Science and Christianity … Why Resurrection? (RJS)

On my post last Tuesday, toward the end of the comments, the following question was asked (I edit slightly):

Your ‘Noah’ versus ‘resurrection’ argument is interesting.  … Moreover is the ‘resurrection’ as an event that important? Jesus was supposedly ‘resurrected’ physically in this reality, but went to heaven more or less right away anyway. The christian faith does not preach that a believer will be physically ‘resurrected’ in this reality like Jesus was but that they will live immortally in heaven. So the absence of a ‘resurrection’ event would have little effect on christian teaching. The ‘resurrection’ of Jesus is thus just some proof he was the son of God but even here I can’t quite determine who did the ‘resurrecting’. Did Jesus do it to himself or did God do it to him? If it were the former than it shows Jesus had God like powers (but you don’t so it is irrelevant) and if it is the latter it shows Jesus was God’s son (which doesn’t mean you will be ‘resurrected’). Which makes the whole ‘resurrection’ thing like the Noah story in that it teaches but has no real need to be a reality.

This is a great comment and question – and one I think we would do well to ponder and discuss.

Why is the resurrection as an event important? Does it matter that the resurrection is “physical” or of a real body? Does the lack of emphasis on resurrection in evangelical gospel preaching reveal a more spiritual or even Platonic theory of salvation?

The question posed by this commenter is one I’ve considered a great deal over the last several years because I think it actually hits at the core of much of the conflict between science and faith, and more broadly at the core of the conflict between reason and faith. You will certainly see traces of Scot and NT Wright, among others in my thinking. So a bit of my response:

This is a great question with a many part answer.

First – The Christian hope is not “liv[ing] immortally in heaven.” The Christian hope is a new heaven and a new earth – carrying on the mission of God, defeat of evil, restoration of creation. We do believe in resurrection – although not immediate resurrection. The resurrection then is “embodied life after life after death” and not just soul existence.

Second – none of the miracles of the NT are proof of divinity, or even proof of God’s power. Rather they all point to the coming restoration of all things and the fact that Jesus is the Messiah who is inaugurating that restoration. They are not “magic” for their wow content (although they can have a wow impact) rather with the
coming of the Messiah the blind see, the lame walk, and people are made whole – all of creation is effected. This is the beginning of the kingdom we ultimately hope for.

Third – resurrection is the victory over evil and over death.

The commenter came back…

1) What is wrong with the current “heaven” or “earth” for that matter. I can’t see how these notions constitute resurrection.

2) Jesus is credited with making the blind see etc. but that has not made such things more prevalent since. Also if Jesus is doing all this restoring (which is also not resurrection) isn’t that the domain of the divine with godly power?

3) Even if you conquer death, you are still not resurrecting anyone in the real world (or are you?) and those in heaven don’t need resurrecting do they?

As inspiring as those 3 notions are I don’t think the average Christian sees the resurrection that way. They see it as proof that Jesus is God or the son of God. It is the difference between a prophet or healer channeling the power of God and having that power yourself. This is going into the ‘doctrine of the Trinity’ area I know but the point is people come to Christianity because they believe Jesus was a God as evidenced by miraculous events attributed to him. A true test of faith would be to believe Jesus was God in the absence of any miracles. Would you honestly do that?

Why Miracles – Why Resurrection – What is Faith – What is the Gospel … How can a 21st century educated westerner believe this superstition – and why would they want to try?

These questions, I think, are at the root of much of the conflict between reason and faith – and much of what is “wrong” in our church – not wrong in praxis, but wrong in understanding and preaching. We don’t actually preach either the gospel or the mission of God. I don’t believe in Jesus as son of God because of miracles. I believe in the story – in God and in his mission, work, and relationship with the world. Would I believe in the absence of miracles? Yes, although I think that the miracles are part of the story and part of the form of communication used by God in relationship with his creation and creatures. They display God’s power – but don’t prove God’s power. I believe them because they make sense as part of the story, not because they are supernatural.

