In the past few articles we have explored various lines of evidence that lead us to believe in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We based our decision to accept the gospel accounts as written because of a compelling combination of historical and textual evidence. Outside of the reports of miracles, the gospels fit perfectly with known history and theology of the times. They challenge us, however, by attesting to the literal occurrence of non-natural events, most notably the resurrection of Jesus. We find, though, that we can accept even these events as historical when we consider the evidence presented in the previous articles, and when we quite reasonably allow for the intervention of God. Despite some current sentiment to the contrary, believing in the occasional interventions of God in natural events is neither anti-intellectual nor unjustified.
Once again I must remind readers that we weren’t there, we didn’t see it with our eyes, and even if we did we would scarcely believe that a resurrection really did happen. We have no irrefutable proof. We believe that it did occur because the accumulated evidence makes belief a more reasonable alternative than unbelief.
We now want to move beyond the historical fact of the resurrection and develop the theological implications it entails. First, I want to reiterate a point that truly ought to receive considerable emphasis. The basis of Christianity is not a set of doctrines or a subjective experience. Its basis is an historical event from which we derive academic and moral doctrines. We have faith primarily in an event, and secondarily in the theological implications of that event. If the resurrection of Christ didn’t actually occur, or if we ignore it in developing our theology, or if we fail to heed its moral implications, then our discipleship is shipwrecked.
The above might sound like a diminution of the importance of the first principles or basic doctrines that we hold as distinctive. However, when we use the “primary event” approach, we in fact base the derived teachings on a much firmer foundation. If we treat basic doctrines, such as in a Sunday school catechism or statement of faith, as primary, then the basis of our faith becomes the abstraction of the doctrine itself. This elevates the written word over the reality the word represents; it is mistaking the map for the territory. It would be as if I held up a road map of Pennsylvania and declared, “This is Interstate 80. It runs east and west across the north of the state, and that’s an essential tenet of Pennsylvania geography.” The map, however, is just a sheet of paper, and not the territory itself. On the map, I-80 is just a blue line, not an actual road. The map would have no relevance if it weren’t for the reality it represents.
As a body we tend to elevate the printed word over the Lord and the God to which they attest. This is like someone asserting that I-80 is blue, and another person, looking at another map, argues that it is red. When people relate to the written doctrine rather than the reality of the resurrection, they fail to develop the Christian character inherent in the resurrection model. Instead, they may manifest the fleshly values of pride, arrogance, and divisiveness, all the while claiming to uphold the word. All too often it seems this is the case with our community, as our internal disputes and divisions embarrassingly and shamefully reveal.
When we focus on the event of resurrection, two blessings accrue. First, we come to realize the true magnitude of God’s grace as the One who has power over death. Second, we have a core from which to develop the theological truths implied by the event. This gives our written doctrines coherence not elsewhere available, and negates the ill-formed concept of propositional religion, which breeds not Christian behavior but intolerance and party spirit.
Peter’s first gospel declaration
About seven weeks after Jesus walked alive out of the tomb, Peter stood up among the throngs in Jerusalem and spoke about the importance of the event. More than just a miracle performed by God to confirm a prophet’s teachings, the resurrection of Jesus testified of his ascent to immortality, his conquest of sin, the possibility of God remitting our sins also, and the certainty of his return to Earth to assume the throne of his father David. All of these “first principles,” as we generally label basic Gospel truths, are stated directly in Peter’s speech (Acts 2:22-40). Many more are implied. Most importantly, from Peter’s speech we can derive all of the fundamentals of the faith; we can compare and contrast these fundamentals with other “gospels”proclaimed by the various strains of orthodox Christianity. We can then discern that, though much of our language is the same, the conceptual differences between a resurrection-based Biblical faith and the belief systems of orthodoxy prevent a common religious experience.
True faith resides in concepts, not words, and the life-changing effect that those concepts have on our minds. Few and simple words, such as “Jesus died for our sins,” can represent a number of disparate and mutually exclusive belief systems. Even in the first century, merely believing that Jesus lived again was not enough. The hearers of the gospel message, whether Jew or Gentile, needed to make religious changes based on the fact of resurrection. For the Jews of Judea and the Diaspora, their main change was relegating the law and its ordinances to disuse; for the Greeks, pagans, and other Gentiles who encountered the word, the primary task was adopting a system of moral values and the concept of monotheism, both foreign to their culture. Mere belief that “Jesus rose from the dead” or “Jesus died for our sins” has never been a sufficient account of religion.
What is the purpose of knowledge?
This brings us to the role of knowledge in our discipleship, and how we can use the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus to advance our knowledge in the proper direction. The purpose of doctrine (the true statements that define religion) is to give us a correct description of God and humanity, and thus of the processes needed to form and sustain a relationship with God. I place the emphasis on relationship because that includes the lower-level functions of knowledge and worship. We can esteem knowledge and worship as “necessary, but not sufficient.” The higher-level functions include striving for the divine outlook on the world and adjusting our behavior and life purpose accordingly. When we find our identity as “children of God,” then we have begun to form a relationship with a heavenly Father. It is this relationship (Rom. 5:2) that will serve as the basis and conduit for our spiritual growth, service, discipleship, forgiveness, and ability to act in teaching and preaching on behalf of God. We also develop a relationship with Jesus, not as God, but as our Lord and Savior.
