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Can We Still Believe in the Resurrection?

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If Jesus was not raised, how are we to understand this man? If in his own self-understanding his Resurrection was central to his whole identity as Messiah, is there any possibility of reconstructing a Jesus worth worshipping in the absence of such a miracle?

"On the third day he rose from the dead."

Etched in my memory from childhood are those lines from a familiar Easter hymn in evangelical circles, "He Lives": "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart." In spite of the warmth that such sentiment offers, it hardly fits the bill sketched out by the Apostle Peter: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Pet. 3:15). Many ideas can be, and often are, embraced by the heart that are simply wrong. Santa Claus and the tooth fairy may be harmless childhood myths, but when we are making claims about eternal matters, emotionally useful fantasies will not suffice. Eventually, we grow up, and if our understanding of the Christian truth-claims does not mature as well, we are likely to be blown about by the trendy gusts of whim.

In an informal survey of evangelical Christians recently, nearly everyone agreed with the statement, "It is more important for me to give my personal testimony than to explain the doctrines and claims of Christianity." This is remarkable, especially since not even the New Testament eye witnesses of Christ's saving acts wrote much about their own experiences and feelings. "What Jesus Means To Me" or "How Jesus Changed My Life" are simply not the most notable headlines of these biblical accounts. "That which was from the beginning," says John, "which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life"-this is the Christian's confidence. "That life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us-that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:1-3).

It is much easier to adopt the Enlightenment view championed by Immanuel Kant in which the phenomenal (earthly and observable) and noumenal (heavenly and unknowable) realms are utterly separated. Questions of reason and science are based on facts, while religious claims are a matter of "faith." And yet, faith is defined in Scripture as requiring confidence in the events to which eye witness testimony is given. Faith is not a synonym for nonsense, nor does it belong to a non-rational, non-historical, non-intellectual realm of blind leaps and sheer acts of will. Because God became flesh, the noumenal became phenomenal! Far from separating faith from the rigorous questions that belong to reason and history, Christianity makes public claims that must stand the test of any other. In fact, the burden of proof rests on the Christian to make the case for the biblical faith, with the Resurrection as its cornerstone. That is not to say that our faith is founded on reason, for only when reason receives the light of revelation is it capable of guiding us into such marvelous truth. It is one thing to say that the Resurrection can stand up to the questions, but what about the doubts? We will now address this matter, for everything else in the Christian faith depends on this historical event.

The Resurrection Event as a Claim to Public Truth

To tackle the question of the Resurrection as a legitimate truth-claim, we must first determine the motive in asking the question. It is not difficult these days to find a theologian who will deny the Resurrection, stating that it is simply irreconcilable with the enlightened modern mind. You can even read books from major modern theologians who make such assertions without the slightest attempt at defending the position with arguments. It is enough to say that the supernatural worldview is untenable, case closed.

Existential theologian Rudolf Bultmann appropriated the German distinction between Historie and Geschichte, the former referring to actual historical events while the latter concerns the "salvation history." This, of course, makes sense if one buys Kant's division between the phenomenal (observable) and noumenal (spiritual) realms. Implicit in this distinction, of course, is the notion that there can be a form of history that is not historical! What does it mean to say that certain things that happened in the past never really happened? Either they did or they didn't. But Bultmann and others forged a powerful school of modern theologians who wanted to "get behind" the historical claims of the Scriptures to discover the real idea. In other words, regardless of whether it happened in real history, what did the claim, "Jesus rose from the dead," actually create in the early Christian's experience? While the Resurrection is not a historical event like the Battle of the Bulge, Bultmann would say, the idea or experience behind that claim is what is important: Has Jesus risen in my heart? Have I experienced the "Christ-event," the encounter with the Spirit of Christ here and now? It's the present moment, the crisis event in which Christ meets me now in my experience, that counts, not whether the apostles were reporting factual history. This sentiment is common not only among liberal theologians, but also in evangelical circles when individual experience is made central: "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart."

But before we deal with the question of whether it is possible for biblical claims such as the Resurrection to have any meaning unless they happened as reported, it is important to ask why such "creative" readings of fairly plain reports attract so many. Of course, there is the practical consideration: One need not risk the harsh criticism often directed at such bold declarations of miraculous activity, and yet can enjoy a spiritually edifying experience that is somehow triggered by these claims. In other words, one can be an intelligent, late twentieth-century man or woman and yet give attention to the "things of the heart." A well-balanced modern, dogmatically secular and yet romantic and sentimental, wants to experience "the magic of believing" while not really believing in particulars, at least in things that "simply do not happen." And at last we come to the real hurdle for the modern mind: such things as a resurrection simply do not happen. They can be written off entirely because we have already judged that they are impossible.

