At the end of last month’s article, I shifted the focus of the exclusivity argument to the subject of resurrection. I stated that an effective apologetic stance for an exclusive religious world-view must presuppose an objective basis of religion, one that would be true for all people at all times. This objectivist position is already at odds with the prevailing view that matters of religion are of a subjective nature. Therefore, in presenting a case for the objectivity of biblical Christianity, we recognize that we are at once bucking the general tide of sentiment on the matter and also placing upon ourselves the demand to produce an objective basis for its existence.
Fortunately, Christianity has at its core a resurrection event, which either literally happened or didn’t, and thus provides the necessary objective basis. While resurrection might not seem as the likely place to start a discussion of exclusivity, its status as event, not theoretical or ethical system, places it in the proper category for our apologetic.
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the grave could easily suffice for a “hard question” in its own right, regardless of the exclusivity issue. How do we really know that this event took place? We all agree with the apostle Paul, of course, who wrote to the Corinthian ecclesia “if Christ is not raised, then our faith is in vain.” However, none of us has been an eyewitness. Our faith rests on the testimony of others, which we accept as valid, but we cannot know with absolute certainty.1
I have decided to include evidence for the literal resurrection under this consideration of “exclusivity,” because the resurrection of the Lord Jesus links inextricably to the very doctrinal propositions that define the form of religion we conveniently label “the truth.” In the next few paragraphs, I will set out three ways that we can use the resurrection as a pillar of our faith. Following that is a discussion of an important approach to how we come to have knowledge and convictions about a subject that relates to historical issues such as the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Resurrection, the Basis of Christianity
In the Bible, we have four historical narrative accounts of the resurrection in the four gospels, and we have numerous additional affirmations of the resurrection in the remainder of the New Testament (e.g., Acts 4:10, Eph. 2:4, I Pet.1:3). But there’s more. Resurrection was not only the keystone of first century preaching, it also became the basis for what we consider “first principles.” Moreover, the influence of resurrection goes even one step further, as it also supplies the basis of our spiritual life, that is, the moral and ethical dimension of the faith, as in Romans 6. Below is a brief description of how these three aspects of resurrection link together.
1. Resurrection as historical event: First, we want to look at the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ as an event, not as a theological proposition. As an event, the resurrection becomes subject to an historical, not religious, inquiry. Our purpose in so doing is to establish the basis of Christianity on an historical event rather than theological propositions or reasoning. Two millennia from the life of Jesus, we read the gospels as religious documents. In their day, however, they were historical documents. The gospel writers recorded what they witnessed or heard from reliable witnesses. They wrote history. Either what they recorded happened or it didn’t; if it did not happen, then their writings do not abide among the great pillars of civilization.
The inspiration and instruction we obtain from these accounts depend entirely on their veracity. The literal resurrection provides the basis for Christianity; without the resurrection of Christ, Christianity has no validity. The question, “Was Jesus a real person who was once dead and then became alive again?” is of prime importance. Either the resurrection happened or it didn’t, and Christianity stands or falls on its literal occurrence.
If we can see that the evidence for the resurrection establishes its literal occurrence beyond reasonable doubt, then accepting the faith of biblical Christianity makes sense, and rejecting biblical Christianity becomes irrational.
2. Historical event as basis of first principle doctrines: After establishing the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection, then we can derive the basic “propositional” principles of Christianity. Resurrection is the central point of Christian theology, even though, in its primary instance, it is not a theological proposition. We can make a number of inferences about God, Jesus, human nature, etc., because of the act and fact of God’s raising Jesus from the dead.
This is a critical point in developing both an understanding of the truth and a reasonable apologetic for it. By establishing the historical resurrection, we obtain both the objective basis upon which to base a true religion, and also an objective basis upon which to base the theological propositions (“first principles”) of that religion.
3. Resurrection as basis of Christian life: Resurrection also stands as the carrier, or metaphor of Christian ethic. Christianity is all about the principle of resurrection. It is about God making dead things alive. It is about the creation of new life in place of old. It is about the most fundamental aspect of human existence, namely, existence itself.
I take this as a powerful rational argument for the universal and sole validity of Christianity, because it claims as its basis the most fundamental possible issues. This approach not only develops our faith, but also helps us resolve many of the difficulties we have with the exclusivity problem. Thus we add the third dimension of resurrection, the dimension of human spirituality.
We will refer to these three aspects as: resurrection as historical event; resurrection as fundamental doctrine; and resurrection as spiritual principle. Yes, even this third aspect, which concerns the spiritual values of life, has much to say about the exclusivity issue. I will proceed in the next few articles by expanding upon them in the same order as above. As we fill out the panorama of resurrection-based Christianity, the first order of apologetic business is establishing the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus.
