I have read the rational arguments for and against the resurrection of Jesus, and for and against a general resurrection. And I have to say that I find the arguments against both to be much more compelling.
I want to briefly discuss a few reasons why I don’t believe in the resurrection, and then tell a few stories about why I do.
I locked my copy of Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter in our storage unit in the basement, if I didn’t give it away, so you’ll have to bear with my remembrance of the arguments:
Lord, Liar, Lunatic – the notion that either Jesus was who he said he was, that he was lying, or that he was nuts. This option precludes the idea that Jesus might’ve just been a good teacher. There’s another option, though: the people who wrote the gospels got Jesus wrong, or “Misquoted Jesus,” as Bart Ehrman’s book suggests.
500 Witnesses: The Bible says that there were 500 witnesses to the risen Christ and if you want them to talk about it, all you have to do is ask. The problem is, at the time this was written, the population of Jerusalem was in the hundreds of thousands, and good luck finding these alleged 500 witnesses.
I’m from Pittsburgh, so it’s essentially as though I said I was raised from the dead, and if you wanted proof, you had only to find the 500 witnesses in Pittsburgh – except Jerusalem’s population circa the 60s CE was roughly double that of Pittsburgh.
The Embarrassment Factor: The empty tomb was discovered first by women, and that provides an embarrassment factor. (The facts were subsequently checked by two men). It doesn’t matter that this part is embarrassing; it’s up against current evidence: We know, and so did the early Christians, that people do not, in general, rise from the dead. For example, if we were faced with similar evidence that (for example) Julius Caesar rose from the dead, we would find it entirely uncompelling against the weight of our knowledge that people don’t rise from the dead.
Who Would Die for a Lie? This argument presumes that the early Christians believed it was a lie, and that accounts that they died for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection are correct.
But the Christian Faith’s Very Existence Means Something Happened: I guess so. But the Mormon faith exists, and Christians don’t believe Joseph Smith got actual plates. Islam exists, and Christians don’t believe God dictated the Q’uran to Muhammed.
I could go on. There is other “evidence,” there are other “cases” for the resurrection, and I’m sure I’ve heard them, but the problem is that they’re all up against one big thing: We know people don’t rise from the dead. We know that’s the stuff of fiction, but when it applies to Jesus we start employing philosophy and saying that God broke the rules† and invaded history and stuff.
The other thing, the thing against the general resurrection and Christians going to heaven when we die, is this: Nobody (of recent memory) has been proven to have been dead and come back, with evidence, with proof positive, of what happens after we die. And rationally, we can easily dismiss claims to the contrary. We don’t know what happens. We can’t know.
And on that note, the stories.
Story #1 – Tyler
In Christology class on January 6, 2017, we talked about arguments for the resurrection. I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in it. Next to science, the facts we know about how the world works, the arguments seemed… Really shoddy.
But that night, I went to the Gay Christian Network conference in Pittsburgh, and Jane Clementi told the story of how her son Tyler was outed as gay and then cyber-bullied off the George Washington Bridge to his death, in part because he believed God could not love him gay.
I knew, right then and there, that the resurrection had to be real because I knew right then and there, as surely as I know anything, that the second after Tyler Clementi died he woke up in the embrace of nail scarred hands and know once and for all that God. Loves. Him. Period.
And no argument against the resurrection could convince me otherwise.
Story #2 – The Last Word
I have come a long way from my original belief that the point of the cross is that human beings are evil and God took out divine anger and judgment on Jesus so that God could forgive us.
When I talk about the cross, I’m talking about the love of God, expressed in Jesus, accepting the rejected, loving the hated, healing the sick, and loving those the Gatekeepers of Righteousness say should not be loved. I see Jesus associating with tax collectors and prostitutes and since the religious elites couldn’t get dirt on him and couldn’t stop him from being with the wrong people, they decided to kill him. They decided to kill love.
When I talk about the cross, I’m talking about the way God loved the wrong people and the right people punished God by killing Jesus.
When I talk about the cross, I’m talking about a world where fear and hatred and death get the last word.
And when I talk about the resurrection, I’m talking about a God who takes it – takes it all, every last damnable beating, takes it all the way to death, all the way to the execution of God, not returning evil for evil… and then comes back.
When I talk about the resurrection, I’m talking about a world where love, not death, not fear, not hatred, not anger, but love – gets the word after the last word.‡
So when I had to write about what I believed in a statement of faith for my Presbytery in Colorado, while I was writing it, I realized that this – my deepest core Christian belief, isn’t compatible with my knowledge that the resurrection is impossible.
And then I realized that I didn’t care.
For this to be true, the resurrection must be real.
And I don’t want to live in a world where this isn’t true.
Story #3 – Puddleglum
Narnia fans already know where this is going.
In C.S. Lewis’ story The Silver Chair, the Narnian character named Puddleglum and two friends from our world have been captured by an evil witch deep underground who tries to use magic to charm them into believing that her miserable underground world is all there is. Puddleglum’s courageous response has always delighted me, and never more than now.
‘One word, Ma’am,’ he said… ‘One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so.”
“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have.
Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one.
And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.
That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
Grace and peace.
* With apologies to Peter Rollins, or whoever came up with the idea of using a slash to treat contradictory ideas as compatible.
† The idea that “God broke the rules” is from Miracles, by C.S. Lewis, among others.
‡ With apologies to Brian McLaren.