As Christians around the world gather to celebrate our most sacred day of the year, it is important to remember what is easily forgotten about Easter — we are celebrating something that actually happened.
Many misunderstand the resurrection as an inspiring idea of optimism and hope rather than an actual event. But this domestication completely misses the message of Easter. Jesus risen from the dead is either the world’s greatest historical event or greatest historical hoax, and there is no in between.
Jesus certainly viewed his resurrection this way, claiming it to be the fullest vindication of his outlandish claim to be both God and savior of the world. Likewise, his followers saw it as the central tenet of their faith. The early church’s announcement to the ancient world was that Jesus is risen from the dead, which means he is God and savior, which means everyone must worship and trust him as such. And they also had the courage to accept the counter of that brazen claim, admitting that if Jesus is not risen, then he should be dismissed as utterly foolish.
Still to this day, Easter remains a historic dividing line. If it happened, Jesus is true. If it didn’t, Jesus is false. It really is that simple. So did it happen? Of course not, says our skeptical, enlightened world, and to believe it happened is to deny obvious scientific evidence. The problem, however, is that to disbelieve that it happened is to deny obvious historical evidence.
Whereas science studies the repeatable, history studies the unrepeatable. In other words, the discipline of scientific historiography studies things that by definition happened only once, and therefore, like a forensic investigation, all the evidence around that singular event is examined to derive a conclusion.
Surprising to many, there is actually more evidence around the resurrection than any other ancient event. It is certainly much more than an op-ed will allow (if interested, I suggest the work of eminent scholar N.T. Wright), but I will present the four most established facts widely accepted by historical scholarship:
1. Rome crucified and buried a very public and popular revolutionary named Jesus of Nazareth.
2. A few days later, his tomb was discovered to be empty, and neither the Roman or Jewish authorities were able to produce a body.
3. On multiple occasions and in many different circumstances, individuals and entire groups of people had post-mortem encounters with Jesus. Most notably, this included Christianity’s fiercest enemy, Saul of Tarsus, who later became known as the apostle Paul.
4. Out of nowhere and against all odds arose history’s greatest movement based not necessarily on teachings or revelations, but upon a falsifiable historic event — Jesus risen from the dead.
Again, there is much more evidence to consider, but on a most fundamental level, these serve well as the established facts, and the task of the historian is to follow the evidence to determine what happened that fateful Sunday morning that changed the world.
Now, if we were talking about anything else, the answer would be quite obvious. We could say, with unrivaled historical certainty, the event happened. But we are talking about a conclusion so extraordinary that it has led to centuries of intense critical scrutiny, trying to come up with another explanation for the evidence.
Many theories have been presented, but all of them have failed, and the most plausible explanation still remains: Jesus of Nazareth actually rose from his own death.
But it’s just impossible, the skeptic still says. To which the evidence responds: Why not? If your answer is that supernatural events like that simply do not happen, then that is a bold and unsubstantiated claim you are choosing to accept by faith. This is why at some point debating evidence gives way to debating worldviews.
If your worldview has no room for the supernatural, then either you will have to expand your worldview to account for the evidence or you will stubbornly deny the evidence to maintain your worldview. But if a worldview has room for miracles, then all the evidence makes perfect sense, and suddenly the unbelievable becomes believable — Easter actually happened.
The Rev. Robert Cunningham is senior pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Lexington. Reach him at email@example.com