Dead or Alive?
By David Feddes
If you’ve been asking yourself whether Christianity is something you should take seriously, it all comes down to one question: Is Jesus Christ dead or alive? You may have other questions about the Christian faith, but those questions can wait. First make up your mind whether Jesus is dead or alive. If you conclude he’s dead, you won’t need to bother with other questions; you can forget about Christianity altogether. But if you conclude that Jesus is alive, you’ll want to be a Christian, no matter what your other questions might be.
Sometimes we make things more complicated than they really are, but this isn’t complicated at all. At this very moment Jesus Christ is either powerful and alive in an immortal resurrection body, or else he’s nothing but dust. If Jesus is alive, you’d be a fool not to become a Christian. If he’s dead, you’re a fool if you are a Christian. It’s that simple.
Perhaps this isn’t the way you think of religion. You may think in terms of opinions and feelings, not physical facts. You may say things like, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere about it” or “What you believe is true for you, and what I believe is true for me.” But the truth is this: if the resurrection didn’t happen, if Jesus is dead and his body is decayed, then Christianity is a lie—it’s not true for you or for me or for anyone else. It’s not a question of feelings; it’s a question of fact. If Jesus isn’t alive, you can have all the feelings and opinions you want, but it won’t change the fact that Jesus is dead and Christian faith is worthless.
Unlike what some religions offer, Christianity isn’t just spiritual; it’s also physical. Christians believe that God became flesh in the person of a Jew named Jesus. We believe that after Jesus was tortured and executed and buried, his dead body was raised to life again by the power of God. We believe that certain women spoke with him and even touched him after his resurrection, that the risen Christ spoke with his disciples, that he broke bread with them and even ate broiled fish with them. We believe that today Jesus is physically present in heaven in his immortal resurrection body, and that he will some day return to earth visibly to raise and transform the bodies of all his people and to judge the world. These are definite, physical claims, and if they’re not true, the Christian faith doesn’t deserve your attention. In 1 Corinthians 15, one of the landmark chapters of the Bible, the apostle Paul writes:
If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
What Difference Does It Make?
What difference does it make if Jesus is dead or alive? Let’s consider four things, each starting with the letter F: foundation, forgiveness, future, and fulfillment.
The foundation of Christian faith depends on Jesus’ resurrection. If Christ has not been raised, Christianity has no solid ground to stand on. If Christ is dead, the apostles were liars, and the New Testament belongs in the garbage. If Christ is dead, the apostles would be false witnesses about God, for they “testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead,” which is a lie if it never really happened. And if the apostles are liars, it means that the New Testament itself is a web of lies, since it is the written record of the apostles’ testimony.
If Christ has not been raised, then the founder of Christianity, Jesus himself, was a liar—or somewhat of a lunatic. After all, Jesus claimed to be equal with God. He predicted that he would die for the sins of his people and then be raised again by the power of God. Obviously, if Jesus didn’t overcome death, he was wrong and wasn’t God at all. In that case, this man who claimed to be God was either a deceiver or else someone who wasn’t in his right mind. Either way, it would be foolish to pay any attention to him.
However, if Jesus has been raised, if he’s alive right now, then the situation is completely reversed: the foundations of Christianity are firm and immovable. If Jesus has been raised, then he was and is exactly who he claimed to be—the almighty Son of God. What’s more, his hand-picked apostles who testified as eyewitnesses to his resurrection are trustworthy, and we should believe every word God inspired them to write. If Jesus is alive then the New Testament is rock-solid and reliable, for it bears testimony to the triumphant Christ.
Dead or alive? If Christ is dead, our faith is without foundation, but if he’s alive, it means that Jesus is God, confirms that the Bible is true, and gives Christian faith a foundation that cannot be destroyed.
The forgiveness of Christians depends on Jesus’ resurrection. “If Christ has not been raised,” says Paul, “your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” No resurrection, no forgiveness. You see, if Jesus was not raised, then God did not accept the death of Jesus as a sufficient sacrifice that paid for the sins of the world. If God didn’t raise Jesus, then the death of that carpenter-turned-rabbi was just a sad case of a man getting himself killed and accomplishing nothing.
But if God did raise Jesus, he was showing that he accepted Jesus’ death as the sacrifice and final payment for sin and that he forgives everyone who belongs to Jesus. The Bible says, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25). God’s forgiveness of Christians is real only if the risen body of Jesus is real.
