People often discuss the issues of the historicity of Christianity, about how things actually happened, how they were, what was factical, what literally happened, what was not. And this is a great debate among people and among scholars who read the texts of the Scriptures and notice, of course—because you cannot help but notice, if you read the Scriptures carefully—how many discrepancies there are in the New Testament, the order of events of how things happened, the relation of St. John’s Gospel to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the relation of the four Gospels to the writings of St. Paul, a greater part of which were written before the Gospels were written. And this is always a big debate, you know, what historically happened, what is historically true. And when I was teaching at the seminary in dogmatic theology, I used to like to say, a little bit jokingly but still, very seriously, that really, the only things that we really have to know and believe that are really factically, historically true are things that anybody would agree to. Even the most liberal or the most radical or the most anti-Christian people would have to definitely agree that three things are certainly, historically true.
The first is that Jesus existed, that Jesus of Nazareth is a real, historical person. It’s virtually impossible to deny that, that Jesus was just invented or that the Gospels were made-up stories about a man who never really existed. No one in their right mind would hold that position. There are evidences to Jesus in early literature outside the Gospels. The event of Jesus and the Christ and all the literature and everything that existed about him at the time is just overwhelming. So it is certainly historically undeniable that Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, existed.
It is also, it seems, absolutely undeniable—no one in their right mind would deny—that Jesus was crucified, that he was put to death, he was put to a violent death. Now of course there’re some later writings, some Gnostics some—even the Quran, which would say, “Well, he didn’t really die. Somebody took him away from the cross before he died; God’s prophet can’t die,” or whatever. But in any case I think that objectively, anyone again who is honest would have to agree that Jesus was put to death. Again, there’s records of this outside the New Testament and there is great controversy in the early periods around the time when Jesus lived, controversy about his being put to death and that he was put to death because he was, in a sense, a rabble-rouser. He was teaching things that created great opposition against him, that he created a stir, and that he was killed.
And then the third thing—absolutely historically undeniable—is that there were people—Jews—those who claimed to be his disciples when he was on earth, those who claimed that they saw him, that they knew him, that they heard his teachings, that there were those people who immediately after his crucifixion, virtually immediately, even immediately, almost, in writing—within ten, fifteen, twenty years of his death—had recorded in writing that he had been raised from the dead. That he was alive. That he did not stay dead and that he appeared, being alive, to people. And so you have, even in the very first writing of the Christian era that we Christians would believe is a canonical, dependable writing, would be the first letter to the Thessalonians by the Apostle Paul. And the Apostle Paul here definitely witnessed to the risen Christ. He claimed that he had seen him, that he appeared to him, that he knew he was alive.
And then this Paul, this Saul, this very learned Jew, began, after having this experience, studying the Scriptures, reading the Law, the Psalms, the Prophets, and then he came to the conclusion that the Christ had to suffer, that he had to die, to enter into his glory, that it was all foretold, that it’s all found in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, that it was there.
But in the very first Christian writing—it’s probably the earliest, in the early fifties—you have the Apostle writing—he’s calling it the “Gospel of God,” and then he has the sentence:
For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you—he’s writing to the Thessalonians—and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.
So in the first lines of the first Christian writing Paul bears the witness that God has raised his Son Jesus from the dead.
Now, St. Paul also in the letter to the Corinthians that was written probably only about five or six years later—scholars think it was in the mid-fifties—you have what could be considered to be the first Christian credal statement. It’s in the 15th chapter of the first Corinthian letter, of what this Gospel is that Paul is teaching, this victory of God in Jesus, and it’s centered in the Resurrection. That’s what the confession of the Christian faith is. And this is what he writes:
For I deliver 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—or Kephas; that’s Peter—and then to the Twelve. And then he appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James then to all the Apostles. And last of all, as to one untimely born—actually in Greek it would say ‘as to an abortion.’ He called himself an abortion—he appeared also to me. And I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.
And then he continues and says:
If Christ as priest is raised from the dead, how come some people say there is no resurrection from the dead? And if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ has not been raised. 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 bore witness, we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise, if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
And then he continues: “But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” And then he continues to contrast Christ as the last and final Adam who brings life to the world, being raised from the dead after being killed, to the first Adam who is created from the dust and breathed in the breath of God but then brought death to the world.
So the historical point is it cannot be denied that there were those who were convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, that he was God’s own Son, and that God had raised him from the dead. And that’s the expression that’s used throughout the New Testament: God has raised his Servant, that God has raised his Child, God has raised his Son, Jesus, from the dead.
