Can We Believe in the Resurrection? Part 1: Objections

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 3A, May 4, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts  2.14a, 36-41; Psalm 116.1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-35.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As we saw two weeks ago on Easter Sunday, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus marks the decisive turning point in history because it signaled the launch of God’s new creation with its proclamation that God was beginning to take back control of his good world gone bad, and all that that entails. Yet almost from the very beginning, the resurrection has been challenged both within and outside of the Church. And because many have come from mainline Christian denominations or traditions which have frankly dropped the ball in teaching about the resurrection, many of us don’t have a firm understanding about it. We don’t know exactly what resurrection means and why it is important to our Christian faith.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only the turning point in history. It is the absolute foundation on which our Christian faith stands. Take away the resurrection and we’ve got nothing. Nothing. As Paul tells the Corinthians, if the resurrection of Jesus is not true then we are still dead in our sins and people without hope (1 Corinthians 15.12-19). So it is vital for us as God’s people in Jesus to have a firm understanding of what the resurrection is and why we can have confidence that the resurrection is historically true and not a figment of imagination or wishful thinking on the part of early Christians. If we are ever going to be people of real hope who are changed by the love of Christ in the power of the Spirit so that we are literally new people who are equipped to embody our Lord Jesus and the hope of new creation to God’s broken and hurting world, we must firmly embrace the resurrection. It’s pretty hard to be changed by God to make a difference for God if we what we believe is a lie, don’t you think?

With this in mind, these next two sermons are designed to help us better understand and fully embrace the foundation of our Christian faith. This week I will address briefly some of the common objections that have been leveled at the historical truth of the resurrection. These objections usually come in the form of alternative theories for what happened on that first Easter Sunday. We need to know what the enemy is thinking and how to respond to him.

Then next week I will lay out a case for why we as Christians can be confident that the resurrection of Jesus really did happen in history so that we can be assured that our resurrection faith is based on a rock solid foundation. Because these are complex issues and because I might not necessarily address particular concerns you have, we will have a Q&A after each sermon. By all means, if you have questions or doubts or fears, please don’t be embarrassed to share them so that we can address them to your satisfaction. In preparing these sermons, I am heavily indebted to Bishop Tom Wright and the old Anglican rector and author, J.B. Phillips. If you want more than the Readers’ Digest version I will give you in these sermons, then pick up Wright’s, Surprised by Hope and Phillips’, Your God is too Small. In fact, Wright’s book is so important that if I had my way, anybody who wants to join our congregation would have to demonstrate to me that he or she has read Surprised by Hope and gets it. I want every one of us to have the kind of lively faith, hope, and understanding about the resurrection that is in Wright’s book because it is that vital!

Two additional comments before we start. The organizing question for this sermon series is: How do we explain the rise of early Christianity? Movements like this do not just happen spontaneously and this question demands an historical explanation. The answer these two sermons will provide is the simplest and most direct. The rise of early Christianity happened precisely because Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead, just as the earliest Christians claimed, despite the fact that nobody expected it to happen. More about that in a moment.

Second, we need to make sure we are all on the same page of the playbook about how to define resurrection as first-century Jews would have defined it and as the Church catholic has classically defined it (until the last 200 years or so). When we use the term resurrection we are not talking about life after death in the form of some kind of spiritual existence. Resurrection is not the same as dying and going to heaven (i.e., life after death). Christians believe that when we die our soul will indeed go to heaven (God’s space) to rest with our Lord Jesus and enjoy his protection and care (cf. Philippians 1.23; 2 Corinthians 5.6-8; Luke 23.43), but that is not what we mean by resurrection. If that were the case, then by any definition our created bodies are still dead and death has not been defeated as Paul claimed (1 Corinthians 15.26). When Jesus’ contemporaries used the term resurrection, they meant some kind of new bodily existence that happened after whatever sort of life after death there may be. It is life after life after death, so to speak, and it means new bodily existence, albeit in a changed body like Jesus’ resurrected body. Paul tells us that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom precisely because our current bodies are mortal and when heaven and earth are fused together when the new creation is consummated in full so that God’s kingdom comes on earth as in heaven, we will need bodies that are immortal and are equipped to live in that new environment (1 Corinthians 15.35-58). That is why death cannot be conquered until God has brought about the general resurrection of the dead. And we also need to be clear that resurrection was a distinct Jewish belief. It was not accepted in the broader pagan world of Jesus’ day. Many pagans simply believed in some kind of shadowy, terribly reduced existence after death. There was certainly little or no hope in that.

