It has not been long since we celebrated Easter. Even so, the gospel reading for the first Sunday after Easter (John 20:19-31) begins by taking us back a week to the evening of the prior Sunday. The second part of the reading takes a week later. Jesus shows up on both of these days. It’s on the second encounter, the one that happens a week after Easter, that I want to focus our attention. In doing that we find a question that we can’t avoid. It’s this: What do we make of the resurrection?
On our own many of us might not think there is much of a question here. Maybe you think the whole thing is obvious. Jesus rose from the dead. It’s right there in scripture and in the Nicene Creed. The Creed, an ancient summary of the faith, is made up of three articles, one dedicated to each of the members of the Trinity. It starts this way:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
Here’s most of the second article:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God . . . Who, for us [and] for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made [a human person]; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures.
So there it is, you might think, ‘the third day He rose again’. What’s the question?
Or maybe you come at it from a different angle. Maybe you realize that we can’t even prove the existence of many ancient historical characters existed: Jesus, Plato, Abraham. If we can’t prove their existence, why even contemplate something like the resurrection?
Dead people stay dead. Resurrections happen only in happy dreams or myths. Why get too invested in the resurrection?
There is a claim I want to put in front of you before we take a closer look at our gospel reading from John 20. It’s this—as always, you don’t have to agree with me—but here it is: the resurrection is not a historical event, but belief in the reality of the resurrection is essential for Christians. Now, the careful thinkers know right away that the key terms in that statement are ‘historical’ and ‘essential’. You’ve noticed too that the first part of the statement frees us from something, while the second ties us to something.
Let’s turn our attention to John’s gospel. Here’s what happens: after the tomb was discovered to be empty Jesus appeared to a group of his disciples. One disciple, Thomas, isn’t present for that initial encounter, and when he’s told about it he doesn’t believe the story. He says he has to see the living Jesus, even feel the living Jesus, for himself in order to believe.
It’s at the beginning of this second week that this comes to pass. Thomas is with the others this time. Jesus shows up again, greets everyone as before and then invites Thomas to touch his wounds. At this Thomas is convinced, “My Lord and my God!” he says.
Each of the gospels has some account of the disciples seeing the resurrected Jesus. It’s an important part of the story. Of the four, it’s the accounts of Luke and John that are the most substantial. In Luke’s gospel Jesus shows his wounded hands and feet to the disciples. It’s only here in John, however, that we find the account of Thomas.
It appears to me that Thomas has been mistreated by the tradition. If you’ve ever called someone a ‘doubting Thomas’ it probably wasn’t a compliment. However, the story in John’s gospel is actually quite helpful. We begin to see this when we realize that Thomas isn’t uniquely skeptical. He’s no more of a doubter than you or I, and probably no more of a doubter than most first-century people. Dead people do not come back to life—not really anyway.
There are of course stories of people being technically dead for a brief period of time and then being brought back around. But if Roman soldiers knew anything, they knew how to kill. There was a time when it was popular in faux-intellectual circles to say that Jesus just seemed to be dead and then the coolness of the tomb or something revived him. I don’t think many serious scholars believe that. If we’re going to grant these or any other ancient accounts any measure of validity, we can probably believe—though not prove—that Jesus was dead.
And dead people don’t come back to life. We know this. Ancient people knew this too. This is why Thomas didn’t believe at first. This is also why the disciples in Luke’s account of the resurrection thought they were seeing a ghost. Ghosts might make appearances, but not resurrected people. Thomas is simply like us.
We live our lives assuming that the way things have worked is the way they will continue to work. If I’m a passenger in someone’s car and I notice the fuel gauge on empty and I encourage them to get some gas so we aren’t left sitting by the side of the road, this does not make me a skeptic. It simply makes me realistic about the way internal combustion engines work.
So when Thomas says he doesn’t believe the disciples who claim to have seen Jesus, he is simply keeping them honest. And if we find ourselves with similar doubts, it isn’t because we are super-smart 21st century-people, it’s simply because dead people stay dead in our century just as they have always done.
But here, let’s look closer. Notice what happens on this second Sunday. Again, the disciples are together, the doors are shut. Jesus shows up. This time Thomas is there.
