June 18, 2024

Today I read through an Easter thread by one of our multi-appearing guests and friend of the podcast, Nick Byrd. Nick is a PhD candidate at Florida State University studying philosophy and psychology. I’ve appreciated getting to know Nick and his areas of interest. In this post I would like to respond to some of the thoughts he was mulling over regarding a historical counterfactual. To paraphrase, ‘What would Christians believe if they had not believed Jesus rose from the dead?’

Here Nick tells us up front what he’s thinking about and what he proposes as a hypothesis. One of the things I like about him is his pursuit of truth. So here he’s proposing a theory and wants to see how it might hold up against criticism. Since I did my undergrad in philosophy, I can understand a little bit of how Nick is thinking here. Maybe it’s the case that Nick is asking something like, ‘Does this theory have coherence and if so does that increase the probability that it corresponds in some way (e.g., maybe the disciples conspired to say Jesus physically rose) to the actual historical state of affairs?’

Persecution can fuel activism and zeal, but it can also warrant dissolution and despair. When Jesus was arrested, Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of a soldier. He was spurred to activism, zeal, even revolution! But his rabbi told him otherwise, to put away the sword. From here on out, we can only interpret the disciples to have fallen into despair. They feared their own lives and hid from the authorities (John 20:19). What could possibly have brought them out of hiding?

It is true that other movements survive because of the martyr figure. But there are other movements that do not survive which have a martyr figure. I could think of the Jewish messiah figure Athronges. Why do some of these movements survive while others do not? One of the reasons must be because of the claims made by the founder/leader of that movement. In his tweet, Nick is trying to determine what is sufficient (“might be enough”) for Jesus’s movement to survive his death. Jesus was neither the first nor the last of Jewish teachers to believe they were the Messiah. One of the reasons that drove the disciples into hiding and despair was precisely because they believed he was another failed messiah figure. Thus, while it is true that some movements do outlive their founders, some do not; the Way’s message does not appear like it would have succeeded had Jesus remained dead.

This poses in intriguing problem for the supposed postmortem appearances of Jesus to James and Paul. James, the half-brother of Jesus, was a skeptic (Mark 3:21, John 7:5) and later became the leader of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 21:18, Galatians 1:18-19). Paul, an early leader of persecuting the church, oversaw the killing of Christians. And yet he also claimed to have seen the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). For Paul, it was neither the canon nor the church’s existence, but the resurrection of Jesus that was the bedrock of the Christian faith.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. – 1 Corinthians 15:12-19

What Paul is arguing here is that without the resurrection of Jesus, our sins are not paid which makes Jesus a failed Messiah figure and Christians out to be dishonoring God. Why make the move away from the sacrificial system (Old Covenant) to a fulfilled system (New Covenant)?

Here we are able to see one of the concerns that Nick has (“supernatural”).

First, I would question what Nick means by “their faith.” Faith in what, exactly? What would the Christian faith really look like without the resurrection? If no resurrection means that we’re still in our sin, I take it that Christianity would look a lot different.

If I am understanding “naturalized” to mean something that is scientifically explainable, then I wonder if Nick and I have different understandings about what qualifies as miraculous. A rock slide upstream of the Jordan river, thereby allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land the moment they approach is a perfectly natural explanation … and yet it is still a miracle. A land bridge in conjunction with a strong wind (perhaps a tsunami somewhere in the India ocean) is a perfectly natural explanation of the Red Sea crossing. Or modern medical procedures can verify for us the neuro-plasticity of the brain of the man born blind who saw “men as trees, walking” (Mark 8:22–25). Here is an article by Dr. Tim McGrew written against the false dichotomy of the natural and the supernatural. To respond directly to the tweet above, I think the resurrection could have a natural explanation to it, but that wouldn’t negate it’s miraculous timing or significance.

Perhaps there are other ways to decrease the distance, such as showing the harmony between scientific understanding and supernatural affairs.

I would go further: Rejecting the resurrection would undermine the only reason for accepting the deity of Jesus. Given Jesus’s claims, his death, and his resurrection, we must accept all three as true. If there is no resurrection, then his claims are false. John 2 explicitly confirms this rationale by his early disciples:

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:18-22

Jesus was answering a question about his authority (claim) by predicting his death and resurrection. The disciples only understood what Jesus meant after those events had occurred.

True, it’s not obvious. And that’s a fault against the Christian church for its failure to truly preach the Gospel. We’ve made Christianity more about that so-called “personal relationship” (whatever that means) and less about the historical facts about who Jesus claimed to be and the power his resurrection (Phil 3:10).

Not at this time
Not at this time

Kurt Jaros

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