Written by Pete Lowman
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
Open in prayer.
Who had the opportunity to share some of last week’s material with someone who’s not yet a Christian?
How did it go? What snags came up?
So we’re launching this session with discussion in groups of three: What we do we say when an unbelieving friend asks us `How could a good God allow so much suffering?`? Again, let’s tell each other our responses – because we need to hear ourselves do it! – and then, after about eight minutes, share what we said with the wider group.
When that happens, responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include…
- The Bible teaches no easy answers to this question. At the heart of Christian faith is a man on a Cross shouting, ‘My God, my God, why?’
- There are some partial answers. At the start of history, humankind insisted on running our own world, rather than submitting to God’s reign. Our world has been wrecked as a result, and we haven’t the power to put it right. Yet each of us still repeats that mistake, demanding to do things our way.
- Christ’s death was God’s loving response: he got involved in our suffering, removed the guilt and power of sin, disarmed the demonic powers, and opened up the way through death.
- But if God stamped out all the evil in the world right now, we’d each be dead too! So instead he calls us to work with him; learning in difficult times (even atheists often recognize that these have been the key times of growth in their own lives); building a new community marked by his love and peace and healing; and slowly spreading his transforming power.
- But one day he will come back. If we are his, we will then be in a new heaven and earth where at last there will be ‘no more death or crying or pain’ (Rev 21:4).
In Revelation we read of the ‘sealed book’ of war, famine, imperialism, economic injustice, disease and religious persecution: and we find it’s something only Christ can comprehend, ‘because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God’ (5:9). On the cross, Christ alone went to the utter heart of the darkness; he took human pain seriously, and he alone sees and understands all our suffering.
(Books worth reading include: Edith Schaeffer, Affliction; Joni Eareckson, Joni; C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain; John Wenham, The Enigma of Evil)
In the next section we’re going to try to set out the evidence straightforwardly on another huge question:
Did Jesus rise from the dead?
If we’re Christians, this is solid rock for our souls. God shows his reality to different people in different ways but this is one of the central paths.
What do we know happened at Easter? Everyone at the time agreed Christ was crucified, died, and was buried. We know what Christ’s opponents said about it all – because they would have been sure to have checked what happened; certainly someone as intelligent and active in opposition as Saul of Tarsus would have wanted to know – and no one said anything different: Christ died.
(What’s more, John 19:34 tells us about the blood and water coming from Jesus’ side, and we now know - since the discovery of the circulation of the blood - that this is medical proof of death.)
So Jesus died. And then a strange thing occurred: his body vanished. What happened?
In fact there are not many possibilities. Jesus was regarded as a highly dangerous radical, and soon after his death it’s clear that Jerusalem was in great turmoil as the disciples preached that he had risen from the dead. So we can conclude that, if anybody had taken his body and hidden it, it would not have been his enemies, because they badly needed that body.
Then and later, Jews and Romans wanted to get rid of this threat to peace and orthodoxy. Religious factors aside, the Jerusalem authorities had good reason for fear, with thousands of Jews turning to Christ, either that they would be called to fatal account for `this man's blood' (Acts 5:28), or else that the social instability would provoke a Roman takeover and the end of the Jewish nation (see John 11:48). As regards the Romans, it’s clear that for example Felix was very keen to do the Jews a favour when they were trying to put an end to Paul’s ministry (Acts 24:27), and if he could have produced either the body or the Romans who had disposed of it that would have been an ideal favour to grant. He never tried.
If there was any way his enemies could have produced the body (or those who removed it) in the early days of the infant church's rapid growth, they would surely have silenced the teaching of the resurrection; but it never happened. It is also striking that the Roman opponents of Christianity never blamed the Jews for having removed the body, nor did the Jews blame the Romans. Clearly neither the Jews nor Romans had removed the body.
There’s another thing that they didn’t say, a daft idea that only emerged centuries later. This was that Jesus swooned on the cross, apparently died, and then, without any medical care or food, revived in the tomb, emerged triumphant and convinced his followers that he had conquered death. This isn’t a theory we seem to hear today. Why has it been forgotten?
Probably because on reflection no one can believe that a person close enough to the edge of death to deceive his executioners, with no food or medical care, should be able to shift the massive stone at the mouth of the tomb, evade the guards if they were there, walk on his horribly damaged feet to Emmaus and on other occasions too, and yet persuade his followers that death itself has been transcended forever. It is striking too that there is no hint of any record anywhere in ancient history as to where Jesus’ body eventually rested. And, of course, all this makes Jesus himself a liar. It is not surprising that this bizarre explanation has vanished off the scene; and none of his early enemies suggested it.
