But on the first day of the week, the eleven apostles were scarcely able to contain their excitement any longer. The glorious day had arrived! So at early dawn, accompanied by the women and all the other followers of Jesus, they made a triumphant procession to the tomb, singing hymns and songs of thanksgiving. (This caused great wonder among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and because of the disciples’ changed lives, many found the Lord that day.) When they arrived at the tomb, they found the stone rolled away just as they expected, but when they went in they did not find Jesus there. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. As the others admired the appearance of the angels, Peter asked them, “O holy angels of God, we know that Jesus has risen from the dead. But why is he not here to greet us?” The men answered him, saying, “Congratulations on remembering what he had taught you back in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise. But why do you seek Jesus in a musty old tomb?”
And so, realizing their mistake, they went to meet Jesus at a more suitable place.
—Luke 24:1-11, Reversed Fractured Version
If that is how the gospel read, I would not be inclined to believe the resurrection story. I would think that it was a pious fable that the church had inserted into the gospels at a later date. Fortunately, the passage reads as follows:
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
—Luke 24:1-11, NIV
I would like you to notice a few things about this passage, which make it very believable:
- The disciples did not have enough faith in Jesus’ teachings to even check out the tomb to see if He had risen from the dead. They were satisfied that the whole story was over.
- The women expected to find a corpse in a tomb.
- When they arrived at the tomb, the stone had already been rolled away and the body was missing. Their immediate reaction was confusion about what had happened.
- When they saw the angels, they were terrified.
- They did not remember Jesus’ teaching about His resurrection until they were reminded about it by an angelic delegation.
- When they rushed back to take the news to the apostles, no one was inclined to believe their story.
To me, these features make the story very credible. If I had followed some rabbi all over Palestine who was later sentenced to death for blasphemy by the religious authorities and had been crucified before my very eyes, my first reaction would be severe disappointment and disillusionment. I would not expect to see him alive again, no matter what he had taught. If he had been buried right before the onset of the Sabbath, and I visited his tomb at first light after the Sabbath, I would expect to find everything unchanged. I would also be completely puzzled with the stone, since no one could have rolled it away without conspicuously violating the Sabbath. I would be severely confused if in addition to that the body were missing. If I were under any circumstances confronted by a vision of angels, especially if other people with me saw the angels too, I would be terrified out of my skin! And then, if I had been one of the apostles who had stayed behind, lost in the depths of mourning, and someone had come back from the tomb with incoherent talk about a resurrection, I would have dismissed it as hysteria.
The New Testament accounts of the resurrection do not read like myths or fairy tales or pious fables; they are incredibly true to life. When I read them, I am impressed with how the people reacted to events exactly as I would have. I’m even more impressed when I realize that this account was written so long ago! J. B. Phillips said that translating the New Testament was like rewiring a house while the electricity is still on. Every once in while you hit a live wire and get a heavy jolt. I can see what he means: passages like these have got a lot of juice in them, and I am not sure if my reaction is joy or terror at the dimensions of what I have gotten myself into.