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The Single Most Important Day in History

Relive the Surprise of Easter Sunday

It is Sunday, April 5, AD 33. This day will change the entire course of world history, more than any other day before or after, though only a handful of people will know this by day’s end.

In an ancient, arid, Near Eastern city, one singular event will occur this day, unleashing a movement so compelling, so enduring, so influential, so unstoppable that two thousand years and billions of adherents later, it will still be growing, faster than ever, while the mighty empire that witnesses its birth will long lay in ancient ruins. This movement will shape nations, span oceans, birth universities, launch hospitals, transform tribal peoples in the world’s remotest places, and be spoken, read, and sung about in more languages than any other religious movement by far.

That singular event? The body of Jesus of Nazareth will exit his tomb.

The Women

The not-yet-risen sun is coloring the sky with purples and blues, the high clouds with reds and oranges, as a handful of women wind their way through the dark, quiet streets of Jerusalem. They are headed toward a burial garden. Few words are shared. This isn’t merely to keep a low profile. No one has the heart to speak. The reality and horror and grief and disorientation of Jesus’s death is re-dawning on them the closer they get to his grave.

These faithful women had kept vigil all through Jesus’s brutal execution on Friday and stayed as close to him as possible till the stone had sealed his tomb. But Joseph and Nicodemus barely had the Lord buried before the Sabbath began at sundown. There simply hadn’t been time to properly anoint the corpse. These devoted and courageous followers of Jesus intend to finish this precious, horrible job this morning. And best to do it before the city is up and going, so as to avoid undesired attention.

One of the women raises the massive problem of the tombstone. Another prays that the Roman guards will show some mercy and help them.

The Guards

Unbeknownst to them, the guards are in no position to help. They are at the chief priest’s residence frantically describing their terrifying experience to Caiaphas, Annas, and a number of Sanhedrin members. The earth shook! A bright being seemed to descend from the very heavens! He rolled away the stone like it was nothing and sat on it! They had all collapsed in terror.

Caiaphas the Sadducee listens, eyes closed, rubbing his forehead with his left hand. These hardened men can’t seriously believe such superstitious lunacy. He suspects a failure to execute their job is behind this supernatural thriller. He knows what they’re really terrified of: Pilate’s execution orders when he discovers what happened. The guards plead for protection. Caiaphas thinks this might actually be useful.

Council members confer. They clearly had underestimated the scope of this elaborate Messiah hoax. They must get ahead of the story, control the narrative. Tales of a resurrected Messiah will fill the streets with an ignorant mob demanding revolution. The zealots will take every advantage. Jewish blood will flow from Roman swords. And Rome will be done with the Council’s ineffective leadership. The word must be spread immediately: Jesus’s body was stolen by his disciples. It’s the only reasonable explanation. And the guards must not be harmed. They’ll be needed as eyewitness advocates for the reasonable explanation. Pilate will understand this necessity, in view of the potential explosiveness of the moment.

Council members demythologize the morning’s events for the soldiers, and explain the urgency of the situation. Their cooperation is required for the good of everyone. Financial compensation is provided for their “trouble,” along with a promise that if they help avoid further trouble, no harm will come to them from the governor. If the guards are not convinced by the Council’s explanations, they are most definitely grateful for the Council’s protection.

The Tomb

Once in the garden, the women realize things aren’t right. First, there are no guards. Next, they see that the tombstone poses a far different problem than they feared. It’s been roughly shoved to the side. The grave’s mouth is gaping open. So now are the women’s. They stand for a moment in frozen confusion and fear.

Then Mary Magdalene walks up to the opening and takes a step in, the others tentatively following. She stifles a gasping sob. Jesus’s body is gone, she reports. Hurriedly laying down her spices, she says she must tell Peter, and runs off.

The others look at one another and then back at the tomb. The other Mary leads them inside. Perhaps they’ll find clues to what’s happened. Suddenly two men appear out of nowhere, startling the women to the ground. The men are clothed in blinding white. The women would have shielded their eyes if they hadn’t already done so out of terror. The men speak to them in powerful and strangely comforting unison,

“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” (Luke 24:5–7)

Just as suddenly, the men are gone. The women hesitantly lift their eyes. Did that just happen? They share stunned looks of what would be disbelief if they hadn’t just experienced this together. They said Jesus is risen? Alive? Now they must tell Peter.

