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Pulse
3 April 2023

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14)

According to a BBC report published on 9 April 2017, ‘A quarter of people who describe themselves as Christians in Great Britain do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus.’ This is the finding of a survey commissioned by the BBC which involved 2,010 British adults.

The survey also found that only 31 percent of Christians believe in the account of the resurrection in the Bible. Among ‘active Christians’ (defined as those who attend religious service at least once a month), 57 percent believe in the biblical narratives.

Reverend Dr Lorraine Cavanagh, in an interview by the BBC, suggests that this trend is to be expected and should not be cause for alarm. The general secretary for Modern Church, an organisation which promotes liberal Christianity, said:

I think [people answering the survey] are being asked to believe in the way they might have been asked to believe when they were in Sunday school. You’re talking about adults here. And an adult faith requires that it be constantly questioned, constantly re-interpreted, which incidentally is very much what Modern Church is about.

She also attributed scepticism about the traditional understanding of the resurrection of Jesus to advances in science and the philosophical sophistication of contemporary Christians: ‘Science, but also intellectually and philosophical thought has progressed. It has a trickle-down effect on just about everybody’s lives.’

‘So, to ask an adult to believe in the resurrection the way they did when they were at Sunday school,’ she adds, ‘simply won’t do and that’s true of much of the key elements of the Christian faith.’

Preferring to see that glass as half full instead of half empty, the Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker said: ‘This important and welcome survey proves that many British people, despite not being regular churchgoers hold core Christian beliefs.’

‘This demonstrates how important beliefs remain across our society and hence the importance of both religious literacy and of religion having a prominent place in public discourse,’ he adds.

Be that as it may, it is concerning that a growing number of Christians are discarding belief in the resurrection of Jesus, which is a foundational tenet of the Christian faith.

LIBERAL SCHOLARSHIP

Bible scholars and theologians – usually of a more liberal bent – have for decades tried to accommodate the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus to the dictates of modern science as well as to secular sensibilities. They have propounded several theories, not so much to explain the resurrection as to explain it away.

  • The Swoon Theory or the Resuscitation Theory states that Jesus did not die, but only swooned (i.e., fainted) because of the shock and loss of blood he suffered due to the crucifixion. He later revived, managed somehow to remove the boulder at the entrance of the tomb, and appeared before his disciples.
  • The Hallucination Theory maintains that the alleged post-resurrection appearances of Jesus were merely hallucinations.
  • The Impersonation Theory postulates that the person whom the disciples encountered was not Jesus but an imposter. (This theory takes advantage of the accounts which suggest that the disciples did not immediately recognize their Master who allegedly returned from the grave).
  • The Spiritual Resurrection Theory maintains that the resurrection of Jesus was a spiritual and not a physical phenomenon.
  • The Theft Theory simply postulates that Jesus’ disciples stole the body of their Master, and subsequently claimed that he rose from the dead.

Biblical scholars such as N.T. Wright and Christian philosophers such as William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas have effective refuted all these false theories about the resurrection of Jesus.

While some theories (such as the swoon theory, the impersonation theory and the theft theory) have lost their appeal, even among liberal scholars, others (such as the hallucination theory and the spiritual resurrection theory) seem to have enjoyed greater longevity.

Some scholars have tried to re-work these theories in a variety of ways, and with varying degrees of sophistication.

For example, the late historian Geza Vermes, attempts in his book, The Resurrection (2008), an historical investigation into the resurrection of Jesus in order to construct a ‘tenable hypothesis.’ Taking the resurrection of Jesus to be ‘an unparallel phenomenon in history’ – if it were true – Vermes studied the afterlife beliefs in Judaism, and concluded that the idea of a bodily resurrection was foreign to first century Hellenistic Jews.

After analysing the resurrection accounts in the various Gospels, Vermes concluded that the resurrection of Jesus was not a historical event. The disciples, according to Vermes, believed in their hearts that their Master was still present with them. This belief was enough to fuel the confidence of the disciples and energise their resolute and fearless apostolic zeal.

Vermes’ ‘tenable hypothesis’ concerning the resurrection of Jesus is that it was not an objective reality but a psychological and subjective state of the disciples. Some commentators have called this the subjective interior view of the resurrection. It is akin to the proposal made in the nineteenth century by David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) in his book Life of Jesus (1835).

Other scholars hold what has been described as the ‘objective vision theory’ of the resurrection of Jesus.

According to this view, which can be traced to the work of the Marburg theologian Hans Grass, the disciples’ encounter of the resurrected Christ cannot be dismissed as merely a subjective experience. They were objective visionary events, that is, Jesus did appear to his disciples in a supernatural but noncorporeal manner.

Both theories reject the way in which the Church has understood the resurrection of Christ based on the clear testimony of Scripture.

‘PUT OUT YOUR HAND, AND PLACE IT IN MY SIDE’

All the early theologians of the Church – without exception – believed in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus as well as its bodily nature. Modern scholars such as William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas have written extensively about the evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.

Their arguments can be summarily rehearsed as follows:

  • After dying on the cross, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-61). The burial of Jesus was not only attested to in the Gospels, it was also mentioned in extra-biblical sources such as the Gospel of Peter. This has led the late John A.T. Robinson to conclude that Jesus’ burial is ‘one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.’
  • The Sunday after the crucifixion, a group of women went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. The empty tomb was attested to by a number of sources such as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It was also mentioned in the sermons on the book of Acts (see 2:29-31; 13:36-37).
  • The numerous appearances of the resurrected Jesus to different individuals and groups and on different occasions – to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), at Galilee (Mark 16:6-7; Matthew 28:16-17), the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32); the disciples at the beach (John 21); Thomas (John 20:26-29); James (1 Corinthians 15:7); five hundred brothers (1 Corinthians 15: 6); and Paul (1 Corinthians 15:9).
  • The zeal with which the disciples preached the Gospel after they encountered the resurrected Jesus, compared to their fear and sense of defeat after the crucifixion.

Scholars have also convincingly shown that the evidence suggest that Jesus was resurrected with a physical body. Their arguments can be summarized in this way:

  • The empty tomb is a strong indication of the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection body.
  • Jesus’ resurrected body can be touched. He said to Thomas: ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side’ (John 20: 27). On another occasion, Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Touch me and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have’ (Luke 24:39).
  • The resurrected Jesus ate with his disciples (Luke 24:42-43).
  • The resurrected body of Jesus bears the physical wounds of the crucifixion (John 20:27).

The Protestant tradition does not emphasise the importance of the wounds on the resurrected body of Jesus. Both Luther and Calvin gave only passing attention to them, afraid that they may inspire misguided devotion and superstition among Christians.

Calvin believed that the wounds remained for a period merely to convince the apostles of the resurrection. Once this is accomplished, the wounds disappeared and the body of the ascended Christ was made perfect, without any blemish whatsoever.

This, however, is an unfortunate departure from the older tradition which places great significance not only in the wounds that are found on the post-resurrection body of Jesus, but also in their permanence. As Aquinas has plainly put it: ‘… it is clear that the scars which Christ manifested after the resurrection never left his body afterwards.’

For theologians such as Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, the venerable Bede and Aquinas, the permanent wounds on Jesus’ post-resurrection body have profound theological and salvific significance.

They signify the perduring efficacy of the salvific death of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. But they also underscore the fact that Jesus’ resurrection was a physical or bodily resurrection – the body that was raised is the same body that was crucified.

The historicity and bodily nature of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus is extremely important because they are the basis for hope in our own resurrection in the eschaton. As the apostle Paul was careful to point out in his epistle to the Romans, ‘For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’ (Romans 6:5).


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.