Of course, there is no rationale for this position. A rationalist or empiricist, for instance, would (according to his or her own principles) have to be able to test the premise, "Resurrections do not happen," in order to conclude that the Resurrection of Christ is a farce. And in the whole history of rationalism, no philosopher has been able to offer a compelling argument for such a premise. Surely the empiricists would be able to contribute some aid at this point. After all, they are the folks who deal with laboratory experiments and test theories. And yet, David Hume, the empiricist who dealt most with this subject, simply concluded (assumed) that miracles do not happen. This is quite an astonishing conclusion for a man whose life was devoted to ridding philosophy of a priori (before evaluating the evidence) judgments of a case. Resting on "the universal experience of humanity," empiricists like Hume simply concluded that resurrections were out of keeping with the normal experience of ordinary men and women. Of course, that presupposes flawed premises. First, it assumes that David Hume is omniscient, knowing every experience or combination of experiences to have surfaced in the history of the human species. It is similar to dogmatically asserting, "There is no intelligent life except on our planet," in spite of the fact that we do not have exhaustive knowledge of the universe. Of course, there was a time when the common man believed that the world was flat. Only a fool would have questioned such an obvious deliverance of sense experience. But other observations overthrew this assumption and now we can hardly imagine what it would be like to experience the world as flat. What accounts for this in our case? We've seen too many photographs of our planet from space. Universal human experience is, therefore, dependent on the conditions of one's own time and place. What if the revelation of God in Christ, particularly the Resurrection, is, like those photographs, the new information that overthrows our previous assumptions, making it impossible for us not to believe in the phenomenon of a bodily resurrection? How can Hume say that these miracles simply do not happen unless he has access to the experience of every creature in all times and places? After all, there are plenty of people who would pit their experience against Hume's, siding confidently with a belief in the miraculous. Some, to be sure, will be superstitious and credulous, but if "universal experience" is the test of truth, Hume has tremendous problems rendering as universal his own experience as a secular philosopher. His experience indeed was representative of only a handful of his like-minded colleagues.

To the second assumption, that the miraculous contradicts people's ordinary experience, what could be more obvious? If a miracle were an ordinary phenomenon, why would one even distinguish it as a miracle at all? It is true that miracles do not ordinarily happen. However, it is one thing to say that they do not happen in normal circumstances and quite another thing to say that they cannot happen. Empirical observation is sufficient to conclude the former, but not the latter. What experiment has yet been conducted that has proved such a sweeping claim? These are not arguments, of course, but the unsupported assertions of the modern mind.

Bultmann expresses this dogmatism against worldviews which incorporate the miraculous. He suggests that it is impossible for people who use electric appliances and listen to the radio to believe in events described in Scripture. One need not offer devastating criticisms of Christianity and its historical claims, therefore, since everyone has concluded that the existence of radios and microwave ovens somehow relates to the impossibility of believing in a resurrection from the dead. In logic, it is called a non sequitur-that is, a conclusion that does not follow from its premises.

Today, Bishop John Spong targets the Resurrection and related beliefs with similarly bizarre assertions about space travel:

We would never in our day of space travel and knowledge of the vastness of the universe try to assert that the God experienced in Jesus has been reunited with the God who was presumed to dwell just beyond the sky by telling the story of the cosmic ascension....We today do not think in natural/supernatural categories. God is not for us a human parent figure. We do not see human life as created good and then as fallen into sin. Human life is evolving, not always in a straight line, but evolving nonetheless into higher and higher levels of consciousness. We do not need the divine rescuer who battles the demonic forces of a fallen world in the name of the creator God .... That worldview has passed away.... (1)
So what is the essence of the gospel according to Spong? "In the words of the popular commercial, it is a call to be all that one can be." (2) Following David Hume in his blind dogmatism against the miraculous, modern thinkers seem to think that such assertions are self-evident: "Miracles do not happen, because this is not the sort of universe where those things happen." Rarely is such circular reasoning stated so explicitly, but this is often where even the best minds end up. Yet they cite the same flaw in their opponents as an example of unthinking fundamentalism. With Bultmann the Resurrection is reduced to pious myth, not because someone found the bones of a first-century Palestinian rabbi buried in the tomb many regard as having belonged to Jesus. Rather, the reigning view of knowledge has been that it is a straight line of progress from ignorance to enlightenment. Ages of faith are really ages of superstition, we are told, and we have long since learned that things once attributed to supernatural forces actually have perfectly natural explanations. Of course, much of that thinking is true. Magic and superstition have, in many important cases, given way to better explanations through advances in medicine, physics, and other disciplines. We owe a debt of gratitude to those-many of them Christians-who preferred a vaccine to attributing everything to evil spirits. We often forget that many Christian scientists pioneered modern medicine, and that their aversion to idolatry and superstition has led precisely to those advances for which secular ideology seeks to take credit. But to say, therefore, that there can be no miraculous events at all is to say that one has knowledge of every event in world history.

