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Please explain: How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead?

For many centuries, culture approached knowing truth through reason. The idea was that if we could just sit with each other and reason together, we would without a doubt come to know the truth of the matter or at least come closer to it.

Truth through reason?

That’s the way things used to be, but not anymore. The world has changed. Unemotional reason with its arguments and syllogisms feels cold to most people, outdated, and at times wrong.

So how can we know that Jesus rose? Apologetics? Maybe not.

Don’t misunderstand me. Apologetics has its place in answering the question in front of us today. If one believed that unemotional reason offered the best start for our witness to the gospel, you might even start with apologetics.

Both theologians and apologists have written eloquently in reasonable defense of our deep belief that Jesus rose from the dead. If you want to take a deep dive into how noted apologists have answered our question, you might pick up Evidence that Demands a Verdict. This massive tome, which won the Christian Book Award, will land with a thud on your reading stand, coming in at 798 pages. The authors review the various theories regarding the resurrection of Jesus and conclude that the evidence demands the conclusion that, yes, Jesus is truly risen from the dead. In another book, The Case for the Resurrection, authors Gary Habermas and Michael Licona make many of the same arguments, even proposing helpful memory aids for making the case of the resurrection to others. At our church, we’ve taken the time to study these books to make ourselves ready to give an answer for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15). These are just the beginning of our resources to make a winning case for the resurrection to those truly willing to reason with us.

But are people truly coming to know things through reason today? I suppose you, dear reader, might answer that question by saying, “Yes.” If so, you might put down your magazine right now and find the rest of this article immaterial. You are betting that people are more led by reason and clear-eyed sense than by their emotions and the stories that they tell themselves.

But perhaps today we live in an era when people are more led by something other than plain sense.

Truth through faith

If any part of what I just wrote resonates with you, we might better spend our time in deepening our understanding of the way that Mary Magdalene came to know that Jesus is risen. We meet Mary in John 20. I can tell you that reasoning played a part in her Easter epiphany, but it certainly didn’t play the role that our apologists want it to play. Those involved in that Easter drama did not have time for cold, hard reasoning. Instead, Mary participated in an explosion of revelation brought about by Jesus’ naming of her.

Trust me when I say it—it wasn’t easy for her to see through her tears. When we meet her in John 20, she seems so stubborn in her tears, so blinded. The angels seem to have no effect on her. She bent over to look into the tomb. There the angels sat, gleaming and other-worldly (John 20:12). A reasonable person upon experiencing such a thing might be moved by such a sight, but Mary wasn’t. She quickly turned away from these bright, divine beings, still crying and dead to the truth.

Then it was Jesus’ turn to break through her amazingly stubborn tears. He stood before her, easily identifiable. He has holes in his hands and feet. She should have been able to see these marks and identify him. “This is Jesus. Who else could it be?” But it was not enough for Mary to see Jesus with the holes in his hands. She was still blinded by her emotion.

Jesus’ Word breaks through the uncertainty by naming us in Baptism and loving us through cross and empty tomb.

Jesus didn’t give up on her. He mentioned Mary’s tears with a hopeful and joyful question, “Why are you crying?” (John 20:15). He wasn’t looking for an answer. He was nudging Mary to discover the truth standing right in front of her. He wanted her to see and believe. He wanted to dry her tears. For good measure, he added another question to broaden her expectations: “Who is it that you are looking for?” She was looking for Jesus, who found her overpowered by seven demons. The same Jesus who drove out those demons. The same Jesus who fed the five thousand and walked on water. The one who called Lazarus from the dead.

But Mary still was not shaken out of her tears; not even this kind of logic could work on her. She, instead, accused Jesus of being a gardener and a grave robber. It was time for Jesus to break through to her. He named her. He said one simple word: “Mary” (John 20:16). It was just one word, but it was that one word that finally stunned her into faith. This word broke into her broken world.

It must have hit her all at once. “How does this gardener know my name? I’ve never seen him before in my whole life, right? But he knows my name. Something is going on here.” She finally got it. The veil fell from her eyes, and she saw Jesus. Now she could see his pierced hands, and she knew it could only be one person. She cried out in return, “Rabboni” (John 20:16). She came to know that Jesus had risen because she had been known by the Crucified One. She came to recognize Jesus’ great name because she had been named by him. She came to know love because she had been loved to death and back again by Jesus.

John 20 ends with a reminder, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 20:31). In other words, Mary’s story is to be our story.

Dear reader, if you made it this far with me, together we’ve moved beyond all the apologetic and reasonable arguments—as good as they are—for Jesus’ resurrection. To know Jesus we must be known. To be able to understand his resurrection we must know his gentle and undeserved love for us. To truly love him we must be loved first. Jesus in Word and sacrament has done that and more. As we step into Mary’s story, her story is our new story.

In a sense, this is basic to our Lutheran faith—sola Scriptura—we know Jesus rose and believe it simply because the Bible says that he rose and that he loves us.

Jesus’ Word breaks through the uncertainty by naming us in Baptism and loving us through cross and empty tomb. If others are to hear our witness, we might do the same for them. Know them. Name them. Love them. Share his love for them.

Author: Timothy Bourman
Volume 108, Number 4
Issue: April 2021

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