Death to Religion
You know, if you spend much time thinking about it, Christians believe some pretty weird stuff. Consider but a few examples: We believe whole bodies of water have parted down the middle so that some folks could walk from one side to the other on dry ground. I can think of four instances of that happening in the Scriptures off the top of my head. We believe that a metal axe head floated in a bucket of water. We believe the sun not only once stood still for several hours during a day, but actually moved backwards in the sky at one point. We believe that somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 people were fed starting with a few loaves of bread and a couple of small, salted fish. We believe a whole nation of people woke up every morning and found bread lying outside on the ground so they could eat…for forty years. We believe that during this forty-year period of time their sandals never wore out, nor did their feet swell up in spite of spending the whole time walking around in the desert. And just as a side note, can you imagine how much money a company could make if they sold sandals that came with a forty-year, never-wear-out-or-we-replace-them-for-free guarantee, and by the way, they’re comfortable and can be dyed to match everything? You could probably retire after a year of being in business.
Let’s add one more thing to our list for now: We believe dead people don’t always stay dead. And while the zombie genre is still pretty popular right now—although not quite as much as it was a few years ago—we don’t believe these folks were undead. We believe they were alive again. What’s more, we believe one of them—Jesus—didn’t simply gain His life back. He was resurrected to an entirely new life that will not end again. It is a life in which we ourselves can share if we will put our faith in Him. This is pretty incredible-sounding stuff. It’s no wonder some folks—including, perhaps, some of you guys—look at the Christian faith with a double heaping of skepticism.
Fortunately, you can become a follower of Jesus without believing in just about any of those things. That last one, though, the resurrection, is the exception. It is, ironically, not simply the hardest to believe, it is also the most important. It is the most important because it is the one miracle on which all the rest of them hang. If we can get this one down everything else will fall into place. Without it, none of it will. In light of all of this, when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there are two questions we must answer and which I think are the most important we could ask. These are questions that everybody asks about the resurrection even if they don’t realize they are. Their answers become clear in their response to them. This morning I want to take a look at these questions with you, and while you will probably be able to guess at what I think the correct answers are, the route we’re going to take to get there is one that perhaps you have never before taken. Are you curious yet what the questions are? When it comes to the resurrection, the two most important questions people must ask are these: Is it true? and Does it matter?
Let’s start with the first one. The simple fact of history is that people have been doubting, disbelieving, and working actively to undermine the credibility of the story of the resurrection since before it even happened. As a matter of fact, the very first such attempt is actually recorded for us. In Matthew 27, after Jesus died, He was buried—which is what you do with someone who has died, so that shouldn’t really be surprising to us at all. It is in what happens next, though, that things start to get interesting.
Listen first from Mark’s more-detailed-than-Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ burial in Mark 15:42 to give us a bit of a running start: “And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council [that is, the ruling political and religious council of the Jews that had condemned Jesus to death], who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God [and, as Matthew adds, was a disciple of Jesus], took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph.” Just as quick historical note, this really would have been incredible. For starters, people Rome crucified were not typically buried. Crucifixion was intended to be a crime deterrent. In order to get the maximum benefit out of the deterrent aspect of it, the bodies were often left on the cross until nothing but the bones were left. It was visual, graphic reminder that if you messed with Rome, you were going to lose and lose badly. Secondly, Jesus’ body would have been a mangled mess at this point. For an observant Jew who was part of the religious ruling council to risk becoming ceremonially unclean on the eve of the Sabbath was pretty bold. Third, given Joseph’s position and the perks that would have accompanied it, he had something to lose here. To risk losing his reputation and even possibly his wealth in this manner spoke volumes of his commitment to Jesus. For his part, Pilate was probably so surprised at the request (and possibly relieved that at least one Jew wanted to honor this man of whose innocence he was convinced) that he granted the request.
Continuing in v. 46: “And Joseph bought a linen shroud [often believed to be the famous Shroud of Turin], and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.” So, Joseph buried Jesus’ body, and sealed up the tomb all with some of the women who followed Jesus watching so they knew exactly where the tomb was. They need to know where it was because they were going to have to come back on Sunday morning to properly finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial since it was nearly the Sabbath now and all work would have to be stopped for 24 hours. That will be important later.