Dead or alive? If Christ is dead, faith in him does not bring forgiveness, but if he’s alive, then Jesus is the way to be forgiven from sin and made right with God—the only way.
The future of Christians depends on Jesus’ resurrection. If Christ has not been raised, Christians have no future. “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost,” says Paul. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” Christians believe our bodies will be raised and live forever because we believe Christ arose and lives forever. But, if Christ didn’t rise, then Christians won’t rise. Once they die, they will stay dead, just like the mixed-up teacher they believed in. If that’s the case, says Paul, Christians are the most self-deceived, pitiable fools around—feel sorry for them if you like, but don’t become one.
On the other hand, if Jesus has been raised in a glorified resurrection body, then those who have gone to their graves trusting in him will also be raised to everlasting life. Death is not the end of the story. Life has conquered death, and the followers of Jesus can look forward to a splendid future. They will enjoy eternal life and joy and pleasures and blessings with their risen Savior. If Jesus is dead, Christians have a bleak future. If he’s alive, they have a blessed future.
The fulfillment of a Christian’s purpose in life depends on the resurrection. Without the resurrection, life has no final meaning or purpose except to maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain. Paul writes, “If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (15:32).
Why would anyone stand up for his beliefs, even to the point of being thrown to the lions, if death is the end? If there’s nothing beyond death, then it’s stupid to be a hero. Be a hedonist instead. Grab the gusto while you can. Have as much fun as you can before you become food for the worms. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.” If death is the end, then there is no ultimate meaning to your life, and no final reckoning; God will never call you to account. If you’re going to die like an animal, you might as well live like an animal, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
But, if Christ has been raised, then death is not the end, and each of us must stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Selfishness will be punished, and self-sacrifice rewarded. Hedonism will turn out to be stupid, and heroism will turn out to be smart. Rejecting Christ will prove to be hell, and accepting Christ will turn out to be heaven.
Dead or alive? If Jesus is dead, then fulfillment is nothing more than doing whatever feels good for the moment, but if Jesus is alive, fulfillment is found in following Jesus, loving God, and loving others as he commands, even if it means pain and sacrifice at times.
Can you see now why we can’t afford to be fuzzy in our thinking when it comes Jesus’ resurrection? We need to be clear and definite, because so much depends on it. The foundations of Christian teaching, the forgiveness of sins, the future destiny of Christians, and the fulfillment of our life’s purpose all depend on whether Jesus is dead or alive. If he’s dead, the only sensible choice is to forget him. If he’s alive, the only sensible choice is to follow him.
Evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection
The whole Christian faith depends on the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. So if you’re wondering whether you should be a Christian, you need to make up your mind whether Jesus is dead or alive. Do you have to shut your brain off when you think about the resurrection? No, the Bible encourages us to look at the facts. Let’s consider four kinds of evidence.
- Old Testament Predictions
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
In the books of the Old Testament, written centuries before Jesus was born, we find many prophecies about the Messiah. The prophets predicted the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. They predicted his ministry would shine in Galilee. They predicted he would enter Jerusalem riding a donkey. They predicted the Messiah would be betrayed by a friend, beaten and spit on and pierced by his enemies, his clothes divided by gambling. They predicted he would die and be buried in a borrowed grave. All these things happened to Jesus. Just a coincidence? Not likely. If all the predictions about the Messiah fit one particular man, then that man almost has to be the Messiah. And if Jesus is the Messiah who fulfills so many Old Testament prophecies, isn’t it reasonable to expect that he would also fulfill Old Testament prophecy predicting his resurrection?
For instance, consider Isaiah 53. Writing long before the time of Jesus, Isaiah spoke of how God’s servant would die for the sins of his people. But the prophet went on to say, “After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied” (53:11). Or look at Psalm 16:10, which says, “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” Jesus’ resurrection would fulfill those prophecies and others like it.
Ancient prophecy is one strong reason to believe Jesus is alive, but it’s not the only one. In fact, if prophecy had been the only evidence, it’s unlikely that the early Christians would have believed in Jesus’ resurrection. As the apostle John put it, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9). But they had other evidence.
- The Empty Tomb
John tells us that what first convinced him of the resurrection was the empty tomb. On the first Easter morning, John went personally to the tomb and saw with his own eyes that the body was gone. He saw the strips of linen and the burial cloth which had been wrapped around Jesus’ head still lying there, but Jesus himself was nowhere to be found. John saw that, and he believed (John 20:3-9).
