That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:1-3
For the “Passed Over” series we’ll stick with 1 John for the duration. It’s the first of a few letters that are fairly well believed to have been written by John the Apostle. The opening here sounds like him to me. And experts fairly well agree that it was written later in John’s life, after the Christian movement had grown a little and developed for a few generations. So these people he was writing to were not totally unlike you and me, in that they weren’t eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life; they were receiving the gospel secondhand (or third, or fourth or more). And from that perspective came their central question about Jesus’ Resurrection: was it real? Was the Gospel true?
If we’re to try to understand ourselves as “passed over” people who live out of a hope of Resurrection, then this question looms large. Was it real? We can reach back farther, to our very theme, and wonder was the Passover itself real? Could it have happened? If you’ve seen Cecil Demille’s version of those events, with Charlton Heston’s Moses facing off with Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh, the scene of the passover is just RAW.
Granted, to today’s eyes the special effects are comical, with the green ooze in the sky or the black smoke on the ground that represents death creeping through Egypt. But as a child it did well to see that night, with God’s people huddled inside praying aloud and restless because, even though this was the night of their freedom, the death and grief wails of all Egypt are right outside. The story itself is a little too raw for us to want to think it was real. And then also strange at the same time. Why should these lambs have been slaughtered, and their blood used as the way God spare his followers? It’s a story that people use as another example of how the angry God of the Old Testament wipes out innocent men, women, and children, at-will. Could it have happened? And if so, why?
Isn’t it the same with Jesus’ own story? The crucifixion is a heart-wrenching and gory scene, and we’re told we have some responsibility for it. We ask, “Why did Jesus have to die, or die that way, for me?” Then comes the impossible, he’s alive again. Even though he’s still wounded, he’s fine. Even though he’s like a ghost-man, people can touch him and he eats food like any regular person. It’s raw, and crazy, and seems to ask much of us who would believe it. But today is the time to wonder, could it be real? Really real?
I read an interesting article by Megan Almon that interacts with what else could have happened to Jesus. She gives us the impression that there’s hard evidence to start with: most historians agree that Jesus of Nazareth existed and had a following, and that the Romans crucified him; most will also agree that come Resurrection morning there was no body to be found. After all, if someone could’ve produced a body it would’ve shut down the Christian movement for good. So, we have an empty tomb and have to deal with it. Almon describes the three best alternative explanations to the Resurrection.
1. First, there’s the Conspiracy Theory. The idea is that, sure, Jesus was a great teacher and had a large following, so at his death in order to keep the whole thing going, some of his disciples stole his body and came up with the Resurrection story. Bing, bang, boom. It’s the very excuse that the priests came up with for where Jesus’ body had gone.
Detractors to this theory, however, will point out that the Romans took the tomb very seriously. This wasn’t their first would-be Jewish Messiah to have killed/buried, and they had an idea that something like this could happen, so guards were posted, a giant stone rolled in, and a seal placed over the tomb. It was to invited instant death to assail where Jesus was buried. For others, the best proof against a conspiracy is that it’s difficult for three people to keep a decent lie going, especially such a complicated one as Resurrection. If you ever watch a cop show, you know what I mean — when there are multiple perpetrators nabbed, the detectives split them up and interview them to find discrepancies, and then apply pressure or have them flip on each other. So the idea that the, maybe, hundred early disciples who were involved in the Resurrection account (1 Cor 15 actually says there were 500 witnesses to a risen Jesus) could keep their story straight, is ridiculous to me. Then there’s the fact that these same followers carried Jesus’ gospel thousands of miles into every kind of harsh, dangerous territory. Then there’s the fact that so, so many of them died excruciating, torturous deaths but none ever recanted the story. Quite a conspiracy. And this is by far the most sound alternative to the Resurrection.
2. Second, is the Swoon Theory. To explain an empty tomb, these experts assert that Jesus wasn’t totally dead on the cross that day. He was in a deep, passed out “swoon” and appeared so dead that they broke his legs and cut him down. But before they sealed him in, or sometime, he managed to escape, to crawl away never to be found. Or else the disciples found him and put him in hiding, I don’t know. That’s it, the Swoon Theory. Great.
3. Last, is the Hallucination Theory. It is how it sounds, ridiculous. I assume this came from a child of the 60s or 70s because it says that the disciples must’ve just had a bad “trip” together. They all hallucinated their story. It’s the only way to explain how convinced they were that this is what happened; they weren’t lying or conspiring, they were just collectively crazy and convinced.
There we go. Three theories, to deal with either the disappearance of Jesus’ corpse, or the fervent faith of his following. For what it’s worth, Almon makes the point that these are the best three alternative theories to the Resurrection ever devised.
OR. Or, Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. The third day he arose from the dead….” We’re wrestling with how real Resurrection can be. Did it happen?
There’s a story along these lines that I like and want to share, from Lee Strobel’s famous work, The Case for Christ. He tells of a conversation with Dr. Gary Habermas, professor of theology and philosophy, in which he asked Habermas about the importance of Resurrection as real. The teacher replied by talking about the death of his wife, Debbie, of stomach cancer:
“My wife was upstairs dying. Except for a few weeks, she was home through it all. It was an awful time. This was the worst thing that could possibly happen.
But do you know what was amazing? My students would call me … and say, ‘At a time like this, aren’t you glad about the Resurrection?’ As sober as those circumstances were, I had to smile for two reasons. First, my students were trying to cheer me up with my own teaching. And second, it worked.
As I would sit there, I’d picture Job, who went through all that terrible stuff and asked questions of God, but then God turned the tables and asked him a few questions. I knew if God were to come to me, I’d ask only one question: ‘Lord, why is Debbie up there in bed?’ And I think God would respond by asking gently, ‘Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?’
I’d say, ‘Come on, Lord, I’ve written seven books on that topic! Of course he was raised from the dead. But I want to know about Debbie!’ I think he’d keep coming back to the same question – ‘Did I raise my Son from the dead?’ – until I got his point: The Resurrection says that if Jesus was raised 2,000 years ago, there’s an answer to Debbie’s death in 1995.”
Truly, in the midst of other theories, and other possibilities, and the circumstances that make us question it most of all, I think Gary’s experience is the better way to approach the possibility of the Resurrection. Not just, is this thing real or not, is it probable or not, or is it prove-able or not. But, more personally, imagining God asking the question of us, “Did I raise my Son from the dead?” Did God?
John took time to write this letter, as a reminder that he had a concrete answer to God’s question, and would love to see as many of us learn it for ourselves as possible. Consider it. And consider, or start to, that you are someone who has been Passed Over by death because of the shed blood of Jesus; you are someone who has been invited into new life because Jesus was victorious.