truths had to meet two requirements. First, the truth had to be non-contradictory. Second, the truth had to be able to be lived out consistently. In other words, it’s not enough for something to be true. It also has to be life-changing as well.

The fact is that Easter passes the credibility test, and meets the deepest needs of the heart. It’s not just true, but it’s also meaningful.

We’re going to look at this in more detail over the coming weeks. There are lots of things we can say about how Easter changes things. We could talk about what it means about Jesus. We could talk about what it means for our future resurrection. But today I want to speak very personally about the way that it changes the way we live, right here, right now.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Mark Jones, author of a new book called Knowing Christ. I had heard good things about the book, and I know that Jones is a brilliant theologian, as well as a good pastor.

I attended the lecture, and Jones spoke on the humiliation of Christ. “There has never been a greater humiliation of a person than that of Jesus,” he said. “No one has ever descended so low because no one has ever come from so high.” Jones spoke compellingly about how Jesus joyfully, freely, and willingly became nothing for us. His whole life was one of humiliation — his birth and childhood, his ministry, his trial and execution, and his burial. I was transfixed and moved as Jones gave his lecture. “The readiness of Jesus to efface himself to the lowest pit of debasement, when he did not need to, should bring Christians to their knees in humble adoration of our Savior,” he said.

But then it struck me. I’m moved, as I should be, as I think about the humiliation of Jesus. But then I realized something. A few weeks ago I visited the home of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States. I can know about Andrew Jackson, but I can’t know him, because he’s dead. But that’s not true of Jesus. I can know about Jesus, but because of his resurrection, I can do more than that, and so can you. I can know him. I can be in a relationship with him, and he with me. The resurrection isn’t just an historical fact. It also meets the deepest needs of our hearts, because we can know him.

In Philippians 3, the apostle Paul — a former persecutor of the church who encountered the risen Jesus — writes this:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)

Here, Paul says that the main pursuit of his life, his driving passion, is to know Christ. Not just to know about him, but to know him. And not only can we know him, but we can experience the power of his resurrection in our own lives. We can be changed by him.

So not only is the resurrection true, but it’s captivating. If it is true, then it opens up a world of change. It means that the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just an historical fact. It is a reality that we can experience today. It opens us up to a relationship with the risen Lord, who has been serving and pursuing us all along.

As James Allen Francis wrote of him:

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never traveled more than two hundred miles from the place where He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself. He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. He was nailed to the cross between two thieves. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today He stands as the central figure of the human race. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, have not affected the life of man on earth as has this one solitary life.

That’s our Jesus, who was raised from the dead. You can know him — not just know about him, but know him. Easter passes the credibility test, and meets the deepest needs of the heart.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Christ is Enough (Philippians 3:1-16)

Every year this time, we begin thinking about the coming year. And every year, despite resolving that we won't do it anymore, we make New Year's Resolutions. The popular website 43Things.com has been tracking resolutions and how they change from year to year. Here are the most common:

  • The #1 resolution every year except for 2009 is to lose weight
  • The other top resolutions from last year were to be happy, fall in love, get a job, and travel. But if you get a job it may be hard to travel. I haven't figured that out yet.
  • Other top resolutions include quitting smoking, saving money, getting organized, going to bed earlier.
  • One resolution that showed up in 2007 but has disappeared since then is "Get a tattoo." I'm guessing that everyone who resolved to do this looked after it this year, and one tattoo is probably enough for most of us.

I don't want to do the predictable New Year's sermon on resolutions, but I feel compelled this morning to encourage you to make a New Year's resolution that you won't find on 43Things.com. In fact, I'm going to encourage you to make this your only New Year's Resolution. You can lose weight and fall in love if you'd like, but this one resolution is actually going to be enough.

And here it is: Let us resolve in the coming year to know Christ. That's it.

The reason is that Christ is enough. In one year if we look back and evaluate 2011, I believe that all of us would say that it was a worthwhile year no matter what else happened if we can say that we know Christ better, if we can say what the apostle Paul said in the passage we just read:

I want to know Christ--yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

And so this morning, because it's the day after Christmas, I want to make this as simple and clear as possible. This morning I want to tell you what we don't need to resolve in the coming year. And then I want to tell you the one thing that we can and should resolve for 2011.

What Not to Resolve

So here's what not to resolve. Paul in chapter 3 is addressing the Philippian church, particularly one group that focuses on keeping God's law, revealed by Moses, as the basis of a relationship with him. I love reading this passage this time of year, because it speaks to an issue that all of us face in our hearts, especially this time of year. The issue is our tendency toward human religious effort to make ourselves right with God. This is something I struggle with all the time, and you probably do as well.

Here's how it works. We think in terms like this with God: "God, you accept me because..." I want you to think about that for a minute and fill in the blank. It could be any number of things. God accepts us, we think, because:

  • we go to church
  • we live a moral life
  • we made a commitment to Christ
  • the good things we do outweigh the bad things
  • we're church members
  • we read the Bible and pray regularly

I want you to think about this for a minute. What is it that you look to in your life that you believe makes you right with God? If you were to complete the sentence, "God, you accept me because..." what would you say?