The Disciples

When Mary Magdalene reaches the disciples’ hideout, she makes sure no one is watching, then knocks. John lets her in. She asks for Peter. There’s shock in her eyes and panic in her voice. Peter steps close and she speaks low. She’s been to the tomb. It’s open. Jesus’s body is gone! So are the guards! The blood drains from Peter’s face. He runs out and John takes off after him. Mary begins to follow and can’t contain the tears. They killed him, for goodness’ sake! Could they not leave him alone, even now?

The other women, meanwhile, take an indirect way to the disciples’ place, trying to appear inconspicuous. They knock and are let in. They too ask for Peter. He’s gone. So is John. What’s wrong? They share their remarkable story with the nine. But the men don’t remark. They just look back with incredulous and uncomfortable expressions. This story is a fairytale.

John beats Peter to the tomb. He stops outside and peers into this sacred place of profane death. Peter arrives seconds later and bursts right in. John, emboldened, follows. What they find doesn’t make sense. This clearly isn’t the work of grave robbers or vandals. Why would someone take the body? Perhaps they moved him to another grave. Then why leave the burial cloths? And why take the care to fold the face cloth? And where are the guards? They exit puzzled and troubled, and walk past Mary who’s leaning against the stone, weeping quietly.

The Lord

After a few minutes, Mary moves over and peers into the tomb. She gasps again. Two men in bright white are sitting on the deathbed. They speak to her in powerful and strangely comforting unison, “Why are you weeping?” Stunned and confused, all Mary stutters, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”

A noise startles her from behind. She turns. A man is standing a few yards off. A strange sensation flashes over her. The man speaks. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” There’s something about his voice. Who is this? The gardener? “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” He’s looking at her with familiar intensity. “Mary.” Her eyes and mouth grow wide. She places the strange sensation: recognition! It is the Lord! “Rabboni.”

So begin the appearances. A short time later he appears to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5). In the afternoon, he spends three hours with two other disciples walking to Emmaus and giving them a lesson in redemptive history, only revealing his identity to them at dinner (Luke 24:13–35). In the evening, he appears to all the disciples but one (Luke 24:36–43; John 20:19–23).

The Most Reasonable Explanation

So ended the single most important day in history. And so began the single most influential movement in history. Love it or hate it, the world has not seen anything like it.

The singular event that crowned the greatness of this day, that launched the irrepressible movement, was Jesus of Nazareth’s exit from the tomb.

We might ask, was there ever an exit in the first place? Or is the whole story as legendary as the Easter Bunny? Few credible historians deny Jesus’s existence or his execution. The historical evidence is too compelling. So is the historical evidence that his tomb was found empty.

Or we might ask, did Jesus exit the tomb as a stolen corpse? This idea is less credible than it all being a legend. The Jewish and Roman authorities had all the power, resources, and motivation to track down a body or convincing evidence and witnesses, but they never could. It never went beyond an assertion. Nor could they silence convincing witnesses of his resurrection. And it’s extremely unlikely these witnesses were lying, considering that nearly all who claimed to witness Jesus’s appearance on that most remarkable Sunday suffered horrible deaths because of their claims.

So, did Jesus exit the tomb as the resurrected Lord of life? Considering the weaknesses of the other possible options, the more we look at it, this surprisingly becomes the most reasonable explanation, making this question a haunting one. Something simply astonishing happened that day. The strangest, least likely claim if it didn’t really happen — that Jesus exited the tomb alive, as witnesses testified — has survived and overcome every attempt (often brutal) to refute or squash it. And the church Jesus established has, against all odds, spread all over the world, just as he said it would. Whatever this is, it is not the stuff of legends nor lies.

That empty tomb, after all these years, is more influential than ever. It refuses to leave the stage of world attention. Look seriously at the vacant grave and ponder the angels’ words: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24:5–6).

And then ponder Jesus’s words: “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).