Once Jesus was buried, though, as I said, things got interesting. You see, Jesus had said several times that He was going to come back to life three days after He was killed. This wasn’t something He tried to keep as an inside secret either. Anybody who had paid much attention to what He said in the months immediately preceding His death knew about this claim. Here’s the funny part: The only group who really grasped what He might possibly have been talking about were the Jewish religious leaders. They understood what the disciples never did even though they didn’t actually believe it. Check this out in Matthew 27:62: “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember how that imposter said, while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise.” Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, “He has risen from the dead,” and the last fraud will be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.” If you have seen the movie Risen that came out last Easter, they capture this scene really well.
Think about this: The Pharisees were so afraid that the disciples might steal Jesus’ body and create an even bigger headache for them that they got Pilate to set a team of what were essentially Army Rangers to guard it and further to make opening the tomb a crime punishable by a painful death. They were the only people who seemed to really understand the kind of power news like that would have. The disciples sure didn’t. They were too busy hiding in locked rooms and worrying that Rome was going to arrest and crucify them too. And then their worst fears were confirmed. News reports began to surface that something had happened at the tomb and that Jesus’ body wasn’t in it anymore.
What happened was an angel dropped down on the stone and rolled it away, so badly scaring these battle-hardened soldiers whose lives literally depended on no one opening the tomb that they all passed out from fear. When they came to and realized the body was gone they went straight back to the Pharisees who had hired them. Matthew reports in 28:11 that “some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient (read: large) sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” This is why you’ve got to read your Bibles. You couldn’t make up this kind of stuff.
The Pharisees fabricated a story out of whole cloth to explain “what really happened” on the Sunday morning after the resurrection. What’s more, this was a story that, if anyone had given it much serious thought, wouldn’t have made any sense at all. Again, these soldiers knew that failure in their duty would result in the following punishment: Their spears would be shoved in the ground, they would be tied to their spears, and they would be burned alive. They would have never, ever fallen asleep on the job. They would have never, ever been bested by a bunch of fishermen from the boondocks who wanted to somehow steal the body either. The Pharisees just really didn’t want people to think Jesus had actually risen from the dead.
Following on their lead, folks have been trying to offer up alternative explanations as to what “really” happened ever since. Some have tried floating the idea that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. The historical record flatly contradicts that. Remember: Pilate was surprised when Joseph of Arimathea came to ask for Jesus’ body because he didn’t figure Jesus was dead yet. He sent a centurion to check and he reported back that, yes, Jesus was in fact dead. Had this professional executioner been wrong, Pilate would have likely had him put to death as punishment. The point is: Jesus was certifiably dead on the cross. Sure, these folks weren’t as scientifically literate as we are, but they were a whole lot more familiar with death. These soldiers’ livelihoods depended on their ability to know when someone was dead and when they weren’t. They didn’t miss this one.
Others have suggested that the disciples really did steal the body, but right here Matthew makes clear that wasn’t true. Still others have suggested it was all a mass hallucination. But, ignoring for the moment that there is no record of mass hallucinations on the scale of what would be required here having ever happened, this would suggest the disciples held out some sort of realizable hope that resurrection was even within the realm of possibility. All the available evidence, however, offers us exactly no confidence in this notion. Some have even suggested that the women went to the wrong tomb and got all excited for nothing. But, they were sitting there watching as Joseph had Him buried. For those of you who have experienced the heart-wrenching loss of someone you love, what do you think are the chances you could accidentally forget where they are buried? These women didn’t go to the wrong tomb. Give me a break. I’ve got some snake oil for you if you buy that. Look, the only folks who believe any of this kind of nonsense are the scholars who are too educated to recognize how dumb they are and the internet atheists who lap up their gruel with all the enthusiasm of a thirsty dog. It’s amazing how wanting something to be true allows us to find “evidence” for it in all kinds of places.