The last part of commenter’s statement quoted above is absolutely true -  the average Christian (and dare I say the average pastor) sees the miracles of Jesus culminating in the resurrection primarily as proofs of the divinity of Jesus. This was brought home for me last year when I participated in a discussion of NT Wright’s book “The Challenge of Jesus.” The idea that the miracles were not proofs – but part of the story – was met with some resistance and much discussion. This disjointed view of the faith leads to real questions and real problems.

NT Wright has an excellent lecture (here or here) dealing with the question: “Can a scientist believe in the resurrection?” – but we also need to turn this question around a bit … and ask not “Can a scientist” … but

Why would a scientist – or anyone else – believe in the resurrection?

Do you have any answers for this commenter … why do you believe?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

(For those wondering … We return to Meyer’s book on Thursday and continue on a once a week basis.)

  • Darryl

    Excellent points! As a former minister (for nearly 30 years) I have not always grasped the full power of the message I preached, but I did discover early on my preaching about the bodily resurrection of the believer was seen as a “new concept” among many Christians. I often heard the “so what?” question. Discovering N. T. Wright was a breath of fresh air for me. His explanation of 1 Thessalonians 4:15 and the parousia (comparing it to the visit of Caesar to a Roman colony) made perfect sense.
    Romans 8 is a crucial passage in all of this. The earth itself longs to be renewed and is waiting in anticipation for the resurrection when everything is renewed.

  • Jerry S

    This person needs to read Surprised by Hope by NT Wright. “The christian faith does not preach that a believer will be physically ‘resurrected’ in this reality like Jesus was but that they will live immortally in heaven” Really? Why then do we say we believe in the “resurrection of the body?”
    Sadly this is all too common. This is a result of our “practical,” “focus on the family,” “fire escape” faith. The average person in the pew could not describe (even in layman’s terms) the metanarrative of the Christian faith or the concept of Christus Victor. Of course, that may be partly my fault—I am a pastor.

  • Darryl

    I liked how one person put it: the miracles were not proofs of divinity: they were illustrations of what the Kingdom was about–hope, renewal and wholeness!
    I agree with Jerry S.
    I also liked the way NT Wright put it: “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world…” or his other witty phrase: It isn’t “life after death” but “life after ‘life after death’”.

  • Phil

    We pastors really need to put our necks out on the line, not simply to correct error, but to teach proper gospel and proper theology, not Christian Bookstore theology.
    I came across this quote in Bruxy Cavey’s The End of Religion,
    “Act just once in such a manner that your action expresses that you fear God alone and man not at all – you will immediately in some measure cause a scandal”. Kierkegaard.
    What’s at stake here with our flocks and Christendom is evangelism. There are a presumed set of popular Christian beliefs that some Christians and the general public that they believe are part of basic doctrine. We have much work before us. Other generations had to worry about seeming unreligious, or that they were cannibals, we have to deal with with other baggage.

  • Jayflm

    I think that a false dichotomy is being fostered in this dialogue between miracles as proof of divinity and as ‘part of the story’. They are both, as well as fulfillment of OT prophecy. The individual in question seems to have never read 1 Corinthians 15, because Paul goes to great lengths there to tie Christ’s resurrection to our future resurrection, and to make the case that without a real resurrection to look forward to, we Christians are to be pitied.

  • RJS

    Jayflm,
    I rather think (although I do not know for sure) that the person who posed this question grew up in church to some degree and is expressing the view that was taught (or at least appeared to be taught). In the context of this teaching resurrection just didn’t make much difference – it is expendable. On top of this the miracles were taught as proofs of supernatural.
    My point here is that the miracles (while certainly manifestations of God’s power and glory) are important parts of the story – of the interaction of God with his creation. This context puts them in a much different light – the question becomes not how could this happen, or wow God is powerful, but what are we supposed to learn, what is God teaching (or fulfilling … in the case of link to OT prohecy)? I think we need this holistic approach – it is what put the pieces together.

