Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Resurrection of Jesus, Apologetics, and Wanting to Believe

In the comments section of Rachel Held Evans’ post, So how was your Easter…really? , hjk states the following:

“Rather disappointed in the whole sermon being devoted to proving the resurrection, rather than proclaiming and explaining what the resurrection means for the world, the church, and individuals in their respective vocations. Why not proclaim the resurrection in such a way that makes people WANT to believe in it, even if they [do] not presently – rather than scientific and historical arguments.”

I’d like to ramble on about this insightful comment.

1.  hjk’s comment reminds me of what George MacDonald said in some of his books: that God is one whom people would actually want to worship, if they knew him.  After all, who among us does not want to be loved unconditionally?  Who among us is not attracted to the concept of love?  MacDonald was probably implying that a reason that so many people do not want to worship God is that they do not truly know God, for they have been presented with a picture of a God who is far from loving and kind, a picture that is inaccurate. 

I can envision many conservative Christians recoiling from what MacDonald is saying.  After all, the New Testament (particularly Paul) presents human beings as alienated from God, for they love neither God nor his standards for human conduct.  They desire to do their own thing.  How many people would prefer a God who did not have that “no sex outside of marriage” rule?

But, if we truly knew God, would we become so drawn to him that we would not want to violate his standards?  Or would God conditioning his favor on our conduct be a turn-off at the outset, since such a God would not be unconditionally loving?

What I like about MacDonald is that he presents God as unconditionally loving, and yet as one who disciplines sin and purifies us—-even if that discipline and purification must occur after death.

2.  Last Easter, my pastor recommended that we read an apologetic pamphlet that attempted to defend the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  The pastor also told us why we should want to believe in the resurrection of Jesus—-because it is an example of God’s power bringing a new beginning and new life, which God wants to do for us today.  But the pastor sought to give us material defending the historicity of the event.

This year, the pastor did not recommend that pamphlet.  Rather, in his sermon, he said that the empty tomb baffled the disciples, and that they only rejoiced when they experienced the risen Christ.  This was interesting, because so many Christian apologetic spiels argue that the empty tomb is the proof that Jesus rose from the dead.  But the empty tomb did not do a whole lot for the faith of the disciples.  Rather, their experience of Jesus was what brought them the conviction that Jesus was alive.

3.  What is my stance towards Christian apologetic defenses of Jesus’ resurrection?  One argument that apologists have made is that the disciples would not have died for a lie—-for something that they made up.  N.T. Wright has similarly argued that Messianic movements back then died after the death of their founder, but that Christianity was unique because it went on after Jesus’ crucifixion.  For Wright, that’s because Jesus rose from the dead.

Someone was using the “disciples would not have died for a lie” argument, and I asked him for proof that the disciples were indeed martyred for their Christian beliefs.  He referred to Josephus’ account of James the brother of Jesus being put to death.  James was not one of the Twelve, but I think that by itself does not disqualify this guy’s argument because James was still an eyewitness to Jesus who was put to death, in part because of his religious beliefs.

I do not think that the disciples would have died for a lie.  In my opinion, they truly believed that Jesus was alive.  Does that prove that Jesus rose from the dead?  I think that Jesus’ resurrection is one way to account for their belief that Jesus was alive, and for their continued belief in Jesus.  Others have offered other explanations: hallucination, for example.

Those who think that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection reflect eyewitness testimony to the empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances—-such as Richard Bauckham—-may conclude that we have good reason to hold that Jesus rose from the dead.  Those who regard the characters in those stories merely as characters rather than as named eyewitnesses, and who believe that the stories of the empty tomb are late and reflect development (i.e., Matthew puts guards at the empty tomb, whereas guards are not in Mark’s story), will argue that these stories are not evidence that Jesus rose.  And then there are those who contend that there was an empty tomb, but they do not think that proves Jesus’ resurrection.  The body could have been moved, as Mary Magdalene thought!  See the late Ken Pulliam’s posts on this topic.

4.  Why should I want for Jesus to have risen from the dead?  If that event proves that Christianity is true and that all non-Christians are going to hell, then I’d have problems accepting it.  But if it’s about a new beginning or the renewal of an imperfect world, then that is attractive to me.  I think that one agenda of apologists is to show that there is good reason to believe in renewal, for Jesus historically rose from the dead.  Otherwise, what evidence is there that renewal will come?  Often, it’s hard for people to look at the world around them and to think that anything will get better!

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