An Easter eSight

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15.1-8)With the majority of Western Christianity getting ready to celebrate Easter this upcoming weekend, I want to take some time this week and give an honest look at the resurrection. This is also one of the advantages of the Christus Victor Paradigm we have been looking at for the past few weeks. Contrary to Anselm’ penal substitutionary satisfaction, which tends to focus exclusively on Jesus’ death as the means or our salvation, the Christus Victor paradigm of the early church embraced a more holistic view that included the saving and atoning work of Jesus life, death AND resurrection!

I want to be upfront from the very beginning. The resurrection is probably the most difficult aspect of the whole Jesus story for me to embrace intellectually. I’m not saying I don’t believe it, I do. I’m just saying that believing it, on an intellectual level, doesn’t come easy for me. Personally, I have never met anyone who has died and come back to life. Death, in my experience so far, has been permanent. But, if I were not to believe Jesus’ resurrection to be true, by inference, I would either have to believe the Disciples were either lying about Jesus’ resurrection or that the Disciples were simply passing on something that had become exaggerated, something of a “legendary” nature.

After open mindedly considering what we do know, in light of the evidence that we do have, I find it even more difficult to believe the disciples were lying, and even more difficult than that is to believe they were simply passing down something that had become another legend. Difficult as it may be to believe the verity of the resurrection, to believe the story is a lie or a legend, I find, when compared with the evidence, even more irrational. I’d like to share with you, briefly, why I feel this way.

When it comes to Jesus’ resurrection, we have every reason possible, even though it is contrary to our postmodern naturalistic worldview, to believe it historically took place. Let me explain.

First of all, I’m not assuming that Paul and the Four Gospels are the inspired word of God, but I’m simply looking at them as ancient documents. We must remember the standard rule of historical methodology. When you are dealing with ancient documents that claim to write history and read like history, treat it like history. If a historian thinks that an ancient document that claims to write history and reads like history is not reporting history, then the burden of proof lies with the historian to prove it wrong. The burden is not on the document to prove itself right. If this were not true then our history books would be a lot thinner. Most of what we know happened in history only comes from one source and cannot be collaborated by another source. For example, almost everything we know about Ancient Judaism comes from only one source, Josephus, who wrote about his subject close to a century later. Almost everything we know about Alexander the Great comes from only one source, Arrian, who wrote four centuries (400 years!) later. Everything we know about the Persian Wars comes from just one source, Herodotus, who wrote about them 70 years later. Almost everything we know about the Middle Ages comes from just one source, St. Bede, who wrote 200 years afterward, as well. Pliny, Tacitus and Josephus tell us Jesus existed. Josephus mentions both James and Ananus. Josephus and Celsus tell us Jesus was a “wonder worker”. Josephus refers to Jesus as a wise man and teacher. Pliny tells us that Jesus’ followers considered him to be Divine. Tacitus, Lucian, and Josephus record the crucifixion. Tacitus and Josephus mention the role played by Pontius Pilate. Thallus even mentions the three-hour darkness that occurred during the crucifixion, which we spoke of in part four of our Christus Victor series. But, when it comes to Jesus’ actual resurrection, we have something very exceptional by historical standards. We have five accounts in the first 20 to 60 years, and 11 accounts within the first century.

The earliest account is Paul’s, that we began with above. This was written between 53-55 A.D. A hint of its early date is that Simon is referred to, not as Peter (later Greek) but as Cephas (early Aramaic). This could in fact indicate a very early origin. There are a few notable features of this account as well:

First, Paul uses the phrase, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance.” These words are technical rabbinic terms indicating Paul is passing along what is established holy tradition by this time. The vast majority of New Testament scholars affirm that this passage is an old creed that goes back as early as Paul’s visit to Jerusalem around 36 A.D., when he spent a couple of weeks with James and Peter (see Galatians 1). This places the resurrection as actually being something held as “Creedal” (confession of established belief) within only 2 or 3 years of the crucifixion itself. Within 2 or 3 years of occurring, the resurrection was already established early Creed. This makes the theory that the resurrection was a later exaggerated/legendary development highly improbable.

Second, Paul here states that Jesus appeared to more than 500 at the same time, most of whom were still living and could attest to the truth of what Paul was saying here. This makes the claim that the sightings of Jesus after the resurrection were mere hallucinations not just implausible, but impossible. I mean, 500 people see the same hallucination simultaneously?

