Posted: Sep 03, 2013 11:31 pm
by Byron
My gratitude to Will for such an inventive and well-sourced post on the resurrection. I look forward to engaging with it in my rebuttal. First, my opening.

Its introduction argues that this debate is fought on the wrong terms, followed by a refutation of the theology of Christ's (claimed) resurrection, and a look at how this slots into the war between faith and reason, before it wraps in a conclusion that points to a way out for Christianity.


"... the Passion narratives ended with the story of Easter Resurrection. This Resurrection is not a matter which historians can authenticate; it is a different sort of truth, or a statement about truth. It is the most troubling, difficult affirmation in Christianity, but over twenty centuries Christians have thought it central to their faith."

Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity

Debates about evidence for the claimed resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth revolve around a category error. Adducing documents and "testimony" to make a case misses the point spectacularly. You can't make probability judgments about miracles. Probability judgments need a consistent point of reference, relative to which the judgment is made. Miracles, as discussed already, make up the rules as they go. The concept of probability is meaningless when anything can happen, in any place, at any time, bound by nothing. As MacCulloch says above, historiography isn't equipped to handle this. It works within a naturalistic framework, not out of prejudice against the supernatural, but out of necessity. Any supernatural claims exist, by their nature, outside that framework. You can't prove miracles. The textual scholar Bart Ehrman argued this point to devastating effect when debating the apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig. Craig was reduced to appealing to faith. Confronted by the irrationality of his stance, it's all he had left.

Why, then, do Christian apologists try to prove that, in the power of God, Jesus of Nazareth conquered death and emerged from the tomb as the risen Christ? Why do they not have the courage of their (stated) convictions and say, "We believe the resurrection on faith"? A faith that Paul of Tarsus said was a gift from God. Why do they insist, yet again, on fighting on the opposition's terms?

The answer is the same as it always is: they're not half as confident as they claim to be. Apologetics, infamously, are there to reassure the faithful, far more than they exist to convert the heathen. Millions of Christians are functional atheists. They think in naturalistic terms, and expect to see things established in those terms. Witness the clunking "newspaper" analogy that apologists trot out, with "reports" from "eyewitnesses" to the empty tomb; or the equally clunking sub-Law & Order courtroom antics, with appeals to a jury finding the resurrection proved (a case even Lionel Hutz wouldn't go near). Christians should instead be appealing, with the swivel-eyed passion of Paul of Tarsus, to the mystical power of the risen Christ, with belief in his resurrection a gift of the triune God. Arguing for the resurrection in rational terms in itself concedes the point. The apologetics built on naturalistic foundations serve only to show that Christianity no longer believes in itself. They are, as ever, self-defeating. That much is self-evident.

The interesting thing is to ask how we got here, and how, if Christianity wants to remain as anything but an irrational ghetto, it can get itself out.

We start at the beginning of the story, with the orthodox theology of Christ's (claimed) rebirth.

He is Risen (Indeed?)

The theology of the resurrection is the theology of failure. The historic Jesus of Nazareth was -- as best as scholars have been able to reconstruct from the agenda-riven gospel biographies written decades after his death, by authors unknown -- a puritanical folk-preacher who taught his fellow Jews that Adonai their god was about to remake the world in fire, separate the righteous from the unworthy, consign the unworthy to burn in Gehenna, and establish a kingdom of peace and justice. Jesus was to rule with the Twelve. This is imminent eschatology through and through. This apocalyptic model of the historical Jesus, descending from Albert Schweitzer at the turn of the 20th century, through Rudolf Bultmann, then E.P. Sanders, and popularized by Bart Ehrman today, lays the groundwork for belief in the resurrection. For people thinking in apocalyptic terms, resurrection was the only way to reconcile their worldview with Jesus' execution at the hands of Pontius Pilate, by all extra-gospel accounts a brutal imperial bossman. If this thug in a toga was allowed to nail God's anointed to a cross, there had to be a reason. The alternative was unthinkable.

Will has helpfully quoted E.P. Sanders' statement from the epilogue of The Historical Figure of Jesus:-

"That Jesus' followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know."

I do not claim to know either. Psychoanalysis is hard enough of an art face-to-face: at a 2,000 year remove, it's impossible. We can offer informed speculation only. Perhaps the disciples and Paul saw similar visions of Jesus, visions embroidered by later accounts; perhaps they had different experiences, later reconciled through discussion and institutional necessity; perhaps there were no visions, just a powerful conviction that Jesus was risen; or something else entirely. Whatever it was, the belief that Jesus was reborn was rooted in a pre-existing framework of Jewish eschatology. God raised Jesus as he was about to raise the world.

Jews of the 1st century A.D. were split between those who believed in a general resurrection and those who didn't. For Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee and former persecutor of the Jesus movement, an experience of Jesus' resurrection was proof that Jesus was the Christ, the "first fruits" of a general resurrection of the righteous. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul not only groups his resurrection experience with those of Jesus' disciples, he sees Christ's rebirth in a "spiritual body" as part of a process that will come to encompass all those who follow Jesus as Lord. For Paul, charismatic, brilliant, a theological genius drunk on apocalyptic expectation, the resurrection isn't a unique event: it's a process that will soon extend to all the followers of Jesus, as God, through Christ, remakes the world anew.

And here we are. Paul and the first Christians died. The next generation died after them. And the next, and the next, and on until the present day. The later books of the New Testament -- John's Gospel, the forged letters of Peter -- start to offer explanations for why the apocalypse promised by Jesus and Paul hasn't come. Christians have been offering them ever since. Anything but admit that Jesus and Paul were wrong.

