Sometimes I’m embarrassed to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. After all, I reason, it’s 2015. Unlike the early Christians, we now know that dead people don’t do that. Our cosmology is much more scientific than theirs; our worldview, far less primitive.
But if this is my first objection to the resurrection, then already I’ve run into a few problems. First, am I really so arrogant of a Modern to believe that ancient people didn’t know what “dead” meant? The first Christians, like us, knew that dead bodies didn’t sporadically resurrect. In fact, the claim “Jesus rose from the dead” meant nothing, then as now, unless it was predicated on the assumption that dead bodies do not actually do that. Unless Jesus was the exception to the rule, Christianity would never have taken off.
This uniqueness is actually one of the most compelling arguments for the resurrection. As many scholars note, Jesus was not the only Jewish would-be Messiah traipsing around the ancient world. He was, however, the only one hailed as Lord after being murdered by Rome. This is a very odd fact of history, one that demands an explanation. As noted New Testament historian N.T. Wright points out, when other Messiah figures were killed by Rome, their followers made the obvious deduction that they had been mistaken, and that the murdered one was no Messiah. Why, then, asks Wright, “did Christianity even begin, let alone continue, as a messianic movement, when its Messiah so obviously not only did not do what a Messiah was supposed to do but suffered a fate which ought to have showed conclusively that he could not possibly have been Israel’s anointed?”
One compelling answer, of course, is that unlike other would-be Messiahs killed by Rome, Jesus came back to life. Or, at least that’s what his early followers believed. That doesn’t, of course, prove the resurrection happened. It does, however, mean that the belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection dates back to the earliest communities of his followers. Indeed, plenty of scholars think that a resurrection creed recorded in I Corinthians 15 dates back to within twenty years of Christ’s life. Some scholars, including Bart Ehrman, put this creed even earlier, to within mere years of his death.
At this point, it seems entirely reasonable to believe two historical facts: that Jesus really died, and that some of his earliest followers were convinced they’d had experiences with his physical body after his death.
Now, it’s possible the disciples lied about what happened. But they had nothing to gain and everything to lose for pledging their allegiance to a dead man. Caesar was considered divine, and it wasn’t politically or socially expedient to pretend he wasn’t — which is why “Jesus is Lord” was such a dangerous creed to adopt. It was a direct challenge to Rome, and it put their lives in mortal danger. Indeed, most of them were slaughtered, and, notably, they went to their deaths clinging to … what? Stories they knew to be lies? All of them? And not one of them broke?
But if Jesus’ followers didn’t knowingly lie, then it’s possible they were mistaken. Maybe the Jesus they saw was a hallucination? They were obviously distressed from watching their leader brutally murdered, so it makes sense that they might have experienced some kind of bereavement vision of him.
Certainly visions of recently departed souls were not unheard of in the ancient world. Odysseus, for example, famously saw his mother Anticlea during his journey through the Underworld. But ancients had words for those sorts of things: ghosts, apparitions, spirits. If and when an ancient encountered one of these phenomena, she would have taken that as confirmation that the person she was seeing was in fact dead — not that he was alive.
There’s an example of this in the Bible actually, from the Book of Acts. While Christians are praying for Peter’s release from prison, he actually escapes from his cell, and hurries to meet up with his community. When he knocks on the door of the home, a young girl named Rhoda sees him, and rushes to tell the group that their prayers had been answered. They don’t believe her, but she insists it’s really him. “It must be his angel,” they say — that is, Peter is really dead, and Rhoda’s vision confirms it. The disciples’ experiences with Jesus, on the other hand, were very different. Somehow, those visions confirmed to them that Jesus was very much alive.
It’s worth mentioning here that the Bible does contain several accounts of other dead people being raised to life, like Lazarus or Nain’s widow’s son. There’s a fun anecdote from II Kings that tells of a dead man springing back to life when his body comes in contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha. But in these stories, the act of coming back to life is more like temporary resuscitation: Lazarus might live a while longer, but eventually his body will die and decay. What the Bible says happened to Jesus, on the other hand, is qualitatively different from what happened to them. Jesus’ resurrection is something else entirely — he was raised to new life, never again to die, unlike Lazarus, who had the very uncommon misfortune of dying twice.
Now, there’s a way of confessing a version of the resurrection that doesn’t require abandoning the metaphysical assumption that miracles don’t happen. That is, you believe in the resurrection as a metaphorical event. This option has become increasingly popular over the years. Jesus rose again, the argument goes, in the hearts of his disciples; Christ is alive in our generous and charitable actions.