Though not himself an evangelical, Boston University sociologist Peter Berger has exposed the fallacious logic of these positions. First, he says, there is a hidden double standard: The past can be relativized simply by explaining the misconceptions of the ancient worldview. "The present, however, remains strangely immune from relativization," Berger writes. "In other words, the New Testament writers are seen as afflicted with a false consciousness rooted in their time, but the contemporary analyst takes the consciousness of his time as an unmixed intellectual blessing. The electricity-and-radio-users are placed intellectually above the Apostle Paul." (3)

As Berger points out, this reasoning is useful descriptively, but is hardly an argument against the miraculous. It is helpful to know why modern people find it difficult to believe in the supernatural, but once we have a better grasp of those sociological factors, we still do not have a compelling reason not to believe in the supernatural! (It might help my doctor to learn that I have an irrational fear of needles, but that does not make such fear less irrational.) "We may agree, say, that contemporary consciousness is incapable of conceiving of either angels or demons," says Berger. "We are still left with the question of whether, possibly, both angels and demons go on existing despite this incapacity of our contemporaries to conceive of them." (4) Thus, Berger suggests that we begin to "relativize" our own context. In other words, perhaps the biblical worldview-violently opposed to superstition but frankly supernatural-is the sane outlook after all and we moderns are the ones who have the irrational worldview. Given the fact that centuries of rationalist and empiricist skepticism have not been able to offer a single compelling argument against miracles in general, or the Resurrection of Christ in particular, why should we continue to give our blind allegiance to insupportable modern dogmas?

In questioning the modern worldview we will find that we are not alone. Happily, this modern dogmatism that simply asserts naturalism is itself passing into history. Even the events about which we do have some knowledge-even great knowledge-often hold unanswered questions.

Thomas Kuhn, in his ground-breaking study of scientific revolutions, argued that the modern notion of science as a progressive advance of knowledge is outdated. (5) Instead, he says, each major scientific theory goes through various phases. As a theory is advanced that makes sense of the observations of a wide range of scientists, old paradigms are either adjusted or discarded and the new major theory creates a new paradigm. In other words, the history of science is not a gradual amassing of factual data, but a constant and somewhat chaotic series of paradigm revolutions.

While Kuhn's interpretation is not universally accepted, it is difficult to find philosophers of science (or other philosophers) these days who embrace the outlook exhibited by Bultmann, Spong, and a great many theologians who still operate with these modern notions of knowledge based on modern science. Postmodern philosophers of science are therefore much more open to regarding science itself as a tradition, a community of discourse, in which members of various disciplines work on their specific projects and occasionally articulate an "explanation" that seems to make the most sense of data across these sub-disciplines. With this approach, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted "fact" or an unbiased observation.

By even suggesting, as Spong does (parroting Bultmann), that the "modern consciousness" somehow prohibits a particular religious claim, the advocate of modernity betrays that his presuppositions are not only guiding, but determining, his investigation. In fact, it is not an investigation at all, but an appeal to power: the force of the "modern consciousness" itself becomes a dogma that commands unquestioning allegiance. It is not an argument, but a presupposition. So much for the triumph over blind authoritarianism and dogmatism! One does not have to be convinced by it, since it is expected that every rational person would accept it on authority. We simply assume, often without knowing that we are assuming, that science has a right to dictate as a supreme authority. Awed by the practical achievements of science (technology, medicine, natural sciences), we do not even realize that we are treating all statements that claim scientific authority as worthy to be believed even if there is no evidence! Modern dogmatists have shown that it is as possible to have blind faith in science's authority as it is to have blind faith in the church's authority.

But in the postmodern scientific approach, the knower and the world are engaged in a conversation, not a monologue. It is not that the knower is necessarily imposing his or her presuppositions on the world that is observed (the fanciful notion of rationalists, idealists, and postmodern relativists), nor that the world is simply being described objectively (the view of modern science, at least of the positivists).

