Skip to content

Raised according to the Scriptures

Caravaggio-ThomasWhen evangelists and apologists want to make their case for the resurrection, I've noticed one piece of "evidence" keeps getting used: No Jew expected a bodily resurrection in the middle of history. I'm not sure of the origin of this argument. Tom Wright certainly makes a big deal of it, maybe everyone else has just jumped on board?

The point seems to be that the resurrection was not wish fulfilment or a conspiracy to make the prophecies tally - it took everyone by surprise. Greeks certainly didn't believe in resurrection and Jews, it's claimed, exclusively thought of resurrection as an end-of-time phenomenon... Ergo, the resurrection wasn't a fantasy dreamt up by gullible Jews but a stubborn fact that foisted itself upon them. It's basically saying "you couldn't make this stuff up! Not if you were Kosher!"

What do we think?

Well I'm not going to go down the road you think I am... If you don't know my views on the expectant faith of believing Israel then perhaps have a look at this post where I challenge the myth that 'no-one expected the kind of Messiah Jesus turned out to be'. We won't discuss that here. In this post I want to ask a different question and it's this:

If we want to make the 'nobody saw it coming' argument, what are we assuming about the resurrection? More specifically, What story is the resurrection being fitted into? And why?

It seems to me telling people "No-one saw it coming" undermines the actual story which resurrection fulfils - the story of the Scriptures.

"Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures... he was buried... he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

Resurrection makes sense in terms of a prior story - and it doesn't really make sense without it. When Paul summarises the gospel again in Romans 1 and 2 Timothy 2 he insists that Christ's descent from David is the proper precursor to His resurrection. Unless we know He is the Davidic King (and all which that implies) we lose the gospel sense of the event.

My fear is that 'nobody saw it coming' tries to fit the resurrection into a different story. In this story, resurrection is a freak occurrence in the midst of history (in general) in order to prove to thorough-going sceptics (with a presumption of unbelief) that there is an abstract realm called 'the supernatural.'

Yet Jesus did not rise 'according to general history' but according to a very specific history - Israel's'. He did not appear to His enemies but to His friends. And His rising did not vindicate 'the supernatural' but His own unique identity as LORD and Messiah (Acts 2:36). When Jesus and the Apostles sought to explain the resurrection they didn't close off the alternative explanations (stolen body, mistaken tomb, group hallucination), they opened their Bibles.

Last month Stephen Law, an atheist philosopher, responded to William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher, over Christ's resurrection. The heart of Law's argument is this:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the claims.

I might, for instance, have every reason to believe Jack whenever he reports to me his movements from the night before. But if, one day, Jack claims that he hosted the Queen for tea and was crowned King in a secret ceremony, the extraordinary claim bumps up the requirement for further proofs. Given the new claim, it's just not enough to say "Jack has always told the truth in the past" or "Jack has no motive to lie". We need extraordinary evidence to support the extraordinary claim.

Law says that extraordinary evidence for Christ's resurrection is lacking and therefore we have every right to disbelieve it (just as we would disbelieve the normally truth-telling Jack).

It seems to me a poor response to Law to say: 'No, the evidence is actually very plausible, let me list it again.'  What we need to do is shift the paradigm into which resurrection is being placed. Resurrection is according to the Scriptures, not according to Supernaturalism. It's part of the story of God remaking the world from the inside through His Davidic King. Easter Sunday vindicates the God who fulfils His purposes for Israel and - through them - for the world. It doesn't vindicate some double-decker universe in which, occasionally, freaky stuff from upstairs intrudes. But so often the atheist and the Christian can end up arguing the resurrection on that footing.

Against this I think it's important to emphasize the non-surprising nature of the resurrection. What if the Queen was inclined to have tea with her subjects? What if ancient prophecies foretold the time she would visit her people? What if, Jack turned out to have a claim to the throne himself? What if, the more you thought about it, the more you realised how regal Jack had always been? (The illustration is stretching to breaking point I know, but stick with me for one more paragraph...)

Maybe you saw the coronation coming from a mile off or maybe you weren't brilliant at piecing together the evidence at the time - let's leave that to one side. But once Jack's claim is made, it now makes more sense of the story not less. Suddenly believing in the Queen's visit doesn't only 'explain' the raw data of the event - it vindicates a whole vision of reality. And that vision casts light on the event.