Turning now to objections to the resurrection, it is clear from our gospel reading this morning (and our last two gospel lessons from John 20.1-29) that even Jesus’ closest disciples were initially skeptical (cf. Mark 16.6-8; Matthew 28.17). Luke tells us earlier in his narrative that Jesus’ disciples considered the women’s story an idle tale and the Greek he uses can mean that they thought the women were out of their minds. Now on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion, probably his wife (cf. John 19.25), tell Jesus that they had hoped he was the Messiah but that the ruling authorities had gotten him as they usually did. We had hoped, but… These are not words of someone who is expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead! Given this fact, it should not surprise us that there have been so many alternative theories (or objections) to the resurrection over the years. Here, I will review only some of the more “popular” ones.

The swoon theory. This posits that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, that he was drugged and revived in the tomb. But this cannot stand up to close historical scrutiny. Roman soldiers knew how to crucify people and ensure they were dead. Their very lives depended on it. If soldiers didn’t execute their victim, they would pay for it with their lives. And if you have ever seen Mel Gibson’s, The Passion, you will realize how silly this theory is. Often Roman scourging was enough to kill the victim and it boggles the mind that Jesus would have revived enough so that his disciples would have recognized him for anything other than the drugged and half-dead man he surely would have been. There is nothing here that would account for the very early Christian belief that Jesus was Messiah and Lord or that he had been raised from the dead.

The mistaken identity/wrong tomb theory. These are closely related and both posit that the women and early disciples mistook someone else for Jesus and that Jesus’ empty tomb  is explained away by claiming the women went to the wrong tomb on Easter morning. In regard to mistaken identity, if this were true, Jesus’ disciples would have discovered their mistake soon enough (e.g., Oh! You really are  the gardener!). In regard to the wrong tomb theory, a careful reading of the gospel accounts would expose this for the farce it is. All the evangelists make a point in telling us that the women went to the tomb to see where Jesus was buried and that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea knew where he was buried (Matthew 27.57-61; Mark 15.42-47; Luke 23.50-56; John 19.38-42). So even if the women did make a mistake in identifying the tomb that Easter morning, that mistake too would have been quickly resolved. The only reasonable conclusion is that the women and disciples actually talked to the risen Jesus and that his tomb was empty for reasons other than hallucinations or body theft (see below).

The stolen body theory. This posits the disciples came and stole the body out of the tomb. Matthew actually addresses this issue in his gospel account of the resurrection (Matthew 28.11-15). But again if we think this through, it falls far short of being an adequate explanation. Given that the disciples didn’t expect Jesus to be raised from the dead in the first place, and given that they acted as cowards in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion, how would stealing Jesus’ body and propagating a lie explain the disciples’ sudden change from being cowards to boldly proclaiming Jesus was alive and being willing to die for him? Only truly delusional people would base their entire existence on a lie, and whatever else they were, the disciples were emphatically not psychotic.

The hallucination/vision theory. The argument goes something like this. Many people have visions (some would say hallucinations) of loved ones who have recently died and this is what happened to the women and disciples after Jesus’ death. But this argument assumes that Jesus’ contemporaries did not know about phenomena like this, which is patently false. So had Jesus’ disciples simply experienced a vision of Jesus, they would have called it that. They would have said they had seen his ghost or spirit or his angel (cf. Luke 24.37; Matthew 14.25-27). This is emphatically what they did not say. They used resurrection language that emphasized they could touch him and eat with him, etc. (cf. Luke 24.36-43; John 20.26-29; Matthew 28.9-10).