Now, sometimes that expression bothers some Orthodox people. They say, “Well, Christ rose by his own power,” and so on. Well, that’s a theological issue that could use some contemplation because the Scripture is very clear. The Apostolic witness always uses that expression “God raised Jesus.”
Now the book of Acts was written probably about the eighties; that would almost be 20, 25 years after the letters of Paul, the Corinthian letter. And the book of Acts was written by Luke, who, in the New Testament writings, was a disciple of St. Paul. He wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. And so Luke comes out of that circle that was connected with the Apostle Paul. In the book of Acts he even travels around with Paul. Some of the chapters in Acts he wrote “we”: “we” went here, “we” went there, which means that the author of the Acts was with the Apostle Paul and learned from him, learned the Scriptures from him, learned how the Scriptures applied to Jesus, which was Paul’s great brilliant contribution: kata tas graphas, “according to Scriptures.”
Now, in the book of Acts it is certainly clear that the resurrection of Christ is central to the Christian faith. In fact, we can assume that if there were no people, people close to Jesus, those who were among his very disciples when he was on earth, even those who belonged to the company of the Twelve, if they were not convinced of the resurrection of Christ from the dead, in the empty tomb, that he really was raised and glorified into the presence of God, there would be no Christianity. If it were not historically true that there were these people who were convinced and claimed to be eyewitnesses of the risen Lord and of the empty tomb, there would be no Christianity. In fact, sometime when you read the New Testament writings you feel that when the risen Christ appears, like to Peter and to the Apostles, it’s almost as if they say, “Oh no! Here we go again, you know. We thought that this was the Messiah, he was killed, we went back to our boats, and here he is now, appearing to us, risen from the dead.” And we have this whole enigma of this empty tomb.
But that is the story, and that is a historical fact, that that is the story. Whether people want to believe it or not, that’s another issue. But that it is witnessed to, so that you could really legitimately conclude if there weren’t any who thought that the tomb was empty and Christ was risen, there would be no Christianity. There would be no Christianity. They would have gone back fishing; they would have felt disappointed. They would remain weeping, like poor Mary Magdalene who became the first witness of the Resurrection, according to Scripture, this woman out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. She becomes, with the myrrh-bearing women, the first witnesses according to the Scriptures, of the empty tomb. They even go back and call the Apostles, and then the Apostles come look, and so on. And they are all wondering what has come to pass.
In Mark’s Gospel, which is the starkest and the shortest, there’s an ending of certain appearances which seem to have been added later—most scholars think they were added later—and that the original Mark ends just with the empty tomb, that the angel of God is announcing that he is risen. He is not here. And some people—I heard once an archimandrite, an Orthodox priest from the Balamand Seminary in the Middle East, in Lebanon—saying that in Mark’s Gospel, God is the ultimate authority in that Gospel. God and the demons are fighting with each other in Mark’s Gospel. And in the Gospel, no man confesses that Jesus is the Son of God. Only at the end, the soldier does, at the cross. He says, “Truly this was God’s Son.” But Jesus is witnessed to by the demons and by God Almighty himself, his Father, and so that the [Gospel] of [Mark] probably originally ended where the angel says to the women:
“Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, as he told you.”
And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling with astonishment had come upon them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.
And that’s probably where the Gospel ends, which means it’s only God’s angel that’s announcing the Resurrection to the world. There’s not a human witness; it’s an angelic witness. But then, of course, the human beings do see him, because even in this text it says, “He is going before you, and you will see him as he told you.” And the rest of the chapters seem to be taken from those other appearances we find referred to in the other Gospels and in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
So here, we have this witness to the Resurrection. And Luke, as I was saying, this disciple of Paul who wrote the Gospel of Luke and also wrote the book of Acts—he shows in the book of Acts—maybe this book of Acts is a kind of theological or idealized picture of the early Church as some people think, but one thing is for certain. One thing is absolutely, historically for certain: the witness of this text is that Christ is risen, that Christ has been raised. God has raised him.
And so, in the Acts of the Apostles, at the very first sermon on Pentecost after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples who were told to wait till the power from on high came upon them, because it was prophesized that when the Messiah comes and is glorified, the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, and so on that very day of Pentecost, fifty days after Pascha, after the Resurrection of Christ, when the disciples are filled with the Spirit, according to the book of Acts, Peter, standing with the Eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them. And he said, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.” And then he begins by saying that
You think these people are drunk. They are not drunk. They are filled with the Holy Spirit that has been poured out. And why has the Holy Spirit been poured out? Because the Day of the Lord has come. The Lord’s victory has come. The Messianic King has been victorious.
