The Importance of
Resurrection of the Son of God
to the Future of Christianity and the World
G. Richard Jansen
Colorado State University,
Fort Collins, Colorado, 80521
On Easter Sunday Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Christ. In this scientific age it is admittedly difficult to believe in Christ’s resurrection. The fact is, however, it was difficult to believe in the resurrection at the time. People in the first century knew what being dead meant and they knew that dead people stayed dead. We therefore need to examine the events and considerations that led the early followers of Jesus to be convinced that Christ indeed had come back to life. They certainly didn’t expect it and on the day we call Good Friday they were a demoralized and dispirited small group of frightened individuals. It is not likely that this small group of followers of Jesus referred to the day of the crucifixion as Good Friday. So what is the case for the resurrection and what is N.T. Wright’s argument supporting this case. Wright is the author of the magesterial book entitled The Resurrection of the Son of God.
The Case for
1. Resurrection was a Jewish belief among the Pharisees.
2. The followers of Jesus did not expect resurrection. In fact they were demoralized and fearful
3. The tomb was empty
4. Jesus, in one form or another was seen by his followers after his death on the cross.
5. By word of mouth the Christian Church spread rapidly in the Greek and Roman World reaching Rome in 20-25 years even while it and its followers were persecuted by the authorities.
N. T. Wright’s
(Resurrection of the Son of God, , Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2003)
“The historical datum now before us is a widely held, consistently shaped and highly influential belief: that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. This belief was held by virtually all the early Christians for whom we have evidence. It was at the centre of their characteristic praxis, narrative, symbol and belief; it was the basis of their recognition of Jesus as Messiah and lord, their insistence that the creator god had inaugurated the long-awaited new age, and above all their hope for their own future bodily resurrection. The question we now face is obvious: what caused this belief in the resurrection of Jesus?
At this point, as the behavioural psychologists used to say, a laboratory rat lay down and cried. The equivalents in my own discipline are clear: hard-headed historians and soft-headed theologians often decide to quit right here. The first say we can go no further, the second that we ought not to try. Less cautious historians, forgetting that history is the study, not of repeatable events as in physics and chemistry, but of unrepeatable events like Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, declare that we can indeed go further, and that we can reach a clear negative judgment: we can be quite sure that nothing whatever happened to Jesus' body at Easter, except that it continued to decompose. Dead people don't rise, therefore Jesus didn't either?”
“We must hold our nerve and proceed. Two things can be securely
and we should not be shy of placing them down as markers. To go beyond
that again we must indeed face large issues both of method and of world
view; but we must locate those issues precisely where they belong, and
not throw up our hands and give in at the first sign of difficulty .
The two things which must be regarded as historically secure when we talk about the first Easter are the emptiness of the tomb and the meetings with the risen Jesus. Once we locate the early Christians within the world of second-Temple Judaism, and grasp what they believed about their own future hope and about Jesus' own resurrection, these two phenomena are firmly warranted. The argument can be set out in seven steps, which I shall state in summary form.
1. To sum up where we have got to so far: the world of second-Temple Judaism supplied the concept of resurrection, but the striking and consistent Christian mutations within Jewish resurrection belief rule out any possibility that the belief could have generated spontaneously from within its Jewish context. When we ask the early Christians themselves what had occasioned this belief, their answers home in on two things: stories about Jesus' tomb being empty, and stories about him appearing to people, alive again.
2. Neither the empty tomb by itself, however, nor the appearances by themselves, could have generated the early Christian belief. The empty tomb alone would be a puzzle and a tragedy. Sightings of an apparently alive Jesus, by themselves, would have been classified as visions or hallucinations, which were well enough known in the ancient world.
3. However, an empty tomb and appearances of a living Jesus, taken together, would have presented a powerful reason for the emergence of the belief.
4. The meaning of resurrection within second-Temple Judaism makes it impossible to conceive of this reshaped resurrection belief emerging without it being known that a body had disappeared, and that the person had been discovered to be thoroughly alive again.
5. The other explanations sometimes offered for the emergence of the belief do not possess the same explanatory power.
6. It is therefore historically highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that his disciples did encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive.
