It’s crucial – if Jesus did not rise from the dead then Christians have no hope of life after death – he was just another good teacher. Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 15:17, ‘If Christ is not risen, [our] faith is futile’.
Easter is about Jesus loving mankind so much that he was prepared to do whatever it took to make a way for man to get back to God. And it took a lot…
God is not a distant deity uninterested in the fate of the people he created. Jesus, though God, came into our world to live and suffer as a man. He lived the perfect life we couldn’t, died on the cross to pay for our wrongdoing and make us right with God, was resurrected to prove that he has power to give life to those who commit themselves to him, promising “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
The death and resurrection of Christ are key to Christian thinking and where it differs so fundamentally from other world religions. While the Bible teaches morality and social justice it also insists that human beings can never attain holiness by their own effort and therefore cannot earn their way to Heaven – Jesus had to die to make heaven possible for those who turn to him.
Nietzsche found the ‘self-crucifixion of God for the salvation of man’ unfathomable. The Bible’s explanation is simple yet still unfathomable: Jesus died to pay the penalty for man’s sin (or turning away from God): ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them’ (John 3:17).
‘God on a cross—preposterous!’ Nietzsche objected to the figure of Jesus, innocent of any crime, condemned to a brutal death. Christ asserted that the sacrifice, whilst brutal as Nietzsche observes, was his choice: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again [the resurrection]. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18) to be as John explains ‘an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). Jesus’ last words on the cross were “It is finished”, a mixture of agony and triumph that the task of saving his people was complete.
Mankind couldn’t rescue themselves so Christ had to step in as the only one able to do it but the ‘why’ of divine love eluded Nietzsche. The apostle Paul was no stranger to academic study and acknowledged that ‘the message of the cross is foolishness’ (1 Corinthians: 1:18) to those who do not believe. If Jesus was just a good man it was a gross injustice, if he is God it is unfathomable that an all powerful being would love mankind so much as to submit to crucifixion.
Luke’s account of the crucifixion can be read here (the crucifixion is in chapter 23, the resurrection chapter 24).
The question isn’t ‘Did the resurrection happen?’ but ‘What does it mean?’
The resurrection proved that God can and will do what he says, that Jesus really is God and has power over death so that his people can have confidence in him when it comes to their own death.
People today ask for a sign that God is real. They did in Jesus’ time too. Jesus said he would die and come back to life on the third day and he did. No-one else in history has ever died in public and then been seen by many hundreds of people on several different occasions days afterwards. No-one has ever disproved Jesus’ resurrection, although attempts to do so began immediately after it happened and have continued ever since.
Professor E. M. Blaiklock, (Professor of Classics, Auckland University) notes that ‘the evidence for the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ is better authenticated than most of the facts of ancient history’.
If Jesus did not rise from the dead then he is not God and Christians have no hope of life after death – he was just another good teacher. Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 15:17, ‘If Christ is not risen, [our] faith is futile’ and ‘If only for this life [ie if there is no Heaven] we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied’ (v.19). One of the reasons the early church grew so quickly was that so many people had either seen Jesus after his resurrection or knew someone who had: the resurrection caused many more people to believe in Christ, not as a prophet or simply a good teacher but as the son of God.
For a very readable historical look at the resurrection see Josh McDowell’s essay on the Resurrection.