Resurrection and Hope

I received an e-mail from a blog reader a while back, and have long meant to share it here in case others found it – and my reply – interesting.

Dear Dr McGrath

I have been a follower of your blog for a while now, always enjoyed hearing your opinions on religion and biblical interpretation.

While I appreciate that you are doubt a busy person, I had a couple of questions in regards to some of the things I’ve read on your blog.

First off, I know that you consider yourself a Panentheist, and I find something appealing in the ideas of Clayton and Moltmann myself in that regard. However, something that always seems to evade my own understanding is what traits we expect the ‘Ground of all Being’ to have. For instance, do you believe that said Ground could be described as conscious? I ask because while I am open to different views of God, I worry that some of this discussion is basically reducing the term ‘God’ to purely a metaphor for human hopes or ideals rather than a metaphor for any form of actual divine presence that actually gives a fig about us in any way.

Secondly, while I understand that you are sceptical of the prospect of an afterlife, I wonder what your opinion would be on the possibility of a physical resurrection, and could that be something that a Christian could responsibly hope for, if not expect. Tying into this, I know, as you’ve asserted multiple times on your blog that we cannot expect to prove the Resurrection happened historically, but would you say there is still room to hope for the possibility that it happened?

Finally, in terms of believing in God, what would you say to someone who claimed that there was no reason to posit any kind of divine presence, who would claim that with no evidence, any beliefs in any kind of God is simply naïve at best, which I personally feel is perhaps the biggest challenge atheists and sceptics have levelled against religion. To perhaps put it in better terms, what rational basis do you think we have for being Christians?

For context, I’m a student studying world religions in college, which naturally has me dwelling on these questions for a bit and I feel your two cents might help me make better sense of the bigger picture. While I’m not sure I’d consider myself a full-on liberal Christian [Not least because that term can be somewhat vague at times], I do understand the need to move away from some of the more ‘dogmatic’ aspects of Christianity.

I understand you’re probably quite busy, but if you could respond to me sometime in the near future, I would be grateful.

If these are things you’ve already covered in your blog and I’ve simply missed, I apologise for wasting your time, and would appreciate being directed to those posts.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and hope to hear from you soon.

Regards

X

Here is what I wrote in reply:

Dear X

I apologize for having neglected your e-mail for almost a year. I had indeed addressed the topics that you asked about on my blog, but I had intended to go back and track down some of those posts and send them to you. At this stage, I think the best thing to do to make amends for my long silence will be to actually write some new blog posts on the topics that you asked about. But I do want to say a couple of things as brief answers by e-mail so that you don’t have to wait even longer than you already have. I think that we do indeed need to be cautious, because it is very easy to turn a move away from excessive anthropomorphism in our talk about God, in the direction of delimiting God just in different ways from conservatives. And while I do think there are limits to what we can prove using historical tools, I don’t think there is any limit to what we can hope for. And I think that, while we need to take what fields like science and history tell us fully into account as we formulate our worldview, including those hopeful aspects of it, I have yet to find someone who fails to hope for things beyond those which can be proven.

Apologies again for the long delay in replying. I hope you are well!

Best wishes,

James

How would you have responded, if the question had been posed to you? What else would you have added? I probably should have worded one part more carefully: there are no limits to what we can hope for, apart from those provided by evidence, assuming (as I do) that we allow evidence to constrain our beliefs. I do not find hope for that which is without evidence, but which is not incompatible with evidence, objectionable in the way that I find the assertion of beliefs that are at odds with available evidence. Whether we ought to hope for things that we do not have clear evidence for is a different matter – but I think we all do so, if we are honest. Would you agree?

Of related interest, see Pete Enns’ recent blog post about the lack of bodily resurrection as a form of afterlife expectation in the Jewish Scriptures/Protestant Old Testament, apart from in the Book of Daniel.

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  • How would you have responded, if the question had been posed to you?

    I’m pretty sure that the question would not have been posed to me.

    Here’s the thing. If I am going to be a panentheist, then I might just as well be an apatheist. And that, an apatheist, is pretty much what I am, which is why that question would not have been posed to me.

    Note that I am not criticizing panentheism. It’s just that it’s not for me.

  • robrecht

    Insofar as personal and interpersonal dimensions are perhaps the most profound and mysterious aspects of our human experience, I think panentheism must posit some Personal and Interpersonal dimensions to God. Otherwise we would be defining god in some circumscribed and limited way. If we aspire to a God that is truly worthy of our hope and faithfulness, she/he must at the very least equal the sum of the known parts of our universe, and I hope, ‘exist’ infinitely beyond that. God must surely be beyond our own very limited ability to define it.

  • John Thomas

    One could imagine that ground of existence has also all the characteristics of various aspects of existence that we experience. So one could borrow from Neoplatonic metaphysics and say that there is a sensible reality made up of matter with underlying hypostases or grounding substances of World Soul or Psyche Kosmos (animating principle), Mind or Nous (rational principle) and the One or self of the cosmos. So if a human being with a material body, mind, soul and self is understood to be a person, ground of being can also be understood to be a person in that sense analogically. Just another way of looking at it. Ed Feser has argued elsewhere that God in Thomistic metaphysics is indeed a person in analogical sense.

    Regarding resurrection, I believe that spiritual resurrection is the most likely scenario that might have been present in the earliest sources and I don’t think that resurrection event is historical in modern sense as the crucifixion and death of Jesus are. I believe that resurrection event in the narrative began as a faith of the disciples of Jesus. Jesus’ story might have ended in the cross, and earliest narration about Jesus’ story might have had empty tomb in it since the empty tomb is the only way to narrate a story of someone rising from the dead. I think that earliest narrations about Jesus’ life in regards to empty tomb would have emerged from the faith of his disciples that God would not abandon his righteous ones in the final scheme of things and would raise them up in three days to his right hand in heaven. So resurrection and ascension would have been simultaneous events initially and then ascension narrative might have come later as a separate event, after the narratives of postmortem physical appearances became part of the standard narrative. Just my take.

