I read the following words this morning on a Christian publication’s Facebook feed:
Easter is a notorious time for skeptics to launch attacks on Christianity. Christians should be ready to respond to skeptical arguments.
I confess that the way this is worded makes my skin crawl. “Calling all Christians, the skeptics are coming! Easter is nearly upon us, and it’s time to roll up our sleeves and defend the resurrection!” I’m sure Jesus would be so pleased.
Having (grouchily) said that, I have always taken the words of 1 Peter 3:15-16 very seriously: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” We tend to major on the “always be prepared” part and minor on the “with gentleness and respect” part, but that’s probably another blog post for another time.
At any rate, because Easter is a time where these questions tend to come up, and because the resurrection is the reason for the hope that I have, and NOT because I think Christians should be arming themselves for fiery combat with the skeptical hordes at the gate, I submit to you the following piece on the resurrection that was written by my brother Gil a few years back. It is important, in these lightly informed and noisy times, to at least make sure we know what we’re talking about when we defend or attack the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Christian faith is dependent on an historical event; it is dependent on the fact of the empty tomb. As Paul himself wrote, ‘If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile’ (1 Cor 15:17). So there is very little doubt that, at least historically, Christians have been people who have staked their lives and their identities on a dead man being resurrected.
There has been a lot of effort made to investigate the early Christian claims of the resurrection of Jesus, many of which focus on details surrounding the resurrection itself (the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, the reliability of the reports of the first witnesses etc.). I do not intend to minimize the force of these arguments but I have found the origin of the Christian church itself to be one of the most persuasive arguments in favour of the resurrection.
While there is a wide spectrum of belief on the question of whether or not the resurrection really happened, there is no debate over the fact that the early Christians believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that this belief launched the Christian church. How do we explain this belief? In brief, either the early Christians told the truth about what they experienced or else they were mistaken.
If they were mistaken then are a few options for explaining how that came to be the case. They could have been lying, they could have been so traumatized by the loss of Jesus that they manufactured the idea that he had not really died, they could have experienced some kind of cognitive dissonance that led to their “projection” of the idea that Jesus was alive again, they could have mistakenly believed he was dead when in reality he only fainted on the cross and was later revived in the tomb.
Or it’s possible that we have misunderstood the disciples all these years. Maybe they weren’t talking about an actual physical resurrection at all. Maybe they were referring to Jesus’ spiritual exaltation, his final vindication by God after the suffering and rejection he experienced at the cross. The theories that attempt to account for how people could have come to the conclusion that Jesus was alive again are numerous and well-publicized.
When you look at the actual history of the first century, however, it becomes fairly obvious that the word “resurrection” has a fairly clear (and limited) semantic range. There is no equivalent belief in Greek philosophy, where the afterlife is thought to be a shadowy existence in Hades or a paradisiacal state where the soul contemplates the perfection of the forms. In Second Temple Judaism, there was a growing belief in a future Resurrection where the nation of Israel would be restored and the righteous dead would rise but that was not a vision of life after death, it was a vision of the end of the age.
In the first century the word “resurrection” means what it appears to mean—a dead person somehow being alive again. The fact that this was the word that Jesus’ disciples used to describe what happened after his death is a very unique historical fact that requires some kind of explanation.
There were a number of messianic movements in the years leading up to and following the life of Jesus. Judas Maccabeus (167-160 BC), Judas the Galilean (6 BC), Simon Bar Giora (AD 66-75) and Simeon Ben Kosiba (AD 132-135) were all seen, at least by some, as messianic figures. All of these men died at the hands of the pagans against whom they were revolting, and none of these men were proclaimed as “resurrected” by any of their followers after their deaths. All of these movements died with their leaders which begs the important question of how Jesus continued to be proclaimed as the Messiah, even after his death.
There was a widespread belief that Jewish martyrs were exalted to the presence of God as they awaited the final Resurrection of the dead and this would have been the default assumption regarding what happened to Jesus after his death. What is critical to note is that the word “resurrection” would not have been used to describe it.
So when it comes to explaining the historical fact of the disciple’s belief in Jesus’ resurrection, we can rule out any kind of confusion between physical resurrection and spiritual exaltation. N.T. Wright puts it well:
It is impossible to conceive what sort of religious or spiritual experience someone could have that would make them say that… a crucified leader was the Messiah when he obviously was not… However strong the disciples sense may have been that Jesus had been vindicated, that they had been forgiven, or whatever, they would still not have said he had been raised from the dead.
While it will always be counter-intuitive to proclaim the resurrection of Christ, the historical fact of early Christian belief in the resurrection is undeniable and demands some kind of explanation. Obviously the explanation that seems best to me is that the tomb really was empty and Jesus was, in fact, raised from the dead.
The image above is taken from the 2010-11 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is called “Rejected Stone ” and was created by Linda K. McRay as a way of portraying both the agony of the cross and the light and new life of the resurrection.