In closing this week, I want to consider the words of the Apostle John himself. You can find John’s own account of the resurrection in John 20, but what I want to draw your attention to is John’s words in 1 John 1.1-5:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”

What makes John’s account striking is that this isn’t something John is claiming was passed down to him. This is his own first hand account of what he claims he himself saw. This is not legend. What John is passing on to us is either truly what he saw or, quite simply, John is lying. And honestly, as difficult as it is to believe that some guy came back to life, to believe that John is purposefully lying, when one considers the historical evidence (See the presentation online Why Think This Is True?), even secular scholars agree is highly implausible. To say the 11 were lying about all this, even secular scholars believe, is very unlikely. This is why many secular scholars believe that Gospel is “Legend” rather than “Lie”. (Yet the “Legend” theory, when viewed along side John’s statement above, is, in my opinion, equally irrational. It’s either true or a lie, but you can’t say the resurrection is legend. There are too many “eye witness” testimonies for this to be a Legend. You also don’t have enough time for a legend of this size and nature to develop. And you don’t have the kind of culture (First Century Monotheistic Jewish Palestine) that a legend like this would need in order to find fertile soil to grow and develop almost overnight. It can’t be legend. And almost all secular scholars agree that these early Jewish men weren’t lying. So if it’s not legend, and it’s not lie, something else has to be driving the rejection of the story of Jesus. (This, I believe, is the manner in which the story of Jesus has been abused throughout history by those who claimed to be believers, which is an entirely different, but much needed article.)

When the early accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are historically analyzed they exhibit every quality that sets them apart from legendary documents (minor differences in the details of the accounts, irrelevant details, counterproductive details, historically significant details, etc.) To simply reject the story of Jesus’ resurrection as legend instead of fact because it contains the supernatural, is in my opinion, biased. The Naturalistic Worldview (the absolute rejection of the supernatural or miraculous) is a theory. Natural laws are a description of what we generally find in nature. Natural laws are not prescriptions of what we must always find in nature. In other words, we all agree that the world generally runs in accordance with natural laws. But on what basis can anyone argue or even prove that it does so exhaustively, without there ever being exceptions to these so-called laws. Naturalism is not a conclusion that is based on evidence or reason, for neither evidence nor reason is exhaustibly available to warrant such an absolute conclusion. Naturalism is rather an assumption, a presupposition. The words of R.G. Collingwood in his book, The Idea of History, I believe are very applicable to the Naturalistic Worldview’s rejection of Jesus’ resurrection; “To the extent that one’s research and findings are based on prior dogmatic assumption, such research cannot be considered critical or scientific research.” (p. 139) The supernatural or miraculous, although difficult to explain, if it occurs, is an exception to natural laws, or something that, from our current vantage point, is beyond what our natural laws can explain. But they are not a contradiction to natural laws as some claim. There is much in this world that Science admits it cannot, yet, explain. (Light, entangled electrons, the relative nature of time, objects that, of recent, we have now discovered travel at speeds greater than the speed of light.) A truly open minded scholarly approach would be that when all available naturalistic explanations become implausible, we should consider explanations that go beyond our known natural laws.

With this in mind, it is my prayer that even someone who holds a generally naturalistic worldview (I am one, I will freely admit), might be able to embrace the plausibility of the resurrection of Jesus and all that this resurrection means to us today. But what does Jesus’ resurrection mean?

In the words of New Testament authors:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1.3)

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2.14, 15)

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive . . . The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15.21-26)

If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6.5)

But it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1.10)

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.7-14)

I want to be clear this week. I am not validating the way the story of Jesus has too often been used by the Christian religion throughout history to oppress others. I, too, am opposed to the abusive uses the story of Jesus has been victim to. It’s about a person, not a religion. What I am saying, the Christian religion’s history aside, the verity of the resurrection possesses greater plausible ease than any of its alternatives. And if Jesus’ resurrection be true, the resurrection of Jesus reveals a love that even death itself could not silence, could not kill, could not destroy, could not keep in a grave. Whoever you are, right now reading this, regardless of your race, gender, status, orientation, occupation or evaluation, you could not possibly be more loved than you are at this very moment. This week, in light of God’s indescribable, unquenchable love for you, live in this love! And go build the kingdom.

And for those of you who will be celebrating this weekend, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.”

All my love to you all,

Herb