As is often the case, however, we can’t effectively tackle that major question without first dealing with background issues that do not directly address the question itself, but rather how the discussion should proceed. In this case, we need to examine the presuppositions people bring to the table when the subject on the table is the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
The Faulty Presumption that the Resurrection Could Not Happen
The course of a debate on the historical resurrection of Jesus depends largely on whether or not we admit supernatural2 activity as a possible cause of the resurrection of Jesus. For anyone committed to accepting the gospel accounts as literally true, one must believe that God exists and does, at least on this occasion, intervene in the normal course of nature to bring about an effect that could have no natural cause, such as a dead person becoming alive again. The revival of a three-day old corpse by purely natural means would have no precedent, and it would violate natural law. If one does not believe that God exists, or if one believes that God exists but never contravenes the laws of nature He has established, then one cannot believe in the literal resurrection (it is possible to believe that God exists and can raise the dead, but in fact did not do so in this case). We will explore the case of those who do not believe in the resurrection because they believe in a vague deistic god who performs no specific actions in the universe, or who believe in no god at all.
Defining away the truth of the resurrection
Critics skeptical of the literal account of the resurrection are simply trying to make the best case given the fact that they have a prior commitment to reject supernatural modes of explanation. In other words, if you cannot believe in a resurrection because it requires an intervening God, then you will be forced to create an alternative explanation for why the gospel writers insisted that Jesus rose from the dead, and why said resurrection finds repeated confirmation throughout the New Testament.3
Thus we have a contest between two mind-sets, one that allows the possibility of divine intervention in matters such as resurrecting a dead person, and one that won’t. People who accept the authority of scripture, of course, accept supernatural intervention as accounting for the resurrection, and they also accept it for many other phenomena, such as creation, inspiration, and the begettal of the Lord Jesus. On the other hand, most secular authorities in the sciences and humanities, including theology, reject all this. The reason for their rejection is, as stated above, that they deny the existence of an intervening God.
However, there is a very annoying side to their position, and I believe it is a severe error. Their practice is to define possibilities out of existence; let me explain what I mean by that criticism. It goes like this: Even if God did exist, a supernatural explanation is disallowed because it falls outside the realm of investigation. Their definition of evidence (scientific or historical) is confined to only that which occurs by nature.
Do you see the problem?
If not, this might make it easier to spot: Suppose you have geological maps, a seismograph, and knowledge of seismic geology. After a few months’ observation, you record a significant earthquake located nearJerusalem. You can describe qualitatively and quantitatively what happened. Does your ability to do so preclude the possibility that, at some level, divine factors might also be involved?
Further, if an event did occur outside both your particular observational capacity (a seismograph) and also outside the normal range of natural events, would it be reasonable to conclude that the event didn’t occur? If you so concluded, it would be saying that the only phenomena that can exist are ones that occur within your observational and theoretical limits.
The secular mind rules out the miraculous
This is the position of the secular historical/scientific mind-set. They claim that only natural events are capable of being studied, and miracles of God clearly do not belong within the realm of natural events. Therefore, (here’s the breach of logic) we won’t accept them even if they did happen. A typical secular world-view (such as often comes from theologians!) believes that scientific explanation has removed both the need for and the possibility of God. If one can account for an event by natural means, one has a scientific explanation. If one cannot account for that event by natural means, then the event didn’t happen. If you think this is a harsh assessment, consider the words of a well-know scientist, writing to explain the scientific position to a general audience:
Scientists grew increasingly reluctant to suppose that the workings of the laws of nature were ever interfered with (something that would be defined as a “miracle”). Certainly, no such interference was ever observed, and the tales of such interferences in the past came to seem increasingly dubious. 4
Whatever their faith in God in ordinary life, they [religious scientists] must leave God out of account while engaged in their particular scientific observations. They can never explain a particular puzzling phenomenon by claiming it to be the result of God’s suspension of natural law.5
How scientific thinking went awry
How did this curious outlook arise? How did it ever come to pass that otherwise reasonable people would somehow think that the limits of our ability to study the natural world just happen to perfectly coincide with limits of all possible events within that world? How is it that people trained as open-minded investigators can close their minds completely to the notion of God actually doing something that people can observe? How can they reject an explanation, even if well attested, because it lies outside of their current paradigm of investigation?
Most of the answer, of course, lies within the social, emotional, and psychological realm. People are inclined against allowing the possibility of God because they are afraid of the consequences. In short, they are afraid of God because they don’t know God. Again, I must say that that’s a story for another article. Let me shift the focus now to the surface explanation of why it is that, in general, a large class of those whom the world holds in intellectual esteem rejects divine or supernatural explanations for the resurrection, creation, or any other activity that only God could perform.
The very brief story line runs this way: Several hundred years ago, men such as Newtonand Kepler believed that God created an orderly universe, and they wanted to discover the laws and principles of nature God set in place. Ironically, their success in discovering such laws led to the ousting of the God that they sought to glorify. Succeeding generations took their calculations and insight into the universe, but left out their devotion. While Newtonand Kepler and others went about their business discovering how God made the universe work, their formulations invariably ended up replacing God. The laws themselves seemed sufficient to account for the universe, and God now seemed unnecessary. Thus, at the end of the eighteenth century, the natural philosopher Pierre Laplace, working from Newton’s equations, elaborated what he deemed a full mathematical description of the universe, accounting for all the motions of planets, heat of the stars, etc. When asked by Napoleon how he could write such a comprehensive work and have no mention of the Creator, Laplacefamously replied, “I have no need of that in my hypothesis.”6 As technology continued to increase rapidly in the two centuries since Laplace, and especially since Darwin, the need for including an active God in their understanding of God’s laws has dwindled significantly. Scientists study what can be studied by science; as scientific scope increased, more and more of the world fell in step with Laplace — “We have no king but science.” Eventually, materialist notions invaded theology; today the person who accepts the “outdated” belief that God actually exists and occasionally intervenes in the creation could find himself or herself an intellectual pariah.