But if science is not simply a description of reality in terms of "brute facts," shorn of any interpretive framework and uprooted from any prior assumptions, what keeps this kind of thinking from degenerating into relativism? Among other things, it is the point made by Kuhn and others that one piece of data can overthrow a paradigm. To be sure, the scientist comes to the lab each day with pet hypotheses that are themselves somehow shaped by a constellation of other beliefs, many of them unquestioned. Nevertheless, one day somebody notices some anomaly, something that does not fit the picture. In spite of presup-positional biases, he or she is forced to acknowledge this new datum as a contradiction of previous research, even if that research is his or her own. A new theory is often required to make sense of this major interruption, a theory that may have been rejected long ago as entirely implausible.

Often, scientists have stumbled onto a major discovery while they were actually looking for something else. Like Columbus, who dis-covered the Americas accidentally while he was trying for a route to India, many advances are serendipitous. Nevertheless, that new discovery or observation-though never divorced from the beliefs and assumptions of the discoverer-has the power to overturn the scientist's most cherished beliefs.

What does all of this mean? First, it means that science in particular and knowledge in general are no longer viewed as a straight line of progress from ignorance to enlightenment. Although we have amassed a lot more data and have at our disposal sophisticated instruments of observation that previous generations lacked, it is still possible for a theory advanced by an obscure Greek philosopher or Arab mystic to account for the data better than more recent explanations. Second, it means that the scientist or philosopher no longer has a "bird's eye view" from which to look down objectively on all this data. Everyone, including the most careful physicist, pursues his or her work with presuppositions and expectations of what he or she will find. These presuppositions may blind them to important data that contradict their hypotheses, but every so often a piece of data comes along that brings down the house of cards: not only cherished hypotheses, but reigning theories. The result is a paradigm shift, a revolution in the way we understand reality.

In religion, paradigm shifts occur also. The Reformation is often referred to by historians as a "Copernican Revolution," because the recovery of an accurate working text of the New Testament by Renaissance philologists led to a massive re-evaluation of the meaning of salvation. That revolution in the Church led to sweeping changes in every discipline and con-tributed significantly to the rise of modern science itself. But the religious event I want to relate to these arguments from postmodern philosophers of science has to do with a more fundamental revolution: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the nineteenth century, a legal scholar by the name of Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853), a founder of the Harvard Law School, set out to disprove the Resurrection claim. A denizen of the "modern consciousness," Greenleaf was certain that simple, sustained attention to the claims of the New Testament, with regard to both the internal witness of the Gospels and the external testimony of secular historians would finally put to rest the lingering Christian beliefs. He came to his task to refute the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a lawyer, he was impressed with the idea of pursuing his project along the lines of legal inquiry. After all, the Bible makes public claims and the best test of such claims is to try them in court. He would show the obvious examples of collusion of the writers that typically mark attempts at creating a powerful lie, and he would demonstrate the implausibility of the reports and their inherent contradictions.

As Greenleaf went deeper into his investigation, he grew increasingly uneasy. Thinking that further investigation would yield more evidence against the Resurrection, he only found it working in the opposite direction. Finally, the distinguished legal professor concluded the very antithesis of his intention: Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the dead. It was not the most satisfactory conclusion in view of his "modern consciousness," but as a lawyer, he could not see how any alternative, either suggested throughout history or contemplated by himself, yielded an explanation of the evidence that came anywhere near that of the New Testament claim.

Here is an actual case of Kuhn's paradigm shift taking place. (6) It is perhaps the case that Greenleaf would have claimed "neutrality" and "unbiased, unpre-judiced investi-gation" for himself if, in fact, the case had yielded dif-ferent results. (That, after all, is what modern men and women have been conditioned to believe about their knowledge.) And yet, by his own admission, Greenleaf went into this investigation with the intention of discrediting the very hypothesis that he ended up concluding was true "beyond any reasonable doubt."

Therefore, we should have no difficulty admitting that we all have presuppositions and that no one simply "observes," "investigates," or "knows." We are always looking for something and it is often the case that we will "find" just about anything we want-but not always. And this is one of those "not always" cases. The Resurrection is among those rare stories that can overthrow our most cherished opinions. Unlike any other historical occurrence, this event is the most significant revolution or "paradigm shift" imaginable. First, it verifies the reliability of the entire canon of Scripture. Second, it establishes Jesus Christ as the Lord of history, who has won the right to interpret its past, present, and future. Third, it establishes the certainty of salvation for believers and of judgment for unbelievers. Fourth, it establishes the supernatural character of the Church and its witness to God's saving events as public truth. Let us look at some of the evidence for the Resurrection, both internal (i.e., biblical) and external (i.e., secular sources).

