Yesterday afternoon there was a gathering of Christians in Stortorget, the big town square in Örebro. It was Easter Day and a small group of churches had decided to celebrate the day publicly. I was there with some of the family, and I couldn’t help thinking how unusual it felt, to be celebrating one of our Christian high days outdoors and in public. Religion in Sweden is seen by the secular majority as a very private affair, not something to be discussed with or displayed among strangers. The majority of Christian believers seem to have bought into this idea, presumably to avoid causing offence. Christians from other cultures and nations – the Syrian Orthodox, for example, seem to have no such inhibitions, announcing openly to the world that they are Christians, especially proud of the fact that their language is close to Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. But “we Swedes” tend to be hesitant to acknowledge our faith in the open, determined to blend in and be as indistinguishable as possible from the rest of society.
Yesterday, however, was different. We met and worshipped in the town square, publicly acknowledging our faith in the extraordinary and supernatural event of Jesus’s resurrection. There were not many there – a huge contrast to the annual Christmas concert held in the same square every December, when thousands crowd in to sing Christmas carols and be entertained. The Christmas message of course is much nicer, a feel good story of peace and goodwill towards all that many non-believers can celebrate with perfect ease. The Easter story is so bizarre that it is regarded by a good many people as being little more than a religious myth. And yet the resurrection is the event on which the whole of the Christian faith depends. Without it Jesus is just another man, a good man perhaps, a man who made an impact on his friends, and to a certain extent the community in which he lived, but not really any more special than any other person on this earth, and certainly not one to change the world. I read the following quote the other day and it made me reflect again on this reality:
“If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” (Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism)
How can any modern rational person believe that Jesus really rose from the dead? I have asked myself why I believe it. In the end it boils down to one historical fact. The grave was empty. This was not disputed then, nor is it disputed now. What is disputed is *why* it was empty. Jesus was put into a secure grave with a big stone placed in front of it, and because of the anxiety and suspicion of the religious authorities of the day it was secured with armed guards. But when some female friends of Jesus came to pay their respects the next day, the guards were gone, the stone was rolled away and the grave was empty. Over the ensuing days many people met Jesus, and their lives were transformed by the experience, because the one they had seen executed was walking and talking among them.
The world has never been the same. That one event changed the course of history, because if Jesus rose from the dead his claim to be God – to be bigger than nature – needs to be taken seriously. Of course the religious authorities of the day understood this and naturally accused the friends of Jesus of stealing the body away and hiding it somewhere. But that seems rather unlikely, given the guards, and the question of what the disciples did with the body they had stolen. Why would the disciples say that Jesus had risen if he hadn’t? What did they hope to gain from such a claim? Were these uneducated fisherman from Galilee so delusional as to think that they could steal a body, dispose of it somehow and change the world by doing so? The disciples depicted in the New Testament seem to have had trouble understanding what Jesus was talking about a lot of the time. To imagine that they had the psychological and intellectual strength to hatch such a plot, seems beyond belief. The opposite, that they were so completely stunned, so totally overwhelmed, by this impossible event that their lives were turned upside down, all their preconceptions shattered and that they were willing to give their lives to defend its truth, seems much more likely.
The authorities were in a much better position to discredit the disciples than the disciples were to convince the masses. All they had to do was produce the body of Jesus to prove that he was dead. But they couldn’t. The body was gone. It has never been found. The only ones who saw the body of Jesus after his burial were the ones who saw him alive. According to the Bible there were many of them. It caused an uproar. Such an event had never happened before and never since. Resurrections may well have happened, they certainly have been reported and still are from time to time. But no one making the claims that Jesus made has ever come back from the dead. This was a unique event.
That is why Jesus is remembered. That is how he changed the world. He rose from the dead. He is God. That is why we milled around in town yesterday afternoon singing songs and bowing in prayer, in stark contrast to the world around us, a world that uses secular rationalism as its strategy to remove this uncomfortable personality from its consciousness. Why are we so offended by the supernatural, I sometimes wonder? Why does it threaten us so much? Why are we so much more willing to put our faith in science and our own intelligence than in a man that showed that he was over and above all that? Why is “naturalism” so much easier to believe in than supernaturalism?
There is so much that can be said about all that, but in the end it surely boils down to meeting an alive Jesus. In the first weeks after the resurrection it was the physical body of Jesus that people met. In our day it is a spiritually alive Jesus that people meet. They meet him in many different ways, but when they meet him many are convinced. Jesus did rise from the dead. He is alive today. He is who he says he is. And we should listen to him.