By Micheal C.H. Lim (Guest Contributor)
As Easter draws near, the thoughts of Christians around the world turn to the central doctrine of the Christian faith: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The scholar Raymond E. Brown rightly observes that the resurrection “was the supreme intervention of God in human existence, the supreme miracle.” The Church has from the beginning proclaimed that Jesus’s rising from the dead was proof positive that he was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God (Romans 1:4). For the apostle Paul, for instance, everything hinged on this singular fact: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Similarly, Peter wrote, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16). From these and numerous other passages, it is clear that the biblical writers insisted that the resurrection event – along with his death and burial – was a historical reality.
Throughout her history, the Church has also asserted that the resurrection must be taken at face value. To begin with, scripture itself testifies to the temporal nature of the Easter event. Luke, for instance, was quick to point out that his narrative was based on eyewitness account and credible “ministers of the word” so that Theophilus would have “certainty of the things” he had been told (Luke 1:1-4). All four gospels record the bodily appearances of Jesus after His death (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24 and John 20).
In addition, the kerygma or message of the early church was based on the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead. There is no record whatsoever that the Jews or the Romans refuted this crucial fact. They could have, for example, called for the body to be produced. The fact that they did not is highly probative in favor of the resurrection record.
Thirdly, the resurrection appearances were plentiful. There seems to be no valid reason for our Lord’s appearance to women since they could not be accepted as legal witnesses at that time unless the appearances happened as they did. Then there were the appearances to the disciples with whom Jesus ate and drank and to the witnesses mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15.
Fourth, there was the transformation of the early followers: a group of frightened followers became bold proclaimers of the Gospel. In fact, the disciples did not expect the resurrection and therefore, suggestions that they had somehow ‘projected’ their imaginations of a living Christ cannot be sustained. Indeed, their doubts and unbelief were removed after their encounter with the Risen Lord.
Further, the change in Christian worship by the Jewish followers from the Sabbath (which is on a Saturday) to the Lord’s Day (Sunday) cannot be accounted for except that the resurrection had actually occurred on that Sunday. Interestingly, there was no indication of Jewish worship at the tomb of Jesus, in spite of the Jewish propensity to venerate tombs of their holy prophets.
In short, Christianity has never dichotomized the fact of Jesus’s death on the cross from the corporeality of the resurrection since Christians have always regarded both events as a single saving act of God: the resurrection was an actual act of God in time and space to affect our salvation. Thus, G.C. Berkouwer states:
From all the apostolic witness it is more than clear that the resurrection of Christ is not merely a symbolic and therefore noetic (knowable) verification of the significance of the cross in the accomplished work of Christ, but an actual, divine activity which makes the immeasurable power of Christ’s reconciling suffering and death a historical and effective reality.
In spite of these and other compelling reasons, the facticity of the resurrection has been challenged throughout the ages. Even the apostle John himself was driven to declare that “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist …” (1 John 4:2-3)
At its most fundamental level, there is the denial that the resurrection even took place. Some posit that Jesus never really died: he merely ‘passed out’, later revived (or was revived), stepped out of the tomb and, having recovered, appeared to witnesses. This is, for obvious reasons, popularly known as the ‘swoon’ theory. Quite apart from ignoring the testimony of Scripture, these sceptics overlook documentary evidence from non-biblical sources. The Roman senator and historian Tacitus, for instance, records the execution of Jesus in his Annals and the usually reliable Jewish historian of the first century, Josephus records these words in his Antiquities:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly … He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him.”
Nor can they explain how a man – wounded and scarred, who recently underwent the horrors of being whipped thirty nine times, had a crown of thorns impaled upon him and eventually nailed on a cross – managed to convince anyone to believe he was the conqueror of death and thus worthy of worship. Could he have convinced anyone that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”?
Another suggestion put forward was that the body was simply stolen by his overzealous disciples wishing to preserve the myth of a risen god. Here again, one faces insurmountable problems. Chief among the difficulties would be how the disciples could have managed to evade the guards stationed at the front of the tomb. Furthermore, it strains credibility to think the disciples would have thought to painstakingly and methodically unwind and then rewind the yards of linen used to wrap the corpse! (John 20:6-7)
Then there are the critics who disavow orthodox Christianity’s understanding of the texts and seek to unearth the ‘real’ Jesus behind the perceived rubble of ecclesiastical creeds, orthodox theology and Christian traditions. There contemporary academics have been influenced by earlier Enlightenment research on the life of Jesus pioneered by scholars like Herman Reimarus, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Strauss et. al. The common assumption was a deistic and ultimately naturalistic one, namely, that miracles and supernatural phenomena cannot happen because they could not be scientifically verified.