Internal Evidence for the Resurrection

As Yale theologian Hans Frei insisted, the Resurrection is such a central part of the Bible's narrative plot that the whole story rises or falls with it. He is thus led to conclude, "To consign the resurrection to the category of myth is a typical species of modern laziness ...". (7) As with the Incarnation, so too with the Resurrection: it is impossible to take anything in the Bible seriously if its central plot is dismantled. For the eye witnesses do not make claims about their own experience or ideas illustrated by these claims, but insist upon the Resur-rection the way a witness gives tes-timony in a court of law. According to the story itself, the Resurrection happened and if it did not happen, there is nothing bigger or better behind it! Of course, the Apostle Paul made the same point far more succinctly in 1 Corinthians 15:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead .... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men (1 Cor. 15:14-19).
Notice how much Paul hangs on this claim to a historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. If it proves false, Christian preaching and faith are useless, its apostolic eye-witnesses have intentionally misled countless people on this momentous subject, and-most important-we are still in the mess in which we found ourselves before this happy delusion, still in our sins. Whether one believes its claims or not, this is Christianity and apart from the Resurrection it is something else altogether. If Christianity is embraced merely for what it provides in this life, it is not the case, says Paul, that we should shrug our shoulders and say, "I'm glad it helps people." That's because the apostles never made its validity consist in its therapeutic value. If it fails to make good on its claims, it fails to make good on everything. There is no consolation prize, says the apostle, for those who embrace "Christianity" without a Resurrection.

The notion of resurrection in general and the Messiah's in particular is not a New Testament invention. Isaiah's "Suffering Servant," after his atoning death, "will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted" (Is. 52:13). Throughout his earthly ministry our Lord pointed to his death, burial, and resurrection. After the Transfiguration, Jesus told his disciples, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life" (Matt. 17:22-23). When the Jews demanded a miraculous sign, Jesus answered, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." As John observes, "But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken" (John 2:19-22). In another report in which the Pharisees demand a miraculous sign, Jesus offers only "the sign of the prophet Jonah." He said, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:40-41).

Clearly, either Jesus was remarkably self-deluded or he really believed that he was going to die and rise again. There is no via media on this point. As C. S. Lewis argued, Jesus either is or is not who he said he is and what he claims to be. And if he is not, then he is not to be regarded as possessing any authority whatsoever, especially when it comes to questions of ultimate truth, meaning, morality, and the like! If Jesus did not fulfill the mission that he clearly understood to define his whole purpose, he is not a good moral example we should wish our children to emulate. If he was not raised, we can conclude only that he did not come to demonstrate God's universal love, or to exhibit moral virtue and inspire us to lead lives of self-sacrifice, but to make absurd claims for himself. According to the Scriptures, Jesus did demonstrate God's love and he did model self-sacrifice for us, but far more is claimed and therefore far more is at stake.

Jesus did not view his mission as that of bringing universal peace and understanding (Matt. 10:34), nor did he come to reassure everybody that they were acceptable to God even if they come to that God through different paths (John 8:24, 44). In fact, he said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be..." (v. 28). Audaciously, he said that anyone who believed in him would live forever (v. 51). If Jesus was not raised, how are we to understand this man? If in his own self-understanding his Resurrection was central to his whole identity as Messiah, is there any possibility of reconstructing a Jesus worth worshipping in the absence of such a miracle?

Therefore, our Lord's own self-consciousness is the first plank in a defense of the internal witness to the Resurrection. No modern theologian could know the inner life of Jesus other than Jesus himself, so if he or she trusts the biblical record enough to accept the "enlightened moral principles" of the Sermon on the Mount or the commandment to love one's neighbor, he or she must also accept the self-descriptions Jesus offers in the same texts.

