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Monday, April 1, 2013

Belief in the Resurrection? Sure, Why Not? (A Re-Post of Sorts)

The early twentieth-century sociologist William Thomas once wrote that "if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences," by which he meant that if people believe that something is true, they will act as if it is true. One could also argue the reverse: If people are acting as if something is true, then there's a high probability they believe it to be true.

The "Thomas Theorem" comes to mind this Easter season. If the Gospel accounts are even remotely reliable, it is safe to conclude that not only did the early Christians behave as if the Resurrection happened, they actually believed it happened. Of course, what actually happened is a matter of debate among scholars. As New Testament scholar (and thoroughgoing skeptic) Bart Ehrman puts it ("Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium," pp. 227-228):
Even if a miracle did happen, there is no way we can demonstrate it, by the very nature of the case...  Historians try to determine what happened in the past. Since they can't prove the past, they can only establish what probably happened. But by their very nature, miracles are highly improbable occurrences. That is to say, the chances of a miracle happening are infinitesimally remote, as opposed to other weird things that happen in our world that are not in anode themselves so highly improbable that we'd call them 'impossible.' The, even if Jesus was raised from the dead--as many Christian historians personally believe he was, just as most other historians think he wasn't--there is no way we can demonstrate it using historical methods.
Nevertheless, historians can't (or at least shouldn't) dismiss the resurrection too quickly. As Catherine Murphy, who is NOT a theological conservative, notes ("The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 240) there is "no feature of the Jesus story that satisfies so many of the criteria of historicity" (see "The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part V: Criteria"). As she notes:
  • It's traced to many eyewitnesses. Paul, for example, claims more than 515 eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
  • It's embarrassing (consider the divergent stories and women as witnesses, for example).
  • It's an early tradition on which all the other traditions in the gospels are predicated (no one would have bothered to write gospels if the resurrection hadn't occurred).
  • It's reported in multiple, independent sources (Paul, Mark, John and possibly Q 11:29-30, 32).
  • It's discontinuous with Jewish beliefs about resurrection because, as far as we know, no one had ever claimed that someone had actually risen, that this proved the person's unique status, and that this resurrection had something to offer everyone (namely, that if they believed in it, they too would rise). Early Christians had to pour tremendous energy into understanding it themselves.
  • It's coherent not so much with the historical details of Jesus's life, but with the rise of early Christianity.
This is why a number of mainline scholars (i.e., those who don't read the Bible literally) have concluded that something must have happened. What happened exactly, most aren't willing to say, but they do believe that something did (see e.g., Catherine Murphy, "The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 240, James Alison, "Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination," pp. 28-30, and David Buttrick, "Preaching Jesus Christ," pp. 57-58). Then, of course, there are folks such as Dr. Francis Collins, who was head of the Human Genome Project when it sequenced the human genome, and the Anglican priest and theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne, who is a member of the Royal Society of London (probably the oldest and most prestigious scientific study in the world), who believe in the Resurrection. I think one would be hard pressed to call either of them intellectual midgets. However, as Polkinghorne puts it:
An inquiry into the evidence can carry us only so far. It can demonstrate (as I believe it does) that the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus is not without substantial motivation, so that it is far from being an ungrounded speculation. However, at best such an inquiry can point only to a balance of probability... Ultimately one's attitude to the resurrection will depend on the degree to which it does or does not cohere with one's general understanding of the way the world is. If the Christian understanding is true, that in Jesus the divine and human so mingled that a new regime was present in the world, then the unique occurrence of the resurrection is conceivable... If a humanist understanding is true, that Jesus was a remarkable and inspiring man but no more, then it is to be expected that death had the degree of finality for him that it will have for us" ("The Way the World Is: The Christian Perspective of a Scientist," p.79).
In short, belief in the resurrection follows from a priori assumptions about the nature of the world, which can neither be substantiated nor refuted through scientific inquiry. However, in discussions with mainline Protestant ministers, I get the sense that many, if not most, are embarrassed by the resurrection, seeing belief in it as being somehow scientifically irresponsible. Consequently, many are inclined to understand (and preach about) it metaphorically rather than literally, as an experience that the early Christians shared when they broke bread together, rather than as an historical event that profoundly altered their hearts, minds, and subsequent behavior. 

More importantly, I also get the sense that many of these mainline Protestant ministers assume that the majority of their congregations' members hold similar beliefs. This would be a colossal mistake, however; most Christians, including mainline Protestants, believe in Jesus' bodily resurrection. To wit:
  • In the 2008-2009 wave of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, 94 percent of evangelicals, 91 percent of Catholics, and 78 percent of mainline Protestants said Jesus was raised bodily from the dead after his crucifixion.
  • 75% of the more than 25,000 respondents to congregational surveys offered by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research from 2004 to 2010, most of whom were mainline Protestants, said that they believed that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was an actual event.
  • According to the Portraits of American Life study more than 2/3 of Christian respondents, including 84% of black and evangelical respondents and 67% of mainline Protestants and Catholics, strongly agreed with the statement, “Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead” (15.4% of mainline Protestants and 13.4% of Catholics "somewhat" agreed with the statement).
Of course, just because a majority of Christians believe that something is true, doesn't mean that it is true (any more than a majority vote by the Jesus Seminar on a saying of Jesus is the final word on whether it is authentic or not). Nevertheless, I daresay that most Christians, including most mainline Protestants, need more to hang their hat on than a notion that the hearts of the first Christians were strangely warmed when they broke bread together.

Does this mean that it is intellectually irresponsible not to believe in the resurrection? Of course not. As Ehrman points out, most non-Christian historians don't believe in it because, despite protestations of Josh McDowell, there is no incontrovertible evidence that demands a verdict. Nevertheless, as Murphy and Polkinghorne suggest, there is enough evidence, at least for Christians, on which they can hang their hat.

Note: Although this post contains some new material, it's essentially a combination of my two previous "Easter" posts: "Resurrection? Really? Yes, Really" (April 22, 2011) and "Belief in a Bodily Resurrection?" (April 9, 2012)

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