And then he says in the 22nd verse:
Men of Israel, hear these words. Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know, this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death because it was not possible for him to be held by it, for David said, concerning him, “For thou will not abandon my soul to Hades (Sheol, the realm of death) or let the Holy One see corruption.”
And then he continues that the prophet David foresaw and spoke of the Resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to Sheol, Hades, the realm of the dead, nor did his flesh see corruption.
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, he’s glorified. Having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he poured out this which you now see and hear, for “The Lord said to my Lord,” for as David said, “Sit at my right hand till I make thy enemies my footstool.”
So Jesus is glorified at the right hand of God, having been raised from the dead. And as you continue to read through Acts, you see how this is repeated again and again. The very next day, Peter and John go to the temple. They preach at the Beautiful Gate and then they go to Solomon’s Portico. And then again, Peter says,
You denied the holy and righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you and killed the Author of Life whom God raised from the dead. To this, we are witnesses. We are witnesses. And it’s by faith in his name that we’re doing the miracles that we’re doing.
Then they also say in the very next day, it says, “On the morrow they were speaking again in Jerusalem,” and again when they were doing miracles and were challenged by Caiaphas and John and Alexander and the high priests, by what name they were doing this, Peter again answers to the rulers of the people and the elders:
If we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you: saved, well.
And then he refers to Psalm 118: “This is the Stone which the builders rejected that God has made the Cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing. It is marvelous and wonderful in our eyes.”
Then later in the book of Acts, when Paul gets converted—Saul gets converted and he becomes Paul and he begins to preach according to the Scripture—it says that when he was in Athens they were preaching Jesus and the Resurrection so much that the people thought they were preaching two new divinities, two new gods, one called “Jesus” and one called Anastasis or “Resurrection.” They thought that the Resurrection was a new god because they were preaching the Resurrection so much. And then every time St. Paul gets into trouble in the book of Acts, he refers to the Resurrection and he makes the leaders of the Jewish people argue with each other because the Pharisees believed in resurrection and in spirit, and in soul, and the Sadducees did not. And so there was a big battle. And so every time Paul got in trouble he would say, “I am on trial because of the Resurrection.”
So the Resurrection is so central in the New Testamental writings and that these documents—the last one, the Apocalypse, written at the end of the first century—they are unanimous in testifying to the fact that the tomb is empty, that Christ is raised and glorified, that God has raised him—that’s the language that they use in the New Testament, that God has raised him. And I think that this is not only because it would be the easiest way to announce the Resurrection to the people on the streets and to the Jews and to the Gentiles, that they would not get into any discussion of the Trinity or of the powers.
But one thing is certain theologically in Orthodox Christian tradition, and that is that Jesus, being God’s Son, being the Logos who in the St. John theology was God and took flesh and became man and is the divine “I Am,” he identified so completely and totally with those who are cursed and sinful and dead that you might say that it is, in fact, the case that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, the Messiah, had to give himself over to death completely and totally, and therefore God his Father had to act to raise him because he identified with those who had no power to raise themselves.
Now in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I have the power to lay down my life and I have the power to take it up again. ” And it’s very clear in the Gospels that if he could raise the dead, and if he could heal the sick, he certainly had the power to keep himself somehow alive and even to be able to raise himself up from the dead—he has that power. In fact, St. Paul will even call him “the power of God.” It’s interesting: St. Gregory the Theologian even calls Jesus “the right hand of God, the right hand of the power of God, the hand through which God acts as Jesus, the divine Word and Logos.”
But in the Incarnation, in the kenosis, in the self-emptying, he gives himself over completely to death. It isn’t as if Jesus would say to God the Father, “Well, if you don’t raise me up I’m going to raise myself up.” He gives himself, complete and total love to those who are cursed, sinful, and dead, but because of that, because of that love, because that’s the mercy and will of God, that very act destroys death.
So we could say ironically, again, paradoxically—and we like to say “Orthodoxy is paradoxy”—Jesus conquers death as the power of God, by the power of God, which is his own power, because everything the Father has he gives to him, including his divinity. He receives it eternally from the Father. So the power of God, he has. But the irony is, it’s by not exercising that power that the power is exercised. It’s by Jesus in his total poverty and weakness and identification and love with sinners—that is the power of God that’s revealed—God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s humility—and that’s the power that destroys death.