To firm up our grasp on the concept of relationship as the primary “activity” of religion (rather than study, knowledge, behavior, ritual, service, etc., all of which are subsumed under the larger umbrella of relationship), let us employ the analogy of marriage. Marriage is obviously a relationship, and it is a divinely appointed metaphor for our relationship with both God and the Lord Jesus (Hos.2:16,19,20; Rev. 19:7). Suppose you were married to someone you knew nothing about. How would you know what to do, how to treat and speak to your spouse? Suppose you knew nothing about your spouse except his or her name? Do you think you would have a chance of building an intimate and nurturing relationship?
And what if you knew little about yourself? What if you had no insight into your own patterns of thought and behavior? How would you go about creating a relationship when you had no idea how to manage your own life? Even worse, suppose what you thought you knew about your spouse or yourself was erroneous. I do not propose idle examples here. In my work as a mental health therapist, I daily encounter situations not far removed from the hypothetical situations listed above. I regularly encounter people with exceedingly superficial knowledge of themselves and their partners. Such ignorance leads, individually and jointly, to disastrous personal relationships.
Without a true knowledge of God and Jesus, their natures and purposes, we can hardly think to form an acceptable relationship with them, for it is impossible to form a viable relationship if one has incorrect information regarding either party in the relationship. If a relationship with God is the goal of religion, then we must have an accurate knowledge of who we are as humans, and who God is. Our religious relationships also include our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, starting with the head of the body, the Lord Jesus himself. If we err in knowing who Jesus is, then we cannot have a true relationship with him. We can relate to a mythological concept that we label “Jesus,” but as I said earlier, widely different concepts can lie behind the same simple label. For instance, when we say “resurrection” we know that in the Bible it almost always means the process of assuming eternal life. To orthodox Christianity, it generally means either the ascent of the “soul” to heaven upon the expiration of the flesh, or the reunion of flesh and “soul” at some time after the Second Advent.
Reading the graphic: Resurrection as the center of theology
The graphic’s center is a circle with the word “resurrection.” I use the circle at the center of the page to illustrate the idea of resurrection being the center of theology. On either side of the circle we see the word “Jesus.” The Jesus on the left is Jesus of Nazareth, a human born of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. The fact that he died proves his human nature. The historical record of his resurrection attests to the existence of God. If God raised him from the dead, then Jesus was clearly not God himself. Jesus was, however, the Son of God, being the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:15,18). God’s raising His only begotten Son to life after his virgin birth and perfect life attests to the relationship between God and Jesus.
His life also fulfilled promises made to Adam, Abraham, and David; these links are listed on the far left side of the graphic, with main Bible references for each. As the son of Adam, son of Abraham, and son of David, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel, lived out his ministry of teaching, healing, and submission to the Father’s will, even death on the cross. After the resurrection, we now find this same Jesus also the Son of God in power, inheritor of all things, made immortal, seated at the right hand of God, high priest now, the firstborn from the dead, holding the name which is above every name and holding dominion over all the earth (Phil. 2:9,10). He will soon return to Earth to complete all of his work as judge, king, and savior.
When Jesus lay dead in the chill stone embrace of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, he possessed none of these exaltations. He was a lifeless, helpless corpse, stiff, cold, battered, wrapped in linen and spices. One could hardly think of a less likely candidate for ruler of Earth. It was the activity of God, by His Holy Spirit, that brought the transformation about. As Peter said, “God raised him from the dead” (Acts2:24;3:15; etc.). This establishes the relationship between Jesus and God: one was dead; the Other alive. One was mortal, raised to immortality; the Other eternally infinite. One was powerless; the Other powerful even over death. Do you see the picture emerging here? The very fact of resurrection outlaws the nefarious notion of Jesus as God. The road to correct theology begins at Joseph’s tomb.
Peter and Paul, the main educators in the book of Acts, repeatedly return to the phrase, “God raised him from the dead.” To them it was current events; a fact as sure as the rising of the morning sun in the East. To us it is theology, but let us modify our view. It is the beginning of correct theology, for if we look at the implications of the resurrection, as outlined in the graphic, we see that the resurrection generates a satisfactory “statement of faith.” We have baptism, clearly based on resurrection. We have forgiveness of sins directly tied to resurrection. We have the return of Christ, and all that that implies, necessitated by the fact that he now lives. We also learn from the resurrection that if Jesus died, he was a man, and if the “grave could not hold him,” he was sinless. If he was a human and sinless, then he overcame sin, and therefore holds dominion over all creation. He crushed the head of the serpent. I do not intend for these writings to cover afresh our basic doctrines, so I will not explicate further in this vein. The graphic gives the essential connections, and it would make a fine exercise for each believer, alone or in a Sunday school or Bible class, to start with the fact of the resurrection and derive from that what must be true if that event happened in history.
In the next article I plan to discuss how using this approach applies to sorting out the vexing “exclusivity issue,” a discussion that will also bring into play the moral dimensions of this topic.
I thank Bro. Norm Fadelle for helping me format the graphic.