One of the great deceptive tricks of our age is to separate facts from faith. In this way secularists believe they are right to keep “faith issues” out of the public domain and push them to the margins of society. These matters of personal belief should never influence public policy. But the Christian faith is not a simple matter of believing something is true; it is knowing that Jesus Christ came, suffered on the cross, died, and rose again from the dead. Our faith is rooted in history. These things actually happened and they happened publically. Our faith has a legitimate place in the public life of our nation.
This Easter we have celebrated two great, central truths of our faith – the death and resurrection of Jesus. Together with the birth of Jesus which is the focus of Christmas, Easter highlights historically verifiable public events. They were not done in a corner but burst into mainstream life in ancient Israel.
FACT 1 – Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus.
FACT 2 – Jesus was crucified during the time of Pontius Pilot, the procurator of Judea, during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
FACT 3 – Jesus was raised from the dead three days fter his crucifixion and gave infallible proofs of his resurrection to many witnesses who reliably testified to this historical event.
These facts are open to investigation through the records of history. Everything Jesus did, he did in public. His birth was attested publically, his teachings were given in public, his crucifixion was public, and his resurrection was also a matter of public fact.
The life-saving truths of the Gospels are not just nice ideas, or matters of personal opinion based on personal preferences. They are all public matters. This means that if they are true, then they are true and relevant for everyone. The Apostle Paul went to great lengths to show that the gospel does not rest on private opinions, but public facts which were all observed. People believed that Jesus Christ had risen because the saw him, spoke to him and ate with him – they knew he was raised from the dead. This eyewitness testimony was the foundation of the apostolic proclamation of the gospel. For example, when writing to the Corinthians, Paul pointed to the evidence that Jesus truly had been raised from the dead:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
Some people say that the Gospels were written by people of faith who twisted the facts to justify their faith. Historically, this view has absolutely no foundation at all. It was the facts that produced the faith, not the other way around. Without resurrection facts there would never have been resurrection faith.
Others say that the resurrection is just a story to comfort people. It doesn’t really matter whether it actually happened, so long as it brings comfort. Paul did not see it that way. He said, “If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Corinthians 15:17). This would mean that the whole Christian message was based on lies – false testimony. Clearly, the issue is not just about a few nice religious ideas. It is about what is true or false. The attitude of much of our society towards the Christian faith can be illustrated by the following story. Once, a young primary school girl was invited by her friends to go to Sunday school at the local church. Her father who was an atheist refused. He explained that all religions consisted merely of stories, invented to avoid the unpleasant facts of life. “Oh, I see” she said, and never mentioned it again. A few days later, he had a telephone call from the Head Teacher of the Primary School who asked him what their family religion was. “Why, do you want to know that?” he replied. “Well”, the teacher said, “Your daughter said she couldn’t do her Math homework because it was against her religion!”
Any such approach to religion is clearly false. But are all religions mere convenient inventions? Secularists believe that they are. Take, for example, the attitude to the gospel today. People may tolerate the fact that we believe, even support our right to believe, but just so long as we do not claim that what we believe is right – that it is actually true. That way, they can keep the Christian faith out of the real world of fact and push it do the corners of our society. This is the thinking that lies behind the objection to Christian influence or ideas having any place in the public ordering of our society.
But in reality, it is they who are forcing their (un-provable) ideas onto the rest of us. The only real world, we are told, is the tangible, physical world.
Everything else is only a matter of opinion which rests totally on personal, private preferences. In one stroke they have not only pushed Christianity out of the public square, but also have imposed upon us all their philosophy. It is time to re-open the debate. We must be prepared to enter once more the arena of public thought and contend for the faith. For us to claim God exists, or that Jesus was raised from the dead, is to make a claim that can and must be tested. We must ask, what is the evidence? Is our position reasonable? Does is fit the facts as we know them? In short, is it true? Only when we have done this will we regain ground that has been lost and speak with conviction to our society.
This is nothing new. From the very beginning of the Christian era believers appealed to the facts of the gospel in presenting the claims of Christ to their generation. Paul, who had been arrested in Jerusalem and held prisoner in Caesarea for two years, had several opportunities to testify before kings and governors concerning his beliefs.
Words of Truth and Reason
He was brought before Festus, the newly-appointed governor, and King Agrippa, the Roman Procurator. In his testimony, Paul described the gospel: “that the Christ would suffer, that he would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:23). Festus stopped him in in his tracks and said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!” (Acts 26:24).
Paul’s response is illuminating. He defends his beliefs by appeals to reasonable facts not blind faith:
“I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason. For the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner. ” Acts 26:25-26M
The point is strikingly clear – Agrippa knew about the facts of the gospel including the death and resurrection of Jesus. They were public – open to all who cared to investigate or see for themselves.
What is disappointing about the current approach of our society is that many people do not think that any the claims of religion should be taken seriously. They have already decided that religion is about matters of faith, not fact. But, as we have seen, that is not how the Gospel writers themselves approached it – they knew that their faith rested not on blind belief but facts.
Luke, the writer of the third Gospel says he carefully investigated the events he records before he set pen to paper (Luke 1:1-4). The Apostle Peter said, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty (2 Peter 1:16).
There are many arguments that show the Christian faith is not a make-believe religion. We can speak of the unique writings of the Scripture. Written over a period of over 1,600 years by over 40 different writers, it nevertheless shows a unity and integrity of truth that could only have come from God. The accuracy of the text of Scripture as we have it today is one of the most attested facts in literary history.
The astonishing and unique claims of Jesus Christ could only mean one of three things. Either he was mad, bad or God. He clearly was neither crazy nor immoral. His claims must therefore be true. People should sit up and take notice of the things he said. For example he said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). It is of the utmost importance for every human being on planet earth to hear these words and decide for themselves what they are going to do with them.
But the ultimate reason we should pay attention to the Christian message is because it is the only message that has been demonstrated fully and finally through resurrection. Jesus was not simply resuscitated. That happens every day in hospitals. But he returned from the dead in a transformed body demonstrating the reality of a heavenly existence. Physical and real, but not limited to the boundaries of earthly life. His resurrection is living proof that there is a God, there is a heaven and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. For the early Christians, the resurrection of Jesus was not just a nice idea, a comforting invention, or a legend that grew over many generations. It was a true event, verified by reported facts and eyewitness accounts which lead all Christians to proclaim his resurrection from the very beginning. This message cost many of them their lives. Many people are prepared to die for what they believe, but no one dies for what they know to be a lie. The message was not invented. They were telling it as it was.
With this in mind, look at how the Apostle Paul drew out the implications of the resurrection. In short, it vindicated everything Jesus claimed. He is not just a moral teacher, or a prophet, or even a social revolutionary. He is the Son of God. The gospel is true.
…the gospel of God… concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. Romans 1:3-4
This shows that our society has got it totally wrong when it banishes Christian belief, Christian morality and Christian values to the realm of the personal and private. And yet, secular philosophy continues to dominate government, education, science and morality. Truly the world is trying to squeeze us into its mould. But we must stand up and be counted. The resurrection gives us the courage to do just that.