  • Marc

    Interesting that N.T. Wright was mentioned in half the comments so far. I was going to mention him myself. His earthly-heaven understanding of scripture makes a great deal of sense of the Bible–perhaps most notably why God created the physical world in the first place, if in the end we are meant to escape it.
    The reader should definitely read “Surprised by Hope”. Of course, Wright isn’t the only one writing about this: Paul Marshall wrote the provocatively-titled “Heaven is Not My Home” and then there’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” (author’s name escapes me).
    I don’t know the full scope of the Platonic/dualist/gnostic “going to an eternal disembodied existence when I die” argument, but it seems to me that we’ve taken a verse or two about meeting the returning Christ up in the sky and assumed that that’s as far as he’d come (just to pick us up–rather like waiting in the car on the street for your child to get out of school), and then he’d turn around, believers in tow, and return to the spiritual existence of heaven. (Wright may have said this as well! :) )
    Heaven and earth together makes much more sense and does justice to the last couple of chapters of Revelation.
    (My apologies if this doesn’t quite address the questions–I still haven’t quite figured out when Beliefnet is showing me the complete post or all the comments or both or neither, and I started writing this before I realized I had only read half the post).
    Incidentally, I find his question about who did the resurrecting an interesting one: “I can’t quite determine who did the ‘resurrecting’. Did Jesus do it to himself or did God do it to him?” Any suggestions?

  • T

    I agree that the miracles of Jesus weren’t done to prove Jesus’ divinity or membership in the Trinity. It seems they were done out of genuinely felt compassion, and as part of God’s messianic mission, and as signs, both that God was with Jesus and to reveal the kind of thing God has in mind to do vis a vis the creation, not merely through his anointed one, but through those who believe in him.
    Of course, as I’ve argued here in full posts before, I think this is a problem not merely of understanding but also of practice. (Are there generally any problems of understanding that aren’t also problems of practice?) And, the gospel itself is a statement about power and who has it. When Paul proclaimed a “Christ” he knew he was presenting a rival king, a rival ‘salvation’ story. Our gospel is, in significant part, an announcement that Jesus is the one with God’s power to save in the broader biblical sense of that term. When or to the extent we proclaim or re-present a Jesus that only has authority in heaven but not on earth, we present a Jesus that is significantly scaled down in the scope relative to the NT “gospels” about Jesus. This is an understanding and a praxis problem that leads exactly to this commenter’s questions. Interestingly, this is not as much a problem (of understanding or practice) in the global church as in the western church.

  • Your Name

    In my experience much of western evangelicalism has missed the fullness of Christ’s bodily resurrection. For many the understanding of the resurrection serves only as “proof” that Jesus was who he said he was instead of seeing the resurrection of Jesus as a “prototype” for humanity. Earlier this fall we were doing a teaching series on the hope of the Gospel. I was preaching out of 1 Corinthians 15 and I focused on the importance of the bodily resurrection. I went on to communicate that our hope is not merely for the excavation of our soul to some distant/mystic land, but rather a bodily one, an eternal one…one in which a new heaven and a new earth are “married” together forever. After that (and I’ll never forget) several people left our church, one even called me a heretic because I “didn’t teach biblcially” or preach the “true” Gospel. So in my experience our western Christian sub-culture has been heavily influenced by “ideas” of body and soul that reflect a roman/platonic understanding over and against the historic tradition of the Christian faith.

  • dave diller

    Sorry…post #9 is from me.
    peace.

