Responding to another post doubting bodily resurrection

April 23, 2011

After my post early in the week responding to this Huffington Post blogger, one of you brought my attention to yet another interesting post on resurrection at that site. This one is a little better, I guess, but it deserves a response. Since my Easter sermon is (finally) finished, I think I have a little time now. I’ll quote the interesting parts and then respond.

Many sermons in churches declare clearly that Jesus physically rose from the dead, in the sense that his same body was reanimated. The Bible, however, is much less clear on the details of the resurrection. Mark, the oldest Gospel, ends with the mystery of an empty tomb with no appearances by Jesus.

He’s right about the Bible’s being ambiguous about Jesus’ resurrected body. In resurrection, Jesus’ body isn’t a resuscitated corpse. A physical body in the sense that we understand it couldn’t disappear and reappear at will, nor could it walk through locked doors. The resurrected Lord was at least physical, in the sense that he could be touched, and he ate and drank. But he was more than physical as we understand it. N.T. Wright calls it transphysical, which works for me. If we don’t understand it, well, that’s O.K. There is much mystery here. But we know from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that whatever Jesus is in resurrection, we will (at some point on the other side of death or at the end of history as we know it) be like him.

I wonder, however, if he’s being slightly disingenuous on Mark’s ending. By all means, the oldest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel that we have end with the unresolved Mark 16:8 (“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”) and do not include resurrection appearances of Jesus. But that doesn’t mean that the gospel of Mark was supposed to end there. The most reasonable explanation is that the original ending—occurring as it did at the fragile end of a scroll—was damaged or torn (these things happened sometimes before Microsoft Word). The church in its wisdom added an ending that approximated Mark’s original ending.

The idea of the gospel’s ending at v. 8—with the women leaving the tomb in fear, thus depriving us of the “happy ending” of resurrection—seems cool and postmodern to many Christians. But it’s very unlikely that that’s how it originally ended.

And he misunderstands the oral tradition if he thinks that because Mark is a mere five years (or so) older than Matthew and Luke, it must somehow be closer to the truth of what really happened. Five years is a long time to us, but it was nothing in a world in which the primary means by which people learned and preserved stories was orally. The stories—technically called “pericopes”—that comprise the four gospels long predated the point at which they were written down, and they existed orally in roughly the same form that the evangelists wrote them down.

In other words, Matthew isn’t writing something in his gospel that was introduced into the tradition after Mark wrote. Matthew had access to traditions that Mark likely didn’t, but it’s not like somebody thought to invent this novel idea of Jesus’ resurrection appearances after Mark’s gospel was written. That’s not even close to being credible.

Historically, there is no ambiguity whatsoever that the Church proclaimed from its inception two things: the tomb was empty and Jesus appeared to people after the resurrection. That the early apostles and other Christians proclaimed and believed in the resurrection based on first-hand experience and eyewitness testimony isn’t controversial. We have no warrant to say that they didn’t really experience what they said they experienced.

In the other Gospels, we have various confusing and conflicting details about the resurrection appearances: in some Jesus is not recognized, even after former disciples have followed him on a road and eaten with him; in other appearances he takes on ghost/spirit-like qualities by suddenly appearing in and then disappearing from locked rooms.

See my point above. This is accurate. Jesus’ glorified body is transphysical. The gospel accounts, with all their conflicting details, correspond nicely with Paul’s first-hand description of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (bearing in mind that Paul wasn’t responding to our modern questions about resurrection; he was discussing these things to make a theological point to this particular church). If Jesus’ body is changed, it makes sense that the disciples often didn’t recognize him right away. It also demonstrates that the disciples didn’t expect Jesus’ resurrection—regardless what Jesus taught or preached prior to his death.

Why would they expect a resurrection? Prior to Jesus, it was never said to have happened to anyone. Faithful Jews (but not the Sadducees) believed resurrection was an event that happens to everyone at the end of the age—not something that happens to one person in the middle of the age. They were culturally and religiously unequipped to expect Jesus’ resurrection. It was remarkable, therefore, that in spite of all that, they changed their minds! What caused them to do that?

The most reasonable explanation is that they genuinely believed that Jesus had been resurrected. The word “resurrection” implies a physical dimension (at least). There were other words they could have used to describe a shared spiritual experience, vision, or apparition.

As for those conflicting details in the gospel’s resurrection stories, in my mind it adds weight to the fact of resurrection, on which the gospels loudly agree. Contrary to recent popular fiction, isn’t it in service to the truth of the resurrection that the church didn’t bother harmonizing these conflicting details? If there were some conspiracy on the part of the church to cover up the truth, wouldn’t they also want to make sure all the t’s were crossed and i’s dotted? (And, yes, they noticed the discrepancies!)

Paul’s visionary experience of Jesus is the earliest recorded one we have, as well as the only first-hand account (his letters were written 20 years after the death of Jesus, versus Mark which was 40 years after the crucifixion). Paul never met Jesus during Jesus’ life. His experience of the resurrection was in a vision on the road to Damascus, yet Paul classifies this vision as the same in character and importance as Jesus’ other appearances.

That’s about right, although the author is once again looking at the resurrection through a modern lens in saying that Paul’s description is “the only first-hand account.” It’s remarkable and significant that we have a first-hand written account. There were plenty of first-hand accounts in circulation—over 500 if what Paul says is true. But these accounts were not in writing. Historians accept as authoritative so much of ancient history based on no first-hand accounts! And, yes, the Church has always taught that Paul was the last apostle—the last one to have a first-hand encounter with the resurrected Lord. Regardless how Luke describes it in Acts (which is not first-hand, unlike the account in Galatians, for example) it should be understood as identically equal to the experience that Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the other early disciples had.

As for the rest of the entry, see my earlier post. As I asked in that post, if we believe in God who is a loving Creator who gives us the spiritual experiences that the author describes, how much more difficult is it, really, to believe that God, in some sense, physically resurrected Jesus? God’s involvement in Creation itself contradicts the laws of physics, if the laws of physics are our ultimate arbiter of truth.

As I’ve said in many other posts, science is methodologically blind to God because it rules God out by definition. Imagine one of those child’s toys with the different shaped objects you place inside a sphere—a triangle block is pushed through the triangle-shaped hole in the sphere, for example.

Imagine now that there’s a rectangular block, which isn’t part of the toy set and therefore doesn’t fit inside the sphere. Imagine a tiny scientist inside the sphere (silly, but work with me here) who has no knowledge of objects outside of the sphere because he can’t see outside of it; only what’s inside. Objects that don’t fit into the sphere don’t pass through, and he can’t see them. There’s a whole world outside of the sphere, of course, but it’s a world that strictly empirical knowledge—limiting oneself to knowing only what can be seen inside the sphere—can never access.

There are many problems with this analogy, but I hope you get the point. We Christians shouldn’t be threatened by science’s inability to “see” God’s fingerprints on the world that he created. God the Creator is outside the sphere.

The author’s post is a perfect example of classic liberal Christianity. That is not pejorative, and I’m not talking about politics. What I mean is that it’s a well-intentioned effort to respond to the intellectual assault made by modernity (in the aftermath of the Enlightenment) on the Christian faith. Defending the faith is good and necessary—that’s what I’m trying to do here—but we shouldn’t do so by accepting the premises of the Enlightenment: that only reason and science (as opposed to God or faith or the church or the Bible) enable access to the truth. In other words, the author is saying, “Here’s a way of understanding the resurrection that will appease some skeptical scientists and other ‘reasonable’ people.” To which I say, science and reason have their limits when it comes to understanding a transcendent God. I wouldn’t want to believe in a God or a resurrection that, say, Richard Dawkins could live with!

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