April 16, 2022 - Resurrection Cover-Up

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Jesus’ resurrection was truth that could not be hidden. Imagine if that truth of Jesus’ resurrection had been successfully squashed or banned or covered up. What a horrible loss that would be of a truth that we all needed to know (nothing to see here, nothing happened!). What a scandal! What a crime against us all, against our right to know, if Jesus truly rose from the dead (and I believe he has), but then somebody, somehow, managed to stamp out the evidence!


And think about the impact that would have against the entire story of Jesus and who he truly was, if Jesus did not truly rise! If Jesus did not rise, Jesus then becomes the tragic story of a popular, well-meaning loser. If Jesus did not rise, his death accomplished nothing; his death is then not even the courageous death of a martyr dying for what he believes. What’s worse, if Jesus didn’t rise, he becomes the victim of the worst form of Roman punishment, and the Jewish curse of being hanged on a tree.


See how the story we know to be true changes dramatically, if someone could have silenced the truth that Jesus has risen! Now we can see why the news that Jesus has risen takes priority over everything else the early church has to say about Jesus, including his atonement and the forgiveness of sins. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, his victory over death confirms all that Jesus said and did, including his claim to be the world’s true Lord. Jesus’ resurrection is one vital piece of information we cannot afford not to know.


But what if somebody made up the whole story about Jesus’ resurrection, and then covered up the evidence against it? How do we know Jesus’ body wasn’t stolen and disposed of without a trace? Or how do we know the story wasn’t invented by his followers to help them in grief? Or how do we know they didn’t see some wishful vision that was disconnected to reality?


I myself once wrestled with such a fear while I was on my internship, preparing to become a pastor. I wrote about this in my testimony in my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith. After studying the claims of a certain prophet for over 4 years, I was convinced that those claims about this prophet were false, that the truth had been covered up, honest people believed what they were told, and the rest was history. But then I asked myself, “How do we know that didn’t happen to us?” How do we know that the resurrection was not a hoax that was inflicted upon us by a similar story of runaway deception that stayed undetected until the evidence disappeared? Not even my supervising pastor could figure out what I needed to hear to help me out, but finally I came to see there was no way the truth about Jesus could have been buried in baloney.


John writes (John 1:5), “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Jesus Christ is the light that shines in the darkness, the light that no one has been able to extinguish. Think back over the centuries. Back during the church’s first 300 years, the light of Jesus Christ was almost extinguished, not by the sword of Roman persecution, but by an ancient cult called Gnosticism. For 13 centuries, Islam did its best to stamp out the light where it ruled. In the 20th century, so did Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il-Sung of North Korea, but they all failed. None of them could stamp out the light.


But sometimes we wonder. Can truth be wiped out, like in the novel 1984? When Big Brother’s regime vaporizes enemies of the state in 1984, we are told that the person’s name was erased from existence. Newspapers, history books, and public records get rewritten, with all references to the offending person gone, and the original records destroyed. And no one dares to speak that person’s name out loud, until even the memory of that person has disappeared.


In the government office called the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984, truth is always being rewritten. The past is kept up-to-date minute by minute, by a staff of government workers whose job is to make sure no inconvenient news or opinion ever remains on record. Orwell writes, “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER HAPPENED, that surely was more terrifying that mere torture and death.”


Will truth be forgotten? Will God’s truth be lost from memory? Sometimes it’s hard to simply rest in the confidence that God’s truth will win. God’s light cannot be extinguished by the forces of darkness. Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the One whose truth cannot be silenced or covered up or replaced with rival truth.


Truth will always prevail. You can rewrite history books and deny that the crimes of the past ever happened, but one day, the truth will be broadcast from 1 end of heaven to the other. You can kill truth, you can muzzle it, you can hide it, you can ban it on social media and Big Tech, you can shred it, you can lock it in prison, you can baffle it with baloney, but you cannot extinguish it. Try as we may, we cannot turn off the light.


The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a virtual reality we have created in our minds. It is far from a pious, well-intentioned fraud or a fairy tale to soothe aching hearts. It is far from a cruel hoax foisted on us by some ancient conspiracy of jerks who wanted to brainwash us into believing the world’s most notorious lie. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is far from a private pet truth that is only “true for us.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ is either fact or fiction. It is either truth that is true for all (whether any of us chooses to believe it or not), or else it is true for no one, regardless of whether we are willing to face the truth.


