One of the biggest hurdles to orthodox Christian belief in our world today is affirmation of the bodily resurrection of Jesus as historical reality. After all we know better than this. Isn’t it a much more reasonable and enlightened approach to realize that the empty tomb is a myth – and the resurrection appearances hallucination, or even theologically true metaphor? Acknowledgment of the existence of God and the power of the Christian story does not necessitate belief in bodily resurrection from the dead. — Or does it?
The reality of the resurrection is the topic of the penultimate chapter of Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God. The resurrection is not important because it it is proof of Jesus’s divinity or of God’s power, something we must believe because it is in the bible – with gritted teeth against all reason. Resurrection is the the key reality and the hope for a future.
Keller bases his arguments for the reality of The Resurrection of the Son of God on NT Wright’s book of this name. For those who are interested in condensed versions (Wright’s book after all is 740 rather dense pages), the arguments are outlined in a lecture “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection” available in audio, video, or text form here or here. Another lecture by Wright at Emory University in 2008 “Why Does Jesus’ Resurrection Matter?” can be found here with Q&A here.
A couple of short clips of Wright, first from the Emory University lecture:
Another clip from Wright on the Resurrection:
So what are the principal arguments for the reality of the resurrection as advanced by Wright and Keller?
1. The resurrection is attested to early in Christian literature – 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 6 are excellent examples of this, written within a few decades of the crucifixion. In addition Paul refers to multiple witnesses, still alive at the time of his writing, to make his case on the reality of the resurrection. It is difficult to defend the premise that resurrection was a late addition – only refined when distance in time and place made credulity feasible.
2. The gospel variation and presence of women as earliest witness attest to true testimony provided in these accounts. Scripted story and collusion would provide better uniformity of detail.
3. The bodily resurrection was a foreign concept in Greek, Roman, and Jewish thought – thus the claim was without precedent, a powerful argument for historicity. Consider in particular the Jewish context. As Keller points out: It was absolute blasphemy to propose that any human should be worshipped. Yet hundreds of Jews began worshipping Jesus literally overnight. The hymn to Christ as God that Paul quotes in Philippians 2 is generally recognized to have been written just a few years after the crucifixion. What enormous event broke through all Jewish resistance? p.209-210. The testimony of early devotion to Jesus as divine or bordering on divine is overwhelming – something powerful happened to the disciples of Jesus and changed their world view. The hymn in Philippians 2 is a compelling passage:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
4. The explosion of Christianity on the scene and the rapid, unstoppable growth despite persecution over the first several centuries. These people believed what they said and put their lives on the line because of it. Virtually all the apostles and early Christian leaders died for their faith, and it is hard to believe that this kind of powerful self-sacrifice would be done to support a hoax. p. 210
5. The resurrection is the victory in the Christian story; it is the linchpin. — The resurrection tells us that what we do here today matters. We die with Christ and are raised with Christ to new life and a new ethic. The battle is won, the kingdom will come. It matters that we care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviate hunger and disease, care for the environment — because the world is not an accident that will eventually die in the passing of the sun.
Without the victory – without the resurrection – don’t we ultimately, if we are honest with ourselves, stand with Nietzche?
Once upon a time, on a little star in a distant corner of the universe, clever little animals invented for themselves proud words, like truth and goodness. But soon enough the little star cooled, and the little animals had to die and with them their proud words. But the universe, never missing a step, drew another breath and moved on, dancing its cosmic dance across endless skies (as quoted by Sparks in God’s Word in Human Words)
OK, so much for Keller and Wright, with a bit of my own editorializing thrown in for good measure.
What do you think? Is the affirmation of the bodily resurrection of Jesus as historical reality essential to Christian orthodoxy?
Why? Or alternatively is orthodoxy as historically defined an idea whose time has passed?
What do you find to be the most convincing evidence for the resurrection of the Son of God?
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