This is the fourteenth post in a 15-week study. More information and resources can be found here.
A quick note to those of y’all who are not participants:
– Please read along as we go through the study chapter by chapter, and contemplate the questions we’ll be tackling. This is good stuff!
– We will be utilizing the comment section as a forum for discussion for the participants only. I respectfully ask – if you are not participating – that you refrain from commenting on the Reason for God posts, simply to help keep things well… simple.
– We have an incredible group of women representing various ages, faith backgrounds and life experiences – I hope you’ll check out all they have to say.
It is my prayer that the participants, as well as those of y’all who will be reading along, will contemplate your own faith and understanding of God in a new, and more purposeful way. If you have any questions about the study, or about God in general, feel free to email me from the link in the right sidebar.
Keller begins with a quote from Leo Tolstoy that resonates with many who fail to recognize the power of Jesus’ resurrection, “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” (p. 209)
Keller goes on to describe his own college experience, “I was taught that the resurrection of Jesus was a major historical problem, no matter how you looked at it.” (p. 209) Whether coming at the resurrection through philosophical or historical method, you must wrestle with the growth of the early church and the mystery, or lack thereof, of miracles. Keller argues, “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” (p. 210) To the early believers, Keller says, the resurrection changed everything. It also meant that there was nothing to fear. “If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything,” Keller finishes.
There are many arguments against the resurrection, just as one would expect of such a world altering event. The first of several that Keller presents is that the early believers were unsophisticated and prone to believe in the supernatural, so Jesus’ death and their resulting heartbreak caused them to believe he was there. And the gospels were then written to support their belief. (pp. 210-11)
The Empty Tomb and the Witnesses
He then presents the second argument – that the four Gospels were written well after the actual events so the writers created, and therefore lied about, the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses. Historically, this is impossible as the earliest writings of Paul, where the narrative is also found, took place a mere 15 – 20 years after the event, per Keller. (p. 211) Paul not only mentions historical facts but also names eyewitnesses, the exact same eyewitnesses who would have still been alive at the time of the writing and certainly would have argued against any errors, omissions or outright lies during the public readings of Paul’s letters. Keller states it this way, “…he also appeared to five hundred people at once, most of whom were still alive at the time of the writing and could be consulted for corroboration.” (p. 212) Keller continues, “…Paul is claiming that the reports of the resurrection he conveys were taken intact from the mouths of the people who actually saw Jesus.” (p. 213)
If one were to attempt to concoct such a tale, they would not mention eyewitnesses who could argue against their distortions. And they would surely not create a scenario which violates the most widely held and strongly believed tenants of their society at the time. Women during this time were not allowed to be witnesses in a court proceeding or have their opinions counted. So, it would be foolishness to make the first witnesses of an empty tomb to be women, in a society that shunned women as second class citizens at best. The only possible explanation of women as the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection is that it was true, according to Keller. And the repeated retelling of the greatest event in human history would have solidified the account of women as the first witnesses and therefore thwarted any attempt to change or adapt the accounts to meet the requirements of societal norms. (p. 213)
“[N.T.] Wright argues, the empty tomb and the accounts of personal meetings with Jesus are even more historically certain when you realize they must be taken together,” writes Keller. (p. 213) If they are separated into just an empty tomb or just and eyewitness account then, “…no one would have concluded it was a resurrection…” (p. 213) Only if they are taken together then can one conclude a resurrection took place. “Paul’s letters show that Christians proclaimed Jesus’s bodily resurrection from the beginning.” (p. 214)
Resurrection and Immorality
Keller says, “There is, therefore, very strong evidence that the tomb was empty and there were hundreds of people who claimed they saw the risen Christ.” (p. 214) The argument then proceeds that the witnesses (i.e. believers) wanted the resurrection so much to be true they created it. Keller says the problem with this is that resurrection was viewed, just as it is today, as not only not credible, but would have been viewed with even more skepticism than the idea of the first witnesses being women. Why? “To all the dominant worldviews of the time, an individual bodily resurrection was almost inconceivable… the universal view of the people [east and west] of that time was that a bodily resurrection was impossible.” Keller answers. (p. 215)
Greeks and Romans saw the physical and material world as things to escape – salvation was seen as liberation from the body. Death was an escape from this world not a way to get back to it. “The goal was to get free of the body forever.” (p. 215) Likewise, the report of a resurrection would have confounded the Jews because they believed death was a tragedy and the resurrection would be the end of this world and the beginning of the reign of the Messiah. Keller says, “The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable.” (p. 215) Jesus’ resurrection would be met with skepticism at best and blasphemy at worst for the person delivering such news. “The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek.. [and] to be as impossible as the people of our own time, though for different reasons,” Keller writes.
