In Defense of the Resurrection

One of the interesting dynamics of Easter is the tension between this glorious celebration of the resurrection and the ongoing struggle that so many people have with the reality of that miraculous event.  Much of the scholarship that dominates the reading in our Metropolitan community comes out of what is called the “new quest for the historical Jesus” – academics from groups like the Jesus Seminar and the like -- who spill an enormous amount of ink trying to demonstrate how the resurrection did not happen and how later Christian writers (often for the purposes of maintaining their own power) inserted these narratives into the texts about this wonderful teacher from Nazareth.

The problem with these theories is that they ignore the fact that the earliest witnesses in the New Testament had very little interest in the teachings (or the life!) of Jesus.  What we see in the writings of Paul and the earliest sermons from the book of Acts, is a relentless proclamation of one thing:  the resurrection of Jesus.  This proclamation – the Greek word (often used in academic works) is kerygma – is the gospel declaration that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.  For the earliest Christians, that message changed everything.  Everything they knew about the world – the nature of power, what God was like, how we are called to engage one another and the world – everything was changed.

This fact, was no less startling to a first century audience than it is to us; and we delude ourselves, if we believe that the early Christians were simply more naïve and credulous than we are.  Again, the early Pauline epistles, and the stories of Acts, show an audience to this proclamation as cynical as our own.

I wonder if it could be the case that our struggles with understanding the reality of the resurrection have more to do with us, than the radicalness of this idea.  Anglican Bishop and Theologian N.T. Wright, in his magisterial work The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, suggests that our intellectual difficulty with the resurrection is a reflection of our post-Enlightenment desire to keep God out of human affairs.  In other words, it has to do with our need to be in control, rather than what God might or might not be capable of doing. 

If the resurrection actually happened, then the world is a very different place than we generally understand it to be.  An actual resurrection would mean that God is at work in the world in ways that we don’t expect.  It would mean that as powerful as our nations and national leaders might be, ultimate power does not reside with them.  It would mean that relationships can be healed.  It would mean that justice will prevail.  It would mean that death really does not have the last word.  Resurrection changes everything we think we know about the world.

This is not to say, of course, that doubt is an inappropriate response to the proclamation of the resurrection.  The Gospel stories of that first Easter day, contain both the proclamation that Jesus was alive, and the simultaneous skepticism – even on the part of Jesus’ closest disciples – that such a thing could happen.  The cloud of that doubt lifted as the followers of Jesus met their resurrected Lord and began to understand that in his life and death that God had acted decisively in the world.

To all of those in our Metropolitan community and elsewhere who are wrestling with the reality of the resurrection, and what faith looks like for you: thank you.  Thank you for your intellectual honesty and for your willingness to engage in this work.  Nobody has all the answers, and there is no quest that is more important.  And the reason that we gather together Sunday after Sunday is so that we engage in this quest together.  Don’t ever feel as though your questions, or what you perceive to be a “lack of faith,” keep you away from doing this work together.  The fact that you are seeking the truth about God is all the faith that is required.

As a Christian and a pastor – while I have a deep appreciation for the work and wisdom of the Enlightenment – I wonder if we sometimes let our worldview get a little over-constrained by it.  There are powerful truths in science, and it is a compelling paradigm through which to understand the world.  But it is not the only lens through which the world can be viewed; and often our scientific worldview contains its own myopia.  I wonder if rather than trying to figure out how to fit the resurrection of Jesus Christ into our intellectual constructs of the world, if we could let the idea of the resurrection broaden (or shatter) the ways in which we see the world, and open up new vistas to our imagination.  That would be good news indeed.  Happy Easter!