A Tomb to Bury Doubt

How Easter Answers Our Questions

I’m a pastor, and I sometimes deal with doubt.

I have doubted the efficacy of prayer. I have wrestled with the problem of evil, especially in light of natural disasters, terminal childhood illnesses, and a hundred other horrors. I have struggled with the fate of those who never hear the gospel. None of these questions is comfortable or easy for me.

If a Christian told me he never dealt with doubt, I wouldn’t believe him. Or at least I would respectfully conclude he was in denial, or lacked self-awareness, or wasn’t a serious-thinking person.

A unique feature of life in the modern West, observes philosopher Charles Taylor, is the experience of a “cross-pressured” existence. The plausibility of faith has become contested — implicitly and constantly. This is a new development in human history. In premodern times, it was “impossible not to believe.” The Enlightenment then made it “possible not to believe.” Now it is increasingly “impossible to believe” — or at least to believe in a faith-nurturing world.

Bewildered and Terrified

As sophisticated modern people, we can sometimes flatter ourselves and think, I have a college education; I live in a scientific age; I don’t believe in resurrections — as if first-century men and women were dimwits looking for miracles everywhere. It’s true that if you could transport yourself back to the first century, you would have a hard time finding atheists. Virtually everyone you’d encounter would be a supernaturalist — believing in some kind of God or gods. But that doesn’t mean ancient folks were gullible.

“Even the strongest believer wouldn’t have imagined that one man could be raised before the end of time.”

When Jesus performed miracles, people were often more bewildered than impressed — the response was less “Do it again!” and more “Who are you?” Or take the virgin conception. Such a notion was just as laughable then as it is today. First-century people knew how babies were conceived. As I once heard someone quip, when Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he doesn’t break into a rendition of “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” No, he assumes what any of us would — and sets out to divorce her.

The same applies to the empty tomb. Despite Jesus’s repeated predictions, not a single eyewitness exclaims, “Ah, day three — of course!” They respond the same way we would: with confusion and downright terror (Matthew 28:8; Mark 16:8; Luke 24:9–11, 36–41; John 20:11–13). They assume his body has been stolen; they assume he’s a ghost; they assume anything except, “He’s back.” Thomas can’t even bring himself to believe after all his most trusted friends have looked him in the eye and told him!

Even the Great Commission is given to doubters: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:16–17 NIV). We import a triumphant mood into the scene; in reality, some of these guys are still reeling, still grappling, still coming to terms with their whole world being capsized.

No Category for a Single Resurrection

It’s also worth noting that first-century Jews, although culturally disposed to believe in God, were anti-disposed to believe that someone could be resurrected in the middle of history. This is why, when Jesus tells Martha that Lazarus will rise again, all she can do is sigh: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Like most Jews, she believes in a general resurrection at the end of history (see Daniel 12:2). But she has no category for a single resurrection in the middle of history. Nobody did. Even the strongest believer wouldn’t have imagined that one man could be raised before the end of time.

And the disciples were no different. But something occurred after Jesus’s death that utterly changed them. Something occurred that pulled them out of the hiding places where they’d fled in hopeless fear (Mark 14:50). Something moved them to start publicly insisting, at the risk of their lives, that the Carpenter was — wonder of wonders — alive. And when the blows came, something propelled them to keep preaching all the more boldly, even rejoicing that they’d been counted worthy to suffer disgrace for his name (Acts 5:41).

No Category for a God-Man

Remember, too, that while first-century Jews were (unlike many modern people) disposed to believe in God, it was unthinkable to worship a man as God. This is why the Pharisees repeatedly accused Jesus of blasphemy — he was claiming for himself the prerogatives of God alone. No wonder they “held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6).

So, were some ancient people just inclined to believe in a god under every rock? Sure — if they were polytheists. But not Jews. They were radically different from their Roman neighbors. To put it bluntly: a modern secular Manhattanite is far more likely to start believing in a God than a first-century Jew was to believe in a God-man.

No Category for a Dead Messiah

In sum, arguments about the “plausibility” of faith cut both ways.

On the one hand, faith in a transcendent deity is more contested, more embattled, more difficult than ever before. It’s not that ancient believers never battled serious doubt (see the Psalms); it’s that doubt takes on a certain shape and texture when, for the first time in history, life feels explainable without God. This is the cultural wallpaper — largely unnoticed but everywhere present — of our WEIRDER (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, Romanticist) world. So, we shouldn’t be surprised if our doubts carry a certain buoyancy — if overcoming them can feel like trying to keep a beach ball underwater.

On the other hand, it is naive, if not a touch haughty, to assume that prescientific people woke up looking for outlandish things to believe. Sure, faith in God was more intuitive then, but no one found it easy to imagine a virgin getting pregnant or a corpse getting up. Especially a messianic corpse — that would’ve been an oxymoron, and an offensive one. No Jew believed God’s Messiah could possibly die. (How could he? The Messiah sits on David’s throne forever.) So, the sight of “mighty” Jesus pinned to a Roman cross, suffocating to death like some weak and pathetic slave, was conclusive proof that the gig was up: just another imposter, not Immanuel.

“If the disciples had no category for a dead Messiah, they certainly had no category for a resurrected one.”

And if the disciples had no category for a dead Messiah, they certainly had no category for a resurrected one. Again, theologically speaking, no Jew could imagine an individual resurrection in the middle of history. And above all, none would ever be disposed to look at a Galilean day laborer from an obscure backwater in the Roman empire and worship him as Yahweh, the Lord of heaven and earth.

But that’s precisely what happened.

Unthinkably Plausible

We may think of a miracle as the least probable explanation for an event. And it is — for ordinary events.

But the events of Easter Sunday were not ordinary, not in the least. Again, see the disciples’ reaction! They didn’t wish each other a happy Easter. They were dumbstruck, terrified. They lacked a natural category for the resurrection, and so do we. And yet, I’ve never heard a more plausible explanation for the disciples’ overnight transformation and the birth of the Jesus revolution.

All of which (among other things) leads me to take a deep breath: I believe the unthinkable happened after all.