Ignoring the Resurrection Deniers

ResurrectionPart of today’s lectionary reading comes from Revelation 12, in which the saints overcome the Accuser “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony…”  Their witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection was intellectually offensive to the Greeks and morally offensive to their Jewish compatriots.

And so it goes today.  This time every year we get a slew of magazine articles, TV “documentaries” and (now) blog posts and Twitter comments about the believability of Jesus’ resurrection.

Lots of good possibilities for serious give-and-take between believers and non-believers.  I love talking to honest skeptics.

But there’s one group I admit I’ve grown weary of: Christian resurrection-deniers.  Not resurrection deniers in general, but those who claim to follow Jesus, who blithely assert that thinking people simply cannot believe the hocus pocus about Jesus rising bodily from the dead.  If resurrection means anything, so this line of thinking goes, it can only have metaphorical/symbolic significance.

Let me narrow my charge a little more.  A Christian struggling intellectually with belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, who honestly wants to know the truth and pursues it with transparent intensity and a willingness to learn; for this kind of Christian I have utmost respect.  After all, one of the major characteristics of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection is how Jesus’ own followers doubted!  But the easy, breezy, smooth-talking, read-the-latest-John Spong-Marcus Borg-Dominic Crossan-and-now-we-know-what-really-happened  Christian, tries my patience mightily.  A Christian who confidently denies the resurrection is an oxymoron.

I repeat: it is not argumentation, doubt or critique of the resurrection that bothers me.  It is the facile dismissal – by Christians! – of a central belief of our faith.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ, says John Polkinghorne, “is the pivot on which Christian belief turns.” (The God of Hope and the End of the World, p. 76).  And by “resurrection,” he does mean “bodily.”

Not Resuscitation

Before going any further, let’s be clear about what the resurrection hope does not mean.  It does not mean “resuscitation.”  Resurrection does not mean the return of biological life to a corpse.  It is not a going backward to resume an old way of life.  The Gospel claim regarding the resurrection of Jesus is, in a sense, a going forward – a glimpse of the future that has come to us.  It is the cause of our hope of our own resurrection.  Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of the New Creation.

Is this claim something modern, thinking, enlightened people simply cannot believe?  In a word, no.  Double negatives don’t work very well, so let me state it positively.  Intelligent, modern, well-informed, aware-of-the-issues people can and do believe in the bodily resurrection.  And that’s one reason why I’ve picked John Polkinghorne as Exhibit A.   Polkinghorne, as many of you know already, is a particle physicist and an Anglican priest, who gives articulate expression to belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.  So, let’s follow, a little bit of the argument from Polkinghorne’s The God of Hope and the End of the World.

A Science-Aware Argument for the Resurrection

Let’s start with this conundrum about how, even in normal life, “minds” continue while the physical substrate of our bodies changes.  Knowing that “we have very few atoms in our bodies today that were there even two years ago,” (p. 105), how is it that we can have consciousness of a continuing existence?   How does the “self” persist over time, when the physical stuff we’re made of changes?

Thomas Aquinas, using Aristotle’s metaphysics, taught that the soul is the form of the body.  “Form” here might best be thought of as the organizing principle of the body.  Polkinghorne, following research related to how information works in complex systems, suggests the analogy that information is to energy what soul is to body.  Just as the information in a system is not limited to the “bits and pieces” of matter/energy making up the system, the soul, though it does not exist apart from the body, is still something distinguishable from the body.  The soul (self/person) is the “information-bearing pattern of the body.” (God of Hope, 106).  This is a tentative answer to how a person – whose physical body is constantly changing – can persist over time.  We are, as Roger Penrose once said, more than “computers made of meat.”

So, what does all this have to do with resurrection?  Polkinghorne once more: “It is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern [of information] that is a human being could be held in the divine memory after that person’s death…It is a further coherent hope, and one for which the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the foretaste and guarantee, that God…will re-embody this multitude of preserved information-bearing patterns [people] in some new environment of God’s choosing,” (107-108).  Resurrection!  Bodily.