In the passage we have before us, Paul goes at this tendency that all of us have to try to do something as a way of earning God's approval. Paul speaks of those who believed that God accepted them because they kept the Jewish rite of circumcision when he says in verses 3-4: "For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh--though I myself have reasons for such confidence."

What does he mean by the flesh? The reformer John Calvin said that the flesh is "everything that is outside of Christ." "He thus reproves, and in no slight manner, the perverse zealots the law, because, not satisfied with Christ, they have recourse to grounds of glorying apart from him."

What Paul is saying is that we can't put confidence in anything other than Jesus Christ for our right standing with God. We cannot get right with God through our own religious works. There is no room for rule-based religious rituals. They look impressive, but they do nothing to bring you into a true relationship with God.

Paul should know, because Paul lists his own religious credentials in verses 4-6. He had everything going for him: the right pedigree, and impeccable moral and religious performance. But then he says in verses 7-9:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law...

This is one of those times that the translators have softened what Paul actually says. Paul considers everything that he could claim as a means of measuring up as rubbish, as liabilities. He actually gets a bit graphic here by using the rather crude illustration of dung. He says that all the flesh can produce is, in essence, human waste. None of it matters. We can't measure up on our own.

I love how George Whitefield put it:

I do not know what you may think, but I can say that I can not pray but I sin--I can not preach to you or to any others but I sin--I can do nothing without sin; as one expresseth it, my repentance wants to be repented of, and my tears to be washed in the precious blood of my dear Redeemer.

Our best duties are as so many splendid sins. Before you can speak peace to your heart you must not only be sick of your original and actual sin, but you must be made sick of your righteousness, of all your duties and performances. There must be a deep conviction before you can be brought out of your self-righteousness; it is the last idol taken out of our heart. The pride of our heart will not let us submit to the righteousness of Jesus Christ. But if you never felt that you had no righteousness of your own, if you never felt the deficiency of your own righteousness, you can not come to Jesus Christ.

That's why this morning I'm asking you to make no other resolutions other than to know Christ. You can lose weight if you want, or stop biting your nails. But we need to realize that all of our efforts to measure up apart from Christ are futile and dangerous. God doesn't accept us on the basis of anything other than Christ. So stop trying to measure up! Don't even get comfortable with others who are trying to earn God's acceptance through any human effort or accomplishment. Refuse to resolve to do anything that will take your focus away from Christ in the coming year.

So what's the alternative?

Resolve to Know Christ

Read with me again verses 8-14:

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ--yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul says he wants one thing: to know Christ. Because, he says, if you know Christ, it's enough.

Our human efforts will never be enough. Instead, we can simply resolve to know Christ. In Scripture knowing means more than an intellectual assent; it means grasping and acknowledging what Christ has done through Christ, and submitting to the Lordship of Christ. That's what he means: knowing Christ, and knowing what he did for us at the cross. It's all about personal acquaintance, about having insight into the central act of all history: what Jesus Christ did for us at the cross.

And then Paul lists two results in this passage. First, in verse 8, he says he wants to "gain Christ" who is of surpassing worth. Jesus really is worth more than anything or anyone else. Jesus is not the path to the prize; he is the prize itself. He is worth more than any of our moral accomplishments. He is the treasure of surpassing value. He is worth more than anything.

There's a second result. In verses 10-11 he says that as we gain Christ, our lives will increasingly take the shape of Christ's death and resurrection. This means that we will suffer like Christ, but our sufferings will be worth it. And we will not only experience suffering that's worth it, but we'll also experience resurrection life. How do we change? By knowing Christ. As we know Christ more and more, it will shape the rest of our lives.

For this, we can count everything else but loss. We can resolve to know Christ, because Christ is enough. If we have him, we have everything that we need. So, Paul says, resolve to know Christ better, because Christ is enough.

So resolve to know Christ better in the coming year. Accept no substitutes. Don't settle for the sugar that gives you a buzz but doesn't fill the deep hunger of your soul. Pursue the feast that your soul truly craves.

I want to close with a quote from the book Good News for Anxious Christians:

What the gospel of Christ does is give us Christ, and that is enough. We can let everything else be what it is - hard work, worthwhile work, works of love, and the heartaches that come with all of that. And we can let our feelings be what they are, whatever that may be. What matters is Jesus Christ, and all is well on that score: that we are our Beloved's and he is ours...The gospel gives us Christ the way a wedding vow gives you a bridegroom. From now on you know who he is, that he is yours, that he has promised to love you, and because he keeps his promise, everything else will be alright....

It is our job to give our lives for others, and that is nothing but death unless Christ has given his life to us first. We need this good news, this daily bread, this cheerful word about our Beloved who is ours. God means it for our good, for he means us to have Christ, his own beloved Son. And that is enough to live on for eternity.

So Father, may we know Christ. May he be our treasure, the one who means more to us than anything else. May he be our consuming passion in the coming year. In Jesus' name, Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.