  • T

    Also,
    Another important feature of Christian faith that is lost if we say that Jesus’ resurrection or other miracles are powered by his own divinity is that we, like the commenter, start thinking that they were done in Jesus’ own strength which makes them (and him) more irrelevant to us because he was divine and we are not, and it makes the Holy Spirit more irrelevant as well (which is another mark of western Christianity). But scripture makes repeated references that Jesus couldn’t do anything on his own, but only what he “saw the Father doing.” And he said that if he “drove out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” His real miracle-working began, as with the larger church, after the Spirit descended upon him. And Paul says that the same power God used to raise Jesus from the dead is also at work within us. If we make his miracles about his (own) divine power rather than about his collaboration with and affirmation by the rest of the Trinity, then Jesus loses, as the commenter noted, relevance to us as non-divine humans, and the Holy Spirit also becomes an odd man out in the work of God. But that’s not how the Scriptures tell the Story.
    In a nutshell, the ‘proving Jesus’s divinity’ theory is just off-center. His miracles (and those of his followers after him) show that God himself is working powerfully and benevolently on earth (in line with God’s promises to Israel) with and through Jesus and those who bear his name. Because the power at work is at the Father’s lead and the Spirit’s power, Jesus can be our example as well as our Savior, and we can follow his example and collaborate with Father through the Spirit as well, which seems to be the impression left on the apostles and early churches.
    But in fairness, that doesn’t tend to be the way the story is told or modeled in the West.

  • dopderbeck

    Hmmm. I both agree and disagree with the post.
    I think there are some issues of theology and epistemology that are getting mixed up here.
    In theological terms, I think the Resurrection is indeed “proof” of the “certainty” of Christ’s divinity. The Resurrection is the proleptic inbreaking of God’s future Kingdom into our present. It is what constitutes the very heart of the Christian hope because our hope is the hope of God’s future. And it is a “certain” or “secure” hope, because that eschatological future is being constructed by God. (You were channeling NT Wright, I’m also channeling some Moltmann here, though with modifications… :-))
    However, this doesn’t mean that epistemologically there can be “certain” proof of the Resurrection in a scientific sense. For starters, the “certainty” of faith is not in the same epistemic category as “scientific” or “mathematical” certainty. The “certainty” of faith ultimately is grounded in God, not in the vicissitudes of human emotion, perception and cognition.
    Moreover, the Resurrection is an ontological change in our “ordinary” present. It cannot, therefore, serve in an “ordinary” evidential capacity, because our notions of “evidence” typically imply examination of orders of causation known by our observation and experience of our present reality. The tools of “ordinary” historical evidentiary examination might help corroborate that a proleptic event has happened (and I agree with NT Wright that they do so), but they can’t establish it in the way that a physicist might describe a law of motion.
    All that said — it’s easy to slip from this proleptic understanding of the Resurrection into a merely existentialist or phenomenological theology of the Resurrection event. IMHO this is the most genuine danger of classical liberal theology. The resurrection then becomes something that is only a subjective warming of the individual heart — a change in some personal sentiment only, rather than an ontological change. I think this destroys the historic Christian faith.
    In this regard, I wonder if Pannenberg was on the right track (confession: I haven’t read as much of Panennberg’s primary materials as I’d like so my grasp here is relatively thin): the Resurrection is “historical” evidence of the divinity of Christ and is an event that is open to scrutiny, even as it is also a transcendent and proleptic event. (Maybe someone here can comment on the nuances between Pannenberg and N.T. Wright? As I understand it, Wright is even more concrete on this than Pannenberg)
    BTW, there’s a fun imaginary dialogue between Pannenberg, Barth, Moltmann, and Bultmann on the historicity of the Resurrection in Daniel Migliorie’s systematic theology, “Faith Seeking Understanding”.

  • dopderbeck

    By providence or chance, over lunch I happened to stumble across this post by George Hunsinger, which summarizes our discussion here beautifully.

  • Your Name

    I was taught the importance of the resurrection was that no one could fullfill the ten commandments, and yet someone had to for salvation into heaven, and that that is why Jesus both had to die, and also resurrect. If there was no resurrection, then Jesus would not have had to die in the first place. He would have been just another man.Jesus and the resurrection both fullfilled the law tne prophecy, and therefore showed who he was and made it possible for all to gain entranace to heaven.