This is exhibit #2 in the evidence that the resurrection really happened: the empty tomb. There’s no denying that Jesus’ body was gone. Otherwise, when the disciples started saying Jesus was alive, the government officials and religious authorities would have produced the body to show that he was still dead. But Jesus’ body had disappeared.
And it wasn’t easy to explain how. Some of Jesus’ enemies spread a rumor that his disciples had come and stolen the body in an attempt to fool people into believing that Jesus was alive. But how likely is that? The disciples were shattered by Jesus’ death. They were in no mood to pull a practical joke and try to fool anyone. Besides, there was a squad of heavily armed soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb. How could a few heartbroken fishermen sneak past professional troops?
And what did they have to gain by stealing the body and preaching Jesus’ resurrection? This wasn’t some elaborate swindle where they all got rich. A politician might lie to stay in power, a salesman might lie to make money, but what did Jesus’ followers have to gain by lying about seeing him alive? All they got out of it was persecution, prison, torture, and death. All of the apostles were either martyred or exiled, so it’s nonsense to explain the empty tomb by saying the disciples stole the body and then lied about the resurrection because they had something to gain by it. No, the only explanation that makes any sense of the empty tomb is that Jesus actually came back to life. And the only thing that explains why Jesus’ disciples were willing to die rather than change their story is that they were telling the truth when they said they had seen Jesus alive. That brings us to the third type of evidence for the resurrection: the eyewitness testimony.
- Eyewitness Testimony
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes that Jesus “appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as to one abnormally born.”
The living Lord appeared to many different people, and these weren’t just mysterious visions. No, Jesus actually spoke with his followers, he broke bread with them, he ate fish with them, he even invited Thomas, the most skeptical of the disciples, to touch his scars. When he appeared to some women, they fell before him and actually held on to his feet and worshipped him. Not only that, but on some occasions, he appeared to large groups who all saw and heard him at the same time. They couldn’t possibly all be dreaming or hallucinating at the same time.
Now, if you were part of a jury, and you had the testimony of hundreds of reliable, level-headed people who all said they saw a certain person—and those people who were willing to die rather than change their story—wouldn’t you believe them? Sir Edward Clark, a British lawyer, who wrote, “As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.”
- Changed Lives
A fourth kind of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is also convincing: the change that Jesus makes in people’s lives. In 1 Corinthians 15:9-10 Paul points to himself as a prime example. He says, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.”
Jesus didn’t just appear to Paul; he changed him. Paul was once a proud, self-righteous man who helped to imprison and kill Christians, but the living Christ transformed him into a kind, loving man who was also the greatest missionary who ever lived.
And Paul wasn’t the only one Jesus changed. When Jesus was about to go on trial, the apostle Peter behaved like a coward and denied knowing him, but after seeing the risen Lord, Peter changed into a courageous preacher. Jesus’ half-brother James, along with the rest of his relatives, had once thought Jesus was out of his mind. But when Jesus appeared to his brothers after his resurrection, they believed in him and changed into different people. Jesus changes those who trust him.
That’s been true throughout the history of the Christian church, and it’s still true today. Physically, Christ has remained in heaven since his ascension, but by the written testimony of his apostles and by the power of his Spirit, Jesus continues to convince people that he is real, and he turns them around and changes their lives. Millions of people from every nation and racial background, young and old, rich and poor, illiterates and geniuses, have been changed by Christ. They’re not only convinced Jesus is alive; they love him and have a vital relationship with him.
When you put the evidence together—the Old Testament predictions, the empty tomb, the hundreds of eyewitnesses, the millions whose lives Christ has changed—it makes good sense to believe in the resurrection. It makes good sense to say with Paul, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead!” It makes good sense to become a Christian, to put your faith in Jesus as the risen Lord and the eternal Son of God.
Response to Resurrection Reality
Ultimately, it’s not enough simply to weigh the evidence and believe a historical fact. Once you conclude that Jesus is alive, the consequences are enormous, as we saw earlier: your foundation, your forgiveness, your future, your fulfillment of life’s meaning all are found in the living Christ. So trust in the Lord Jesus as the Son of God, and believe the Bible as the Word of God. Ask God to forgive you for the sake of Jesus’ death on the cross, confident that he will do so. Rejoice that the eternal life of Jesus can be yours as well. And pursue the purpose of your life by obeying the risen Lord and going wherever he leads, no matter what it costs you. Because Christ has been raised, he will raise you too, and any sacrifices you make will be nothing compared to resurrection glory.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.