Aussies are glad of any excuse for a long weekend and Easter is one such excuse. Yet the holiday is not without controversy. For it is a Christian holy day to commemorate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Although the resurrection provokes most debate, the crucifixion is not entirely free of controversy.
Muslims, for example, do not believe that Jesus was crucified. The Koran states that his enemies “killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them … for surely they killed him not.” Rather, “Allah took him up to Himself” (4:157-158).
Written 600 years after the events of the first Easter, the Koran hardly counts as a reliable historical record of those events. Yet it is interesting to note the Muslim slant.
That slant became clear to me some time ago during a long theological discussion I had with a Jordanian Muslim scholar at a mosque in Perth. As we talked together (through an interpreter) I raised the question of Christ’s death, asking him to explain exactly what Muslims believed happened on Good Friday. He told me that when Judas led the soldiers to arrest Jesus, Allah simultaneously took Jesus to Paradise and changed Judas to look like Jesus. The soldiers then arrested Judas and crucified him, mistaking him for Jesus.
Well, Muslims may deny that Jesus died on the cross, but most other people need little convincing on this matter. They are more inclined to deny that he rose from the dead.
Before making up our minds on the resurrection, however, it is wise to consider what the witnesses say. For there were many eyewitnesses to those first Easter events and their testimonies are recorded in the Bible, and in particular in the first four books of the New Testament known as the Gospels.
All four Gospel writers were alive at the time of Jesus and at least two (Matthew and John) were personally present during his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Writing just a few decades after the events, the four writers record many proofs of Jesus’ resurrection. John, for example, writes (chapter 20) of cast-off graveclothes and emotional reunions.
John states that before the Romans removed Jesus’ body from the cross, a soldier thrust a spear up under his ribs into his heart to ensure that he was dead. Then, after his body was taken down, his disciples laid it in a tomb, which was sealed with a large stone. This happened on Good Friday.
On Easter Sunday, a woman who had followed Jesus, Mary Magdalene, “went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.” So she ran to tell Peter and John (two of the twelve main disciples of Jesus) that the tomb was empty. She was distressed, believing that someone had shifted the body to an unknown location: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
Peter and John then ran to the tomb to see for themselves. They found it empty, except for the graveclothes that had been wrapped around the body: They “saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.” This sight convinced John that something remarkable had happened. Plainly, the body had not been stolen, for no one would have unwrapped a body in this orderly way before stealing it.
“Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying.” When she finally turned away from the tomb, she “saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.”
He said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Mistaking him for the gardener, Mary replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
In response, “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’”
At the sound of her name on his lips, Mary recognised Jesus and embraced him.
After telling her to stop clinging to him, Jesus sent her to tell the disciples about his resurrection and imminent return to Heaven.
“Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’”
That evening, the disciples were in a room together, when “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.”
Not surprisingly, “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”
However, one of the disciples, Thomas, was absent when Jesus came. “So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’”
Thomas responded, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
A week later Jesus appeared to the disciples again, and this time doubting Thomas was with them. After greeting the disciples, Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas did just that and acknowledged Jesus as “My Lord and my God!”
In summary, John offers five proofs of the resurrection of Jesus. Firstly, his body was missing from the tomb. Secondly, the graveclothes were left behind. Thirdly, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus outside the tomb and spoke to him and touched him. Fourthly, Jesus met with his disciples and showed them the healed scars on his hands and side. Fifthly, Thomas changed from a doubter to a believer when Jesus met with him.
In their Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke record many other proofs of the resurrection, proofs well worth reading and pondering.
And the resurrection itself is a proof that there is something remarkable about Jesus. It establishes that Jesus is the Son of God and that God the Father accepted his sacrifice on our behalf.
The only appropriate response to the proofs of the resurrection in the Gospels is to “stop doubting and believe.” Seeing that Jesus has risen from the dead, we should, like Thomas, say to him, “My Lord and my God.”