Of course the Greeks laughed. Their poets, whose writings had the status of ‘holy writ’, said, ‘When the dust has drained the blood of a man, once he is slain, there is no resurrection’. ‘There is no resurrection’ is also what some of the Greek Christians in Corinth were saying, prompting Paul to write his majestic fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth.
The laughter in Athens and the disbelief in Corinth are understandable. Why is that? It’s because the words ‘resurrection of the dead’ literally mean, ‘The standing up of corpses’. If there is one thing a corpse doesn’t do is ‘stand up’. A corpse is a dead person and death means the total absence of life and the power to ‘stand up’.
So, corpses don’t stand up. Greeks laughed then and their modern counterparts also laugh. Greeks, however, did believe in the survival of the soul. That seems a better idea, really. It lets you have it both ways. The dead are dead and corpses don’t stand up, but the idea of the ‘me-within-me’ lives on seems helpful. Some of the Corinthian Christians who disbelieved that corpses stand up most likely did believe that the souls of the departed did survive. Maybe many church people today are like those resurrection disbelievers in Corinth. Corpses don’t stand up but the soul lives on.
We can understand that those Athenians laughed at the Jew Paul. Corpses don’t stand up. No one had ever seen a corpse stand up. Athenian scholars would have heard that Jews believed that at the end of history that corpses would stand up, that is, all corpses. But here is this strange man Paul saying that the corpse of a man did stand up, and just a few years ago, in Jerusalem. So they laughed him out of the assembly.
Wherever he went this Paul announced that his Master had been crucified by the Romans but resurrected by the Almighty, the Creator of the universe. Nothing else and no one else is powerful enough to make a corpse stand up. We know about the awesome power of volcanos that shut down airlines and tsunamis, earthquakes and cyclones that smash buildings and destroy lives. We know about the amazing acts of man that create massive A380s and huge cruise ships and electronic wizardry. But neither the forces of nature nor the genius of man enables a corpse to stand up. It doesn’t matter whether it is the corpse of the world’s richest or the world’s poorest, it doesn’t stand up. From the dust it was taken and to the dust it will return.
Except for one man, just one man, the Messiah Jesus. Like the Athenian philosophers who laughed there are many theologians who maybe don’t laugh but at least smile at the idea. Their problem is really that they don’t hold with the idea of the Almighty Creator. Rather they think of ‘God’ (or god) as the human spirit or inner light. It follows that the resurrection of Jesus must be reinterpreted away from the literal to the figurative, from the objective to the subjective. Somehow the spirit of Jesus came alive in them as they remembered him. His resurrection was ‘in’ them and he continued to be ‘real’ to them.
But this ‘explanation’ ignores several stubborn facts. The first is that the tomb in which the dead Jesus was placed was empty when the women came early on the first day of the week. Each of the four gospels establishes with absolute clarity that the body of the deceased Jesus was gone. Likewise the earliest Jerusalem tradition that Paul passed on to the Corinthians, that Christ died, was buried, was raised, appeared alive to many hundreds. It does not say the tomb was empty but presupposes it was empty: ‘he was buried [in the tomb]’, ‘he was raised’.
So who took the corpse of Jesus from Joseph’s tomb and why? Grave robbers? But there was nothing to steal and why take a corpse somewhere else. The Roman or Jewish authorities? But they would have produced the body when the disciples began preaching the resurrection. Disciples? But they scoffed at the reports of the women that the tomb was empty.
Then there is the easily neglected detail that John records, that the linen wrapping was in the tomb. An eminent medico pointed out that nobody removing a wrapped corpse would unwrap it, bloodied and scarred as it was, but leave the wrappings in place and remove it still wrapped. But the wrappings were in the tomb.
Another stubborn fact is the witness of the independently written gospels Luke and John. Both these gospels narrate in extensive detail that Jesus came amongst the disciples physically, as ‘a corpse who stood up’. He walked along the Emmaus road with two men and talked with them and later ate with them. That night he came to the band of disciples and ate with them. John records that Jesus showed them his hands and feet that had been pierced in crucifixion. A week later the disbelieving Thomas was confronted with the bodily resurrected Jesus and forthwith confessed him as his ‘Lord and God’.
In fact, the entire New Testament, whether gospels or letters, insist that Jesus was raised alive from the dead, raised bodily, that God made the corpse of his Son ‘stand up’.
Two final thoughts. There are a number of facts that define our faith so that to doubt or reject them would place us outside the boundaries of that faith, facts like the historic incarnation of the Son of God through virginal conception, his miracles and teaching, his sacrificial death as the ‘Lamb of God’ who bore the sin of the world and his bodily resurrection. As the hymn says,
These are the facts as we have received them,
these are the facts that the Christian believes.
This is the basis of all of our preaching:
Christ died for sinners and rose from the tomb.
That, as they say, says it all.
Secondly, God’s raising of his Son is the potent sign that God is the victor over the Devil and human wickedness and the most profound basis for our hope that in the face of the last enemy death and of every lesser enemy we will be more than conquerors through him who loved us.
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.