Unfortunately, it is not as easy as that.
In the first place, there are no two accounts in the Gospels that fully agree with one another. Only the most tortured form of Gospel harmony can make all four Gospels say the same thing.
When we factor Paul into the mix, the matter really gets complicated. His account of the resurrection found in the 15th chapter of I Corinthians is completely different from all the Gospel accounts. And when we take notice that his letter to the Corinthians was written long before any of the Gospels, his view of the resurrection becomes the earliest testimony we have.
So we are left with only a few choices. We can, along with many skeptics through the centuries, dismiss the resurrection as mere Christian mythology. These antagonists of faith argue that since there is no consistent historical witness, the whole event can be dismissed as never have happened.
We can do that, if we want. And many intelligent people have done so. What we are left with, unfortunately, is what Paul describes as an existence that is “most miserable.”
Another possibility is to realize that the resurrection of Jesus is not something to be proven, but rather something to be experienced. If we try to prove the resurrection, using some exaggerated form of empiricism, and then seek to impose belief based on this dubious proof, the results are not going to be very satisfying.
But suppose the variety of witness found in the New Testament is not so much evidence of historical inconsistency but rather experiential diversity. In other words, believers encountered the risen Christ in innumerable ways, and left us a record of many pathways to this experience.
For a long time, I was jealous of those early believers who viewed the empty tomb — those who had breakfast by the lakeside with the risen Jesus, or who were invited to touch his wounds. I always felt that they were given a sort of insider advantage into believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead. We know that seeing is believing — but for the vast majority of us, there has been no seeing.
But I have given up my sense of jealously over time. The reality is that the early believers struggled as much as the rest of us. The story in Luke of the two travelers who encounter the risen Christ but fail to recognize him may be an early testimony of the experience of the ancient church, but most certainly an experience of the church ever since.
When we say on Easter Sunday that “He is risen,” is it not so much an expression of theological certitude as it is a proclamation of theological hope.
The most daunting challenge we face as human beings is the awareness of our own mortality. If, as Paul writes, all we have is this life only, then misery can be a real possibility.
The experience of the risen Christ offers an antidote to this misery by placing before us the possibility that what God begins in this life continues into the next.
For me, he is risen. He is risen, indeed.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.