Here I can begin to explain what I mean when I say that the resurrection isn’t a historical event. Jesus simply appears in the room. Whatever sort of body he has, it isn’t the same as the body he had before he died. It isn’t the same as our bodies. So part of what I mean by cutting free from the ‘historical’ term is that if we had a video camera in the tomb we would not have seen angles come in, give Jesus a few liters of blood and zap him with a defibrillator. The resurrection is not resuscitation. It is not simply reviving what was before. The resurrected Jesus is a creature of a different sort. If we’re being technical we say that the resurrection is an eschatological event. It is a foretaste of the renewal of all things.
We celebrate Easter because we believe the resurrection is not simply turning on a computer that had been turned off. It’s putting your dead pc in a drawer and checking back three days later and finding a fancy new MacBook—well, not really (and I don’t have a MacBook). All the same, the resurrected Jesus is not simply a rebooted dead Jesus. Furthermore, Easter is not something we could repeat. We cannot confirm the data by doing the experiment again. The resurrection of Jesus, as John would have it, is a singular reality, occurring at a moment where God’s future erupts in history. If the menu at the café is history, the resurrection is when you order a coffee and are given a giraffe. Easter is like that—but more so.
I’m afraid many of the debates about the probability of the resurrection miss the real point. This story of Thomas helps us see that what early Christians believed happened on Easter morning is something different than a historical event.
But now, to the other side, to the idea that the resurrection, indeed the bodily resurrection, is essential to the Christian faith. We must realize that early Christians, the disciples and the group of believers in Acts, did know the difference between a myth, a ghost and a real person. Luke and John both attest to this. They knew plenty of people who had died. They probably knew plenty of people who told ghost stories. Yet they were convinced that the reappearance of Jesus was different. We can’t help but notice that the gospel stories have a level of detail most ancient myths lack.
We have five written first-century sources that attest to Jesus’ bodily appearance after his death. The stories of the resurrection likely circulated at a time when people could prove them to be false. Someone could have went to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and checked for a body. People could have asked other disciples who were present. Paul even says in I Corinthians 15 that Jesus appeared to some 500 others. His point was that these people could be asked too. So it’s hard to deny that something really happened. In some way Jesus was there physically.
There is a classic painting of Thomas and Jesus done by Caravaggio. It’s warmly lit. It shows Jesus pulling back his robe and placing Thomas’s finger in the wound in his side. Caravaggio depicts Jesus tenderly submitting himself to Thomas’s reality check. Caravaggio is a wonderful painter; he had a good imagination. But John’s gospel never says Thomas actually put his finger in Jesus’ side. His appearance was enough. Thomas believed. The early Christians believed.
Think of this: we have no way of proving the resurrection. Proof is difficult. Apparently we can’t even prove the moon landing. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that the early Christians believed in the resurrection. They did not just believe in an idea of some vague Easter grace. They did not just believe in a spiritual concept. They believed in the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus. The lives of those in the disciple group changed dramatically because of this belief. They underwent extreme suffering on account of it. The early church grew exponentially. The growth started at this time, not centuries later. The empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus to people like Thomas would be sufficient to prompt this kind of thing. Not much else, if anything, would have. What else would have motivated a group like this? Would they sacrifice their lives for something they knew was not true? Could they maintain a lie when so many witnesses were available? Belief in the bodily resurrection appears to be essential for the Christian faith.
The tradition tells us that Thomas went east, carrying this dynamite news to the very edge of the world he knew. It tells us too that he died there, in a foreign land, sharing the story of how this Jewish rabbi presented God to the world. There is no way of knowing for sure if he made it to India or was martyred. We can be quite certain, though, that many other early followers of Jesus did give up their lives on account of their belief in the Jesus’ resurrection.
That’s where I want to leave this discussion, but before you drift back to something else, there’s one more thought I want to share. It’s this, belief in the Easter story can seem like a conservative idea (if you still have some sense of the old Christendom days). But it isn’t really. Believing in the resurrection is a revolutionary idea. Notice how Jesus greats his followers in peace. Jesus’ death for others, his absorbing violence, his victory over evil powers—all this changes how we relate to each other. Relating through the peace of Jesus radically changes things. Do you believe in the resurrection? Do I believe in the resurrection? Maybe the best way to answer that question is to look at the way we live. Does the peace of Christ take the place of fear? Does it mark our relationships? Do we live expecting the Spirit to be at work in us? Do we expect that each of us is being reshaped and reformed?
Things like just might be the real proof of the resurrection.