Which is the greater holiday – Christmas or Easter? A case can be made for both. Without Christmas, there would be no Easter. Without Easter, Christmas really wouldn’t matter. Christ’s birth would be no more significant than our own. Easter is the event upon which Christianity is founded. No Easter, no message. No message, no church. No church, no organization dedicated to the spreading of the message.
All four gospel writers relate to us the Easter story, but today the discussion will primarily focus on Matthew’s account of the event.
Several things can be noted. One, Jesus was dead. The Roman Centurion, an expert in capital punishment who risked his own life if he messed up, made sure Jesus was dead. Jesus’ body was laid in an unused tomb. A stone was rolled in place and marked with a Roman seal to ensure the tomb remained undisturbed. At the urging of Jesus’ enemies, the Romans placed a guard at the tomb to prevent Jesus’ friends from stealing his body and falsely asserting he had risen from the dead. Jesus’ foes knew what was at stake, even if his closest friends didn’t. Jesus’ life was over. Finished. Done. Dead done.
Or was it? At least two of Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to pay their respects Easter Sunday only to discover the tomb was empty and Jesus was gone. They were informed by an angel that Jesus was no longer dead but that he was risen. The group was invited to observe the place he had been laid and then instructed to go and inform his disciples of this miraculous turn of events. On the way to deliver this earth-shattering news, they met Jesus who confirmed he was, indeed, alive.
A couple things bear noting. The official version of this event was that Jesus remained dead and his disciples came and stole his body while the soldiers slept. To the first-century mind, this seemed to be a credible explanation of the empty tomb. That explanation still resonates with many today because it is a known fact that people do not return from the dead. It just doesn’t happen. When a person dies, they are gone…for good.
Yet, this rationale is fraught with a serious problem: How does one explain a dead man being seen alive? Not just once, but numerous times over a span of 40 days. Not by just one or two people, but up to 500 at the same time. Perhaps dead people do return. Perhaps death is not as final as we are pressed to believe!
Thanks to Far Eastern religions and advocates of the New Age movement, there is a third approach to the question of life after death that is prevalent in our society. It is the belief that death ushers everyone’s non-personal spirit into the next level of life. That next level may see one advance or regress, depending upon the way this life has been lived. I mention this perspective of death and life only because many of our contemporaries have bought into its deceptive web.
A young girl raised in a culture that taught the existence of myriad gods and goddesses (name of religion and nation deliberately withheld), visited a Christian mission complex. While there, she learned of the one true God and his Son, Jesus, who came to earth, died on the cross, and rose again in order that she might have her sins forgiven and become a child of this God. That day, she became a follower of Jesus. Upon hearing of her conversion, the girl’s parents were less than thrilled. Confronting her, they demanded to know why she had forsaken her belief in the numerous deities in which she had been raised to believe. After all, being born into a family of means, she had been taken to temples and tombs of many of them. She responded, “I want to believe in the living one.”
Each of us has that same privilege; we can place our faith in the risen One and live in the confidence that he journeys with us through life. Such is not a wishful leap of blind faith. The idea that the dead do not return is not a question that science can answer. It is a question of philosophy and history. If there is a God (and there is ample evidence there is), there is no reason resurrection is an impossibility. Many historians and students of antiquity assert that the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested historical event of ancient history. That’s enough for us to believe that Jesus arose and that one day, we, too, shall return from the dead.