The tea was hot and strong, the morning cool and crisp. Sitting on the “hammock” (the word my wife’s grandparents used for their porch swing) presented the perfect opportunity to talk about what really matters.
“Papa” was a tough old man. He used to gauge the sharpness of his knife by sliding the blade across his calloused thumb. His stories enthralled me. During Prohibition he ran rum at night out in the Atlantic Ocean. In a rowboat, at the age of 12. Not knowing how to swim! He caught giant tuna with a barrel and a rope and spent weeks at a time fishing George’s Bank in the north Atlantic—still not knowing how to swim.
But at 96 years of age, Papa knew he wasn’t going to live forever. It was unsettling to see how the anticipation of death affected him. Throughout his life, he understood that death was a possibility. (Working on the ocean without knowing how to swim will do that to you.) He never gave the danger much thought; he simply did what had to be done. Not much scared him.
But as we sat and talked about life and adventure, it turned out Papa was afraid of something after all. Papa was afraid of dying. It wasn’t just the pain and process of dying that scared him, it was death itself—and the uncertainty of what came next. Several recent heart attacks and a stroke had escorted him to the edge. Papa’s uncertainty of what, if anything, awaited him after death made him afraid like nothing else could.
We don’t like to talk about death, yet it comes for us all. When our hearts stop beating and our brains shut down and our last breath rasps from our lungs, is that the end? Is there nothing left but a body that eventually becomes dirt? Only memories that become stories with the passing of time and then fade into lost family history? Or is there something more? Yes, there is. Death is not the end; it’s a doorway. But how can we know what we are stepping into as we cross the threshold?
For almost 20 centuries Christians have been declaring the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave—Easter. Faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has changed countless lives. For those who have built their life around Christ as the only way to God, the empty tomb of Jesus is the key to the hope that they too will someday be brought back from death in a real body. It is the evidence that death is not the ultimate finale of our life. Death is no “dead-end”; it is merely a transition.
Throughout history many have chosen to die as martyrs rather than deny their faith. The Easter event is a factual historical occurrence with great significance for all of us. Believing or not believing in it is a matter that determines how we view death.
Many people harbor doubts about life after death, and not everyone accepts the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection as recorded in the Bible as history. To some it is simply a myth or a fairytale meant to inspire positive thoughts and feelings, a story to help people through the difficult time of the death of a loved one. Even some people who profess the Christian faith have doubts about some of the events recorded in the Bible, especially Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.
David Rankin, former pastor of a large church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told a journalist that he experienced Easter when he received a phone call informing him that his father had died. After the initial shock, he came to feel “an acceptance, with a purging and a healing, and a gradual drifting toward peace and understanding.” To him, this emotional journey was “the Easter event,” the hope that Christians have. He believes that his gradual transition from shock and sorrow to acceptance and even comfort is what Easter is about. Easter represents metaphorical new life, not physical new life. This view enabled Rankin to believe that in some way “death is conquered; that love builds enduring monuments; that every life has a purpose in the fullness of time.”
The difference between the biblical view and Rankin’s view of the resurrection of Jesus is drastic, and Rankin admits as much. “My heavens,” he said “if I really believed a person was resurrected from the dead, I’d go around shouting it all over the place, wouldn’t I? I mean, that’s amazing! I wouldn’t just go to church and sing a few hymns.” Rankin says that belief in a literal resurrection is old-fashioned and unscientific. To believe that a person came back from the dead—not merely resuscitated from a momentary stopping of the heart, but walking out of a tomb after being buried for days—is simply unsuited for today’s mindset. Rankin insists that “dozens of cults” in the Middle East during Jesus’s day proclaimed heroes who lived lives remarkably similar to the stories the Bible records of Jesus—heroes who were born of virgins, worked miracles, got killed, and rose again. For Rankin, such alleged similarities signal the mythical nature of the stories about Jesus, that His “life and times” follow a popular formula for religious figures.
Rankin’s belief that the story of Jesus coming back from the dead is a myth similar to many others and that a literal resurrection is unscientific may sound well-reasoned, but research doesn’t support it.
One Friday almost 2,000 years ago, Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross. Before the sun set that day, His friends buried Him. His enemies even sealed the tomb. But the Bible tells us that He left the grave the following Sunday morning. This is the Easter event! That morning when Jesus walked out of His own grave, when He showed that death is not the final word in the story of life, is the moment that changed everything.
It was not Jesus’s bold teaching that led the disciples out of hiding after His crucifixion. Despite the miracles that surrounded His death (read the accounts in matthew 27:45–56; mark 15:33–39; luke 23:44–49), His crucifixion scattered them and sent them into hiding. But when Jesus walked out of His tomb, frightened followers became bold preachers; timid and uncertain disciples became convicted and tenacious proclaimers. We dare not underestimate the significance of Jesus’s coming back to life, for its impact was not only for Him, but also for anyone who follows Him.