Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What makes the resurrection important?

There's a trend in evangelical apologetics that's been evolving ever since John Warwick Montgomery. Montgomery stressed historical apologetics and the Resurrection. There are several reasons for this:

i) There's the intrinsic importance of the Resurrection.

ii) Apologists of this stripe consider the Resurrection to be the best-attested Biblical miracle. 

iii) Apropos (ii), they think they can make a good case for the Resurrection without presupposing the inspiration of the Bible. Even if you just treat the NT as "basically reliable" historical documents, that will get you the Resurrection. And once you've got the Resurrection, you can use that to retroactively validate other Biblical claims (so goes the argument).

Now, we can debate the merits of this approach as an apologetic strategy. Although I think this approach is deceptively simple, I don't think questions of apologetic strategy are all-important. There are different ways to defend the Christian faith, and it's useful to have more than one tool in our toolbox. 

The problem is when what started out as a particular apologetic strategy ends up defining the Christian faith. Prioritizing Christian doctrine.

Let's take a step back and ask, why is the Resurrection so important? Although Christians who've been conditioned by this apologetic strategy might be shocked to hear me say this, from a theological standpoint, the resurrection of Christ is less fundamental than the death of Christ.

No doubt the Resurrection is a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith. But the significance of the Resurrection is contingent on a prior event. if the Resurrection were an isolated event in the life of Christ, it would lose its larger significance.

The resurrection of Christ is important to Christians because Christian immortality is grounded in the immortality of Christ. The resurrection of Christ anticipates the resurrection of the just. Because he rose from the dead, we will rise from the dead–to enjoy eternal happiness.

But here's the catch. The resurrection of Christ, all by itself, is not a sufficient condition to cement that linkage. A necessary precondition is the remission of sin. Unless Christians (as well as OT saints) were forgiven and justified, they'd face eternal judgement rather than eternal bliss.

For Christians (and OT saints), the resurrection of Christ would be otiose apart from the death of Christ. Unless Christ died to redeem your sins, the resurrection of Christ would not entail the resurrection of the just. 

Absent penal substitution, Christians couldn't benefit from the resurrection of Christ. Absent vicarious atonement, there'd be no carryover from the resurrection of Christ to the resurrection of the just.

iv) Some apologists are oblivious to this connection because they approach the issue as historians rather than theologians. Their narrow historical methodology leads to a compartmentalized view of the Resurrection, as if the significance of the Resurrection is separable from penal substitution. But the theological significance of Easter Sunday is contingent on the theological significance of Good Friday. In that respect, the Crucifixion is more fundamental than the Resurrection. Unless Jesus atoned for your sin, you have no share in his Resurrection. 


  1. I think there are at least a few legitimate reasons behind the resurrection-centric apologetic method(s). First, most people will accept the existence of God and the possibility of miracles, one need only get bogged down in that debate for a very small minority of the population. It makes sense to go straight for the kill - why this Jesus of Nazareth? We need to make functional deists into Christians in the vast majority of cases. S

    econd, the resurrection in particular and the NT record more broadly are far more "accessible" to us in the 21st century. I mean that on several levels - we can scrutinize that time in history more easily because the historical record is both closer and better. The mists of time shroud the ages of the patriarchs, Moses, and the pre-exilic kingdom of Israel in a way that is not true of the Judaism of 1st century Palestine under Roman rule. That is not to say that we know the ministry of Christ and the founding of the Church as directly as we know about the life and death of, say, Abraham Lincoln. It is just that the events of the NT are more ripe for the picking than the OT from an apologetic standpoint. And there are other pertinent issues (we understand Koine Greek better than OT Hebrew), and the textual integrity of the NT far surpasses the OT. We have an embarrassement of riches as far as NT manuscripts are concerned. For the OT we are forced to an unhealthy reliance on a single manuscript, the quite-late Leningrad codex for the Hebrew text. There is some help by supplementing with the LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls, but still nothing close to the NT manuscripts.

    1. As I said at the outset, I don't object if some apologists center their argument on the Resurrection–although that approach is sucking too much oxygen out of the room. My objection is when one apologetic strategy becomes a theological criterion for demoting other Biblical teachings or Scripture itself.