I can honestly say that I've staked my life on an empty tomb. Everything I am, everything I own, everything I've done or hope to do hang suspended on whether or not Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.
The decision I made decades ago to put my trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is only as good as the tomb is empty. The decision I made to pursue ministry rather than some other career path was wise only so far as the tomb is empty. My decision to attend theological seminary, pursue doctoral studies, and to launch Enjoying God Ministries, was vain and futile and downright stupid if the tomb wasn't empty.
Whom I married was dictated by whether or not the tomb was empty, for I would only have married someone who herself had staked everything on an empty tomb. How we have chosen to raise our children was shaped and formed by values that make sense only if the tomb was empty.
If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, my life is a sham. I've invested everything in, staked everything on, entrusted everything to the historical fact of the empty tomb of Jesus. If his body and bones are still buried somewhere in Palestine, or have long since disintegrated under the force of time and the laws of physics, nothing has meaning for me, nor do I have meaning for anything or anyone else.
So, what if Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead? Have I overstated my case? Am I guilty of being melodramatic and hyperbolic in my declaration of faith in the empty tomb of Jesus?
A number of years ago a group of distinguished historians amused themselves by writing a book entitled, "If, or, History Re-written." Some of the "ifs" they discussed were: "What if Lee had not lost the battle of Gettysburg?", "What if the Moors in Spain had won?", "What if Booth had missed Lincoln?", "What if Napoleon had escaped to America?" The attempt to reconstruct and re-conceive history on the basis of such hypotheses is both fun and fascinating. But there is yet one more "what if" of a more serious and eternal character: What if Jesus Christ did not rise from the grave?
Consider the impact of this on the life of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. After preaching his sermon to the religious leaders of Israel, we read in Acts 7:55-60, "But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.' But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep."
If Christ is not risen, we would be forced to conclude that Stephen suffered from a martyr's complex, that he was seeking death for self-glorification, and that coupled with the intensity of the moment he hallucinated a vision of what he thought was the resurrected and exalted Christ.
Or consider the case of the apostle Paul, who stood by while Stephen was stoned and only days later himself set eyes upon, at least what he thought was, the risen Jesus. We read of his experience in Acts 9:3-6, "Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' And he said, 'Who are you, Lord?' And he said, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.'"
If Christ is not risen, we would have to agree with the liberal critics who explain Paul's experience in terms of physical and psychological stress. Paul, so they tell us, had been touched by the steadfast faith of the Christians whom he persecuted; he was deeply moved by the grandeur of Stephen's death; he had begun to have doubts within himself. Sick in body, distracted in mind, smitten by the sun or the lightning of some sudden thunderstorm, he too, in his delirium, hallucinated a vision of one he thought to be Jesus Christ.
One more example is John the apostle. His vision of the risen and glorified Christ is found in Revelation 1:12-18. But if what if Christ is not risen? We would again be forced to conclude that John, now an old and perhaps senile man, was distraught by the deaths of his fellow apostles. He alone, of the original twelve, was left, exiled and abandoned on a lonely and deserted island. He too, like Stephen and Paul before him, fantasized a vision of the resurrected savior. Such, in the case of these three men, is what we must conclude if Christ is not risen.
Over the next few days, as we approach Easter Sunday, I want to answer this question: What if Christ is not risen? My purpose isn't to provide evidence for the empty tomb, but to explore the theological and personal consequences of a tomb that still contains the physical remains of Jesus. I trust you will agree with me that if the tomb was not empty, if the body and bones of Jesus are embedded somewhere in the earth, we are of all men most to be pitied.
To be continued . . .