If that idea seems utterly preposterous to you, consider this.  If you believe in a God strong enough and smart enough to create a universe; that is, if you are any sort of believer in a God who creates, then you already believe in a Reality similar to what I just described.  A God who is able to create is surely one who can re-create.

Philosophers can raise objections to this view and my point here is not to claim proof.  My point, rather, is to give an example of how some pretty smart people confidently express belief in Jesus’ resurrection while being fully engaged in modern scientific and philosophical dialogue.

Thus, the time has come for us to start ignoring those who claim that thinking, enlightened people cannot possibly believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.   Having doubts, raising arguments and probing our faith is totally fine with me.  Presumptuous dismissal, because now we know so much better, is one of the Accuser’s wiles.

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Charles Horton says:

    Oh, how refreshing this blog is. Thank you Stephen Rankin! Bodily resurrection IS our hope. Why, oh why, is not Jesus’ own resurrection, as the key to clearing up the mystery of our future, not being preached today? When Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15 said, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality,” he was explaining to the immortality-of-the-soul-indoctrinated pagan Corinthian new Christian believers about our hope in bodily resurrection or change (if still alive at Jesus’ return).

    At the risk of going on too long, here is how N. T. Wright puts it in the April 2008 Christianity Today article “Heaven Is Not Our Home”:

    “There is no agreement in the church today about what happens to people when they die. Yet the New Testament is crystal clear on the matter: In a classic passage, Paul speaks of “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). There is no room for doubt as to what he means: God’s people are promised a new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life. The rest of the early Christian writings, where they address the subject, are completely in tune with this.”

    And here is Roger Olson’s take on it from p. 314 of his book, “The Mosaic of Christian Belief”:

    “It would be impossible to discover any single point of greater agreement in the history of Christian thought than this one: the future bodily resurrection of the dead is the blessed hope of all who are in Christ Jesus by faith. Over two millennia the church’s leaders and faithful theologians have unanimously taught this above the immortality of souls and as more important than some ethereal intermediate state between bodily death and bodily resurrection when Christ returns. And yet, as we have lamented earlier [p. 309-10], it seems that the vast majority of Christians do not know this and neglect belief in bodily resurrection in favor of belief in immediate postmortem, heavenly, spiritual existence as ghost-like beings (or even angels!) “forever with the Lord in heaven.”

    Let’s wake up and start including this blessed hope when we think of witnessing and discipleship. This wonderful, orthodox, 2,000 year-old promise for our next life, right here on the earth, our bodily resurrection, should be resurrected (used metaphorically here, but rarely so used in the Scripture) and preached all over the world.

    God bless whoever is reading this.

  2. Who wrote the Gospels and for what purpose were they written? Were they written as eyewitness testimony of historical events, or were they written as historical fictions, similar to Homer’s Iliad, for the sole purpose of selling books?

    • Apologies for the delayed answer. Are those my only two options? Either eyewitness testimony or historical fiction? Generally, the Gospels are theological treatises, written with masterful rhetorical devices and compelling narratives to elicit faith in Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah/Savior. They are based on eyewitness accounts, but certainly not limited to such. The Gospel writers/editors employed their own perspectives to shape the narratives.

      • No worries.

        So who do you believe wrote the gospels and how do you know they contain eyewitness testimony?

        • Since the names attached to the gospels were added after the original autographs, I really don’t know how to answer the question as to who wrote them. I’m persuaded by (if memory serves) the prevailing theories that Mark is based on sermons of Peter, but no one can say definitively who wrote/edited the gospel into its current form. Matthew was written/edited by Jewish Christian believers. Luke/Acts seems to me to be associated with someone like the person who uses first person plural in Acts. With John, I’m persuaded by Richard Bauckhman’s work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2007). The author of the Gospel, John is probably John the Elder, an eyewitness of Jesus, but not John the Beloved.