Jesus only appeared to those who believed in him. This simply isn’t true. Thomas and Paul didn’t believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, at least initially (cf. John 20.24-25; Acts 9.1-22). In fact Paul actively persecuted the Church until the risen Lord confronted him on the road to Damascus. And as we have already seen, none of Jesus’ original followers initially believed that Jesus had been raised. So belief in Jesus, while vitally important, was clearly not the essential criterion in determining to whom Jesus would appear.

Jesus was alive spiritually, not physically. This theory gained a lot of traction in the 20th century and is still very popular today. It argues that the early followers of Jesus had some kind of “spiritual” encounter with Jesus. He was still alive, albeit not bodily, and his disciples were still in touch with him, but only on a spiritual level. At first blush this has some plausibility because this is how we must interact with our risen Lord today because he is no longer bodily present to us because he has ascended into heaven. But this is an ascension issue, not a problem with bodily resurrection, and this interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection represents a Platonic view of immortality, not a Jewish one. As we have seen, resurrection was and is the final defeat of death, not simply a nicer description of it, and this theory also denies the clear gospel accounts of Jesus’ followers interacting with him in his new bodily existence: eating and drinking with him, being able to touch him, etc. (see above).

Things like the resurrection do not happen. This objection appeals to our world of experience and observation. Everyone knows that dead bodies don’t come alive again so the resurrection accounts must be fabrications. In response we must ask, “Says who?” Just because we have not personally experienced or witnessed something doesn’t mean it can’t (or didn’t) happen. Using this criterion, we would be forced to say that any unusual historical event must be false. But this is where we must stand up and graciously challenge our critics who use this argument as a reason the resurrection did not occur. What makes their worldview superior to the biblical worldview? Are we going to be so narrow and closed-minded that the only reality we can believe in is that which we can observe and measure? A quick moment’s thought will show us there are other kinds of knowledge besides scientific knowledge. Think, for example, of how two lovers know each other in ways that simply cannot be measured. Does that mean their knowledge of each other is therefore invalid? Please don’t misunderstand. I am not against empirically-based knowledge. I am simply challenging the notion that it is somehow supreme or the only valid kind of knowledge.

Moreover, this criticism also forces us to decide on what kind of God we worship. Do we believe in the God who indeed calls into existence things that are not and raises the dead to life (Romans 4.17) or is our god not big enough to accomplish something as remarkable and mind-blowing as the resurrection of the dead? How we answer this question will give us keen insight into the state and basis of our faith and hope, not to mention our love. We will talk more about this next week, but for now I hope I have demonstrated that typical objections to the resurrection strain our credulity more than accepting that the resurrection actually occurred. To put it another way, the resurrection is not something we choose to believe against all evidence, but rather something we can believe in because of the evidence.

Yet despite our arguments so far, the resurrection still requires faith. As we saw earlier, we as Christians believe that Jesus is both raised from the dead and ascended in bodily form into heaven (God’s space) so that he is no longer available to us on a physical basis (cf. John 20.17; Acts 1.6-11). So the real issue for us is how we can experience the risen (but physically absent) Christ right now. We will look more closely at Jesus’ ascension on Ascension Sunday. But for the moment, we can answer this question by turning once again to Luke. The risen Christ is available to his people in the power of the Spirit, in and through prayer, in the careful reading and study of Scripture, and in the Eucharist. If we wish to experience the risen Lord’s life-giving and healing presence in our life, we find out how in Luke’s account of the disciples’ recognition of him. Pay attention so that you too may experience the kind of heartburn Cleopas and his companion experienced!

The resurrection is an incredible thing, thanks be to God, and if we understand what it means and more importantly embrace it with all our heart and mind, we will surely understand why Easter is so critical to our faith and to the world, and that we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

2 thoughts on “Can We Believe in the Resurrection? Part 1: Objections

  1. Pingback: Can We Believe in the Resurrection? Part 2: Historical Evidence | The Anglican Priest

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