  • Chuck Johnson

    I probably should have worded one part more carefully: there are no limits to what we can hope for, . .-James

    We should not hope for perfection.
    Sometimes religions expect us to hope for perfection.

  • soter phile

    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/ben-stevens/the-gospel-according-to-christopher_b_2231094.html

    Marilyn Sewell: “Mr. Hitchens, the religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement — that Jesus died for our sins, for example. Do you make a distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?”

    Christopher Hitchens: “Well, I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

    • It is indeed noteworthy that fundamentalists are happy to say that atheists are right in this thinking that mirrors their own, with no sense of irony and no sense that this convergence might suggest problems with their own stance…

      • soter phile

        a) if by fundamentalism one means someone who actually adheres to the fundamentals of one’s faith… then I’d embrace that label. As a historical-social-religious label (one loaded with other meanings), I do not.

        b) on the contrary to your point here, Hitchens had the honesty & integrity to acknowledge Christianity for what it is – even if he gave a resounding “no.” That’s much closer to the faith that re-fashioning it in one’s own image.

        c) as for lacking a sense of irony, remember: the term “progressive” tacitly admits/embraces a central tendency to “mirror” whatever is socially fashionable – even when directly contradicting the central tenets of one’s faith. How’s that not the much more troubling “convergence”?

        • You are simply assuming what you need to prove, namely that the fundamentalism that Hitchens and others considered the best example of Christianity actually is. That you agree with this widespread perspective of atheist fundamentalists about Christian fundamentalists is not less telling because you repeated it again.

          You clearly have no sense of what progressive religion has historically been like or is like today. We have often been at the forefront in advocating for things like equality or the abolition of slavery and segregation. The fact that society eventually mirrored us is scarcely a criticism!

          • soter phile

            No, MLK & William Wilberforce were *social* progressives but theological conservatives. And it was precisely the fact that they were theological conservatives that made them willing to *contradict* societal prevailing systems of thought, not merely flow with them and call that “progress”.

            MLK, for example, did not ask the Southern racists to abandon their former faith in the Scriptures in order to leave their racism behind; instead MLK pressed them actually to believe their Bibles. That is the reason so many progressives fail to affect change in actuality – because progressives believe the answer is pressing conservatives increasingly to abandon their faith and call that “progress.” It is delusional to think society is mirroring you when it is not society but *you* who have jettisoned core tenets of the faith to increasingly match secular beliefs. Again, that is not progress. The Emperor has no clothes.

            Your assumptions about me are telling as well. Most of my education was at institutions you would laud as progressive. I am very aware of what progressive religion is – and how deadly it is. Very few of my self-styled “progressive” peers (or my old profs, for that matter) have any sense of the holiness of God – and as a result feel very little (if any) need to repent of personal sins, much less in any particular way. Biblically speaking, without repentance, personal spiritual transformation is impossible. A refusal to repent of sins is spiritual death – much less have any hope for a life of joy & awe at what Christ has done for us. “She loves much because she was forgiven much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Little sin, little savior, little change, little joy.

            Very tragically, for many progressives, the only sins they talk about are in other people (most often, conservatives) – which makes sense when you’ve fashioned a god in your own image. But at no point is that “progress,” especially not for any who believe the Scriptures. Progressives have traded God’s Word for their own words, and they come not just to mirror society, but often to live functionally as if the only god they know is the one they see in the mirror. That is not progress; that is spiritual death.

          • You clearly haven’t read much of what Martin Luther King himself wrote!

            https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/what-experiences-christians-living-early-christian-century-led-christian
            https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Writings-show-King-as-liberal-Christian-2623685.php
            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2013/01/martin-luther-king-and-liberal-theology.html

            The other claims you make are equally problematically at odds with the evidence. A tendency to condemn sins in others while ignoring those in ourselves is a human universal and just another piece of evidence of our human sinfulness. But if you see that tendency only or primarily among progressives and liberals, and rarely or not at all among conservatives, then you are simply showing evidence of this very human tendency.

            It is beyond irony for someone who tries to turn the human words in the Bible into the words of God to accuse someone else of idolatry…

          • soter phile

            No, I’m pointing to the argument David Chappell makes in his book on MLK, Stone of Hope.

            I do agree that it is broken to point merely to the sins of others and not take more time to self-assess.
            But no, I do not see that as primarily among liberals – despite your assumption here. If this were a conservative blog, I’d be pressing some rather opposite points (e.g., Trump comes to mind).

            “It is beyond irony for someone who tries to turn the human words in the Bible into the words of God to accuse someone else of idolatry…”
            This is the primary point of departure for conservatives & liberals. I could write a tome here.
            This is the reason some theologians claim liberalism is not Christianity but its own separate religion.

            Suffice it to say: the Jesus of the NT assumes the OT Scriptures are God’s Word – *while* acknowledging their human authors. And some of the NT authors do the same of their contemporaries, or even themselves (1 Thess.2:13).

            But the greater problem for any self-styled “follower of Jesus” is why Jesus’ view of the Scriptures is somehow wrong or idolatrous. AND, as I wrote above, you only further the problem of repentance. If they are ‘just human words’, your own words are equally authoritative. Why would you *ever* feel the need to repent? There’s another central tenet of the faith tossed aside in favor of “progress” – and a tacit admission that you are making god in your own image.

            “Where else would we go? You have the words of life.” (Jn.6:68)