Proving the Resurrection

I’ll admit it. I’m skeptical about attempts to prove the existence of God or, indeed, any of the major tenets of the Christian faith. Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped that ‘the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.’ I’m not sure I’d even go that far. There’s a lot of evidence out there that demands a verdict, but I doubt whether the verdict delivered can amount to more than an affirmation of the strong plausibility of the Christian faith.

That’s not because I question Christianity’s truth; I don’t at all. Nor do I find it particularly problematic that even the best proofs fall short of establishing God’s existence beyond the pale of suspicion. It is the Spirit’s work to draw people to Christ and convince them of the gospel truth. That he does so in part through articulating the plausibility of the gospel should be non-controversial; that we could establish proofs so certain that the Spirit’s convicting office would be redundant is inadmissible.

That caveat in place, we can enlist any number of ‘proofs’ in seeking to persuade the world of the truth of Christ and to bolster the church in its faith in Christ. Enough apologetics books have been written in the last few decades to distract us from the riches of a much longer—and rather diverse—apologetic tradition.

Consider one argument Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 296 – 373) offers for the resurrection. A ‘proof of experience’, he points to virgins and martyrs, arguing that their very existence demonstrates the resurrection. Unless Jesus has risen from the dead, asceticism makes no sense; unless death has been defeated, the bold joy of the martyrs makes no sense. Here is Athanasius, in On the Incarnation of the Word:

Equally clear is it, since this utter scorning and trampling down of death has ensued upon the Savior’s manifestation in the body and his death on the cross, that it is he himself who brought death to nought and daily raises monuments to His victory in his own disciples. How can you think otherwise, when you see men naturally weak hastening to death, unafraid at the prospect of corruption, fearless of the descent into Hades, even indeed with eager soul provoking it, not shrinking from tortures, but preferring thus to rush on death for Christ’s sake, rather than to remain in this present life? If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, thus welcoming death for the sake of Christ’s religion, how can you be so utterly silly and incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realize that Christ, to whom these all bear witness, himself gives the victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold his faith and bear the sign of the cross?

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