Faith Rooted in Fact
We are nearly 2000 years removed from Jesus’ resurrection. Given that significant gap in time and culture, it can be easy to lose touch with what it was like for early believers. We live in a world and culture where Jesus’ bodily resurrection is celebrated annually, where even those who don’t believe it are at least used to the idea. Jesus’ resurrection has even, in western culture, turned into a secular holiday, albeit one increasingly detached from the event that created it.
The reality is that the first believers, the disciples and first generation church, lived in a world both closer to the event (and the evidence) , and more skeptical of the claim. Despite the temptation for those of us alive today to think ancient humanity more naive (or worse), living a long time ago doesn’t automatically make someone stupid. The reality is, ancient people knew just as well as modern people that the dead do not return to life. After all, one hardly needs sophisticated technology or a well developed scientific method to confirm this. The permanence of death was a fact that life itself taught everyone. For them, to believe in Jesus’ resurrection was to believe in something that had never been done by anyone - ever.
And though we can easily take it for granted, the early Christian writings reflect this worldview. The fact that the stories of Jesus resurrection were so often retold and so carefully preserved serve to prove the point. Here was an event no one, not even Jesus’ closest followers either anticipated or expected - for the very simple reason that they knew it to be impossible. They knew, as did everyone else, that if the dead could be raised, then something fundamental about reality had been changed. And this is exactly what they claimed. Something that had never happened, and never could happen, just did. And now nothing will ever be the same again. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul writes explicitly about the world and reality altering implications of the resurrection.
But while the first believers had a tougher task, they also were closer to the evidence. There actually was an empty tomb - and if you lived in Jerusalem, it wasn’t hard to find. Additionally, for a generation afterward, there were hundreds of actual eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus. In fact, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, aware of the magnitude of his claims, Paul reminds his audience of exactly this (15.3-8). Now for us 2000 years later, that is an interesting note, but for Paul it is something very different. Paul himself notes that most of these witnesses are still alive (15.6). In other words, if you finds Paul’s claim incredible - you don’t need to take his word for it. There are others, alive now, that can confirm it.
The early Christians believed, not because they were naive or easily persuaded of the impossible, but because there was good reason. There was both an empty tomb and living eyewitness - and both could be found if one was willing to look. And as Paul would I am sure remind us, we ourselves, 2000 years later, are heirs of that same tradition (15.3). We too believe not out of willful blindness to reason and the evidence, but because of it. Like Paul, ours is a faith rooted in historical fact.