You may ask, What difference does it make whether some dead guy’s body came back to life 2000 years ago in some tomb in the Middle East? Weird stuff happens all the time! So what? Even if some unprecedented case of unassisted CPR really did happen way back then, what difference does it make to our lives here in the 21st century? The answer is, it makes all the difference in the world.


Take away the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the church becomes a waste of brick, stained glass, and technology. Take away the resurrection, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:17, and the Christian faith becomes a total waste of our time, money, and energy. Faith becomes useless, good for nothing. Take away the truth of Easter Sunday, and we might as well forget about Christmas, unless we’re just looking for an excuse to get wasted. After all, without Jesus’ resurrection, we’ve got nothing to celebrate, and we have no good reason not to drink or drug ourselves silly. As Paul writes in verse 32, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Like the old beer commercial once said, all we can do is grab for all the gusto we can get.


As Paul makes painfully clear in verse 19, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, without the resurrection of Jesus, life’s a (fill in the blank), and then you die. Life becomes a cruel joke. We become meaningless blobs of organic chemicals, surviving and shutting down, disappearing from existence, in a world where the individual life no longer matters. If there is nothing more to life than jungle survival, then all we can do is get busy looking out for #1.


Now, some might say, “Wait a minute! Taking away the resurrection doesn’t mean we can jump to the conclusion that God, or life after death, do not exist.” But even if we assume the existence of God, Paul argues in verse 17 that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, we are still cut off from God by our sins. The cross becomes a failure; Jesus did not win the victory over sin or death. Imagine what it means to be unforgiven, to remain imprisoned by our guilt – no pardon, no release. The resurrection is our only proof that our sins are paid in full. Without the truth of Jesus’ victory over sin and death, we all become as hopeless as a hog in the stockyards.


Paul argues that without Jesus’ resurrection, life in the here and now is all there is and all we have to hope for. Without the solid hope of life beyond the grave, millions of good lives have been lived in vain. Without that blessed hope, there will be no voice waiting to say to the Mother Teresas and MLK’s of this world, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Without the truth of life beyond the grave, hundreds of thousands have died for their faith for no good reason. Millions of people have patiently endured pain and died with no reward whatsoever. And millions of victims of violence and injustice will have died with no justice to look forward to.


Only Jesus’ resurrection can give us the confidence that God’s word is true across the board, the confidence that life after death is for real. Jesus’ resurrection gives us the confidence to face life and death completely unafraid. How else can we find realistic reason to believe the truth we cannot see, when standing at the grave of a loved one? To the person whose life hangs in the balance, to the person who is watching a spouse or a child’s health slide downhill, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection gives us the assurance that all the rest of the story is true: our conviction that Jesus is God in the flesh, that he died for our sins, that he has opened the way to heaven for those who believe. Without Jesus’ resurrection, we are talking pure wishful thinking.


Jesus has given us awesome evidence to base our faith on. We have the empty tomb. We have witnesses who have survived fierce cross-examination. All attempts to explain away what happened to that empty tomb have failed miserably. It takes far less faith to believe the Bible than to believe the wild claims of skeptics. You can find out more about the case for Jesus’ resurrection in chapter 4 of my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.


In an article entitled “If I Had Faked the Resurrection”, Josh McDowell lays out 10 ways he would have made the case differently if he had tried to fabricate a story of someone like Jesus rising from the dead. First, he says, he would have waited a wise length of time after the supposed event before publishing his story. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all written less than 35 years after the event. Imagine trying to tell people today that John F Kennedy or Elvis rose from his grave. You’d have much more luck passing off such a story 50-100 years from now. Nobody believes all those stories about sightings of Elvis. But the book of Acts tells us that Peter was announcing the resurrection to a large local crowd only 50 days after it happened. And that news first appears in writing in 1 Thessalonians, only 20 years after it happened.


Second, Josh says that if he wanted to fake the resurrection, he would have published his story far from the place where it supposedly happened. Don’t publish your story close to the scene of the crime. Publish it far away, where no one can dig up the facts. But in the case of Jesus, we find the very opposite. People far away in Rome and Athens are skeptical, but the closer we get to the site of the empty tomb, the stronger we find people’s willingness to believe.