          As to how I know they contain eyewitness testimony, it depends on what you mean by “know.” As you likely know, there is no lockdown answer to these questions. I think Bauckham’s book that I just mentioned makes a pretty convincing case that the Gospels are solidly based on eyewitness testimony. He offers a detailed, thorough, careful and sophisticated explication of these matters. If you have not read it, I would recommend it.

          • But isn’t odd that Jesus would go to all the effort to come down to earth to save us from eternal damnation, train 12 disciples for three years, but then leave no concrete proof of his teachings, life, the circumstances of his death, and the miracles of his Resurrection and Ascension, other than what is found in four books, written decades after his death, by four anonymous writers, written in a foreign language, most probably written in far away lands??

            I mean for the Jews, he allegedly used his very finger to write his words on stone tablets. Why do Christians, in the “better” covenant, only merit the alleged writings of four anonymous quasi-eye-witnesses?

            Yes, it is possible that Jesus did this because he only wanted those who really, really, really seek him to find him, but based on probabilities, isn’t it much more likely that he didn’t leave us any solid, verifiable evidence because he wasn’t god?

          • I don’t agree with the way you set up the problem. What would constitute “concrete proof?”

          • The proof that Jesus left was his words and works etched in the minds and memories of those who heard and saw him. From there, communication by word of mouth, more than any other way, is how details of Jesus’ life and teaching were spread. As I understand it, much of knowledge and understandings in ancient times were handed down through oral traditions more than the written word. In fact, according to the Gospel writers and their sources, Jesus himself, rather than give concrete proof, told doubters to check the scriptures. He said if they didn’t believe the scriptures, they wouldn’t believe any concrete proof from him either. So, there is a certain amount of faith or belief without concrete proof that is vital to understanding the scriptures. Re Jesus’s bodily resurrection, something as far removed from normal as that would surely have to be recorded from the memories of those who witnessed it. Besides, why would they be willing to die for this if they didn’t believe it was true with every fiber of their being?

          • I don’t dispute the process you describe, Charles, for how people passed on stories, accounts, etc., of Jesus’ words and works. And yes, Jesus’ resurrection was truly far from normal, as you say. But as you point out, accounts of the resurrection came from the memories of witnesses, people who claim to have see the risen Christ. I’m trying to sort out the epistemological point you seem to be making, that sets up “belief” as what one does in absence of “proof.” This is true, of course, in one sense, but it is something everyone has to do, at times, not just those who believe in Jesus and his resurrection. Therefore, I don’t make the inference you seem to be making, that this sort of belief in the absence of proof is necessary for understanding the scriptures.

          • Stephen, I was hoping to give answer in a non-scholarly way to Gary’s question about who wrote the Gospels and why, because I am definitely not a scholar.

            The why seems easy to me. All the authors believed that Jesus came back to life after he had died and been buried. Paul reports that there were over 500 eyewitnesses who saw and talked with him in his resurrected state. The Gospel authors wanted as many people as they could reach to be able to believe in his resurrection as they did, because it meant having a more fulfilled life with Christ now as well as a never-ending, resurrected life in the future.

            The “who wrote” part isn’t quite so easy because the authors relied not only on their own eyewitness to Jesus’ life, but on the eyewitness testimony of others, like Peter (for Mark, I believe) and Q, etc. But in the beginning, one person – as an eyewitness or having heard it from an eyewitness – would tell another person about Jesus’ resurrection and the things Jesus said and did (such as “pray for your enemy” and his many miraculous healings), and the hearer would choose to believe it or not. Many did choose to believe, and out of that faithful belief by a few people back then, we now have a huge population of Christians around the globe who believe in Jesus. Just like the outcome of most court cases are decided more on circumstantial evidence than on “smoking gun” evidence, so the choice to believe in Christ is based to a large degree on what people said about him. If Gary is looking for an open and shut, slam dunk proof of what the 4 Gospels say, or rather who wrote them, he might not find it. In my own personal case, I have chosen to believe Paul’s word that “all scripture is given by God’s inspiration and can be relied on for instruction and correction.” Therefore I put my trust in God and Jesus as they are explained in the Bible.

