Western thought over the last several hundred years has developed some very strict rules about where things ‘go’. We hold key binaries as axiomatic: Public and private, myth and history, science and religion. These distinctions are so fixed in our minds we often become aware of them only when they are transgressed. I (Rory) remember in Indonesia being taken aback as my taxi driver, whom I’d known for all of six minutes, cheerfully asked, “So, which religion are you?” For him, religion was an aspect of public life and therefore a question that could be asked of a stranger. My whole social conditioning has taught me that religion is firmly part of private life, and a matter of discussion only for intimate friends. It was like seeing your teacher in the supermarket: what on earth is religion doing here? Popping up in places it has no business being.
My whole social conditioning has taught me that religion is firmly part of private life, and a matter of discussion only for intimate friends.
Facts and values are another such binary for us. Fact: the earth revolves around the sun. Value: I like kindness. Facts have a natural home in newspapers, classrooms, and workplaces. Values live around dinner tables, homes, and in friendship networks. Religion, if it fits anywhere, pairs nicely with values.
Westerners inhabit similar spaces. You can talk about religion—but it’s normally over food, on a weekend, with people you know well. Why? Because religion is in the values category, not the facts category. It has a spot, and it’s best for everyone if it stays there.
The Resurrection of Jesus: Fact …
The Creed says that Jesus rose again from death on the third day, and that he ascended into heaven. This resurrection of Jesus complicates the system. Christianity is a religion. Religions deal in values, not facts. Therefore, the resurrection of Jesus is a—well, what is it?
Strangely, at least to most Westerners, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is, for the New Testament Christians, fact and value, history and hope, reality and religion, a thing both known and believed. It conveys a fact and it carries a meaning. It is, to quote CS Lewis, the “true myth”.
Let’s go with the ‘true’ bit first. Is the resurrection of Jesus true? As in, did it happen? On what basis could the resurrection of Jesus be a thing you know to be true? What sort of evidence do we have for it? The answer is historical evidence.
It’s worth labouring the point. We do not have scientific evidence. That is to say, the resurrection of Jesus is not something we know by repeated experimentation with dead bodies.
But nor is it a private belief. It’s not a conclusion you come to in the privacy of your own home, armed with nothing but your own thoughts.
The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is an irreducibly public claim. When the Bible writers claim that he rose, they mean that he rose in space and time. In history. An event that happened in our world. Take, for example, the apostle Paul’s summary in his letter to the church in Corinth. The message he received and passed on to the Corinthians was that Jesus:
…was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, those some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:4-8)
Notice the details. A specific day (the third day). Whole names (Cephas, James). We have groups of real people (the Twelve, the five hundred). Notice the detail that “most are still living”. Why tell us that? This account was written in the early 50s of the first century. It’s not surprising that a majority of those at an event twenty years earlier are still alive. So why mention it? The obvious reason is that you could talk to them about what they saw. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is not something that happens in human hearts, religious services, or in mythic prehistory. The resurrection happened about twenty years before Paul wrote this letter, in our world, and a whole bunch of people saw the risen Jesus.
The resurrection happened about twenty years before Paul wrote this letter and a whole bunch of people saw the risen Jesus.
On the basis of multiple historical sources, some very close in time to the events they record, we can state the following with confidence: the early Christians were convinced that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified on Friday, 3 April, AD 33 and died at about 3pm that afternoon, was restored to life again on 5 April AD 33. He left an empty tomb behind, and appeared to a wide variety of his followers over a 40-day period of time. On this basis, they came to believe that Jesus Christ, who had died, was now alive again, and alive forevermore.
… And Meaning
When C.S. Lewis called the Jesus story the “true myth” he meant that it is “true” in the sense we have just described. It actually happened. But he also saw it as a “myth” because myths carry meaning. Something might be true, but meaningless, such as the fact that I Rory accidentally scratched the side of our car last Tuesday. Something might be meaningful, but not “true”, such as the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus flying too close to the sun and having the wax on their home-made wings melt. The scratch on my car is true, but teaches me nothing (I already knew I was a bad driver). The story of Daedalus and Icarus might teach me something (don’t trust technology, don’t be too ambitious), but it’s not true. The resurrection of Jesus is true (or, at the very least, is claiming to be true). It is also meaningful.
What does it mean? Here are six core implications to get you started.
- Firstly, it means that Jesus really is alive. He is someone we can know, not just know about.
- Secondly, the resurrection validates the claims that Jesus made about himself. He made extraordinary claims for himself and he rose from the dead. The latter surely opens up giving the former due consideration.
- Thirdly, the resurrection completes salvation. It proves that his work of salvation on the cross was effective and accepted by God. God did not allow this truly innocent sufferer to stay dead. The payment he made for sin was accepted by God, and we know that because Jesus did not stay dead.
- Fourthly, the resurrection points to the future. We will, the Bible says and the resurrection confirms, be raised with him (see chapter 13). He is God’s pilot project for the new creation.
- Fifthly, it underlines the value of humanity. Christianity is a humanistic religion. It’s about a God who loves humans so much that he became one of them in order to save them. Jesus rose as a truly human being. He will remain a truly human being for all of eternity. In the incarnation, divinity came to humanity. In the resurrection, humanity was taken up into divinity.
- Finally, the resurrection of Jesus motivates Christians to live the Christian life. We are called to lives of love and service, freed from the desperation of trying to squeeze every last drop out of the one life we have. If there is a world to come, and a resurrection to be a part of, then life now is more than frantically trying to tick items off a bucket list.
 This is the most likely date for Jesus’ crucifixion. The other possibility is 7 April, AD 30. For more information, see Paul W Barnett, Bethlehem to Patmos: The New Testament Story, Paternoster, 1989, pp. 68-69; and Helen K Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed, T&T Clark, 2012, pp. 147-150.