7. It is important to see that we have got this far by following the historical argument, not by invoking any external a priori beliefs. The widespread belief and practice of the early Christians is only explicable if we assume that they all believed that Jesus was bodily raised, in an Easter event some thing like the stories the gospels tell; the reason they believed that he was bodily raised is because the tomb was empty and, over a short period thereafter, they encountered Jesus himself, giving every appearance of being bodily alive once more.”
and the Resurrection
We are accustomed to thinking of the importance of Christ to us personally, as of course we should. However, in the remainder of this discussion I wish to focus on the importance of Christianity for the world and why the resurrection of Christ is the sine qua non of Christian belief. Christ has been and continues to be the light of the world and is the last best hope of mankind in these perilous times as stated in John 3:16-17 : ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” The importance of the resurrection in Christianity and in Christian belief was eloquently stated by Paul in 1 Cor 15:12-14 “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” . What Paul wrote approximately tweny five years after the resurrection is also true today. The Enlightenment was a philosophic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries marked by a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and an emphasis on rationalism. So we came to a major dividing line in Western society and culture. The Danish Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard said this: “Christian dogma embodies paradoxes which are offensive to reason. The central paradox is the assertion that the eternal, infinite, transcendent God simultaneously became incarnated as a temporal, finite, human being (Jesus). There are two possible attitudes we can adopt to this assertion, viz. we can have faith, or we can take offense.” What we cannot do, according to Kierkegaard, is believe by virtue of reason. “If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason”.
John Wesley lived during the Age of Enlightenment and was well aware of its philosophic currents. In a sermon he gave on the use of reason he said this:
“The foundation of true religion stands upon the oracles of God. It is built upon the Prophets and Apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone. Now, of what excellent use is reason, if we would either understand ourselves, or explain to others, those living oracles! And how is it possible without it to understand the essential truths contained therein? A beautiful summary of which we have in that which is called the Apostles' Creed. Is it not reason (assisted by the Holy Ghost) which enables us to understand what the Holy Scriptures declare concerning the being and attributes of God? -- concerning his eternity and immensity; his power, wisdom, and holiness?” The Apostle’s Creed states:
“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
And Wesley also said this : “Reason alone cannot produce hope in any child of man: I mean scriptural hope, whereby we "rejoice in hope of the glory of God:" That hope which St. Paul in one place terms, "tasting the powers of the world to come;" in another, the "sitting in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:" That which enables us to say, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath begotten us again unto a lively hope; -- to an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away; which is reserved in heaven for us." This hope can only spring from Christian faith: Therefore, where there is not faith, there is not hope. Consequently, reason, being unable to produce faith, must be equally unable to produce hope. Experience confirms this likewise. How often have I laboured, and that with my might, to beget this hope in myself! But it was lost labour: I could no more acquire this hope of heaven, than I could touch heaven with my hand.”
Paul Tillich said that doubt is associated with faith. Is his words “the doubt involved in faith is not the same as the methodological doubt utilized by physical scientists, a doubt that systematically questions the truth or falsity of propositions. Nor is the doubt of faith to be identified with the skeptic’s attitude of doubt that rejects every concrete truth and even despairs about possessing any truth at all”.
It is clear that Wesley struggled with doubt as many of us do. It finally came clear to him that he doubted the possibility of a world without God and therefore believed in a world with God which led him to accept the word of God as found in Christian scriptures. In contrast Tillich’s treatment of doubt nosedives into negativism, giving way to unmitigated despair. Perhaps for him it was the catastrophic impact of the great world war upon him and his native Germany, and his personal experiences in the trenches which events were followed by the Zeitgeist of Existentialism with its truncated emphasis upon anxiety, despair, and meaninglessness.
It is very unfortunate that Christianity from its earliest days has suffered from divisions. The concept that Jesus was born a man but is also God incarnate, i.e. God made human, is not easily comprehended and is subject to differences of opinion and interpretation. We need to be aware of these differences but not over emphasize them.