            Gary, I hope you, if you haven’t already, will do this too.

  3. What concrete proof?

    Probably the same proof you would require to believe that Mohammad flew to Heaven on a winged horse.

  4. “The proof that Jesus left was his words and works etched in the minds and memories of those who heard and saw him.”

    How do you know that they are Jesus’ words? They were written decades after Jesus was dead. Maybe the only historical aspect to the whole story is that Jesus lived, claimed to be the Jewish messiah, was crucified, and his body thrown into an unmarked, common grave with all the other criminals killed that day. All the rest is legend. The original story was embellished as are most oral stories as they are passed from person to person to person over weeks, months, years, and decades.

    We have no contemporaneous writings of Jesus. None. We are told there were two great earthquakes, three hours of darkness during the middle of the day, dead people roaming the streets of Jerusalem, the resurrected “King of the Jews” is loose, walking all over roman-occupied Palestine for 40 days…and yet not one Jew, Roman, or other pagan writes of these remarkable events???

    Open your eyes, my friend. None of these things happened. They are legendary.

    “Besides, why would they be willing to die for this if they didn’t believe it was true with every fiber of their being?”

    Do you have any proof that any of the Eleven were executed because they refused to recant their testimony that they saw and touched a walking/talking dead man? Many people have died for very bizarre religious beliefs.

    • Gary, by the tone and content of your comments, I would gather there is really little, if anything, that would meet your standard of proof for a traditional understanding of the reliability of scripture witnesses to Jesus. If you are willing to consider another viewpoint, I refer you back to Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2007). Bauckham is a well known and reputable scholar. I’m not concerned to change your mind on specific topics, but, if you really want to have a serious conversation, you have some work to do, otherwise you stab yourself with your own shabby thinking. In these last two comments, you’ve strung together a number of easy generalizations that are actually pretty shaky, using your own way of arguing. One example: you are right that we don’t find anyone else in the New Testament besides Paul making reference to Jesus’ appearance to “more than 500 believers.” To use that fact as support for the belief that Paul is either a little wacky or just making up stuff is plainly an argument from silence. You literally make something of nothing. Silence is not evidence against. It’s just silence.

      • You are correct, I can’t prove that Paul was “wacky”, but I can point out that if any other human being today claimed:

        1. to have seen a walking, talking zombie,
        2. to have taken an intergalactic trip to a third heaven,
        3. repeatedly not to be a liar
        4, gives two very different, very contradictory accounts of what he did in the years immediately following seeing the bright light.

        We would conclude he has mental health issues.

        You only believe Paul because this is what you have been taught since you were a child. If you had grown up in an educated family in Japan you would think Paul’s story is nuts.

      • Dear Pastor,

        I know you see me as ill-informed and poorly equipped to debate someone like yourself regarding the central teaching of Christianity, the Resurrection. But I would like to point this out to you: Is it really necessary to have an advanced degree in the supernatural…to disprove a supernatural claim?

        Let me give some examples:

        1. Imagine that you are having a conversation with a Muslim cleric regarding the central claim of Islam: that the angel Gabriel appeared and gave the true word of God, the Koran, to Mohammad and that Mohammad flew to Heaven on a winged horse. You question this claim and ask for proof that this event occurred. What would be your reaction to the Muslim cleric if he said this:

        “You are in no position to question the claims of the Koran. What do you know about the Koran. Are you a cleric of the Muslim faith? Are you a certified scholar of Islam and the Koran? Of course you are not. Therefore you have no business questioning the supernatural claims of Islam. If you want to understand how a man can fly on a winged horse to heaven, you must read Muslim scholar X’s book.