The Explosion of a New Worldview
So, “After the death of Jesus the entire Christian community suddenly adopted a set of beliefs that were brand-new and until that point had been unthinkable. The first Christians had a resurrection-centered view of reality… This was not simply a resuscitated body like the Jews envisioned, nor a solely spiritual existence like the Greeks imagined. Jesus’s resurrection guaranteed our resurrection and brought some of that future of new life into our hearts now,” Keller says. (p. 217)
Any new way of thinking takes time but this adoption of completely disparate views from the surrounding cultures happened immediately and without warning. What caused the change? Keller answers, “There was no process of development… They [his followers] were just telling others what they had seen themselves.” (pp. 217-18)
Keller then says the establishment of the church following the resurrection, if it is not true, then is equally puzzling. How did a group of Jews begin worshipping, as Divine, another Jew? “Eastern religions believe that God is an impersonal force… Western religions believed that the various gods often took on human guise… Jews, however, believed in a single, transcendent, personal God. It was absolute blasphemy to propose that any human begin should be worshipped…” Keller explains. (p. 218) Even more questions are raised by the reality that nearly all the disciples were martyred for their belief in Christ, not recounting their faith even in the face of impending (and often horrific) death. Keller asks, “Why did Christianity emerge so rapidly, with such power… What changed their worldview overnight? How do you account for the hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrection who lived on for decades and publicly maintained their testimony, eventually giving their lives for their belief?” (p. 219)
The Challenge of the Resurrection
“…the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact much more fully attested to than most other events of ancient history,” Keller begins. “Every effort to account for the birth of the church apart from Jesus’s resurrection flies in the face of what we know about first-century history and culture.” (p. 219) The modern skeptic – rather than arguing about the resurrection of Jesus and its historical fact or fiction – resorts to the trick of discounting miracles and therefore discounting the resurrection.
So many of these modern American skeptics find it difficult to explain why so many do not seek justice even though their own views help hinder this very thing. “Why sacrifice for the needs of others if in the end nothing we do will make any difference? If the resurrection of Jesus happened, however, that means there’s infinite hope and reason to pour ourselves out for the needs of the world,” Keller says. (p. 220)
N.T. Wright says, per Keller, “The message of the resurrection is that the world matters! Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things — and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement victory of Jesus over them all.” (p. 221)
Question: Have you ever doubted the validity of the resurrection? If so, what happened to erase those doubts? How did doubt affect your faith and how has that changed?
My response: I think I’ve always wanted to believe that I believed. Because, if I believed, then it followed that I would be a safe-and-cozy-not-going-to-hell Christian, right?
But when I really take an honest look, my outward actions haven’t always been those of a believer. In fact, I’ve sometimes more resembled an unbeliever. I’ve had moments of questioning parts of the resurrection over the years, but admitting my unbelief would have meant I’d have actually had to do something – either dig in and learn, or admit my lack of faith. And I’m the first to admit, I’ve been a pretty lazy Christ-follower. Thankfully, the Lord gently roused me out of my apathy about 2 years ago and, by His grace, I now have a growing, loving, real relationship with Jesus. I have a fresh desire to draw close to Him and a passion for the Truth. I am not afraid to ask hard questions because I fully trust in the character of God and the integrity of the Bible. I pray for answers and resist the temptation to rely on anyone else’s faith to call my own.
I am finally learning that to fully love God, I must love Him with all my heart. I must love Him with all my soul. And I must love Him with all my mind.
Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” — Matthew 22:37
Here is the button for the participants who will be linking up to the study. Grab the code, paste it into your Reason for God post and link up below.