In this way the Old Testament and the resurrection are mutually reinforcing. The one gives us the vision, the other the event.  So let's preach the resurrection "according to the Scriptures."  As Abraham said to the Rich Man:

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’ (Luke 16:31)


13 thoughts on “Raised according to the Scriptures

  1. dave

    Matthew exposed the stolen body conspiracy, and Paul does cites public appearances... Though I agree the Bible open approach is key too (though, in Athens I'd love to hear more of how he spoke of Jesus and Resurrection...)
    And I'd like to see how you do it today? How do we/you build the worldview (story) that says, therefore of course resurrection...

  2. the Old Adam

    Meet people in their dying. We all experience 'the little deaths' in this life. Lost marriage, lost job, sickness, death of a loved one, etc..

    Meet people in their death(s) and then speak of the resurrection of Christ to meet those deaths. To make new again. To make alive again. Tell them of what He has meant for you in your 'little deaths'. Just hand Him over.

    And then let the chips fall where they may. We cannot shoehorn anyone into believing. But we can proclaim the Word of God and then trust in that Word to actually do something, apart from our winsomeness and skill.

  3. Glen

    Thanks Dave, Good point about Matthew. I guess he writes it because 'the stolen body' wasn't so much a theory but an actual false report being spread and requiring an answer.

    On 1 Cor 15, I'm not sure Paul cites the public appearances for quite the same reasons as some modern apologists do. I think, against the spiritualising Corinthians, Paul proclaims the *bodily* resurrection of Jesus and gives them hope that those appearances are the firstfruits of a coming harvest. Once again - it's fit into a Scriptural story that expects faith, not into a law-court that expects skepticism.

    I'm not wanting to say I preach (or want to preach) in a way radically different to William Lane Craig (to pick an apologist at random). I'm just saying that some approaches (like deploying the 'nobody saw it coming' argument) take our preaching away from the Scripture story and place the resurrection in an unhelpful context. Just a little plea for preaching resurrection as fulfilment and good news rather than, more defensively, as freak occurrence needing a barrage of legal arguments.

    Having said that, it's vital to proclaim that the resurrection *really* happened. And I, like you, want to figure out how to preach its as a real world thing while doing so from within Scripture's world. Any thoughts?

  4. John B

    Paul saw the resurrection as the vindication of Jesus. At the synagogue in Thessalonica, as well as during his trial before Agrippa, Paul asserted that the Christ must be the first to rise from the dead, and that in so testifying, he was saying nothing more than what Moses and the prophets had said would come to pass.

    OTOH, when he spoke about Jesus and the resurrection at the Areopagus, he also asserted the vindication of Jesus, here reasoning from the theism of the Athenians, rather than from the Hebrew Scriptures that were unknown to them.

    I think that the stark materialism of the New Atheism is something new in history. In reasoning with those who hold to these beliefs, I doubt that we can begin with Scripture. Many would deny that Scripture provides convincing evidence that the man Jesus of Nazareth even existed. Is philosophy the handmaiden of theology here?

  5. Si Hollett

    John, were they theist in Athens? Maybe it is a Marxist retelling, but I've always heard that the elites knew the gods didn't exist, but were clever enough to know what anarchy would happen if they said otherwise. Certainly there was one (or two?) philosophical strand(s) that were materialistic.

    With New Atheism, we have a new epistemology - philosophy is nearly as despised as theology. It needs to be scientific, or pseudo-scientific (in the sci-fi way, not the homeopathy way) for them to even consider it as holding some truth. Not that philosophy being the handmaiden of theology did much but warp theology to fit the philosophical mold.

  6. John B

    Hi Si,

    I suspect that there were skeptics and false professors at the Areopagus, just as there were at the synagogue in Thessalonica. Maybe the Marxists are right, as the leaders always have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But as for Paul's message to the men of Athens, he accommodated it to their professed faith in the God in whom "we live and move and have our being", without presenting it in terms of the Hebrew Scriptures, as he had in Thessalonica and elsewhere.

    With Daniel Dennett as one of its Four Horseman, the New Atheism doesn't reject philosophy; it is one!

    When philosophy warps theology, it is clearly outside the role of it's handmaiden, which, of course, can and has happened at times.

    Today I listened to "Atheism The Final Episode" on The Evangelist's Podcast. It was excellent. It presented very good grounds for a philosophical dialogue with New Atheism on the basis of scriptural concepts, but in accommodative language for those who don't see Scripture as the revealed word of God. But in the segment on the possibility of miracles, I found it difficult to reconcile the affirmation of God's power to transcend nature through miraculous acts, with the rejection here of a supernatural explanation of the resurrection within Christian apologetics.

  7. Glen

    Hi John,

    I'm fine with explaining the resurrection in lots of different ways. I just think it's misguided if, as we do that, we undercut the *Scriptural* context for resurrection (which is what I think happens when we make the "nobody could have seen it coming" argument).

