Close to 100 years ago the great New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen wrote the following for a sermon he was to preach:
Some nineteen hundred years ago, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, there lived one who, to a casual observer might have seemed to be a remarkable man. Up to the age of about thirty years. He lived an obscure life in the midst of an humble family. Then He began a remarkable course of ethical and religious teaching, accompanied by a ministry of healing. At first He was very popular. Great crowds followed Him gladly, and the intellectual men of His people were interested in what He had to say. But His teaching presented revolutionary features, and He did not satisfy the political expectations of the populace. And so, before long, after some three years, He fell a victim to the jealousy of the leaders of His people and the cowardice of the Roman governor. He died the death of the criminals of those days, on the cross. At His death, the disciples whom He had gathered about Him were utterly discouraged. In Him had centered all their loftiest hopes. And now that He was taken from them by a shameful death, their hopes were shattered. They fled from Him in cowardly fear in the hour of His need, and an observer would have said that never was a movement more hopelessly dead. These followers of Jesus had evidently been far inferior to Him in spiritual discernment and in courage. They had not been able, even when He was with them, to understand the lofty teachings of their leader. How, then, could they understand Him when He was gone? The movement depended, one might have said, too much on one extraordinary man, and when He was taken away, then surely the movement was dead.
But then the astonishing thing happened. The plain fact, which no one doubts, is that those same weak, discouraged men who had just fled in the hour of their Master’s need, and who were altogether hopeless on account of His death, suddenly began in Jerusalem, a very few days or weeks after their Master’s death, what is certainly the most remarkable spiritual movement that the world has ever seen. At first, the movement thus begun remained within the limits of the Jewish people. But soon it broke the bands of Judaism, and began to be planted in all the great cities of the Roman world. Within three hundred years, the Empire itself had been conquered by the Christian faith.
From the very beginning, Christianity was an “Easter faith.” That is, the Christian faith exists because the tomb of Jesus has been empty since the third day following his crucifixion. If Jesus had remained dead and buried it is almost certain that we would not know his name today. His followers would have dispersed dejected like the followers of the many mystics, revolutionaries, and pretend Messiah’s of that day. Indeed, though Jesus assured his followers that he would rise from the grave, none of them believed him until after he appeared to them for several weeks following his execution. The only explanation for the radical change in Jesus’ followers and the unheard of advance of Christianity around the world for 2,000 years is the resurrection. The tomb is empty. Jesus is risen.