REASON TO BELIEVE
Pastor Vernon Giesbrecht
A few years ago, the following account was passed on to me. A little introduction first. Dr. Paul Tillich was an influential philosophical theologian of the 20th century and of the more liberal sort. A German American, he rose to prominence in Germany’s university seminaries prior to the Second World War. When he spoke out against Hitler’s Nazi agenda, he was removed from his positions. Subsequently, he was invited to the U.S. and held professorships at Union Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago Divinity School.
“Baptist Day is an annual event at the University of Chicago Divinity School. On this day everyone brings a lunch to a grassy picnic area. Every Baptist Day the school would invite one of the greatest minds to lecture in the theological education center. One year they invited Dr. Paul Tillich. Dr. Tillich spoke for two and one-half hours proving the resurrection of Jesus was false. He quoted scholar after scholar and book after book. He concluded that since there was no such thing as the historical resurrection, the religious tradition of the church was groundless, emotional mumbo-jumbo, because it was based on a relationship with a risen Jesus, who, in fact never rose from the dead in any literal sense. He then asked if there were any questions.
After about 30 seconds, an old, dark skinned preacher with a head of short-cropped, woolly white hair stood up in the back of the auditorium. ‘Docta Tillich, I got one question,’ he said as all eyes turned toward him. He reached into his sack lunch and pulled out an apple and began eating it. ‘Docta Tillich…’ CRUNCH, MUNCH ‘My question is a simple question…’ CRUNCH, MUNCH… ‘Now, I ain’t never read them books you read…’ CRUNCH, MUNCH… ‘and I can’t recite the Scriptures in the original Greek…’ CRUNCH, MUNCH… ‘I don’t know nothin’ about Niebuhr and Heidegger…’ CRUNCH, MUNCH…!
He finished the apple. ‘All I wanna know is: This apple I just ate. Was it sour or sweet?’ Dr. Tillich paused for a moment and answered in exemplary scholarly fashion: ‘I cannot possibly answer that question, for I haven’t tasted your apple.’ The old white-haired preacher dropped the core of his apple into his crumpled paper bag, looked up at Dr. Tillich and said calmly, ‘Neither have you tasted my Jesus’.
The 1,000 plus in attendance could not contain themselves. The auditorium erupted with applause and cheers. Dr. Tillich thanked his audience and promptly left the platform.”
We smile at the white-haired preacher’s response, but it seems Dr. Tillich was wrong on two accounts. First, the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection and, second, the transformation that occurs in a person’s life when the risen Christ takes residence – those who have “tasted Jesus”. These two “reasons”, among others, are foundational to the truthfulness of Christianity. Dr. Tillich joined modern historians in making the assumption that miracles cannot happen. In turn, they also have difficulty explaining the gospel, Christianity, and the dramatic way in how the church got started.
Timothy Keller, in his book, The Reason for God, recounts his usual response to those who say they like many things about Christian teaching, but can’t accept the resurrection. “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” He is reflecting the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 (selected verses).
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
In ancient cultures, there was a difference in how fiction and historical accounts were treated. Some have called the resurrection a folktale, that grew and changed with it’s repeated telling, something like the children’s game Whisper Down the Valley. In the first century, historical accounts were not allowed to be changed. Paul’s recounting to the Corinthians includes all of the elements of this practice. His mention of the “third day” assumes the resurrection was historical, and not symbolic. He identifies the eyewitnesses by name and includes an additional 500 who saw Jesus after his death. Although he doesn’t refer to it here, the gospels detail the fact that women were the first eyewitnesses, despite their testimony was not to be trusted. Some critics reason that the followers of Jesus desperately wanted to believe Jesus had been raised from the dead. Nothing could be further from the truth; they were devastated at Jesus’ death. By every indication, for them the cross was a cruel end to another great teacher/prophet who met the same fate as many other messianic figures.
As Paul continues his letter and Christianity’s total dependence on Jesus’ resurrection, he turns to his encounter with the risen Christ. Before, he was a dedicated adversary of the “Christ-ones”; but then Jesus, by His grace, invaded Paul’s life. The dramatic transformation that took place in Paul is a strong witness to the reality of the resurrection. The same transformation occurred in the disciples’ lives. All that Jesus had taught them about the meaning of His death and resurrection came into focus! After his death, they were despondent and frightened. Now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they boldly proclaimed the message of the gospel that Christ died and rose again to save sinners. This, despite severe opposition and persecution. The only thing that accounts for this transformation is their belief in the truth of the resurrection.
Apologists have outlined many more proofs for the resurrection of Jesus. In talking to skeptics about the truth of Christianity, you may draw on many of these reasons for your faith. Without doubt, belief in the resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith, as Paul so forcefully states – our faith is in vain, it is futile, we are still in our sins, we are to be most pitied, if the resurrection is not true. However, if you have placed your faith in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus on your behalf, you have the strongest witness to the reality of the resurrection. Jesus did not promise an easy road, but He did offer freedom from sin and guilt, His presence in our lives in the person of the Holy Spirit, the opportunity to join Him in His mission, and the promise of an eternity with Him.
The greatest witness to the truth of the resurrection is the transformation that has taken place in your life. With confidence, you can say with the white-haired preacher: “I’ve tasted my Jesus”!