I’ll be honest. This is a tempting view for me to hold since it lets me remain in good standing with both a Church that affirms the supernatural and a culture increasingly skeptical of it. Of course Jesus is raised, I can say — but that’s merely a metaphor for new life, you see! No one would look at me askance if I decided to follow in Thomas Jefferson’s footsteps, embracing the moral teachings of Jesus without any of their magical baggage.
But the problem with seeing the resurrection in this way is that it’s not how the early Christians saw it. As Oxford scholar Peter Walker points out, the language Jesus’ first followers used to talk about resurrection “meant one thing and only one thing — God’s act of raising from physical death.” Within the context of Second Temple Judaism, the hope of resurrection was a physical one. The Jewish confession of God’s justice was intimately tied to the belief that one day he would bodily raise all the righteous who had previously died (Abraham, David, the prophets), and particularly, the Jewish martyrs who died at the hands of pagans. If God was just, and if he was to make good on the promise that he would recreate the world, then he’d have to raise to life all of the righteous who had died so they could enjoy a new earth, in which justice would rush down like waters. Within this theological framework, then, the claim that Jesus was raised would’ve been spoken and heard to mean something physical had happened to his dead body.
Let’s be clear about this: ancient writers had categories for thinking allegorically about spiritual things. They had language to describe mystical, dreamlike visions. Judaism, after all, was a religion of prophecy, a genre cut through at every turn with poetic imagery, not all of which is intended to be interpreted at a literal level. John’s Revelation, for example, contains descriptions of larger-than-life monsters and cosmos-ending disasters, many of which are cast in the highly coded language we expect from apocalyptic literature. But compare those to the boring, anodyne depiction of Jesus’ resurrection from Luke: “As [the disciples] were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’” That is a strangely banal way to spin such a world-shattering event; unless of course you’re not spinning it, but narrating it.
Now, a major objection to many of these arguments might be that the gospels are unreliable since they were written by Christians with a particular agenda. And since those gospels are our primary sources for reconstructing the resurrection event, we can straightway dismiss it.
There’s no doubt that the stories of Jesus were written in ways to cast him in a certain light. It’s obvious these texts evolved, and that certain fabrications made their way into what we now call the Gospels. But it’s important that our definition of the genre allows for that necessary historical progression. The gospels, we might say, are the written record of the memory of Jesus as it was being worked out by his earliest followers. The fact that John is more theologically advanced than Mark demonstrates a certain elasticity to this memory. What it emphatically does not demonstrate, though, is that the entire memory is a sham.
Another objection, perhaps the most common objection, is that miracles don’t happen, and therefore this one didn’t happen. But good luck proving that no miracle, at any time in history, at any place in history, actually happened. The Enlightenment scientism that made no room for God is increasingly being rejected by a culture that realizes there’s more to the universe than what meets the eye. If you start with the assumption that God does not exist, then you might not make it to the resurrection. But if your worldview allows for the possibility of a God who is very interested in justice being brought about in our physical world, then something like the resurrection of Jesus becomes at least a possibility. Yes, a belief in miracles requires a certain worldview, just like a belief in the impossibility of miracles requires one. There is no view from nowhere. People see what they expect to see. They also fail to see what they don’t expect to see.
I’ll admit it: when I look at the Gospels, I expect to see the resurrection. In that sense, I am biased. The resurrection stories have pierced me to my core, and there’s no recovering from them.
C.S. Lewis once famously remarked that he believed in Christianity just like he believed in the sun: “Not only because I see it,” he said, “but because by it I see everything else.” That’s how I see Jesus’ resurrection; not so much an event I look at, as an event I look through. For me, it remains the interpretive key to the entire universe. And though it might seem improbable and primitive, we’re all aware that the idea is writ large across both our imaginations and even the cosmos. Each morning, the sun is reborn; each spring, harvests come back to life; after each disappointment, our dashed hopes are reanimated, and soar to even newer heights. For all the death and evil and greed and ugliness of our world, I can’t shake the fact that every last atom of this place is pulsing in time with the rhythm of resurrection.
Are there good historical reasons to believe Jesus rose bodily from the dead? I think there are. But at the same time, I think Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose philosophical work reveals the way language shapes our knowledge of the world, was on to something when he said, “It is love that believes the resurrection.”