Thus, to Reimarus, Jesus was a pious Jew, who sought to establish the kingdom of God on earth. He eventually tried to force God’s hand by dying as a martyr but his beliefs were misguided. Jesus died a disillusioned man whose God had forsaken him. Schleiermacher, rejecting the idea of miracles, argued for a Christianity that was primarily based on a humanistic reflection of God: an intuition of the supernatural, as it were. Jesus was thus not God-man in the orthodox sense, but a perfect epitome of this intuition in his relationship with God.
More famously, Rudolf Bultmann’s ‘demythologizing’ approach has been immensely influential. His methodology assumes that the gospel writers were so imbibed in their pre-scientific worldview that they were not able to distinguish between fact and fantasy. Thus, the task of the theologian is to understand the Christ that was preached, rather than the Christ of history. This sort of thinking is still rife in our modern times. The former bishop of Durham, David Jenkins speaks of the “livingness of Christ”, a code-word for an existential experience of Christ. Marcus Borg, a member of the fraternity known as the Jesus Seminar has this to say: “Thus I see the post-Easter Jesus as an experiential reality. I take the phenomenology of Christian religious experience seriously… The truth of Easter is grounded in these experiences, not in what happened (or didn’t happen) on a particular Sunday almost two thousand years ago.” It is noteworthy that these scholars seek to deny the actual happening of the resurrection but at the same time want to retain some semblance of Christianity, albeit in an altogether subjective form.
What are we to say to these conclusions? A number of things come to mind. Firstly, to say that the earliest believers were so steeped into their pre-modern culture that they could not differentiate between truth and myth is a tad too simplistic. After all, they did regard the resurrection as a miracle – as something that does not happen in the ordinary course of events. This leads us to the second point, which is that to reject the miracle of the resurrection is to reject the whole content of all the miracles of Christ in the New Testament. The result will be a revisioning of the Gospel. Thirdly, the non-acceptance of the witness accounts of the resurrection is sloppy historiography if the historian has rejected perfectly good testimony because of his prejudice against the supernatural. The New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg comments:
One of the main reasons scholars disagree as to how much of the Gospel portraits can be corroborated by historical research has to do with initial presuppositions. An anti-supernaturalist worldview will clearly rule out much a priori (i.e. from previous assumptions) information.
The evidence for the resurrection as recorded in the Gospels is overwhelming and in my mind, incontrovertible. Those who choose to disbelieve the accounts do so not because of the evidence by in spite of it.
But let us consider the options. If Jesus Christ did not literally rise from the dead, then Christianity is indeed just wishful thinking. For a start, if the resurrection of Christ did not happen, then the authority for Jesus’s claims – to forgive sins, to be the Son of God, to bring about a complete and effectual salvation – would be a delusion, to say the least. George Ladd summarizes:
If Christ is not risen from the dead, the long course of God’s redemptive acts to save his people ends in a dead-end street, in a tomb. If the resurrection is not reality, then we have no assurance that God is the living God, for death has the last word. Faith is futile because the object of that faith has not vindicated himself as the Lord of life.
Furthermore, because of the fact of the resurrection, we have confidence that evil has actually been conquered and that Jesus Christ has triumphed and been vindicated by God. Jesus has disarmed the devil and all the ‘powers and principalities’ are now at his command, and we have hope that in the Last Day, “every knee shall bow” to him (Philippians 2:10) and all who believe on him shall also be resurrected into eternal life.
The resurrection of Christ is therefore one of the most pivotal points in the history of humankind. It is precisely because Jesus’s resurrection has its rootedness in the realm of time and space that it is efficacious to a humanity having a temporal and earthly existence. This momentous event marks the actual transition and reversal of the Christian from death unto life: a life that is now no more at the mercy of humankind’s greatest enemy, death itself. The implication of this truth is pertinent – it is not simply that the Christian through the resurrection has only hope for the future, but that he or she is enabled to live such triumphant life in this present time.
Micheal is a lawyer and worships at Jalan Imbi Chapel, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.