  • Brian in NZ

    @T #11
    I agree with you. For me, if the resurrection or any of the miracles of Jesus were founded in his own divinity, then he didn’t actually come a a true human being,able to relate to everything we experience. The Bible says that he laid his divinity aside, so to me that means he had no more power than any of us. What he did have was a connection to the Father, that enabled him to move in God’s power. I also believe the purpose of JC’s miracles was to show us what level of power/authority can be available to us if we are in right relationship with the Father.
    As for the miracle of the resurrection, it is a mystery to me. Was he in a different state from Lazarus, who was also brought back to life? It would appear so. What does it prove? Maybe just that God is bigger than anything in his creation. What was it’s purpose? Perhaps to give us hope in eternity. Perhaps to show us that death is not a problem or something to be feared. Is it why I am a Christian? No.

  • Danny

    Phil said, “teach proper gospel and proper theology, not Christian Bookstore theology.” Aren’t NT Wright’s books sold in Christian Bookstores? Not looking for an argument, I just thought the comment was funny after the first 3 posts were cheering Wright’s work.

  • Phil

    #16, Danny
    You are correct, Wright is sold in the Christian Bookstores and elsewhere. I’ve read him too. What I’m referring to is both pop/folk theology and fundamentalist material that makes up the bulk of sales at such stores. Unfortunately you don’t find Wright flying off the shelves there, only at seminaries. Quite often you need to leave such stores with Wright in a brown paper bag, at least in the circles I presently run.

  • Richard

    Point in case-
    Just facilitated a funeral service this morning and had a lady come up afterward because she’d never heard of the idea of bodily resurrection and God swallowing up death (a la Isaiah 25) or God inviting us to be ambassadors of reconciliation in response to his reconciling work. She wants to start coming to our church to hear more because she’s never heard a pastor talk that way before.

  • Phil

    #18
    Amen,
    Isn’t it strange when you actually talk about bodily resurrection at a funeral and not simply heaven. I’ve had similar experiences at two I’ve done recently, but no one coming out yet.

  • samb

    A friend of my son has argued with him that no human is capable of loving unselfishly. He is a non-Christian who my son has been sharing the gospel with. I suggested to Jon that his friend is right. That is precisely the reason for thelife, death, resurrection and ascencion of Jesus. So that we could be transformed by our partication in the love expressed in the trinity. I can’t explain how it works. But Jesus’ life, death, resurrectin and ascencion are all connected. Without any of it, we couldn’t receive God’s spirit and begin our long journey into Jesus’ likeness. The resurrection is absolutely essential.
    And Jesus said the proof of his resurection would be in the way we love eash other and reach out to the world he loves so much. Here we have a problem. We have, I think, emphasized Jesus as the truth more than shown the world the way of Jesus as the alternative to all the world’s ways. We have not proclaimed the truth in love and in life. We need to. We need to help each other see the ways in which we follow Jesus that are not his. We need to help each other follow Jesus in the way he lived. Then the necessity of the resurrection will be visible in our neighborhoods.
    And yes we are on a journey. We fall down, we stumble along, and Jesus helps us up, and we must keep going with Jesus. We will always do so imperfectly. Meanwhile we need to have an answer to those like Gandhi who said, “I like your Jesus. I don’t like your Christians. They are so unlike your Jesus.” We need to help them understand that we are on a journey. They must also see a glimpse of him in the way we love each other. Something that gives a hint of the resurrection.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck (#13)
    George Hunsinger’s post is great. This does get to many of the key points, from both this post and last week’s post.
    And on #12, Some day I will have to find time to read a wider range of theologians … I’m still trying to find time for Polanyi.

  • John L

    Brett asks good questions. It’s this kind of enlightened inquiry that leaves me on the margins of religion, yet deeply hopeful.


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