But this just brings us to an important question: Why would somebody do this? Why would folks invest so much time and energy into arguing against something like this? And why stick with it for 2,000 years when it should be obvious their efforts have failed and failed badly?
You know, it’s funny. One of the criticisms often leveled against the disciples is that they concocted the whole resurrection story as a way to make a power play on the unsuspecting religious dupes of their time. That’s certainly the charge Dan Brown levels against them in his thoroughly debunked best seller, The Da Vinci Code. After all, there’s no power quite so strong as religious power, and they wanted that power for themselves. They found in the story of Jesus a perfect device for delivering to themselves all of it they could handle and then some. That’s the story. Here’s the irony of it: The truth is just the opposite. It is the folks who have argued against the resurrection who have been the most concerned with preserving and enhancing their religious power over the lives of others. This is evidently true in the case of the Jewish religious authorities as Matthew makes clear in the text we’ve looked at just this morning. But this is even true of the secularists and adherents to other religious traditions who argue against it today.
Here’s why: If the resurrection isn’t true, one of two other things is. Either there is still life after this one, we just don’t know for sure what it’s like; or, there is no life after this one. In both of these instances, it is the priests (secular or alternatively religious) who have the power. They have the sacred knowledge we need in order to live our lives as productively, happily, contentedly as they tell us is possible. We are dependent upon them in order to have it. If the resurrection isn’t true, then they have all the power. We need to know what they have, but they aren’t going to give it unless we check off their boxes. That’s power. And they don’t want to relinquish that.
In other words, and to answer our first question, yes, the resurrection really did happen. It is indeed true, and all the evidence points in that direction. It is an evidentially-verifiable, historical event. We still have to make the jump to the miraculous to buy it fully as no one actually watched Jesus walk out of the tomb, but the fact pattern points powerfully in that direction. Think about it: Jesus really was dead on Friday. The tomb really was empty on Sunday morning. The disciples didn’t steal the body. The women didn’t go to the wrong tomb. The disciples did do a complete 180 from where they were before the resurrection. More than 500 people reported having encountered the resurrected Jesus. And to top it all off, countless millions of people have and can testify that their lives have been irrevocably transformed by this news. The obvious conclusion is that it’s all true. In answering our first question, though, the path we have taken to reach that conclusion has shed some light on the answer to the second question: Does it matter?
Let me answer that question like this: A few years before he died, atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote a book entitled, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His basic contention—pretty clear from the title—is that religion is at the heart of all the world’s problems. If we could get rid of religion, the world would be a much better place. Hitchens was an interesting guy who pretty dramatically overstated his case in the book. But…in one sense, he’s not totally wrong in his argument. Religion as many people have been trained to think about it could be summarized like this: A set of arcane rules guarded by a class of priests who are the keepers of sacred scriptures which promise extravagant rewards for the faithful that are only accessible by keeping all the rules and properly performing a set of complex, inscrutable rituals which are themselves little more than acts of blind devotion. Oh, and your attitude toward outsiders must be one of at best, apathetic indifference, but more accurately of open hostility. If that’s what we are to understand religion to be (and hear me well: while I don’t think that’s the case all the time, it is the case some of the time), then Hitchens was right. Religion does poison everything. It has been the source of more heartache and conflict than pretty much anything else—particularly in the last 20 years. Nearly all the violence happening around the world today stems from the misuse of the power of religion over the lives of its adherents. (And, by the way, just so we’re clear: Atheism—particularly institutionalized atheism the likes of which was in force in Soviet Russia—acts as a kind of religion.) What’s more, religion wants to have that power. It doesn’t want to let go of that power. Anything that threatens it is a cancer that must be rooted out and destroyed.
This, then, is a huge part of the power and importance of the resurrection: It breaks the power of religion over us. No longer are we stuck under the thumb of some version of a system that says we must do this or that in order to enjoy the best life we possibly can. We can live free and have a direct path to that life that no one else can touch. The resurrection kills the power of religion. What it offers us instead is the beauty of a relationship. The resurrection kills religion and opens the door for relationship.
