That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.
[The Apostle John]
The most obvious and crucial distinction between Christianity and other major world religions is that it is based not on rules, philosophy or human goodness, but on the facts of a man’s life. It is appropriate that Christmas and Easter are both so widely celebrated (even if a Sunday morning attendance box to check for many) because both, in stark contrast to some other major religious and holy days, answer the question “What happened?” What happened in real time and space in 3D world history?
And it is not merely as simple as something happening. In both cases, something amazing happened. Something literally miraculous and literally incredible. Something scientifically impossible. A virgin gave birth and a man rose from the dead. Someone more poetic than me has commented that Jesus entered the world through a door marked “No Entrance” and left through a door marked “No Exit.” Which makes the juxtaposition of what happened and why Christians believe it so fascinating.
For if you read the New Testament carefully and notice which themes emerge, you can definitely find doctrine and morality. Jesus, Paul, Peter, John et. al. taught things like, “Return evil with good,” “Love is patient and kind,” and “If your neighbor is hungry, and you have to give, it is wrong to turn him away.” But if you get at the heart of the New Testament’s message, it definitely is NOT “Be good and you can get to God” or “Think correctly and you will be enlightened.” It really is about what Jesus did. What happened. The miraculous, impossible things that men and women gave their lives to make sure the rest of the world would know forever.
When John opened his first epistle, he didn’t begin with loving your neighbor, or even with Jesus’s atoning sacrifice being for the entire world. No, he began by pronouncing Jesus as God and saying “We saw him. We heard him. We even touched him.” In short, he is making a case that the impossible things that Jesus did by coming and going from this world were empirically verified by those who followed him. And THAT is the message he wanted to begin with. All truth claims about Jesus and the morality that follows hinge on what they experienced with their five senses.
Peter, in his second letter, also values this early on:
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
And this was also how even Luke, who was not an apostle but was a scientist and doctor, began:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
And perhaps it is no surprise since he also wrote Acts and as a result recorded numerous direct quotes from the apostles that kept highlighting the importance of them being witnesses to what happened with Jesus, notably his resurrection:
God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it…
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this…
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things…
We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead…
“Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me…
Empirical evidence of Jesus’s resurrection was so important to Paul that what we now know as the Apostles’ Creed is the main thrust of it:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
In short, the creed was not rules or philosophy, but what Jesus did. It is precisely what happened—what they experienced with their senses. The theological implications arise from that.
I close with noting two of the scenes from the Gospels that were, in part, the basis all of the aforementioned verses. They fascinate me for several reasons I want to discuss. All of them are empirical save one. First from Luke:
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
First, I cannot help but notice that the cognitive dissonance of a dead man now being alive was so outrageous and so overwhelming, the empirical-based evidence of actually seeing him wasn’t enough. Resurrection from the dead was so magnificently far away from what they could comprehend (notice the use of “joy” conjoining amazement above), they could not even believe their own senses. That is a historically special case of “What happened?” Because it was, indeed, impossible. And that is the truth that launched the Christian faith.
Second, I cannot help but be deeply impacted by the fact that Jesus kept trying to empirically prove it to them by eating the fish. It’s almost like “Me actually being here in the flesh isn’t enough? Touching me isn’t enough? You think I am a ghost? Watch this.” And then he does something else they can observe with their five senses. An incredible scene.
Next, coming full circle, from John:
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Similarly as above, I am again amazed that Jesus solves the doubt, not by telling him to have more faith or to merely believe his eyes, but by going further and letting him touch him. It is that sense that John mentions as well at the beginning of 1 John that really grabbed my attention as I was preparing my mind and heart for Easter this year.
But as any good student of the Bible will tell you, John 20 doesn’t stop with belief based on the empirical. Jesus tells Thomas after he confesses him as God that those who have not seen and still believe are “blessed.” That includes you and me. The apostles witnessed based on what they saw, heard and touched. We witness based on what we believe. But we are not the unfortunate ones. God, in his divine sense of justice, again turns the world upside down by proclaiming the blessed group the opposite one as you’d think. Just as with the Beatitudes. Those who have not experienced Jesus in real time and space join the ‘poor in spirit’ and ‘those that mourn’ as blessed in God’s kingdom.
Yet who is blessed is not the heart of our Gospel. The heart is the apostles’ message of Jesus. Their empirically-verified message passed down from generation to generation for nearly two millennia. All of our theology is built upon “What Happened.” And that makes Jesus wholly distinct from Mohammad and Moses and Siddhartha Guatama, the founder of Buddhism. He wasn’t just killed and buried. He resurrected and appeared, so that he could be seen, heard, and even touched. That is how Christianity began. And that is the heart of Easter.