So in a sense you can say God raised Jesus from the dead by the power of God that Jesus himself is. And Jesus has exactly the same power that God has, and he is God’s very own power, filled with the same Holy Spirit which is the Spirit of God who is in him and upon him, even from all eternity. And so you can contemplate the Resurrection in the categories of what we could call today “Trinitarian theology,” how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit work together in everything, including the death and resurrection and glorification of Christ himself.
But for now, the point is this: No crucifixion, no resurrection, no Christianity. That’s clear. If Jesus were not raised, there’s no Christianity. And if he were not crucified first to fulfill the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets in identification with us cursed and sinful people in order to heal and save us, to ransom us from the devil and death and sickness and disease and everything that is ungodly—if that crucifixion didn’t take place, there would be no sense to even talk about the Resurrection. But the Scripture is clear and the early Christian history is clear, and it’s historical. There were those who believed in the Resurrection and preached it as the Gospel. That the Gospel of God is the victory over every evil, and as St. Paul says in Corinthian letter, “Over the last enemy of God, which is death,” which is the wages of sin, the result of sin. There were those who believed that that was true.
And they believed that they had the experience of the risen Christ and that they were witnesses of those things. And this is our faith as well. We believe in their witness. We believe in the witness of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and Paul, and James and John and Jude and Peter and the Apocalypse. We believe in those who had the experience of the risen Christ, because it isn’t only the case that we believe according to the Scriptures—oh, that’s basic. But the claim is that when you believe according to the Scriptures and when you pray and when you receive the Holy Spirit from the risen Christ and when you are baptized into his death and when you are raised with him through baptism and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and participate in the broken Body and the spilled Blood, you have an experience of the risen Christ. You know that Christ is alive. You know that he is with you through the Holy Spirit that is given. And all the saints through the ages were convinced on the basis of their own experience, their own contemplation of the word of God, their own prayer, their own participation in the life of the Church, their own ascetical activity that Christ is literally, historically, factically risen from the dead. He is not dead. He is alive. The tomb was empty.
And here we can mention that in the Orthodox Church there are basically two icons—iconographic depictions—of Pascha, of the celebration of the Lord’s Pascha, the resurrection from the dead. One icon is a depiction of the women and an angel at an empty tomb. Sometimes they’ll put a glorified Christ in a mandorla over the empty tomb. But the empty tomb is literally, historically true, according to Orthodox Christians. The Apostles were not liars. And they themselves suffered and died and were persecuted for what they believed. And it’s not very likely that people would be willing to die for a myth that they had created themselves. And so the Church is built on the blood of the martyrs who witnessed to the risen Christ, beginning with the Apostles and St. Paul himself. They were ready to die for it because they believed that it was factically true.
Now, the empty tomb is basic. And it’s important, when we think of the empty tomb, to know that the angel did not roll away the stone to let Jesus out. The Resurrection of Christ was not a biological resuscitation like Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter or the only son of the widow of Nain. No, Jesus is raised, never to die again, into the glory of God with his full humanity, totally deified by his own divinity that he received from God the Father from before the foundation of the world. And he’s raised to newness of life as the Lord of the living and the dead, the judge of all things, the Resurrection and the Life himself, in the theology of St. John. So he is raised, never to die again. He is raised never to die again, and he raises us with him.
God raises the dead. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection. But what they didn’t know, the mystery hidden from the ages, is that God would raise the dead by raising his Servant-Son Jesus, the slave, his own divine Son who became the human slave, who offered himself completely and totally to God as a ransom, that by his blood we could be healed, that he would offer his life in return for our life and to make us live.
So the mystery is that God does raise the dead and there is a resurrection. And the first fruit of that resurrection is the one who makes the resurrection possible for all of the rest of us and that is Jesus Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life. So he is raised and glorified and we confess the empty tomb.
The other iconographic depiction, which is the one that is venerated and incensed and kissed and carried in procession on Pascha, shows the image of Sheol, of Hades, the realm of the dead. And in this icon you have Jesus in a mandorla, which means nobody saw this. This is invisible to human eyes, this is not anything that anyone has seen. The Apostles did not see it. Nobody saw it, but it is the truth. It is the eyes of faith that when Jesus is dead, he is destroying death. He dies in order to free those who were held captive by death. And that’s what the icon shows. It shows him in a mandorla. That means nobody could see it; it’s a theological, mystical affirmation. But he is alive; he’s vibrant. As the Paschal hymn says:
In the grave with the body in Sheol, in the realm of death, with the soul inasmuch as you are God in Paradise on the throne with the Father and the Holy Spirit, in Paradise with the thief.