But that begs the question, "Can we trust the Gospel accounts?" Perhaps Jesus got it right, but how do we know that the authors of the New Testament did the same? Can we be sure that the ascriptions of Deity, miracles, an atoning death and Resurrection are not later editorial additions that exaggerated the claims of Jesus himself? To do this, first of all, not only the New Testament writers would be called into question, but the Old Testament writers as well. As we have seen, the Bible is a single story and as early as Genesis 3 it anticipates a Messiah who will defeat the curse of sin, death, tyranny, and hell. The Psalmist's Messiah is the Son who must be embraced in order to avoid judgment (Ps. 2). Isaiah's Servant is Yahweh himself and "though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied" (Is. 53:10-11). Ezekiel's Shepherd-to-Come is no less than the Creator and Redeemer-God. It is not only the claims of New Testament disciples, but the expectations of Old Testament prophets that must be rejected if the Resurrection is discarded.

Second, the Gospel accounts are not late editions, as recent scholarship is beginning to concede. While the theory of the Gospels as second-generation exaggerations may have propelled the liberal movements of yesteryear (and the "Jesus Seminar" of contemporary infamy), the consensus among New Testament scholars is that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke originate no later than A.D. 85 and possibly as early as 50. Even the arguments for the later date (A.D. 85) rest entirely on the assumption that Jesus could not have predicted the fall of Jerusalem (i.e., an anti-supernaturalist presupposition), which occurred in the year 70. Matthew criticizes the powerful party of the Sadducees (they denied the resurrection of the dead), but this sect was barely known by A.D. 70 and soon passed out of existence altogether. Many scholars now believe that Matthew's Gospel is based on Mark's, and that would obviously date Mark's Gospel well within the range of thirty years after the Resurrection itself.

A popular theory among liberals, advanced also by Bultmann, is that the Apostle Paul is the culprit for the exaggerations. It was his many attributions of Deity to the risen Christ that created what amounted to a Jesus-cult that was far from the original vision of even Christ himself. And yet, recent scholarship has concluded that Paul's letters are the earliest New Testament writings! Since Paul was martyred under Nero and the Roman emperor died in A.D. 68, the dating of these letters cannot reflect a second-generation exaggeration of the actual events. Furthermore, Paul invites skeptics to interview some of those five hundred who saw the risen Jesus, "of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:6).

So we are left with the early dating of the New Testament doc-uments. There simply wasn't time to invent the sort of sophisticated Christology that we find in the New Testament, and Paul can hardly be viewed as the one who turned the "simple teacher" into a God-Man if (a) the Old Testament anticipates a God-Man, and (b) Paul's letters are actually the earliest New Testament documents. But there remains another internal obstacle: the consistency of the reporting in the Gospels. John Spong spells out and defends the conventional account of the discrepancies:

Who went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week? Paul said nothing about anyone going. Mark said that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome went (Chap. 16). Luke said that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and some other women went (24:10). Matthew said Mary Magdalene and the other Mary only went (1:28). John said that Mary Magdalene alone went (20:11) .... (8)

It is remarkable to see how quickly one who embraces liberal assumptions employs the very methods he attributes scathingly to "fundamentalists." Ignoring the character of event-reporting, Spong expects a rigid correspondence between the accounts. First, "Paul said nothing about anyone going [to the tomb]," Spong states. But who would expect Paul to do anything of the kind, since he himself clearly tells us that he was not an eye-witness of the earthly ministry of Christ, but that the risen Lord appeared to him on the Damascus Road? Paul could only report as an eye witness the things he himself saw. We would actually view Paul with greater suspicion if he did attempt to give reports of events as if he were an eye witness when we know he was not present.

But doesn't there seem to be a problem when each Gospel lists different people at the tomb? Mark has Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of Jesus), and Salome; Luke has Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James), Joanna, and other women; Matthew has Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, while John has Mary Magdalene. To be sure, there are differences among these accounts, but differences are not necessarily con-tradictions. So let's take a closer look.

If this were a report concerning any other public event, we would probably conclude that every name mentioned in all the accounts together must have been present at the tomb. An incomplete report does not a false or contradictory report make. More than that, it is quite possible that there were many others besides who are not named. What we do not find here is a contradiction. In other words, Matthew does not say, as Spong unscrupulously slips into the account, that no one other than Mary was at the tomb. In fact, she runs to tell the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and it is quite plausible to imagine John reporting this incredible discovery at an earlier point, before the whole company had arrived on the scene. Spong himself refers to Mary Magdalene's second visit to the tomb. In reporting on a public event, especially one of such significance, it is essential to take into account the dynamic flow of activity. One would hardly expect such an event to be neat and tidy. In fact, our suspicions would be raised if the reports were neat and tidy. There is nothing that Spong has here described that would be taken as contradictory by a journalist in a similar situation.

