It is a huge mistake to think of the questions of the resurrection of Christ and the truth of Christianity merely as philosophical or historical problems. Approaching them as if they could be limited in this way will lead to interminable debates and wild speculation. Today I want to place the question of the resurrection in larger framework that better models how a person actually comes to believe reasonably and responsibly.
First: Of course philosophical and historical reason plays a role. Christianity does not ask us to believe contradictions or impossibilities. Nor does it ask us to believe that an event happened that we know did not happen. We’ve already looked at some New Testament statements about the resurrection from a historical perspective. Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians and Galatians possesses the strongest historical warrant in the New Testament because it is direct, firsthand. The number of ways we can respond to Paul’s claim is limited. We can believe that he is telling the truth about his experience and interpreting it correctly or that he is lying or mistaken. Paul also tells us in his own words that Jesus appeared alive after his death and burial to Peter, James, John and many others (1 Cor 15). We know that a few years after his conversion—more than three but not more than 5 or 6—Paul met Peter and James the Lord’s brother in person. He stayed 15 days with Peter (Gal 1:18-19). Hence Paul was in a position to hear about Peter’s and James’ (and others’) resurrection appearances from their own mouths. We must either believe or disbelieve Paul’s claim to have met with Peter and James, and through Paul we are placed in the position of having to believe or disbelieve Peter’s and James’ testimony about the resurrection. Now add to this most direct historical connection, the accounts in Acts and the Four Gospels. (I place them second in historical weight because we can’t say how much is direct and how much is indirect testimony.) In Acts, we have accounts of Peter’s and Paul’s preaching and Paul’s Damascus Road experience. In the Gospels, we have very detailed accounts of the crucifixion, and we hear the story of Jesus’ burial, the empty tomb, and some resurrection appearances. Some facts mentioned in Acts and the Gospels are also supported in Paul: the empty tomb, the dramatic conversion of Paul, the appearances to Peter and the others. Hence we have a historical warrant to fill in the gaps in Paul testimony by using Acts and the Gospels.
There is no doubt that if we possessed this level of historical support for an “ordinary” historical event, no one would doubt that it really happened. Supposed we substitute for Paul’s claim to have experienced an appearance of Jesus Christ, the claim of having visiting the Temple in Jerusalem after his visit to Arabia. Suppose further that this fact is mentioned in the Four Gospels and Acts and serves as an assumption for the rest of the New Testament documents. No historian would doubt it. Indeed no historian would even think of doubting it. It would be historically certain. But because it is a miracle, and not simply a miracle but a miracle with revolutionary, world historical, religious, moral, and metaphysical significance…some people are willing to entertain the most outlandish conspiracy theories and speculative alternatives to the resurrection. Paul, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, changed from persecutor to persecuted preacher because of a deception? Peter, James the Lord’s brother, and all the rest conspired to deceive the world? The disciples saw Jesus die but lost track of his body after his death? Historically speaking—leaving out the bias against miracles and the epic implications of the resurrection—any event as directly and widely documented as the resurrection appearances would be accepted as historically established without question. Hence no one can be warranted historically for rejecting the resurrection. There must be another reason.
Second: To think reasonably about the resurrection event in historical terms, one cannot apply the presupposition that miracles cannot happen. To do so would make historical argument a waste of time. I have already dealt with the issue of rejecting the resurrection because of a belief that miracles cannot happen. Last week, I pointed out that believers should not take seriously historical objections to the resurrection based on atheism or deism. The discussion must be focused elsewhere, that is, on one of the first three decision points in the move from atheism/materialism to full Christian faith.
Third: Belief in the event of the resurrection from a historical perspective is just like belief in any other event. But from an existential, moral, and religious perspective, belief in the resurrection is dramatically different. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ demands from us what it demanded from Paul and the first disciples, a complete change of life direction! To say believingly “Jesus is risen!” is to say “Jesus is my Teacher, Lord, and Savior.” It is to reject ordinary, prudential, worldly life and risk everything! From this perspective, to believe Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, the women at the tomb, and all the rest appears as a very scary proposition. Even if historical science tells us the resurrection really happened and even if rejecting the resurrection requires us to consider outlandish conspiracy theories, we still hesitate.
At this point in the argument, apologists often attempt to construct an argument for the trustworthiness of the New Testament witnesses, centering perhaps on the fact that they gave their lives for their testimony. And I have no strong objection to these arguments. But arguments create incentives to rebut and think of reasons to doubt. Arguments always create their dialectical opposites. Hence I want to take another approach. In his Confessions, book 10, Augustine of Hippo expresses confidence that his readers will believe him when they read his confessions to God, which they cannot check out for themselves, because their “ears are opened by love.” He says, with reference with 1 Corinthians 13:7 “love believes all things, at least among those love has bonded to itself and made one.” In his reflections on faith, Gabriel Marcel speaks of the certainty of faith as an intersubjective bond that not only credits but “rallies to” the one in whom it believes (The Mystery of Being, Vol. 2). The certainty of faith in the resurrection arises when we get to know the New Testament witnesses, enter into their minds and hearts and see through their eyes. In other words, we believe them because we love them. If we don’t love them, we will not believe them.
Fourth: How can we get over the scariness of the revolution called for by the resurrection faith? Augustine famously said, “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.” Believing in the resurrection is not merely a matter of examining the credibility of some 2,000 year old documents. You have to love the people who bore and bear testimony to Jesus. You have to see that the resurrection faith and all that flows from it produces good people, people whose virtue and love you admire. The church should be, and sometimes actually is, the living reality that embodies the revolution implied in the resurrection of Jesus. How can a nonbeliever, one who understands practically nothing about the New Testament, come to love Jesus and those who loved him first, Paul, Peter, and the others? Only if they get to know a living human being who loves Jesus, Paul, Peter and the others! Only if they are loved by someone who has been transformed by their faith and love for Jesus, and for Paul, Peter and the others! The church—I mean the living body of believers under Christ their head—helps people believe by helping them love, and it helps them to love by loving them.