This reflection series, “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:
In Mark 16, what Jesus had been promising all along had finally come true. The stone was rolled away and what he foretold would happen actually happened. He was risen. He was the Christ. He was who he said he was.
If, that is, you believe the Gospel account.
What happened on that third day is amazing, yet for many, impossible to believe. The idea that Jesus could resurrect himself and then appear for forty days teaching, speaking, eating and living in human form seems like a myth or fairytale: fun to talk about but foolish to have faith in.
The world we live in simply does not work that way. When we die, we die. But if you read the Gospel of Mark for fifteen chapters before reaching that final sixteenth chapter, you will have already encountered a Jesus who claims to be removed from this life and beyond our understanding of it. Throughout each of the four gospels Jesus consistently tells us that he is “The Life.”
Initial reactions to the resurrection often take two forms, one from the side of belief and the other from non-belief. Both are incorrect in their foundations.
For many Christians, the reading of the Passion narrative, ending in the empty tomb, is a tradition to honor and a story to recite. Reading about the Resurrection is similar to watching the end of “Sleeping Beauty.” How nice, we think, how romantic. Wouldn’t it be nice if life were really like that?
To my knowledge, no one has ever finished watching “Sleeping Beauty” saying, “Isn’t it great that that happened! How amazing! I wish I could have been there to see it!” If someone were to react that way, we would respond to them in judgmental, sympathetic and annoyed disbelief. We all know that “Sleeping Beauty” is a fairytale and we end the discussion there. We aren’t wrong for doing so, because we know that the story doesn’t claim to be true and to change our lives forever. It’s a story. That’s it.
There are many self-professing Christians who read Mark 16 in the same way they watch “Sleeping Beauty.” They read the story and feel nice and warm inside, but it never transcends the pages to impact their real lives. The purpose of “Sleeping Beauty” is to entertain, to tell a made-up story. The Gospels are different: they proclaim truth and promise change. The apostle Paul confronts this attitude in 1 Corinthians 15, telling is that if the tomb wasn’t actually empty, if the Resurrection did not occur in fact, then everything we do as Christians is not only without purpose but is harmful, foolish and pitiful. Living life under the belief that “Sleeping Beauty” is a true story would be something to be ashamed of, not proud. No one, at least to my knowledge, has faced death joyfully professing confidence in the story of “Sleeping Beauty.” Yet thousands, including eleven of the twelve original disciples of Jesus Christ, have died full of joy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the story of the empty tomb.
Somehow, belief in the cross is easier than belief in the empty tomb. However, to stop at the cross makes the life of Jesus the story of a failed and dishonest teacher that does not deserve our attention or worship. There are many other teachers and wise men throughout history who did not make the outrageous claims of deity that Jesus did, and if he were not actually who he said he was we could follow the teachings of any one of them. However, to believe in the empty tomb means to acknowledge the life of Jesus Christ as he proclaimed it. He called himself “the way, the truth, the life,” even “the resurrection and the life,” and to believe in Jesus Christ means to believe in life beyond the tomb.
For non-believers, the main difficulty in believing in the empty tomb originates with distrust in the Gospels. This distrust which I myself displayed for many years comes from ignorance in the facts behind the four Gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Non-believers see the Gospels as simply legends that were written many years after Jesus died, and the stories, including the Resurrection, came out of the desire to create a version of Jesus that was more what the writers wanted him to be and less what he actually claimed to be.
If one takes this view of the Gospels, we have to ask several questions. First, when were the Gospels written? Given the span of time separating the death of Jesus and the first account of the Gospels, was there sufficient time for “myth” or “legend” to arise? What would be the motivation for the writers to write such an account the way they did? Lastly, what if any incentive would there be in doing that for them personally?
First up is the issue of time. According to the most current historical and archaeological research, the general consensus is that they were written much closer to the life of Jesus than what most people believe. Since we are focusing on the Gospel of Mark it is sensible to discuss the most widely accepted view in its original date of composition.
Most scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written close to 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. For those of us outside the historical evidence arena, this might still seem like a long time passed beyond the actual events being recorded. However, when we look at the written accounts of prominent historical figures, like Alexander the Great, we find that the earliest account of his life was written close to 300 years after Alexander’s death. Yet, we believe that Alexander the Great lived and did the things we are taught he did. 1 Corinthians 15 has Paul receiving the story of Jesus– living, teaching, being crucified and rising from the dead on the third day– within five years of the crucifixion. Five years! In the historical context, that is barely a moment. To recount stories with accuracy given such a short period of elapsed time between the actual events and the recording of them is more than plausible.
Secondly, we must consider motivation and incentive. How would writing the Gospels affect the lives of the authors as individuals? Some imagine 21st century televangelists with white-toothed smiles and expensive suits, lining his pockets. From this perspective, the motivation to write these stories would be to materially benefit their own lives. But this is to completely neglect the realities of their world. For these men, to identify as a Christian was a death sentence.
To be Christian during the time when the Gospels were written meant to be threatened from all sides. Due to the horrifying persecution from men like Nero or Diocletian, Christians were motivated to construct the catacombs in Rome and the tunnel dwellings of Cappadocia, where they could feel at least a small sense of security in their worship and Christian lives. It is in this environment that the Gospel writers wrote their “stories.”
Not only were they heavily judged and persecuted outside of Israel, they were also fought from within as their Jewish brethren attempted for years to squelch the worship of Jesus Christ. Eventually one of the most notable preachers of the Gospel, Paul started as a prominent persecutor of the church. We now know through the historical records that all but one disciple of Jesus were executed for their belief and continued support of the Christian church and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
By writing the Gospels, these people were literally risking their lives, and many lost their lives.
No matter who you are, your life will be defined by what you believe about the empty tomb. Those who believe will understand that not even death is to be feared. Those who do not see this world as all there really is. The power of the Resurrection of Jesus is there for everyone to see and find, but the question to each person is, do you want to find it?