But there is more, says Spong:

What did the women find at the tomb? [Mark] said that the women found a young man dressed in white garments who gave the resurrection message. Luke said it was two men clothed in dazzling apparel. Matthew said it was nothing less than an "angel of the Lord" who descended in an earthquake, put the armed guard to sleep, rolled back the stone, and gave the resurrection message. John began with no messenger at all, but on Mary Magdalene's second visit she confronted two angels, although they were speechless. Finally she confronted Jesus himself, whom she mistook for the gardener. From Jesus she received the resurrection message. Did the women see the risen Lord in the garden at dawn on the first day of the week? Mark and Luke said no. Matthew said yes. John said yes also, but he insisted that it was a little bit later. Where did the risen Christ appear to the disciples? (9)

Let us first reduce the discrepancies by beginning with the least difficult. As with the explanation for the different list of names of people at the tomb, one might easily suggest that "a man dressed in white garments" (Mark), "two men clothed in dazzling apparel" (Luke), "an angel of the Lord" (Matthew), and "two angels" (John), have a common explanation. If one eye witness sees one person and another eye witness sees two, what is our usual explanation? That someone is lying? Perhaps, but that is not usually our immediate conclusion. If, for instance, an eye witness spots a gunman aiming for a human target, does that render the testimony of another eye witness invalid if he sees two gunmen? If anything, such discrepancies only serve to strengthen the event-character of such testimony. In other words, discrepancies militate against collusion. If the disciples were to have gathered together in an effort to circulate a resurrection-story that never really happened, we would expect them to give painstaking attention to the elimination of every possible difference in their reports. One would have the impression from such a project that everyone saw the same thing from precisely the same spot, but that impression is precisely what is missing from these accounts. They have the ring of typical eye witness reports of actual events.

Thus, the testimony concerning the herald of Christ's Resurrection at the tomb is not at all contradictory. Luke and John report two men, while Mark and Matthew refer to one. If there were two, that would obviously not rule out the one to whom Mark and Matthew referred. Furthermore, if these men were angelic beings (Matthew and John), we would hardly be surprised to find them described as wearing "white garments" (Mark) or "dazzling apparel" (Luke). There are differences, but not a single example of what Spong judges a "sea of contradictions." (10)

We find a host of other internal evidences, only a few of which we can mention here. First, we notice throughout the Gospels that the writers hardly paint themselves and each other with effusive majesty. Not only do they confess their sinfulness, but report it as well. By their own admission filled with grief, ignorant of what lay ahead in spite of the Lord's many references to these events, the disciples could not even stay awake with Jesus in prayer. When he was arrested, they fled. Peter's pathetic denial of Christ is described in heart-breaking detail and the small band of disciples still following Jesus by the time he returns to Jerusalem for his crucifixion becomes weak, faithless, and utterly impotent in the face of it all.

The question therefore follows: How can such a rag-tag band that has been so cowardly in the face of danger suddenly transform itself into a committee for the propaganda concerning false claims for which they will be martyred? They were already despairing and in the process of grieving for their Lord, so what made them change their tune so radically? Emory University's Luke Timothy Johnson put it this way: "A resuscitation is excellent news for the patient and family. But it is not 'good news' that affects everyone else. It does not begin a religion. It does not transform the lives of others across the ages. It is not what is being claimed by the first Christians." (11) That which Johnson says concerning resuscitation theories is equally valid for all other alternative explanations for the Resurrection. Whatever happened, it had to account for the fact that cowards became martyrs, Peter even insisting on being crucified upside-down because he was not worthy to die as Jesus had. Although he denied the Resurrection, liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack wrote,

The firm confidence of the disciples in Jesus was rooted in the belief that He did not abide in death, but was raised by God. That Christ was risen was, in virtue of what they had experienced in Him, certain only after they had seen Him, just as sure as the fact of His death, and became the main article of their preaching about Him. (12)

Could the disciples have been deluded? Perhaps their grief had led to a mass hysteria and the "Resurrection" was the only way out of it all. But is it really plausible to believe that literally hundreds of eye witnesses were suffering from the same condition? And did masses of converts multiply because they experienced the same mass neurosis? Furthermore, the question is still left unanswered: Where was the body? Mass hysteria cannot move corpses from one place to another, and the body was guarded by Jewish and Roman soldiers.