    On the Areopagus point... Paul definitely fits resurrection into a Scriptural story - a story of two men. And what's interesting is that he proclaims the resurrection as a fact that supports his further claim about judgement. Paul doesn't give proof *for* the resurrection. In Acts 17, the resurrection *is* proof.

  8. Si Hollett

    @John B
    - Paul didn't accommodate to the Athenians' view of God - he proclaimed to them the God they did not know. He uses the two quotes to say that he's not distant, and they are without excuse not to know him (a la Romans 1).

    And, as Glen says, Paul doesn't give proof of the resurrection, but rather uses it as proof.

    - Of course the New Atheism is a philosophy, and they do have some philosophers like Dennet. However, at the pop-level it is scientism and it needs to sound like science (or be said by scientists like Dawkins) for them to engage with it.

  9. dave

    The "nobody saw the resurrection coming" idea is peculiar. I guess for many its because they have no idea how the Old Testament tells of a resurrected Messiah. But if the case can be made for that, I expect/hope they can be won over...

  10. John B

    Agreed. "Nobody saw it coming" flatly contradicts Paul, and is therefore untenable. For me the dilemma is that Paul says so clearly that he is only following Moses and the prophets regarding the resurrection. Although happy always to defer to Paul, I just haven't been able to find it explicitly prophesied in the Old Testament. At best, I can say that the resurrection isn't inconsistent with the OT. Therefore, I'm not disposed to say to an atheist, who gives no credence to scripture, that he should look there to find the evidence for Jesus' vindication. To do so would be to brand oneself as a "Bible thumper"; not what Paul had in mind when he said that he had "become all things to all people". At the Areopagus, Paul answers Tertullian's question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Paul's answer: lots! Or, in his own words, "[God] is actually not far from each one of us". Of course Paul never compromised the gospel! But he did accommodate the language and culture of his hearers. Scientism is a tougher nut to crack than polytheism, because it rules any supernatural explanation as out of order.

  11. Chris W

    Psalm 16 anyone? Isaiah 53:10-11? Old Testament is full of death and resurrection at the typological level as well eg. in the sacrifices - the animal is killed and then raised up in smoke as a fragrant offering to God. Or the "death" of Israel (exile) and subsequent resurrection (restoration).

    With regard to the New Atheists, just engage them where they are at. Their interest is in science, so ask them to give an account of where the scientific laws come from. There are probably 3 options:

    1) They are formed from an infinite selection of multiverses (most common answer)
    2) They are only apparent in the mind, creating a perceived order (not very common, easy to refute)
    3) Formed by an intelligent mind (God)

    Option 1 is far too complex a solution. Occam's razor. They may assert that it is proven by quantum mechanics, but in actuality this is only one (out of many) possible *interpretations* of quantum mechanics, and the most unwieldy one at that. With option 2, you can't know anything is true. So I guess that leaves option 3. They might object that this is a more complex solution than 1, but at this point you have to tell them to take off their 'naturalistic' goggles (which they are using to interpret 'simplicity') and try on yours for size. See how much better they fit!

  12. Si Hollett

    Genesis 1: on the third day life begins and produces seed according to their kind.

    Then there's Gen 21, where on the third day, Abraham gets the promised seed "back from the dead".

    Job's redeemer lives (that's a funny phrase to use if his living isn't strange) and Job will see him, in his own flesh (despite death and decay), stand on the ground.

    Ps 23 and 24 directly follow 22.

    Jonah in the whale for three days.

    etc, etc

    There's tons in the OT to justify Paul saying "raised on the third day according to the scriptures" (not just the resurrection, but a third day resurrection!).

  13. John B

    Hi Chris and Si,

    How about Psalm 16?

    "For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
    or let your holy one see corruption."

    Or how about the pardoning of Isaac in Genesis 22, 1900 years before Jesus' birth?

    Are these verses compelling evidence that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem in 33 AD on the third day after his crucifixion, was long before prophesied by Moses and King David?

    By all means, preach the resurrection according to the Scriptures and in so doing you can shift the paradigm.

    But the dug-in skeptic is initially more open to the philosophical reasoning that Chris has outlined than he is to a selection of typological prooftexts in the Old Testament that clearly must appear to be very strained to any unbeliever. Instead, the philosophical reasoning that Chris suggests, questioning the atheistic and materialistic presuppositions seems like an often likely fruitful place to begin the dialogue in the hope that it may indeed lead to engagement with the vision of reality that Scripture provides.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer