Note: This is a re-posting of a blog by Grant Willey, December 16, 2018 originally on the RatioChristi TALK – University of Alabama-Huntsville blog. It was so good I had to share this as a break from our regular postings on Psalm 119. The Word of God is true and it matters. That is the essence of Psalm 119.
If Resurrection Isn’t Real, It Can’t Comfort Us
A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral of my dear grandmother. As I talked with people at the viewing, it seemed that my impression of my Grandma as someone who loved people and loved her God was shared by everyone. Especially in talking with my Grandpa, the overall feeling in the room was one of great loss, but it was tempered with something.
Many tears were shed, but there were smiles all around. My grandparents’ longtime pastor gave the eulogy and he spoke of her as if she wasn’t lost but still existed somewhere else, free from pain. That we would see her again even as her body lay just a few yards away in a casket about to be lowered into the ground. What this group had that tempered the loss was a belief in resurrection.
I had been reflecting on this for a while already. The last time I had talked with my Grandma, she was already thinking about what the end would be like. I kept wondering what she was experiencing now that she had passed on and was seeing everything first hand. When the pastor talked about the hope that we would see her again though, I began to think of what it would be like if I wasn’t convinced it were true.
Wondering about the afterlife is largely an academic affair until we encounter death first-hand, especially someone near to us. Then we need answers. Even for someone who lived a good, long life we feel that a part of our own lives has been stolen away, as evidenced by the tears in my grandfather’s eyes as he sat a few feet away from the empty shell that used to be his lifelong companion. That sort of feeling demands to be dealt with, and though as Christians we are provided answers to that feeling they only comfort if they are true. If resurrection and the afterlife are a comforting lie, or even something we allow to remain unknown and avoid investigating so we can go on believing what we want to believe about it, it’s only a shallow comfort if at all.
I probably approach the topic a little differently than many people; full disclosure I dislike sentimentality in general. That’s not to say I don’t feel it, but the feeling I associate with sentimentality feels saccharine, childish and gimmicky (for lack of a better word) unless it’s based in something real. Growing up I even came to dislike the way music was often used during altar calls or testimonies to create a mood that only lasted as long as the music was playing. I actually didn’t mind 10 repetitions of songs like Just As I Am, because it invited one to make a conscious decision of will. I’m a musician myself and I love what music can do emotionally in harmony with something that’s real, but I ended up developing a distaste for when that harmony isn’t there (though finding that balance is admittedly tricky).
Likewise with death, comforting words can be a great encouragement but if they’re just empty platitudes and not true statements they can even be hurtful. If the body were all a person was, almost anything we could say about them passing would seem distasteful. Talk of an afterlife would be giving people false hope; encouraging a delusion. We might celebrate the affect that person had on all of our lives who still live on, but then for those who die alone there would be no dignity in death; no reason to celebrate or remember. All we would be left with would be empty sentimentality.
In a recent interview on the Late Show, Eric Idle of Monty Python reflected back on writing the song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from their movie The Life of Brian. For those not familiar, the comedy follows a young Jewish man around 30 AD who is mistakenly identified as the Messiah against his own protests and after a series of comical coincidences is eventually crucified. The person on the cross next to him (Idle) encourages him with a cheery, upbeat song to “Always look on the bright side of life” and the movie ends on that ironic note. Idle mentioned in the interview that recently that song had recently become the most popular song to sing at funerals in England, replacing My Way by Frank Sinatra.
I mention this because without the reality of resurrection, that’s the kind of empty celebration we’re left with, either singing ironically about trying to find happiness in an ultimately meaningless life, or celebrating the triumph of a will that no longer exists (which is equally ironic).
Not only does false sentimentality feel cheap but if we tell ourselves a lie to feel better it sets us up for making irrational decisions later in life and we can’t always tell where they will be. If we ignore some aspect of reality, even as a coping mechanism, it creates a false representation of reality in our minds that we act on and it’s guaranteed to cause problems somewhere. If those who die in this world do not live on in some way, it should affect how we act and telling someone there will be an afterlife would be robbing them of opportunity to get as much pleasure out of this life as possible because this is all we have.
The reason why I am still moved by the reality that my Grandma is now in the presence of her Savior is because I have seen the evidence that resurrection is real. My mind as well as my heart are confident that the afterlife described in the Bible is real, and that Jesus was indeed born into this world, crucified and brought back to life three days after. I don’t have to be careful about not asking questions that will shake that “delusion”, and in fact I welcome opportunities to investigate it further and I think that’s the best and only right response to such a claim.
As historian Dr. Gary Habermas points out, virtually no mainstream historian doubts that a Jewish man named Jesus lived during the early first century AD, was crucified by the Romans and even that his followers believed he had fully died and been bodily resurrected (tangibly, not as an apparition). Early church fathers and historians such as Tacitus, Ignatius, Polycarp and later Josephus all testified to events of the gospels as well as the affect it had on the early Church. They affirm the fact that the early Christians acted as though they “disregarded death” and many of them were martyred for witnessing to the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
There is a difference here between the martyrdom of the apostles and that of a suicide bomber or one who self-immolates as well. The beliefs that drive someone to commit suicide or kill for such a cause are typically hard to challenge (that it will affect some social change or that there will be a reward waiting on the other side where none have gone and returned to verify, or that they’re hitching a ride on an unseen UFO).
The apostles died for a belief in something easily falsifiable and very tangible. Crucifixion was a public event and took days, Jerusalem was not large at all by modern standards (most of the significant places in the Gospels in/around Jerusalem are within a mile or two of each other) and it was a very populated city where word spread quickly and the claim that Jesus rose from the dead would have been easy to refute just by asking around.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 quoted an early creed that Jesus appeared not just to the disciples but 500 other people as well, many of whom Paul claimed were still living at the time he wrote, including Cephas (the apostle Peter) a first-hand witness whom Paul had spent time with. Not to mention the apostles who were martyred didn’t commit acts of aggression in their deaths, they were sought out and persecuted for a belief that would have been hard not to recant if they knew it to be false or weren’t entirely convinced. Yet they went to their deaths still believing.
Paul’s arguments for the resurrection don’t appeal to his own personal belief, but to the fact that his audience had seen the same events. In Acts 26, Paul when speaking before King Agrippa states that he is persecuted for preaching Christ’s resurrection, at the mention of which the governor Festus interrupts to tell him he’s out of his mind. Paul replies “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.”
Paul also puts his whole faith on the line saying if there is no resurrection of the dead (as some claimed at the time) then our whole faith is in vain and we are “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). The fact that the early Christians took such a hard-lined approach to the validity of their claim that Jesus rose from the dead is singularly unique in history and stands apart from the superstitions of the world. It encourages us to take the same approach, and accept the consequences; whether true or false.
About a week after the funeral of my grandmother, the nation’s thoughts turned toward the passing of President George H.W. Bush and again my mind was turned back to the thought “how many people observing the passing of a fellow human only have a shallow, sentimental hope for an afterlife or resurrection?” How many people when faced with death are left trying in vain to “look on the bright side”?
One of my favorite exchanges on this topic is a conversation between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. Lennox remarked that Dawkins’ “nothing after death” view was “very bleak”, and Dawkins retorted “that doesn’t make it false” to which Lennox replied “neither does that make it true”. There is hope in the face of death, but it’s empty if you don’t know for yourself that it’s true. If you haven’t seriously considered the evidence, I strongly encourage you to do so.
The issues involved are admittedly more complex than I can cover in a short post. Other topics include “are the gospels historically reliable?”, “when were the gospels written?”, and “can miracles happen” to name a few. Luckily, several other people have already done a lot of the legwork to answer those questions. Here are a few resources to start you off.
Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability – Matt Slick (CARM.org)
Non biblical accounts of New Testament events and/or people – Matt Slick (CARM.org)
Dr. Gary Habermas is probably the foremost historian regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and he has plenty of writings and even a free e-book on his website. There are plenty of videos of him on YouTube as well presenting his material and debating other scholars.
J. Warner Wallace is a former accomplished cold-case detective who decided to apply the same forensic approach to the gospel accounts, and found them to be extraordinarily convincing. His findings led him to write Cold Case Christianity. The link on his name goes to a list of articles he’s written regarding the historical reliability of Jesus.
Lee Strobel is an author and former award-winning legal journalist for the Chicago Tribune who decided to investigate the claims of the Bible as an atheist in order to disprove it, but ended up coming to the opposite conclusion. He wrote his findings in his book The Case for Christ.
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