Millions of Christians around the world are on this day celebrating a miracle.
They believe that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died and was buried, and that he came back to life, leaving an empty tomb for his followers to discover on the third day.
Christians also believe that after his Resurrection, Jesus appeared to more than 500 witnesses before ascending to heaven, where he reigns over all creation with God.
Most know the story. It is the linchpin of the Christian faith, which, unlike most other major world religions, either stands or falls based on its claims.
Not everyone believes the Resurrection was a literal, historic event, but there is almost no one who doubts that a man named Jesus lived and died, preaching as he went.
Christians further teach and believe that Jesus was God made flesh, who in that Crucifixion paid the penalty for the sins of the world, and that his Resurrection means all who believe in him have eternal life and will themselves rise from the dead when he returns.
“Yes, I believe he rose from the dead,” said Bishop Robert Guglielmone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston. “It's important to make a distinction here, there's a difference between resurrection and resuscitation. When I say that I believe in a bodily resurrection, a physical resurrection, it doesn't mean a return to the bodily experience that existed prior to death, but a new sense of the body, a new sense of existence.”
Guglielmone, spiritual leader of the more than 201,000 Roman Catholics in the state, said the church teaches that the Resurrection was a historical fact and he thinks most Catholics firmly believe it.
“There are some folks who wonder about it because you try to make sense out of it, and it's not an easy thing to do,” the bishop said.
Believe it or not
Christians, Jews, Muslims and Bahá’ís, along with most secular historians, believe a man called Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught in Palestine, but what they believe about him is vastly different.
Judaism does not consider Jesus to be a prophet, the messiah or the Son of God, according to an article on the website MyJewishLearning.com. Jewish scholars generally agree that Jesus was crucified, but do not think he rose from the dead.
“The story of the Resurrection is true,” said Michael S. Kogan, a retired professor of religion. “A living Christ lives in the heart of billions of people, but is it fact? I don't think so.”
If a camera could have been set up outside the tomb, Kogan said, he doesn’t think it would have recorded the stone rolling away and the man Jesus, who had been dead, walking out of the tomb alive.
“The Gospel doesn't describe that scene for a reason. It wouldn't be picked up by a camera. It just says Jesus was put in the tomb, when they went to anoint the body a day and a half later, he wasn't there. The tomb was empty.”
Kogan, author of the book “Opening the Covenant: A Jewish Theology of Christianity,” said he doesn’t doubt the many people who said they saw Jesus alive after they’d witnessed his crucifixion. He believes they had visions and were describing their own experiences, but none of those experiences would have been picked up by a camera.
"It's not fact, it's truth," Kogan said. “And truth is infinitely more important than fact. It's a distinction that 99.9 percent of the world's population does not make, but they should, because it's why religion is so powerful. It rests on the level of truth, not facticity.”
Kogan, whose background is in Judaism, was for 42 years a professor of philosophy and religion at Montclair State University. He describes himself as a religious pluralist. He teaches Bible studies in two Protestant churches in downtown Charleston and also worships weekly at Russian Orthodox, Episcopal and Mormon churches, and at the Reform and Conservative Jewish temples in Charleston.
The Bahá'í Faith, with about 7 million followers worldwide, has more adherents in South Carolina than in any other state in the country. Behind Christianity, it is the second most popular religion here.
Bahá’ís believe Jesus was one of several manifestations of God that have included Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha and Muhammad. The most recent of these divine messengers, Bahá’u’lláh, founded the Bahá'í faith in Iran in 1844.
According to the Bahá’í website, the crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society and of the nature and purpose of life. Of Bahá’í teachings, few are as sacred as the belief in the oneness of humanity, regardless of race or class or gender.
In Islam, Jesus is viewed as one prophet among many, who preceded the final Prophet Muhammad. According to the Quran, Jesus was born of a virgin and performed miracles; he was not crucified, but another was crucified in his place, and Jesus was subsequently taken up to heaven by God. One sect of Islam, the Ahmadiyya, teaches that Jesus survived the crucifixion and eventually escaped to Kashmir, India, where he later died a natural death.