The Roman Empire in the 4th century consisted of a western half centered in Rome and an eastern half centered in Constantinople. Early Church Councils starting with the first Council of Nicea in 325 and extending to the Council of Chalcedon held in 451 defined Christ as fully human and fully divine. At the time of Muhammed in the 7th century there were five Christian patriarchies; Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Theological and political quarrels among these patriarchies contributed substantially to the Muslim conquest of Christian lands in Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor. The patriarchies of Rome and Constantinople held firm to the Chalcedonian definition of the nature of Christ as being fully human and fully divine; the other three, in the main but not completely, held to a belief that Christ was fully divine but not fully human, i.e. they rejected the concept of the Trinity.
In the great schism of 1054 the Roman Church split mostly over issues of power and primacy into the Roman Catholic church in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople. The Eastern Orthodox Church has since divided into Greek Russian, Serbian and several other Orthodox Churches. . The Reformation of the 16th century divided the Roman Catholic Church into a myriad number of Protestant churches and churches that remained Roman Catholic.
John Wesley considered the Apostle’s Creed, which had its origins in the 2nd century and was canonized in the 8th century, to be a beautiful summary of the essential truths of Christian beliefs. This historic creed of Christianity is accepted today by all Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches. That is a unity of Christian beliefs that is exceedingly widespread in the world today. The United Methodist Church asks of new members that they affirm it.
Christianity and Science.
Neither the existence of God nor the resurrection can be proved true by scientific method, reason and the use of reason. The resurrection cannot be encompassed into the world of science. I personally am especially a child of the Age of Reason. My doctoral degree was in biochemistry and I am a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a Fellow of the American Society for Nutritional Sciences. My career was spent more heavily in scientific research than in administration or teaching. The tools of science and the use of reason were mothers milk to me. I am familiar with the molecular mechanisms by which genes are duplicated, transcribed and expressed. It is an exceedingly involved and complicated process. Based on that knowledge I doubt that life could have arisen as a random undirected process in a primordial sea of unknown composition and under unknown conditions .As a matter of fact there are no data on which even a convincing hypothesis for the origin of life can be built. I choose to believe that there was a designer and to me that designer is God. I choose to suspend my scientific reason and believe as did John Wesley , on the basis of the testimony of contemporary witnesses that has survived and been believed for nearly two millennia, that Christ was indeed resurrected. Immanuel Kant demonstrated in his book A Critique of Pure Reason that the existence of God could not be proved by reason alone. However Kant argued in his later book A Critique of Practical Reason that the existence of God, though not directly provable, is a necessary postulate of the moral life.
It is our extreme good fortune to have been born Christians in a predominately Christian country. In other words, Christianity is our patrimony, heritage. Since Christianity is, in my opinion, the last best hope for mankind I think it is our responsibility to defend our inheritance and help to preserve it for those who come after us. Major challenges to Christianity are Islamism, secularism, and unbridled reason leading to skepticism. and a rejection of God and Christ. We must defend our faith against enemies of Christian belief both foreign and domestic. It is clear that, at this moment at least, the battle against secularism in Europe has largely been lost and a secular Europe with a declining birthrate is threatened seriously by Militant Islam. In the United States secularism has weakened the moral core of society.
In discussing the increasing rise of secularism in the United States we need to consider several real and seminal differences between the political left and the political right. In interpreting the following comments keep in mind an appreciation for population statistics. For example to say that men are taller than women is not to say that all men are taller than all women.
First, as to the fundamental nature of man, the theological and thepolitical left believes that man is inherently good while the theological and the political right, to the contrary, believes that man has a sinful nature. Abraham Maslow, one of the fathers of humanistic psychology was one of many in that movement who was convinced that man is inherently good. In a paper published after his death, Maslow wrote that the biggest problem among those on the liberal-left was the failure to understand and confront evil.. Reinhold Niebuhr, a man of the left very far from being an Evangelical Christian, nevertheless broke with the left on this issue and held that man was indeed inherently sinful. He famously said that the Christian doctrine of Original Sin was a doctrine that could be empirically verified merely by observing the behavior of mankind. Rousseau believed in the innate goodness of man and that all the ills of mankind derived from civilization. Hobbes of course believed just the opposite as did Madison who said that if men were angels, i.e. innately good, we wouldn’t need a government.
