The Resurrection. Many liberal Protestants seem slightly embarrassed about the resurrection, as if it were part of the magical mystery world of the New Testament. Or at least this is what Wikipedia says. For most Christians, however, resurrection remains the central doctrine of Christianity (Evans, p 29). Believing in the resurrection is tantamount to being a Christian. I suppose I come closer to being a liberal Protestant, but the resurrection is more complicated than reflected by these two categories.
Resurrection in the time of Jesus
Among the elite at the time of Jesus, physical resurrection was abhorrent. The elite, mostly Sadducees, were Hellenistic (Greek) in their attitude toward the body: that it was the prison of the soul. Death meant the liberation of the soul from the body, as Socrates and Plato taught.
Among the less cultured Greeks, as well as the Philistines, belief in the resurrection of the body, today’s official belief among most Christians, was more common (Vermes, loc 612). During the years (forty of them) during which I taught Plato, I thought the Platonists were right. If there is an afterlife, the soul would be free of the burden, demands, and desires of the body. Physical resurrection seemed weird. But the more Christian theology I read, the more sense physical resurrection makes to me. Not as a statement of fact (I don’t know what the facts are), but as a statement about how humans are fundamentally embodied creatures. Life without the body would be less, not more, than it is on earth. Jürgen Moltmann’s argument is particularly persuasive.
Paul states the theological significance of resurrection
It is in Paul that the central theological significance of the resurrection was laid out. Many readers of the New Testament will be familiar with this passage.
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. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
Evidence for the resurrection
The search for historical evidence of the resurrection seems misguided. The historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion is sound. However, it puzzles me that such a brilliant scholar as N. T. Wright could conclude that the evidence for the resurrection provided by two far from certain facts, the empty tomb, and the posthumous appearances of the risen Jesus, make the resurrection as historically certain as the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, or the death of Augustus in 14 AD (p 710).
The four Gospels were written between about 66 and 100 AD, between thirty and seventy years after the crucifixion. None were written by eyewitnesses to the event. All are the result of oral and written transmission, which does not survive (Reddish, pp 13, 42). Paul wrote a little earlier, but his evidence for the resurrection is a voice from heaven, as Luke tells us (Acts 9:3-17), and as Paul confirms (1 Corinthians 15:8). Paul was a witness to something, but not the resurrected Jesus.
As we know, stories change over the course of their telling, generally to make them more interesting, persuasive, and in accord with the general point the teller wants to make. But Wright treats hearsay as though it were fact.
Gary Wills, a serious scholar agrees with Wright, arguing that the best evidence for the resurrection is the transformation of the apostles from a group of cowardly dimwits into the men who, along with Paul, would found Christianity. This, says Wills (loc 1880-1889), is evidence of their transformation by the Holy Spirit, whose transmission is the prime purpose of Christ’s return.
While Wills is certainly right about the transformation of the apostles, there is no reason to assume it had to be the result of the risen Christ’s intervention. They may well have been ashamed of their conduct at the crucifixion, and decided to transform themselves. In any case, group psychology seems a more likely explanation than the Holy Spirit. If, that is, we look at the resurrection from a strictly secular perspective. I don’t think we should. Belief in the resurrection is an act of faith, but it is Wright and Wills who wish to transform it into a historical fact. I think they are playing in the wrong game. Or rather, playing in two games at once, theology and history. Generally, it is best to stick to one or the other.
The most ridiculous attempt to treat the resurrection as history is that of Richard Swinburne in The Resurrection of God Incarnate. Swinburne takes various pieces of evidence, from the empty tomb to the appearances of Christ after the crucifixion, attaches a probability to each, going on to construct a probability calculus (really) for the likelihood of the resurrection being true. Trouble is, he starts with the assumption that it is probable that God exists. His key piece of evidence seems to be the ordered complexity of the universe.
I wish these theologians and philosophers would reread Kierkegaard. The existence of God and the resurrection is a subjective truth, true because we believe it to be true. A subjective truth is neither strengthened nor weakened by objective evidence. Most, but not Swinburne, recognize that something like this is true as far as the existence of God is concerned, but somehow the resurrection gets drawn into the realm of objective history. It shouldn’t.
One way to think about the resurrection
The resurrection occurs in the minds of men and women. It happens when somehow Christ becomes alive in our hearts and our lives. It may happen in church, it may happen at three-o’clock in the morning when we are worried and can’t sleep, or it may happen anytime when we are inspired by the teachings and example of Christ. The resurrection is a spiritual state of mind, in which the ideas and rituals we have practiced for years (or possibly just months) come alive for us in a new and more profound way.
I’m not writing about the faith that comes when we have narrowly survived disaster, and dedicate the rest of our lives to God. That’s not cheap faith, but it’s likely not long lasting either. In some ways, resurrection is more like Zen, in which we go along every day, saying our prayers, or going to church, and suddenly it all means something different, something more, true in a new and more profound way. That, I believe, is the resurrection that really matters.
This resurrection is unlikely to occur in the absence of religious belief and practice. But something similar may occur, for example, in a professor who goes along teaching the same material for years, and suddenly he finds that it has become part of who he is. You can come up with your own examples. I think finding that the teachings of Christ are who you have become (in so far as that is humanly possible) is the best resurrection of all, but it’s a long road, and most of us aren’t going to make it. Still, it stands as an inspiration, as it has for Christians for two-thousand years.
Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Mitchell Reddish, An Introduction to The Gospels. Abingdon Press, 2011.
Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate. Oxford University Press, 2003.
Geza Vermes, The Resurrection: History and Myth. Doubleday, 2008.
Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant. Viking, 2006.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.