So what then? There is – significantly - only one hostile explanation the gospels seem aware of (cf Matthew 28:11-15), which is also the one Justin Martyr has to face in his encounter with the sceptic Trypho a century later; Tertullian, in his apologetics a few decades later; Origen in his debate with Celsus later still in the third century; and also the explanation repeated in the medieval Jewish Toledoth Jesu. This is that the disciples themselves stole the body. What is noticeable, and remarkable, here is that no trial ever took place for this. Jesus’ disciples were indeed executed, but never on this charge.
The disciples would have had nothing to gain by such an action. Yet with no motivation, they proceeded to centre their whole lives around their affirmation of the resurrection. Equally bizarre - as we expose ourselves to the ethical teaching of these earliest Christian leaders - is the notion that, underneath, they were some of the world's most effective con‑men. Strangest of all is that as many of them (and their families) were beheaded, crucified upside down, whipped and otherwise tortured or executed, no-one ever admitted the truth, that they had stolen the body.
And one wonders what they could possibly have had to gain by doing such a thing. And then, with no motivation, they proceed to centre their whole lives around their affirmation of the resurrection, building a new religion which had baptism commemorating Jesus’ resurrection as one of its two central rituals, and changing the sabbath that was central (for Jews) for salvation, to Sunday in commemoration of the resurrection – and all this time they know it’s a lie.
Equally bizarre - as we expose ourselves to the ethical teaching of these earliest Christian leaders - is the notion that the people who were doing a great job of spreading as powerful and gripping a religious vision as the world has ever seen, in the teeth of huge opposition, right across the Roman empire, and for no financial gain, were themselves aware it was entirely false; underneath, they were some of the world's most effective con‑men. Strangest of all is that as many of them (and their families) were beheaded, crucified upside down, whipped and otherwise tortured or executed, no-one ever squeals or admits the truth, that they had stolen the body. All this seems impossible to imagine.
Down the ages so many people have faced these facts and then built their lives around the conclusion that Jesus really did rise from the dead. It’s very interesting that a man as brilliant as Saul of Tarsus could find no explanation. An obvious modern example is Frank Morison, author of Who Moved the Stone?, who set out to write a book giving the real story of the resurrection and was forced as he examined the evidence to conclude that Jesus did rise from the dead. The resurrection has been called one of the best attested facts in ancient human history. We are talking solid historical, that is to say scientific, evidence here. We should be asking our friends each Easter: So what do you think happened to Jesus’ body?
We can go further, however. Christ was seen after the resurrection. The careful historian Luke describes these appearances as 'many convincing proofs' (Acts 1:3) (and as Paul’s travel companion who watched Paul suffer enormously, he had reason to want to be sure that that was what they were). In the mid-50s AD, twenty years after the resurrection, Paul writes to the people of the merchant port of Corinth from where people might easily travel to Palestine, giving them a long list of living witnesses in Israel who had seen the risen Christ and who could still be contacted (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). This is very solid historical data. (And as N T Wright observes, it’s particularly interesting that Paul omits the women altogether, presumably because the evidence of women counted for so little in that culture. But then the only reason why the gospels included their encounters with the risen Christ would be that they actually happened.) Then we should consider James, Jesus' brother, a man not easily convinced, indeed a sceptic throughout Christ's lifetime, yet also a man of sufficient moral stature to be accepted later as leader by the thousands of believers in Jerusalem; he encountered Christ after the resurrection, and became a frontline Christian, finally being beheaded in AD 62. He, we must affirm, lied or was deceived, if Christ did not rise. We should consider the meeting between the disciples and the risen Christ, recorded as the finale of both Luke's and John's gospels (these documents for the contents of which so many Christians would soon die), and again at the beginning of Acts. And what changed Paul from persecutor to missionary? He says: I saw the risen Christ.
What are we to make of these appearances and these witnesses? We cannot think of legends arising in so short a time. Besides, as C S Lewis points out, they would be exceedingly odd legends by the standards of classical culture. There is no account of the resurrection itself (the later apocryphal gospels certainly make up for that), no appearance to his enemies, appearances first to women. Indeed, many people find the vivid realism of passages like John 20 and 21 and Luke 24 enough to authenticate them as definitive eye-witness accounts.