Stripped of its apocalyptic framework, the resurrection, already a saving throw for the earthly failure of Jesus of Nazareth, has morphed into a bizarre theological system encompassing the crucifixion, a system involving Jesus' blood sacrifice, his victory over death, and, most brutally, his penal substitution for the sins of mankind on Pilate's cross. There are seeds of this in Paul, but Paul, no systematic theologian, threw it out in passing, as he rushed to his exultant apocalyptic conclusions. It has ossified into dogma by the deadweight of two millennia of Christendom. Jesus hasn't come back. Those who call him Lord are stuck explaining his tardiness. As it was in the beginning, it is now, and it ever shall be.

Denial in Perfection: the Resurrection's War With Reason

Belief in the resurrection began because Jesus' prophecy failed. Enthroned at the heart of a religion founded on Jesus' failure, in its refusal to accept the world as it is, the claimed resurrection of Christ is the central and ultimate example of Christianity's irrationality. Death itself could not be allowed to get in the way of belief. Following the evidence where it leads, regardless of opinion, is a hallmark of a person applying reason. We are entitled to our own views, not our own facts. The first Christians made the facts fit their views, and that denial was subsequently infused with the terror of institutional power, often backed by violence, the literal fire of the church's judgment awaiting the heretic who dared to call the emperor out on his nakedness. Not that such a thought would have occurred to many, so entrenched did the dogma become.

Time passed, and the dogma's power lessened as churches lost their ability to impose it by force. Christians today answer the charge of irrationality by appealing to the hope that the resurrection gives them. Death is not the end. They will see their loved ones again. Injustice on earth shall be set right in heaven. This hope is not trivial or worthy of mockery, but neither is it rational. Reason is not kind, it is not just, and it is not merciful about the world's failings. The textual scholar Dale Allison said it brutally in the existential cry of anguish that closed his book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet: if there is no hope for the six-year-old child ravaged by cancer, then let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, leaving an existence that is nothing but a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. There is a certain nihilistic appeal to be found in facing up to this bleakness, a philosophical swagger in those who gaze into the abyss, and blink first. It does nothing to alleviate the bleakness of the picture given, nor should it diminish empathy, or sympathy, felt for those who feel compelled to believe in resurrection as a cure for the world's ills. These human kindnesses, however, do nothing to inject reason into an irrational belief. Like all miracles, the resurrection is wish-fulfillment, denial, and ultimately, no answer.

It is no accident that belief in a physical resurrection -- the theological demand hardened and made specific as a reaction to the blitzkrieg of modernity -- has become a shibboleth for Christians. Nothing speaks to the unreason of the faith so much as witnessing the fury turned on Christians who dare to doubt that Jesus' corpse was transformed and regenerated in the power of God. Without that death-defeating miracle, Christianity loses its power, and becomes another human construct. And that cannot be allowed. Christians can tolerate contradiction by the crate-load, theological cruelty, misogyny and homophobia in the name of God, but they cannot tolerate the possibility that God can't fulfill their wishes, the horror that God isn't all-power. Not even reality can stand in his way. The world as it is must be capable of transformation into the world as they want it to be. Christ Pantocrator must have their back. Any Christian who dissents must be broken. Ridiculed, attacked, unchurched, shunned. When it comes to this merciless dogma, the disease of dissent must isolated, quarantined, and either cured or cast out. The cruelty remains, though the fire's thankfully gone out of it.

I can empathize. I can sympathize. I cannot call it anything but irrational, or anything but wrong.

Is this it?


It's easy to tear down, to deconstruct. Rebuilding, now there's the thing. Labeling belief in the resurrection as irrational wish-fulfillment backed by threat of ostracism is not a hard thing, nor is following through on that premise. The difficult thing is to offer a way out of this panicked, frightened mess.

Richard Holloway, former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, has sold a good many books in popularizing a line long taken by those Christians who dared to question the dogma of the resurrection. He casts resurrection in metaphorical terms, as a symbol of rebirth in the face of all odds and probabilities. The Civil Rights Movement in America was a resurrection. So too was the emergence of Europe from the ashes of two world wars and half a century of Soviet tyranny. The church itself is a resurrection in this sense, surviving the failure and execution of its unwitting founder, and inspiring billions across continents and centuries. Horror, yes, but wonder too. Angel and demon and all in-between, like all of us.

This alternate model can't be reconciled with tradition and metaphysical dreaming. The two are incompatible at their hearts. The traditional resurrection is reality-denying wish-fulfillment; the alternative takes the hard road of accepting the world as it is, and the responsibility of remaking it as we want it to be. Miracles won't do the job for us. We have to grow up, take the burden, and do it for ourselves. Improvement comes not through the magic of God, but through the long, hard trek of human discovery and its application. The church claimed miracles. Florey and Chain healed.

Not only is the resurrection of the orthodox irrational, the hope it gives is passive, and it infantalizes those who cleave to it. To live in the hope of the resurrection is to live a lie. Believing that all shall be well after death robs us of the imperative to make things better in life. Dreaming of joining the risen Christ, either in heaven, or on a new earth after his second coming, pulls us away from the grunt work of making our dreams a reality in the here and now. Life is not made fair through hope alone, but by ingenuity, sweat, tears and effort.

The victory is sweeter when achieved in knowledge of the possibility of failure. So long as Christians believe that it was won in a tomb two thousand years ago, they will be denied it.