Sometimes in television shows that are otherwise very realistic, a magical event occurs. Most often the purpose of this event is to make the story heart-warming, or to give it comic relief, but for most of us, it breaks the illusion of realism and throws us right out of the story. It spoils everything for us.
At first glance, it seems that there are things like that in the gospels, too.
For example, there are stories in the gospels that are very realistic. The people say the things that we would say and they react the way we would react, then suddenly there is a miraculous event. Jesus heals the man born blind or raises Lazarus from the dead, and there our incredulity begins.
Nothing gives us more intellectual indigestion than the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s where many people say, in effect, “You had me up to here and then you lost me,” just like some of Jesus’ disciples said in John 6:60-66, right before they simply walked away.
We view those events from a distance of two millennia, but even if we had been there, whether Jesus’ resurrection was a true event or a made-up story, we would flatly disbelieve it. We would say it was a bereavement phenomenon at best. When the women came back from the tomb, we would say, “You must have loved him very much if you thought you saw that.” We would theorize that they had seen a shadow out of the corner of their eye, or glanced at a stranger and jumped to a conclusion.
But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
—Luke 24:11, NIV
Then we would run to investigate if the tomb had been robbed, to get evidence before the crime scene was disturbed. We’d do just what Peter, James, and John did—three of them, because it takes two or three witnesses to establish testimony as fact in the Judean court system.
If we had been away on a business trip when all that happened, and if when we returned, everyone else seemed to have gone batty, claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead, we would not believe it and we would insist that it couldn’t possibly be true. We’d think they were playing a practical joke on us. Just like Thomas.
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
—John 20:24-25, NIV
Until, edging back from them, we bump into someone, turn around, and say, “Excuse me, sir” and realize who it is! And the others have a hearty laugh at our expense, because they saw Him standing there all along. Our face burns red. What would you have said?
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
—John 20:28, NIV
According to tradition—which in this case means “history we can no longer verify”—Thomas said that Jesus had appeared to him in a dream and told him to go to India. After that embarrassing incident in the upper room, he didn’t trust himself, so he sold himself as a slave to a man who was going to India to make sure that he actually got there. About 1,500 years later, the Jesuits went to India to evangelize it. To their surprise, they discovered that there were already Christians there who claimed that Thomas founded their church. Thomas himself had been killed for his story, they said, and they showed the Jesuits his grave. That is historic fact. Would Thomas do all that because of a fictional story that he had helped concoct? Would you?
How could the apostles—or anyone else—make up such a compelling story? If the apostles were comforting their followers after Jesus’ death, why did the followers explode with such boldness, confidence, and joy instead of going home in solemn contemplation? The apostles braved all sorts of dangers to tell their story everywhere they could. If they had invented that story, would they have proclaimed it publicly when they knew it would land them in jail or get them executed? Has anyone ever died to uphold the truth of a fictional story they made up?
When we think of the apostles, we think of twelve people, but in the ancient church, the Seventy counted as apostles also. With Paul, that puts 83 people at the center of this story. That’s too many people for a conspiracy, because in a group that size, somone eventually lets the truth out. The Roman court system routinely used torture to assure the truthfulness of testimony. If 83 people conspired to deceive the masses with a made-up story, why didn’t any of them crack under torture?
Even though you saw it, even though you saw that Jesus was alive and well, and even though you saw that He bore the wounds of the cross in His hands and side, and you knew for certain that it really was Him, when you went home and went about your daily life, you’d question yourself. You’d wonder if it had been real, if you had really seen Him, or if it had been an illusion or a dream, or if you had made it up. So did the disciples in Matthew 28:17. They stood there, face to face with Him, and still disbelieved the resurrection! Wouldn’t you?
In Matthew 4:10, Jesus rebukes the devil, saying that we must only worship God. In the same book, in Matthew 28:17, Jesus accepts worship from His apostles, teaching us that He is the God whom we must worship and worship alone. He gave all the apostles, the Great Commission, teaching us that we must obey and serve him. He gave the Great Commission to apostles who doubted, teaching that our little intellectual problems don’t matter if we trust Him and act on that trust.
What if you had been there? If you have intellectual problems with the story now, you would have had the same intellectual problems with it back then.
Jesus would have given you the Great Commission anyway.