Evidence simply ignored
Simply stated, we have this situation: If modern critics under the sway of the prevailing schools of materialist and naturalist paradigms do not accept the possibility of resurrection (either because they are atheists or some stripe of Deist), they must proffer an explanation that does not involve divine intervention. This means they must come up with an explanation of why the gospel accounts state Jesus rose from the dead, when in fact (in their view) that event did not, and could not, happen. The point to notice is that they come to the discussion with their minds already closed to the possibility of the account being literal. It is not that they distrust the documents themselves, but because the gospels invoke supernatural causation, they therefore cannot be taken literally. Listen to one current theologian:
We can no longer take the statements about the resurrection of Jesus literally . . . the tomb of Jesus was not empty, but full, and his body did not disappear but rotted away. . . Given the “revolution in the scientific view of the world” all statements about the resurrection of Jesus have lost their meaning.7
A crime against sound thinking
These quotes exemplify the influences I just described. To this mind, whatever lies outside the scope of scientific explanation lies outside of the possibility of reality. Not only is this rank pseudo-knowledge arrogant, it is patently nonsensical. Can one honestly limit one’s field of study to a certain class of explainable phenomena and then declare that anything outside that class didn’t happen or doesn’t exist? And just what is it about our ability to explain something in natural (that is mechanical, physical, chemical, and the like) terms that precludes the possibility of the existence of supernatural forces also? This didn’t bother minds such asNewton, Kepler, Galileo, and many others. Modern scientific thinking has, for no rationally sustainable reason, eroded Biblical scholarship.
These are the sorts of crimes against reason that we have to put up with in our age. Suffice it for now to say that there is no a priori reason to discard the possibility of divine intervention as the basis of the plain New Testament statements of the literal resurrection of Jesus. And I will not stop there; I will swing far in the opposite direction. Given the arguments for the existence of God advanced in previous articles of this series, it would be folly not to conclude that a God exists who could effect a literal resurrection.
In summary, we can safely discount any objection to resurrection on the principle that our knowledge of the normal workings of the universe precludes divine intervention or supernatural causation.
Two Additional Reflections
We cannot change history
I also want to highlight what should be an obvious point, but doesn’t get recognized as such. When we debate objective data, such as the occurrence of an historical event, we seek to understand history; we don’t change or create history. Perhaps because this point is too obvious it doesn’t get treated seriously, but too many writers seem to think they have the power to create reality by their arguments. For example, read again the quotation just above. The thinking seems to be, “The matter is settled—whatever those primitives may have believed thousands of years ago, we moderns know that such is untenable. We have, in effect, changed history to accord with our understanding.”
Nothing I write or think can change history. I’m just trying to figure out the best explanation, supernatural causation included, for what did happen. This is the proper perspective for anyone who seeks any sort of understanding of truth. We come to any question of this sort looking to discover what happened, and not think that history must accord to our reasoning.
A fact of history is a fact
Our last important preliminary point relates to the above notion of objective historicity: when we investigate historical questions, we must recognize that we have moved into the realm of universal reality. Historical events may not affect everyone equally, but they are nonetheless universally true. Perhaps the mid-nineteenth century potato famine in Ireland didn’t affect the Inuit, but it’s a fact of history that we recognize. The resurrection of Jesus is a fact of history if it occurred, applicable to all, and a non-fact of history if it didn’t occur, available to no one.8
The matter of a dead human becoming alive again, and assuming an immortal condition, affects every human. It is not a matter of, “Well, that’s fine if that’s your belief system, but as for me, I prefer reincarnation.” Subjective notions of religion come to an abrupt end at the matter of the resurrection of Jesus, and that’s why it is a signal event in the history of the world.
With these preliminaries in mind, we will commence next month, God willing, with a summary analysis of the literal resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
1 While most of us do not doubt the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead, please remember that I intend these articles that comprise the Hard Questions for those who do harbor doubts on fundamental issues.
2 Supernatural (“beyond natural”) means the direct activity of God, as opposed to natural, which means according to the usual operation of the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. Supernatural has nothing to do with occult or “weird” events.
3 For a fuller treatment of this principle, see William Lane Craig, “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, eds., Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995) pp. 141-176.
4 Isaac Asimov, In the Beginning (New York: Crown Publishers, 1981), p.11.
5 ibid, p. 13.
6 Actually he said, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.” Sir William Cecil Dampier, A History of Science, and its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, 4th ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1949), p.181.
7 Quotes by Gerd Lu½demann, from Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds., Jesus’ Resurrection, Fact or Figment? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lu½demann. (Downers Grove,Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 8.
8 As to the fact that many humans have lived in complete ignorance of the resurrection of Christ, see the earlier articles in this series on the fairness of God (Tidings, Feb and Mar, 2005).