Easter Is Not an Island
Dr. Jim Denison
On average, they stand thirteen feet high and weigh fourteen tons. The largest of them weighs as much as 165 tons. There are 887 of them on the island. And no one is sure why.
In 1722 a Dutch explorer discovered their island. It happened to be Easter Sunday, so he named his discovery Easter Island. Here the explorer found the famous “moai” of Easter Island, giant statues which guard the beach and dot the island. You’ve undoubtedly seen them in pictures—huge stone figures, mostly faces, standing mute and stoic for centuries. We’re not sure how the people of Easter Island made them, or how they moved them. Theories abound, but no one is certain. Easter Island is in a sense a fascinating miracle.
Easter Day can be like Easter Island for us—a miracle, but an island, isolated from the continent of life. An annual religious observance and little more.
Last year, the Baptist churches in our area experienced a 50% decline in worship attendance from Easter Sunday to the next week. Our own experience was identical to theirs. Clearly many people see Easter as an island, unconnected to the rest of the year. A religious event with little relevance to our daily lives.
But our lives and souls need more. We need a transforming daily experience with the Christ who rose on Easter Sunday. And so, today, I want to show you the factual reality and the personal relevance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why Easter is not an island we visit, but the home where we live.
To do that, I need you to take two walks with me.
Celebrate the reality of the resurrection
The first takes us back twenty-one years, to early spring of 1980 and a college retreat I was attending. My father had just died a few weeks earlier. In a few months I would graduate from college, marry Janet, and move to Southwestern Seminary to begin preparations for a life in vocational ministry. And my world came crashing in on me.
I’ll never forget that Saturday morning. I was about to spend the rest of my life preaching the gospel and serving the church. Was I sure about this? Was Christianity real? Was it more than Sunday school lessons and church services? Was I about to give my life to a religion, or to a reality?
I took that Saturday morning off from the retreat, and went for a walk. I can still see the stunning blue sky, hear the birds as they sang in the warm sun, feel the leaves and pine needles crunch beneath my feet. I walked and walked, as I thought about everything I had come to know about this Christian faith.
Perhaps you need to take that walk with me today, for yourself or to help someone you care about. Before we can see if Easter is relevant, first we must know if it is real.
As we walk and talk together, we begin where I started twenty-one years ago: with the fact that everything about the Christian faith hinges on Easter, on the resurrection. Jesus said he would rise again from the dead—if he did, his word is true and he is our living Lord. If he did not, the Bible is just a book and Christianity is just a religion.
Paul was clear: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). If someone were to find a skeleton and prove that it was Jesus Christ, we would disband this church, sell the property, and give up the faith. Christianity hinges on the reality of the resurrection.
So let’s start here as we consider the reality of Easter. What explanations make the resurrection just a story, an island and nothing more?
One option: perhaps the first witnesses to Easter went to the wrong tomb, found it empty, and proclaimed Christ raised from the dead.
But in our text, Mary Magdeline was the first to arrive, and Mark 15:47 says she saw where Jesus was laid. Joseph of Arimathea, the owner of the tomb, certainly knew where it was. And assuredly the Romans knew where they had placed their guard. No, they had the right tomb.
A second possibility: perhaps these disciples wanted so much for Easter to be true that they imagined it was so. But Mary didn’t expect Jesus to be gone: “we don’t know where they have put him!” (v. 2). In verse 11 she’s still crying; in verse 15 she thinks Jesus is the gardener and appeals to him for the body. Verse 9 is clear: “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”
A third option, related to the second: maybe this was a hallucination, a mirage, a dream. But the tomb is still real, and empty. The Roman historians tell us that Christ was crucified by Pontius Pilate. His death and now-empty tomb are very real. More than 500 saw the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:6), and 500 people don’t have the same hallucination. No, Easter is no wish fulfillment or hallucination.
A fourth approach: perhaps the women or disciples stole his body and announced him risen. This was the Jewish authorities’ explanation for Easter. But people don’t die for a lie. And they don’t keep a secret, either. Just a few conspirators hatched the Watergate plot, and they couldn’t keep the secret more than a day or so.
A fifth answer: maybe the authorities stole the body. But they would undoubtedly have produced it the moment the resurrection was first preached by the disciples. And a body has ever been found, though skeptics for twenty centuries have looked.
When our tour group visited the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul three weeks ago, we saw on display hair and teeth from Mohammed. None are on display anywhere in the world for Jesus.
A sixth option: perhaps Jesus didn’t die, but swooned on the cross and later convinced his disciples that he had been resurrected. This is the thesis of Hugh Schonfield’s best-selling book, The Passover Plot. But verse 7 is fascinating rebuttal: “The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.” The Greek original is clearer: the cloth around Jesus’ dead head was collapsed in on itself, not unfolded as it would have to be if he or anyone else had removed it from his body. And a swooned victim of crucifixion could never overpower guards, walk through locked doors, and ascend back into the heavens. This theory won’t work.