Are we to see the appearances as deliberate lies? When these men were engaged in giving the world some of its highest ethical teaching? Again, we are left with the spectacle of the disciples doing a superb job of spreading a powerful, gripping religious vision, spending their lives building a new religion whose central practices focused on the resurrection (why?), knowing the accounts that climax the gospels are all lies. Why did they bother? Many watch their families seized and hurt by the persecutors. No one says: We made it up. And finally, one after another, they die unpleasantly; knowing it's all a lie. That seems utterly improbable. The resurrection appearances aren’t lies.
OK; so maybe they believed it but it still wasn’t true. What then?
It is equally hard to believe these encounters were mere `visions'. The difference between the gospel appearances and Revelation 1, when John really does have a vision of the risen Christ, will be obvious to any reader of the two. And we note the authors' repeated emphasis on the disciples touching the risen Christ (Luke 24:38-39, Matthew 28:9, John 20:24-28), going for extended walks with him (Luke 24:13-32, 50, John 21:20), and especially 'eating and drinking' with him (Luke 24:30,43, John 21:9-14, Acts 1:4, and especially Acts 10:41). Hallucinations don't eat fish, and they don't go with groups of people on long country walks.
So what transformed the twelve from a group of dispirited disciples who abandoned or betrayed their Lord (an account so detrimental to the church leadership that it's unlikely to have been fabricated), into men who turned the world upside down? What transformed Paul from persecutor to missionary? What, after Jesus' death, suddenly turned his own sceptical brother James into his follower, so that he too became a martyr? How much evidence, what kind of appearances, would we ourselves demand before staking our lives and deaths, and our families’, in that way? The disciples asserted that the key factor was their unmistakable encounter with the risen Christ. Is there really any plausible alternative?
And if this is true, it has consequences: death is broken; the gospel is true; I need to be forgiven and receive this Jesus; eternal heaven exists, and is come here, and is for us. We have solid rock to build our lives upon.
TIME FOR QUESTIONS. THEN HALFTIME BREAK FOR COFFEE.]
BACK FOR DISCUSSION AGAIN IN GROUPS OF THREE: What do we say when an unbelieving friend tells us `Following Christ is OK for you but I’m happy without it`?
Responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include…
- If there really is a God, to try and make our life work without him is like attempting a jigsaw puzzle after throwing the central piece away! Some bits will work, but as a whole it won’t make sense.
- This life on earth is just the tiniest fraction of our total existence. Since God is our Maker, to ignore his purposes is to miss the whole point of the millions of years we will exist.
- One day we must face God, and account to him for how we used the life he gave us, and how we responded to the salvation he died to offer us.
- Jesus told us there is a heaven (being totally with God, the source of all love, joy, and peace), and a hell (being without God, experiencing none of these). In this life we can still know joy even while moving away from God: we’re like an electric fire that’s been disconnected from the power source, but hasn’t yet gone dark and cold. But if we live without God now, then, logically, we’ll be separated from him in eternity. To be separate from God then will mean total separation from all love, joy, and peace; drifting into the darkness forever. That is what Jesus calls hell.
(Chapter 5 of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God is especially good on the questions to do with hell, as is C S Lewis’ The Great Divorce.)
BACK FOR DISCUSSION ONE LAST TIME IN GROUPS OF THREE: What we do we say when an unbelieving friend tells us `But surely if I’m a basically good person, that will be enough for God`?
Responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include…
- If it were so easy, why did Christ die? Watch him go through the agony of Gethsemane, and then the desolation when he cried out on Calvary. Why, if we could be acceptable to God without all that?
- Hadn’t we better face up to God’s infinite, majestic holiness? His purity is unimaginable; before him ‘all our good deeds are like filthy rags’. Even our best deeds are flawed by pride, by self-righteousness. Some of us may be better than others – but none are good enough to stand before the majesty of God.
- Only Jesus’ gospel dares face this radical truth. Because only Jesus offers us the solution: God himself has come down, become human, and died for our sins; and now he offers to forgive us and put his own nature within us, when we are ‘born again’ in repentance and faith...
- And this question gives us the chance to spell out to our friends – and for just two minutes we should have their attention! – why we aren’t religious. We don’t try to be good or obey God so that we’ll perhaps be accepted and forgiven by him; that’s religion and it doesn’t work! Rather we seek to please him because first he’s loved, accepted and forgiven us…
(Assignment before next session: Ask God for the opportunity to share some of this with someone who’s not yet a Christian, this week…)
© Pete Lowman.