        2. You are having a conversation with someone who believes in spaceships and extra-terrestials. When you tell him you do not believe in either of these supernatural claims, he is insulted and scoffs at your ignorance. “Do you have an advanced degree in Extra-terrestials?” Do you have an advanced degree in outer space and flying saucers?? Well, if you want to understand these facts, you must read the latest research in flying saucers. God read flying saucer expert, Mr. Y’s book.

        You would laugh at these people (maybe not to their faces, but you would laugh). You don’t need to read anyone’s book to know that horses do not have wings; that neither horses or men fly; or that flying saucers are Martians are not real

        Dear Pastor: I don’t need a divinity degree nor do I need to read some apologist’s book to know that the chances that a dead man, 2,000 years ago, walked out of his grave after decomposing for three days, walked through locked doors, ate a broiled fish lunch with his friends, and then levitated into outer space is just as ridiculous and improbable as flying horses and flying saucers! If this event really happened you should have convincing evidence that you can rattle off in two or three paragraphs. If you need an entire book to explain how horses fly, Martians exist, or zombies can come out of their graves, there is something very fishy about your belief!

  5. “Paul reports that there were over 500 eyewitnesses who saw and talked with him in his resurrected state.”

    Most Bible scholars believe that Paul is reciting an early Christian creed in I Corinthians 15, Even if the “500 witnesses” is not part of the creed, Paul still says that he received this information from others. Therefore it could have been second hand information, or third, fourth, fifth, sixth…hand information. So it would be no different than a Roman Catholic saying, “I received word that 500 people, all in the same place and time, saw the Holy Virgin Mother…”

    You wouldn’t believe this guy’s “five hundred” story, so why should we accept as historical fact a statement by one man, living 2,000 years ago, that 500 people at one place and time saw a walking/talking dead guy???

    Have you ever noticed while reading Paul that he sure seems to know things that none of the Eleven hand picked apostles ever heard of? “Five hundred witness in one place and time” is never mentioned by any other the other authors of the Bible, including the alleged eye-witnesses! And then we have his intergalactic trip to the “third heaven”, his repeated denials of being a liar, his repeated accusations by other Christians of being a liar, his spat with Peter, the chief apostle, etc. I’m not very confident that Paul was a reliable source of information.

  6. “As I understand it, much of knowledge and understandings in ancient times were handed down through oral traditions more than the written word. In fact, according to the Gospel writers and their sources, Jesus himself, rather than give concrete proof, told doubters to check the scriptures. He said if they didn’t believe the scriptures, they wouldn’t believe any concrete proof from him either. So, there is a certain amount of faith or belief without concrete proof that is vital to understanding the scriptures. ”

    There are many assumptions in this statement:

    1. The facts of oral stories remain intact over time. Embellishments are rare and if they occur do not dramatically change the story.

    2. The “Scriptures” confirm Jesus’ claim to be the Jewish messiah.

    Not if you ask Jewish scholars. Jewish (and secular) scholars can demonstrate that not one of the “Jesus prophesies” in the OT refers to Jesus. The suffering servant described in Isaiah is the nation of Israel, not Jesus. If you read the previous chapters, the identity of the suffering servant is clearly outlined. The passage in Isaiah that Matthew uses to support the prophesy of Jesus birth was about a birth in the time of King Hezekiah, not 300-400 years later during Jesus time…and on and on.

    3. Saying that Jesus’ statements that evidence is not needed to prove his divinity—to prove his divinity—is the logical fallacy of “begging the question”. To prove the historicity of the resurrection, Christians are obligated to use the same type of evidence that we humans use to establish every other historical claim. Imagine if someone said this: Well, since Mohammad said he was speaking for God, we must believe that what Mohammad said is absolute fact.” No. First you have to prove that Mohammad was speaking for God.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Kudos to Rev. Rankin, with whom, years ago, I believe I served on the board of Good News, the United Methodist evangelical renewal group. The chaplaincies at United Methodist schools are not always renowned for affirming orthodoxy. I suspect that he uniquely combines strong intellect committed to Wesleyan beliefs with an effective pastoral sensibility. May God keep blessing his ministry. Here’s his blog. […]

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