The other major issue on which the left and right differ fundamentally is belief in a transcendent and all powerful God and the importance of religion in public life. The French revolutionists enthroned a Goddess of Reason to replace the Christian God and the result was the reign of terror and murder. Our founding Fathers believed just the opposite as expressed by George Washington in his Farewell Address;
“Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle”
The political left, in the main, does not believe in such a transcendent and all powerful God while the political right, in the main, does. Numerous polls have demonstrated this to be true and this difference between the left and the right can be traced back to the time of Hegel when his main followers, the Hegelian Right, did believe in a transcendent God and the Hegelian left, the young Hegelians led by Feuerbach, did not.
In addition, the Protestant Church today is being weakened by the same theological currents derived from the 19th century theology known as the Higher Criticism of the Bible that so weakened theological and scriptural defenses against Hitler in the 1930's. The Higher Criticism came about as a result of enlightenment thinking which rejected all of Christianity that couldn’t be proven by empirical data and reason. Little was left. The Barman Declaration of 1934 recognized what was needed and stated it this way: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." (John 14.6). "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved." (John 10:1, 9.) Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death". In other words, the Church needed to go back to its gospel roots.
Karl Barth largely wrote the Barman Declaration. The underpinning of Karl Barth’s whole theology is that God has revealed himself to man only in Jesus Christ. The only possible manner in which man can know anything about what God has spoken of is to look to the scriptures, i.e. Word of God.
The well meaning attempts to merge Christian
beliefs with modern science are illusory and doomed to failure This was
true of the German theology of the 19th century and is now also
true for the theology of the Jesus Seminar, panentheism and process
theology. Episcopal Bishop John Spong advocates a belief system
often called universalism. He teaches that everyone will
experience salvation of some sort and that what you believe is
irrelevant. All that really matters is that one act morally. In Bishop
Spong's view, acting morally is tied to an all-inclusive, totally
tolerant Christianity that rejects the notion of sin and atonement. He
strips Christianity of its historical tenets fearing that all the
details will alienate the modern mind. Bishop Spong denies
virtually everything about Jesus that orthodox Christianity has
believed for the last two millennia. The virgin birth, the deity of
Christ, the atoning death on the cross, the resurrection, the miracles,
everything that would verify the biblical claims of Christ's authority
and uniqueness are discounted. Spong argues that "the essence of
Christ was confused with the form in which that essence was
communicated. All the biblical writers got it wrong. The first century
mentality that they brought to the subject became universalized in the
text of the Bible and eventually entered into the creeds of
Christianity.” Finally what is the essence of Christianity for
Spong?. He writes, “Jesus means love-divine, penetrating, opening,
life-giving, ecstatic love. Such love is the very essence of what we
mean by God. God is love. Jesus is love.” No Christian would
disagree with that statement but obviously Christianity and Christ’s
life, death and resurrection mean much, much more. In addition to
love, Christianity lays out rules and requires a moral order for
Most of us understand that the moral culture in our country is debased. So it was in Paul’s time. Listen to his words in Romans 1:29-31;"they are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless." We need moral leadership from the Church but it is largely absent. The Church also ought to be teaching the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, courage and justice, and the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love, the greatest of which is, in Paul’s word love.
Bishop Spong believes passionately that if Christianity doesn’t change in the directions that he has indicated it will die. I would argue just as passionately and I think more correctly, that if Christianity does change into a Unitarian/Universalism panentheistic belief system it will surely die. For evidence I would point out that from the Unitarian/Universalist Association’s own website itself membership in the UUA has been stable at about 150,000 individuals from 1960 to the present. In that time Church membership of all Christians in the United States has increased from 153,000,000 to 206,000,000 while Evangelical church membership alone has in this same time period increased from 48,000,000 to 104,000,000.
A Christianity without Christ as the divine Son of God and without belief in the resurrection and eternal life would be the end of Christianity as it has existed for nearly 2000 years. We have a responsibility as Christians to see this doesn’t happens. The future of our country as we know it is dependent on a continuing vital and robust Christian witness that supplies hope to people rather than the anomie and alienation of a secularism without a transcendent and all powerful God .