External Evidence for the Resurrection

We will conclude with extrabiblical support for the Resurrection. The late first-century Jewish historian Josephus recorded the following words that continue to haunt modern readers:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. This man was the Christ. And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross, upon his impeachment by the principal man among us, those who had loved from the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive on the third day, the divine prophets having spoken these and thousands of other wonderful things about him. And even now, the race of Christians, so named from him, has not died out. (13)

Although many have sought to refute the claim that Josephus is this passage's author, it is included in the standard Loeb edition of his works. Hardly interested in impressing the Christians, the audience for Josephus' Antiquities was the Roman court, and Josephus is hardly sympathetic to the Christians themselves in this work.

Much more could be said about the Jewish and Roman soldiers who had fled their post. Whatever it was that scattered them that first Easter morning, it was a greater source of fear than the certain execution appointed for Roman soldiers who deserted their posts. We could describe in great detail, from Roman military histories, the discipline of first-century Roman soldiers and the stone and the way in which it was sealed to further guard its contents. Are we really to believe that this same band of cowardly men and several women terrified the soldiers, broke the seal, removed the immense stone, and carried the region's most carefully watched body to a remote location? And what did they gain from this? How did they benefit from such an incredible theft? They were sent to their deaths-not for stealing a body, for no one even charged them with this, but for raising a seditious conspiracy against imperial power. Surely they could have come up with a better charge and all they would have had to have produced was the body of Jesus. Instead, these early martyrs are charged with causing civil unrest. Just this sort of claim is made by the Roman historian and government official Tacitus in the year 64. Nero, he says, justly punished the Christians for the fire of Rome, although it was in fact Nero's own doing:

The one from whom this name originated, Christ, had been executed during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of the procurator, Pontius Pilate. For a time this pernicious superstition was suppressed, but it broke out again, not only in Judea where this evil thing began, but even in the city itself where everything atrocious and shameful from all quarters flows together and finds adherents [Rome]. To begin with, those who openly confessed were arrested, and then a vast multitude was convicted on the basis of their disclosures, not so much on the charge of arson as for their hatred of the human race. Their execution was made into a game: they were covered with the skins of wild animals and torn to pieces by dogs. They were hung on crosses. They were burned, wrapped in flammable material and set on fire as darkness fell, to illuminate the night. (14)
Gaius Pliny, Governor in Asia Minor, composed the following report to Emperor Trajan:
They [the Christians] ... sing a hymn to Christ as to a god.... The matter seems to me worthy of consultation, especially because of the large number of those imperiled. For many of all ages, of every rank, and of both sexes are already in danger, and many more will come into danger. The contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cities, but even to the villages and to the country districts. Yet I still feel it is possible to check it and set it right. (15)
Quite apart from the biblical witnesses, therefore, hostile witnesses (Jews and Romans) who had everything to gain by fashioning credible alternatives to the Resurrection claim were at a complete loss. They refer to the historical reality of Christ's death and burial and even when they, for obvious reasons, refuse to accept the Resurrection, they fail to offer either Christ's body or alternative explanations for the empty tomb or for the sudden tumult created by the Resurrection claim throughout the empire.

On the temple steps during the Feast of Pentecost, following Christ's Ascension, Peter boldly proclaimed the Resurrection and among the international community of Jews and Jewish converts gathered for the Feast the new Israel's identity was shaped. As news spread, men and women from well-educated classes as well as slaves-Jews and Gentiles-embraced a hope that they knew could seal their death, assured that by holding it to the end that very death would itself be conquered.



1 [ Back ] Bishop John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 236.
2 [ Back ] Ibid., 242.
3 [ Back ] Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 46.
4 [ Back ] Ibid., 47.
5 [ Back ] Thomas Kuhn, The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, second ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970).
6 [ Back ] With specific reference to the application of Kuhn's view of science to religion, see Michael C. Banner, The Justification of Science and the Rationality of Religious Belief (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990).
7 [ Back ] Hans Frei, Types of Christian Theology (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1992), 91.
8 [ Back ] Spong, op. cit., 217-18.
9 [ Back ] Ibid., 218-19.
10 [ Back ] Ibid., 222, 217-18.
11 [ Back ] Quoted in Newsweek, April 8, 1996, 68.
12 [ Back ] Adolf Harnack, What Is Christianity?, trans. by Thomas B. Saunders (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), chapter 2.
13 [ Back ] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (London: Elwyn & Sons, 1936), 18.3.3.
14 [ Back ] Tacitus, Annals, XV.44.
15 [ Back ] Eberhard Arnold, The Early Christians after the Death of the Apostles (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing House, 1970), 64-5.


Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Exploring Mars Hill: Common Ground in Apologetics" March/April 1998 Vol. 7 No. 2 Page number(s): 5-14

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