Some years ago a journalist called Frank Morison wrote a book called ‘Who moved the stone?’ He was an atheist at the time, and determined to put a stop to all this Christian nonsense about resurrection. He decided to treat the Gospel accounts just as documents, as a journalist would, and not as sacred texts.
He majored on the Gospel of Mark, which is considered by scholars to be the earliest Gospel. He quotes Mark’s version of the women coming to the tomb, expecting to find the body of Jesus:
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb
3 and they asked each other, Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.
5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 Don’t be alarmed, he said. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.
7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.
Morison comments ‘First a word as to its atmosphere. It is impossible to read this passage impartially and with an open mind without being impressed, and impressed favorably, by its straightforward and objective character. It is singularly frank, open, and direct. It shows few, if any, traces of adjustment to later conceptions. It is primitive in character and nails the original version of the episode, as it were, to the mast. Moreover, and this is a point of considerable significance, it is entirely free from incidents of a necessarily supernormal character.’
Don’t forget, this guy is an atheist and is not impressed with the fact that the Gospels are considered sacred texts. He goes on to talk about the stone that was rolled across the entrance to the rock-cut tomb in which Jesus’ dead body had been laid. The really strange thing was that, when the women arrived at the tomb, fully expecting to find the body of Jesus there, and with spices and herbs which they had prepared to anoint the body, they found that the stone had already been rolled away.
Morison, the investigative journalist, says this must mean that somebody had got there ahead of the women. Who could it have been? Joseph of Arimathea, who had asked Pilate for the body and put it in his own tomb? The chief priests themselves? Or the disciples? Or who?
If Joseph or the priests had moved it, then when the disciples started claiming that Jesus was alive and had spoken to them, they would have promptly produced the body. End of story.
If the disciples had themselves taken the body, – impossible when the tomb was under armed guard – in order to hoodwink everyone into thinking that Jesus had risen, then there is a major transformation which would not be explained. Why did they go from being frightened people hiding behind locked doors, to bold people out on the streets at a major festival telling everyone in their own language about the resurrection of Jesus, which made him Lord and Saviour? And then be prepared to die for such a lie? It doesn’t make sense.
Morison goes on to ask if Mark was in fact mistaken. But when he looks at all the other accounts of that morning, they are unanimous: the stone had been moved, and the body was not there, and nobody was expecting this to happen. He says ‘However disconcerting the fact may be, the literary verdict is unanimous and must at least be given its due weight by the impartial mind.’
Another odd thing was the witnesses. Nobody believed anybody, to begin with. When the women told the disciples that the body had gone and that they had seen angels who told them Jesus had risen, the men scoffed. When Peter ran to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, he didn’t get it. When Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus met with them, he refused to believe them. These are not the sort of witness statements one would prepare for perpetuating a scam.
Then there are the appearances of Jesus himself. It was obviously he – people recognised him, most of the time. And he had a body, and went out of his way to reassure the disciples that he was not a ghost, to the point of eating with them so that they could be sure. But there was also something about his body which had changed. He no longer seemed subject to normal planetary laws, appearing and disappearing, and obviously knowing about conversations that had taken place, although the disciples had not been conscious of his presence.
Eventually the disciples were so convinced that the Jesus they had known for three years really had risen again, that they were, as stated above, prepared to preach powerfully everywhere with passion and conviction, enduring much personal physical violence, privation and even death as a result. But contemporary pagan Roman records comment that the Christians died singing with joy that they were counted worthy to suffer.
Morison concludes ‘If there is one thing in the New Testament that threatens to emerge unchallenged … it is the real and objective character of the Appearances (of Jesus). This phenomenon could not have been the product of pure imagination. Rather, it seems to emerge from some undiscovered but externally exerted force. The simplest explanation, of course, is that the manifestations occurred where Jesus Himself was.’
He ends ‘There may be, and, as the writer thinks, there certainly is, a deep and profoundly historical basis for that much disputed sentence in the Apostles’ Creed “On the third day he rose again from the dead.”‘
Personally, I think that the resurrection is mysterious, but these are the questions that demand an answer: who moved the stone? what happened to the body of Jesus? And why the transformation in the disciples after the resurrection? I find the simple explanation is entirely tenable: that the story is true.
As most Christians will witness, it is true not only in an academic way, but also true in our own lives: that Jesus is a living and daily spiritual reality. We may not be very good at following him, but he is real.
And so for me, I know that my Redeemer lives.