What If …?
by General Paul A. Rader –
What if the guards at the tomb told the truth: Jesus’ crucified body had been stolen by overzealous disciples and the truth never revealed to their naive fellow believers (Matthew 28:11-15)?
What if the supposed appearances of Jesus to his disciples, showing himself alive “by many convincing proofs” over that remarkable period of a month and more following the traumatic days of his arrest, trial and public execution, as Jesus’ physician friend Luke claimed to remember it (Acts 1:3 NRSV)–what if it was just a dream?
What if the disciples’ inability to cope with their shattered hopes had created in their minds (on one occasion in 500 of their minds and all at once, to be sure! [1 Corinthians 15:6]) the illusion that Jesus had returned to them in physical form, claiming to have been resurrected from the dead?
“I am the resurrection and the life,” he had said.
Now he would prove it.
What if his very practiced and ruthless executioners were deceived? He never really died after the tortuous hours endured in measureless agony on the cross. They thought him dead and certified his death, even electing not to break his legs, as was the practice, because they confirmed him already dead (John 19:33-35). But what if they were wrong? And what if Jesus, miraculously recovered from his ordeal (like the amazing comeback of a supposedly doomed hero in a movie thriller), made his appearances to his erstwhile followers, who in any case were so paralyzed by fear and stricken by grief that they could not believe their own senses? What if he even ate a bit of broiled fish in their presence to complete the illusion and deceive those who had trusted him? “Do you have anything to eat? (Luke 24:41-42). Watch this!” And he eats it to their amazement.
What if the Roman procurator himself had been deceived? He said he found no fault in Jesus (John 19:4,6) but what if Jesus had planned all along to dupe his loyal disciples into believing him to be the victor over death, finally fleeing away to somewhere in the Himalayas to live out his days in obscurity–his body never recovered? His unmarked grave never found?
What if it was all a dream? The grave clothes discovered by Peter as if his body had simply evaporated (John 20:6-7)? That memorable early morning encounter with Peter and his friends on the shores of Galilee (John 21)? Even Thomas’ sensation of pressing reluctant fingers into the very wounds of Jesus’ hands and side, until a confession was wrenched from his cynical soul: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28). What if it was just in their minds–or even their hearts. And though Jesus clearly trusted the women as credible witnesses to his resurrection (Matt. 28:7, 10), surely we can be excused for entertaining some doubt as to the veracity of their claims to have seen him alive, as the men did that morning (Luke 24:9-11). It would take Pentecost to persuade them of what Jesus already knew, that women were to be trusted with the very words of life (Acts 2:17). But what if…?
“It is the world’s blackest assumption!” averred the great pulpiteer, R.G. Lee. “If Christ has not been raised,” declared the Apostle Paul in his remarkable resurrection credo, “preaching is an empty sham and faith has no solid ground. Even the most eminent of Gospel witnesses is guilty of shameless perjury. For there can be no question: this was their consistent testimony. It was the defining affirmation of the apostles and the early Church. It was certainly not a side issue, subject to the opinions of each individual. This was the central theme–an inescapable, incontrovertible, indispensable fact: Christ is risen from the dead. To this they bore courageous and confident witness, sometimes sealing their testimony with their blood! And still there are many who would rather die than deny its reality. “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” This is the Easter morning declaration of 1.6 billion believers in every nation of earth to this very day.
As the Church was exploding upon the world in Pentecostal passion, Peter proclaimed: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:23-24) The beleaguered Paul, transformed by his encounter with Christ alive, from persecutor to bold proclaimer of the resurrection reality, when called before the Jewish High Court, the Sanhedrin, maintained, “I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.” (Acts 23:6)
Bereft of that hope, he later averred, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19 NRSV). For without his resurrection our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death…[For] the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Rom. 8:1-2,11 NRSV).
Doubt it if you will. The consequence is a gutted Gospel, powerless to offer the peace of God or the possibility of transformed lives. And a never-ending stream of witnesses will rise up joyfully and irrepressibly to declare with the Apostle: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!” (1 Corinthians 15:20 NRSV). We heard the thousands of believers crowded into the Beijing church on an Easter morning sing it: “I know that he is living whatever men may say. He lives, Christ Jesus lives today. You ask me how I know he lives; he lives within my heart!” Fifty years of determined denial had not quenched the fire of their faith.
Because Christ is now risen from the dead, we live in the “now” of God’s salvation–the day of his grace and favor (2 Corinthians 6:1-2). His presence can be real to us. His power can be released within us, by faith. It is that same power God “exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Ephesians 1:18-20). It is available to us now by faith, because Jesus is alive.
So many of us are boxed in by circumstances. We are paralyzed by the impossibility of our situation. We have long since exhausted our options. Anger and resentment are eating us alive. We are in the grip of a “fatal attraction.” Addictive behaviors are sapping our strength and destroying our will to freedom. We have slipped into a sour-souled cynicism. Why dream any longer of what cannot be? There is no way out. No hope. But now hope lives again in Jesus. Christ is now risen from the dead! The power that burst the bonds that held him and broke open his tomb to the brilliant light of an Easter morning can open again the airless grave where your dreams have been entombed.