Whether the Resurrection is believed or not, no one can deny something special happened in Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago.
Controversy among Christians
The continuing “liberal versus conservative” controversy dividing many Christian denominations has much to do with the inerrancy of Scripture, with liberals taking the position that many of the stories in the Bible are myths while conservatives maintain the stories are true.
Conservatives are concerned that attempts to portray the miracles in the Bible as myths will make it seem like a collection of legends, including the Resurrection.
“It’s the cornerstone of our faith,” said the Rev. Darrell Jackson Sr., pastor of the 15,000-member Bible Way Church of Atlas Road in Columbia. “If you don't believe it, then the whole premise of Christianity falls apart. Everything about Christianity is based on the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.”
Jackson, who also has represented a Richland County state Senate district since 1993, said he mainly believes in the Resurrection because he believes what the Bible says. But he also thinks there has been significant extra-biblical evidence.
“It is something that has not been disproven for thousands of years. Look at how Christianity has emerged. Christianity went from being, after the Resurrection of Jesus, 12 disciples and a few others to now one of the world's major religions.”
One of the New Testament writers, the apostle Paul, was combating Resurrection doubters among early Christians in Corinth when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty (too) is our preaching; empty, too, your faith...if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.”
That early Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15 is thought to have been written within 20 years of the crucifixion, said Andrew Blalock, a Christian philosophy and religion teacher at First Baptist School in Charleston.
Blalock, grew up in the church where his father has been pastor since 1997 and has been teaching at First Baptist for more than 10 years. He has a master’s degree in Christian apologetics, which is devoted to the defense of the divine origin and authority of Christianity.
Blalock said some of his high school students have been skeptical of the Resurrection, but, "They still recognize that Jesus is unique and that all of the world's religions teach about him." He tries to arm his students with as much information as possible and to teach them where and how to do further research. If they are skeptical, they are in good company.
Bookshelves and libraries are filled with books written by atheists and skeptics who became Christians after investigating the claims of Christ.
Lee Strobel was legal editor of The Chicago Tribune and a non-believer when his wife told him she had turned to Christ. He began investigating the Resurrection with the idea of proving it a hoax. His studies convinced him the evidence favored the actual occurrence of the Resurrection and he became a well-known speaker and writer in Christian circles. A feature film based on his 1998 book, “The Case for Christ,” opened nationwide on April 7.
Frank Morrison, a British journalist, also wanted to prove the story of Christ’s Resurrection was a myth. He became a Christian and his book, “Who Moved the Stone?,” is considered a classic in Christian apologetics.
C.S. Lewis, who is known as the apostle to the skeptics, belittled Christians until his conversion in 1931. His book “Mere Christianity” has led many to faith, including former Nixon White House aide Charles Colson.
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” Lewis wrote. “He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
Jeff Dunn, senior pastor at Christ United in Myrtle Beach, said he wouldn’t be preaching if he did not believe Christ rose from the dead. About 1,000 people worship each Sunday at his church.
“If he didn't in fact rise from the dead, as Paul said, we'd be guilty of lying about God, and we would be wasting people's time. Christians would be the most pitiful people on the planet.”
Dunn has been a pastor for 33 years. He said early in his academic career he was ready to abandon the idea that scripture was authoritative or historically accurate, or that it represented truth.
“I was completely beginning to embrace the idea that it was simply man's effort to explain God."
But before he completely bought into the idea that the Bible might or might not be true, he studied harder.
“I began looking at the evidence around Scripture and the evidence within, both from a theological perspective and from more of a scientific type perspective or investigatory perspective. It just became more and more clear to me that it was solid truth.”
He went through college, a graduate program and a doctoral program.
“Over those years I have been exposed to every position imaginable and the more I learn, from all perspectives, the more I come away feeling a strong assurance that not only does the Bible contain God's revelation of his truth, but that the miracles and the accounts of Scripture, actually the truth of those, is very, very, central to what God has done and can do in a human life," he said. "And when we discount the Resurrection of Jesus as myth or fable, it takes away the power of the new life that God gives us in Christ.”