Third, he says, if I wanted to do a fake resurrection story, I would select my “witnesses” very carefully. I’d try not to use names that anyone could recognize. And yet the Gospels cite 16 witnesses by name, including Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Jewish Supreme Court. If the Gospels’ story had been a con job, it would have been a dangerous move to claim that Jesus was buried in this famous man’s tomb. The Gospels also cite women as the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Women were rarely accepted as reliable witnesses in court. Nobody would have used women in this story, unless they were telling the honest truth. No one would have fabricated that detail.


Fourth, Josh argues that if he were making up such a story, he would have jazzed it up with impressive signs and supernatural displays. One of the early Gnostic gospels (the so-called Gospel of Peter) has Jesus stomping out of his tomb 90 feet tall. But none of the Gospels claims that any human eye saw Jesus come out of his tomb. All we have are a blinding flash of light, two angels, some terrified guards, the empty tomb, and appearances of the risen Jesus to his followers. None of the Gospel writers tries to embellish or improve upon the eyewitness testimony to make it sound more impressive.


Fifth, if we wanted to make up a resurrection story, we’d want to make sure our story matches up in detail with other stories. We’d add stuff only if we knew that no one would contradict us. When witnesses in court sound too much alike, we suspect that they’re working together in collusion. But when we have independent eyewitness testimony (as in the Columbine High shootings), the stories don’t match up so perfectly, which is proof of their authenticity. That’s what we find in the Gospels. No one tries to tie up the loose ends. They tell the story, just as they saw it, like witnesses in court who are telling the unvarnished, un-colluded truth.


Sixth, if we were trying to make up a bogus miracle story, we’d probably portray ourselves and our buddies as wonderful heroes. But the Bible paints a far from flattering picture of Peter, Thomas, and the other disciples in this story, which is very different from the way popular myths and legends are written.


Seventh, when making up such a story, we would want to hide the evidence. We would want to hide the tomb where no one could find it, or have the angels take it away to heaven, so that no one could disprove our story. But the Bible practically gives us the street address of the tomb by naming its owner, Joseph of Arimathea. And 100 years later, 60 years after the bulldozing of Jerusalem, when the emperor Hadrian defiles the holy sites, Christians had not forgotten where to find Jesus’ empty tomb.


Eighth, if we were trying to make up such a story, we’d probably try to squelch inquiry or investigation by shaming anyone who tried to check out the evidence. But the resurrection story we find in the Bible begs to be investigated. 25 years later, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul tells the Corinthians that there were over 500 believers who saw Jesus after he rose from the dead, most of whom are still alive at the time he’s writing. Go check it out for yourselves! Ask around!


Ninth, if we wanted people to believe our bogus story, we wouldn’t want to tie it in with a message of repentance. Who’d want to make up a message that would invite hatred and opposition from everyone? We’d want to make it as easy as possible to believe. We wouldn’t make up a hero who calls for drastic change. We’d make up a hero who says we’re OK just the way we are. But Jesus’ resurrection calls for us to turn from sin. Jesus makes the ultimate claim on every part of our lives.


Finally, if we made up a resurrection that we knew wasn’t true, we would stop short of dying for our lie. No lie is worth the ultimate price. But history tells us that almost all of the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection died for their faith. They preferred to die rather than deny the truth they had witnessed. Friends who were once so scared that they ran away, were now willing to take a bullet for their Master. Their willingness to lay their lives on the line shows that they were absolutely sure of what they had seen. It had to be more than some vision that was only in their minds. Unless their story had been backed up by the facts on the ground, their claims never would have survived the blistering attacks of critics.


The resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us solid reason to believe. The truth of what happened in that tomb Easter Sunday makes Christmas 100 times more meaningful. Jesus’ resurrection is far from some virtual reality we have conjured up in our minds. It is truth that is true for all, no matter who we are, no matter how much we may be inclined to believe it. It is truth that cries out to be embraced. It is truth that gives us reason to believe that God’s word is more than just “true for us.” It is truth that can conquer our fears when the lives of those we love hang in the balance. It is truth that can comfort us when we stand by a graveside and long for what we cannot see. The resurrection of Jesus Christ assures us of the truth of God’s promise that God will save those who have placed their faith in Christ to put us right with God.


Jesus Christ is risen indeed. That’s Good News that no one has been able to cover up. Because he lives, we who believe shall live also. Let us rejoice in this, the greatest Good News ever told! Next time, we’ll take a look at the book of Galatians, followed by an entire series on “Latter-day Prophecy.” Join us these next few weeks on Biblical Words and World!