Did He Rise From the Dead?

I am somewhat embarrassed to say this, but for most of my life, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead didn't matter all that much to me. I wouldn't have said so–and wouldn't have thought it was true if you had asked me about it–but looking back on it now, it's undeniable. What really mattered in the kind of Christianity that I lived were: 1) Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, 2) Christmas, and 3) Good Friday. For me, those three events formed the framework of the entire gospel. I knew very well that I had messed up (Eden), God was determined to rescue me from how I had messed up (Christmas), and therefore Jesus came and paid a penalty on my behalf by his death (Good Friday). If Jesus' resurrection (Easter) mattered, it was so that I could have an imprecise kind of new life, but–honestly–I thought being a Christian had much more to do with the forgiveness associated with Jesus' death than it had to do with his resurrection. Again, I would never have said so, nor even thought that I believed so, but any examination of my beliefs and actions would have clearly revealed that I thought of Easter as being little more than the spike of the football after the real touchdown on Good Friday.

Sound familiar? I certainly don't think I'm alone in having envisaged Christianity that way. Many Christians and non-Christians alike would summarize the message of Jesus' life somewhere along those lines.

But since so many of the Christians who hold beliefs similar to those I had also (as I did) consider themselves to be very Bible-focused people, here is a red flag that we were missing the point: those three main parts of the story which I thought were the framework for the gospel (Eden, Christmas, and Good Friday) occupy an astonishingly small percentage of the Bible which I claimed was the foundation for my life and thinking. The debacle that happened in the garden of Eden in the third chapter of Genesis is on page 5 in my Bible. It is never mentioned again until page 1076.(1) The limited attention it gets in the New Testament is mostly to point out how Jesus' resurrection began to set right the things that began to go wrong in Eden.

Then, for Christmas. As much as Christmas and Easter are the two apparently equal highlights of the year in most churches and in the lives of many Christians, it isn't that way in the scriptures. Jesus' birth isn't even mentioned in two of the four accounts of his life, while the climax of all of them is the resurrection. As N.T. Wright points out, "Take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, and all you lose is four chapters of the gospels. Take away the resurrection and you lose the entire New Testament, and most of the second century fathers as well."(2)

Going by this "how much attention they get in the scriptures" analysis, Good Friday matters–tremendously. Attention to Jesus' death is given throughout the New Testament, but his death is always viewed through the lens of his resurrection. If their claim of Jesus' resurrection had not been the center of the existence of those earliest generations of Christians, they would not have had any reason to look back on his death other than as being evidence that he was one more failed Messiah.

Because it can seem so laughable to think of the stories of Jesus' resurrection as a historical reality, it is tempting for us to come up with a version of Christianity which doesn't need them so badly. We can rally behind Jesus the great teacher and altruistic martyr, but it seems like we subject ourselves to accusations of simpleminded unintelligence if we state just as confidently that his corpse came back to life and walked out of the tomb where it had laid completely lifeless from Friday evening until Sunday morning.

The early Christians were not following a noble martyr. If that had been the case Jesus would have been remembered heroically by some, but even they would have gone on looking for another messiah, and hence there would have been no such thing as early Christians. His name would have practically disappeared from history along with other would-be messiahs from around the time of Jesus, such as Simon, Anthronges, Menahem, and Simeon ben Kosiba. These guys tried really hard, but failed. An executed messiah was an impossibility.

Christianity is simply inexplicable without the real, bodily resurrection of Jesus. If it didn't happen in point of fact, we have all been duped in the worst possible way. Regardless of what our experiences have been, or of what we have always believed, or how long Christians have had influence in the world, it all crumbles to the ground if he wasn't really, bodily alive after he had been really, bodily dead.

So...did it happen?

Next week's post will continue the exploration of that question, but before I get to the issues I want to address there, a couple of essential qualifications on this question of whether or not we can intelligently shape our lives around belief in a resurrected Messiah:

First, we have no reason to be scared of science, in this or any other matter of faith. We tend to assume that it might have been easier for people of earlier centuries to be convinced that Jesus was restored to life, but with the rise of science in the past few hundred years, the evidence is now against it. In response to that line of thinking, I've heard N.T. Wright say, "Give me a break. Dead people have been staying dead longer than that."

Science examines repeatable events and conditions, which will naturally always lead us to the conclusion that dead people stay dead, and since Jesus was dead, he could not have come back to life. But the question of the Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection is a question about something claimed to have happened one time to him, and which also points to what will happen to all of God's people in the future. Science, by its nature, cannot say true or false to either of those claims.

But, secondly, that does not mean that our belief in the resurrection should be based on a "blind faith" in which the most faithful thing we can do is to try really hard to think we believe it happened and not ask any questions, regardless of what our best intellectual faculties would normally lead us to do. In this or any other matter of faith, if it is true it will be able to stand up to any reality-seeking questions any of us can pose.

If Jesus died and stayed dead, stories about his resurrection do not matter. If Jesus died and later walked out of his own tomb, nothing else matters. Next week, I will do my best to explain why it is a perfectly rational thing to believe the resurrection happened and why therefore our world is a completely different kind of place than it would have been otherwise.


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • 2 Kings 5:1-14
  • Psalm 30
  • Galatians 6:1-16
  • Luke 10:1-11,16-20

A Prayer for the Week*:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) See Hosea 6:7 (2) See Wright's lecture, "Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?"

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]