Now, there are lots of places in the New Testament that point to this powerful conclusion. There is one, though, that is particularly poignant in its demonstration of the power of the resurrection in a situation whose relevance seems to increase by the day. In 1 Peter, the great apostle makes a case for what it should look like to live as a follower of Jesus in a culture that doesn’t have much of a place for such folks. Whether you think it is a good and deserved thing or something to bewail and bemoan, I think we can all agree that it is increasingly unpopular and in some cases even illegal to be a practicing, orthodox, follower of Jesus in modern American culture. It may not cost you your life, but it has cost several high profile people their jobs and livelihoods. Make no mistake: We’re still a fair sight better off than the rest of the world, but we’re also a fair sight worse off than we used to be. The point is that the number of similarities between our situation and the situation of Peter’s audience are many. Thus, his words are worth our special consideration.
Listen to what he says in 1 Peter 3:18. We’ll start a few verses back so we can take in some of the context, and I’m going to read this from The Message, because I think it really captures well the importance of Peter’s words in terms of understanding the importance of the resurrection. From 1 Peter 3:13: “If with heart and soul you’re doing good, do you think you can be stopped?” Think about that. If you’re really committed to doing good, to living out the lifestyle the resurrection of Jesus commends to us, do you really think anybody can stop you? No way! They may oppose you; you may suffer for it, but nobody can stop you. They can’t stop you because you can just respond to their evil with more goodness. You win. Keep reading: “Even if you suffer for it, you’re still better off. Don’t give the opposition a second thought. Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick. [And I love this next part.] They’ll end up realizing that they’re the ones who need a bath.” No matter the arguments folks may try to construct against the resurrection; no matter the opposition the various forces of religion in this world—secular or otherwise—bring to bear against you for challenging their power by insisting on it, keep your eyes on Christ. If indeed He rose from the dead—and He did indeed rise from the dead—then their attacks will ultimately fail. They can’t stop you, try as they might. The power of your new master is greater than anything they have to offer. Respond with conviction and charity, make sure that you are blameless, and again, their attacks will fail. They will fail because their power—religion—has been broken. The resurrection kills religion.
But what else does it do? Look at where Peter goes next: “It’s better to suffer for doing good, if that’s what God wants, than to be punished for doing bad. That’s what Christ did definitively: suffered because of others’ sins, the Righteous One for the unrighteous ones. He went through it all—was put to death and then made alive [that is, resurrected]…” why? Read that last part with me: “To bring us to God.”
Jesus died and rose to bring us to God. Jesus died and rose to bring you to God. This is the power of the resurrection for us: It breaks the power of religion over us by making it possible for us to be in a direct relationship with God rather than having to go through some religious intermediary. You don’t need anyone or anything to mediate your connection to God. You don’t have to jump through any hoops. You don’t have to perform any special rituals or make any special offerings. You don’t need to sell everything you have or pass a secret test in order to gain some sacred knowledge. You don’t have to wait on a priest who only wants to control you. The resurrection made all of that unnecessary. The resurrection kills religion and opens the door for relationship. You can get to God simply by going to Jesus…who is God. He’s God and He died and rose again to be in a relationship with you.
The significance and importance of the resurrection are vast. There’s a reason there are basically eight weeks out of the year that the church has historically set aside to first prepare for celebrating it and then actually celebrating it. It literally changed the course of history. It is impossible to imagine what things would have looked like without it. But of all the things it accomplished, the single most important is this: It makes it possible for you to be in a relationship with God. This is the God who created you, who loves you, who will never leave you nor forsake you, who is committed to your good, who can bring beauty out of every tragedy you face—even the ones you cause, who can restore what is broken in you, who has an incredible plan for you, who engineered the entire cosmos so that you could live your life to the fullest, and who, yes, died and rose again to make it all possible. Religion has never offered anything even remotely resembling that. All it offers is power for a few so they can control the many. All it offers is rules, not relationship. The resurrection kills religion and opens the door to relationship—a relationship I would very much encourage you to check out. You’ll be glad you did.