Jesus Christ is filling all things. Being God and man, he fills all things. But as man, he experiences real death.
There’s a beautiful troparion that’s sung on Great and Holy Friday that became the second tone troparion during the year for the Resurrection, in which it says:
When thou didst descend into Hades, O Lord, life immortal into death, thou did slay Hades with the power of thy divinity.
So Jesus slays Hades, death, Sheol, the realm of the dead. And by the way, this is not hell. It should not be translated in English, “hell.” Hell is Gehenna. Hell is a place where the evil people who don’t accept the Resurrection and don’t accept the victory of Christ are tormented by it. But there’s no torment by [Sheol], and when Jesus descended into Sheol, he was not tormented at all. Some Christian thinkers think that when Jesus died, he experienced the pangs and the pains and the torments of hell as a punishment or as a place of total exile and separation from God. That is not the Orthodox teaching. The Orthodox teaching is that he really died in the flesh, but dying in the flesh, his divinity destroyed death by that very death. That’s how the song goes:
When thou didst descend into death, O Life immortal, thou did slay Hades, Sheol, the realm of death by the power of your divinity.
So this is on the icon, and it shows him smashing the gates. Under his feet the gates are smashed. It shows an ugly little figure that symbolizes Satan and the devil being all chained and held and no longer able to be active because Jesus’ death destroyed him. There’s a wonderful line in the service that says, “The deceiver was deceived.” “It took a body,” as St. John Chrysostom says in his Paschal homily, “and it met God. It took a corpse, and it met the Living Lord face to face, and it was destroyed.” So death is destroyed. Satan is tied up—bound.
And then it shows Jesus pulling out of the tombs two figures, sometimes one, but mostly two, and that is Adam and Eve. That is man and woman. That is humanity. And it symbolizes the whole of humanity. In the proper depictions, those figures don’t have on halos because they are not the same as the others in the depiction that have halos like John the Baptist, who had to die first to be the Forerunner even into death for the Messiah. But it shows, you know, David, Solomon, the Prophets, the righteous of the Old Testament, and all the righteous dead, because the Christian claim is that when Christ died, he opened the tombs. It even says in Matthew’s Gospel that the bodies of the saints rose and were seen walking around the city of Jerusalem. The minute that Christ enters into Sheol and destroys it by his power of his total loving divinity that is actualized and realized in his kenotic death, then death is no more. As the song of tone four goes, “Christ God is risen, the tombs are empty, no one is left in the grave.” They all are brought fully into the victory of the victorious Christ.
And that’s what we see on this Paschal icon. It shows Jesus harrowing Hades, crushing Sheol, destroying death, trampling it down, breaking the gates of those held captive by death, and pulling humanity—the whole of humanity—as it says in the New Testament that he was raised as a ransom, not just for us, but for the whole world. And he saves and recreates the whole of creation by dying and trampling down death by death. And so that’s what we see visibly with our eyes when we go to church. We see the historical fact, the empty tomb. And we see the mystical, theological truth—the destruction of death. Christ, the Suffering Servant, the Resurrection, and the Life, trampling down death by death, and releasing all those who were held captive by death, and being raised into life. And so we sing “Yesterday we died with him; today we live with him.” The thief hears the words, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Christ is risen, and the sting of death, the power of death, is destroyed. This is our faith. And without the Resurrection, there is no Christianity. But without the Crucifixion, there is no Resurrection, according to Scripture.
But Christ is risen from the dead. Christ is risen; truly he is risen! This is not myth. This is not a fable. This is not wishful thinking. This is not simply some kind of way of saying that, you know, good triumphs and God will take care of everything and so on. No, no, no. We believe now that Christ is risen and is alive. We believe that all the dead in Christ are alive and with him. We believe that Sheol has been emptied. We believe that the Kingdom is already inaugurated beyond this world and the risen Christ. And we believe that as those baptized into Christ—and the baptismal day for centuries in the early Church was just Pascha; that was the quintessential baptismal day—and every Pascha we celebrate again that we have died with him in baptism.
We have already been raised with him, we already eat bread in the Kingdom of God, we already eat and drink with him in the Kingdom while still in this world, we already are risen and belong to Paradise. We’re still in this world suffering, bearing witness like the Apostles, perhaps even unto death and being killed, but we know that we cannot die, because those who believe in him cannot die. “If you believe in me, even though you die, you live,” the risen Christ tells us.
This is the Christian faith and this is what we are now celebrating. Christ is risen. Truly he is risen.