Saturday, April 15, 2006

Risen Indeed!

Dr. Anderson has drawn my attention to an article in the Spectator:

“The Spectator approached politicians, churchmen, media folk and entertainers — and members of its own staff — and asked them a simple question: ‘Do you believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead?’ Some did not answer the question: Tony Blair, Ruth Kelly, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell. Those who did reply gave some surprising answers. The results of our inquiry reveal a remarkable mix of faith, doubt and evasion.”

I’ll comment on some of the answers:

[The Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury]
“Archbishop Rowan said to put him firmly in the ‘yes’ camp.”

i) It, of course, says something about the state of the Anglican Communion that you have to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury if he even believes in the Resurrection.

ii) Also, as I recall, his position is actually a good deal more equivocal. This issue came up on Virtuosity when Rowan’s name was first floated for the job.

If memory serves, Rowan took the position that we should be open to the possibility of the Resurrection. We shouldn’t rule it out.

This is quite different from believing in the Resurrection. It simply means that he doesn’t disbelieve it. He’s open-minded about what may have happened.

[Tony Blair]
‘I am afraid the Prime Minister does not take part in surveys.’

What is notable in this non-response is that Tony Blair is on record as calling himself a Christian—a “Christian” who has lobbied to export abortion throughout the UK.

So his refusal to answer this question is hardly surprising.

[Peter Oborne, political editor, The Spectator]
“There’s a great deal of compelling evidence that something astonishing happened. The Resurrection caused the apostles to take the path they did after Jesus’s death. The gospel writers were convinced. But you can’t prove it and one is bound to have doubts. You are choosing to believe the unbelievable. That is what faith is about.”

This is a textbook expression of fideism. And it goes awry in several respects:

i) Belief is not a matter of choice. Acting on a belief is a matter of choice, but belief is essentially involuntary, although we can do certain things to cultivate or undermine a belief by what evidence we avoid or expose ourselves to.

ii) If we “choose” to believe something, then that’s a classic case of make-believe.

iii) Doubt is not the essence of faith. In Scripture, faith is a mode of knowledge. The essence of faith is mediate rather than immediate knowledge—knowledge by description rather than acquaintance.

By faith, we know something to be true, not as a matter of personal experience, but because we rely on a reliable source of information.

By knowing the source of information to be reliable, that indirectly warrants whatever the source informs us of.

iv) You don’t need direct evidence for everything you believe. It is sufficient to have a reliable source of information.

v) Faith is not believing the unbelievable.

vi) It is possible for a true believer to entertain doubts. He is not bound to have doubts, but it’s possible to be doubtful about some things, and still be a true believer. We see this in Scripture itself.

There are different sources of doubt:

a) In some cases it’s temperamental. Some people are prone to self-doubt, and this, in turn, leaves them unsure of what they believe. Their self-doubt is infectious with respect to their other beliefs.

b) Conflicting beliefs, due to divided intellectual commitments, leave a person in something of a mental quandary.

c) Simple scepticism in the face of something out of the ordinary, something which we ourselves have never observed.

[The Rt Revd Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford]
“Yes. I believe that the tomb was discovered empty and that Jesus was raised as what St Paul calls “a spiritual body” (I Corinthians xv,44). This is not a miracle like any other but comparable only to the creation of the world ex nihilo and its transmutation into glory at the end of time. It can only be depicted in symbolic terms, hence the unsatisfactory nature of so much over-literalistic Western painting and the spiritual power of the Orthodox icon of the Anastasis.”

This is a terribly confused statement:

i) In Pauline usage, “spiritual” is simply an adjectival expression of the Holy Spirit’s agency. This goes all the way back to the creation account.

ii) Time does not come to an end. Perhaps the good bishop is alluding to the Authorized Version of Rev 10:6, but that’s a very misleading rendering.

What comes to an end is a particular phase of history. But the saints in glory are still time-bound creatures.

iii) It is unclear what, exactly, the good bishop thinks can only be depicted in symbolic terms. Does he mean the actual event of the Resurrection—the process by which Jesus was raised? Of does he mean the effect of the Resurrection—whether the Risen Lord was a visible, tangible being?

In principle, you could have had a camera in the empty to record the actual event. In addition, Luke and John also go out of their way to affirm public character of the Resurrection.

[Fergal Keane, broadcaster]
“I believe the question is in danger of missing the point. Faith is a mystery and at the heart of it all — for me — is the Resurrection. Did Christ rise from the dead? He did. Do I feel the need to seek the impossible, namely physical evidence? I do not.”

Why does he think that it’s impossible to find physical evidence for the Resurrection? We have no direct physical evidence in the sense of a photographic record of our Lord’s restoration to life.

But you can have direct physical evidence that someone was dead or alive. And you can have eyewitness evidence to the fact that someone was dead or alive.

Indeed, nothing is more commonplace than life and death. What is out of the ordinary is going from death to life rather than life to death. But the evidence is the same regardless of the sequence.

[Keith Ward, Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, London, and emeritus student of Christ Church, Oxford]
“I am certain the apostles had visionary experiences of Jesus after his death. I think these were genuine. But though Jesus appeared in physical form, his mode of existence after death was not in physical space-time as we know it.”

There are, needless to say, several problems with this characterization.

i) The NT doesn’t describe the postmortem appearances of Christ as “visions,” in the private, subjective sense of the word.

They are, rather, extramental events—on the same order as the premortem appearances of Christ.

ii) Be definition, any experience will be a genuine experience. A vision of the Virgin Mary is a genuine experience. But whether it’s a genuine experience of the Virgin Mary is another question entirely.

iii) As to the mode of his postmortem existence, unfortunately a certain school of apologetics has obscured the physicality of the Resurrection by inferring from Jn 20:19 (cf. v26) that Jesus could materialize and dematerialize at will.

But there are several problems with this inference:

a) As a matter of sound theological method, it takes the wrong point of departure. The very purpose of this pericope is to accentuate the physicality of the Resurrection. That’s where we should begin. Any interpretation of v19 should take v20 (cf. V27) as its frame of reference, not vice versa.

The point is to interpret v19 in light of v20, not reinterpret v20 in light of v 19.

This is reinforced by chapter 21, which, once again, reaffirms the physicality of the Resurrection.

b) V19 doesn’t state that Jesus passed through a solid door. That’s not what is says, and that’s not what it implies.

Indeed, the point is just the opposite: that Jesus could come and go at will without having to come through the front door.

What we have here is a local mode of existence allied to a discontinuous mode of translocation.

This is no doubt miraculous, but we expect a miraculist to do the miraculous.

Even before the Resurrection, see how he could do a disappearing act (Lk 4:30; Jn 7:30, 44; 8:20,59; 10:39; 12:36).

The “elusive Christ” is one of the subthemes of the Forth Gospel. There’s something preternatural about his ability to evade his enemies time and again, to hide in plain sight, even when he’s in their midst.

[Richard Dawkins]
“No. People believe in the Resurrection not because of good evidence (there isn’t any) but because, if the Resurrection is not true, Christianity becomes null and void, and their life, they think, meaningless. From this it is grotesquely false logic to conclude that therefore the Resurrection must be true. The alternative — that their religion is indeed null and void — may be unpleasant for Christians to contemplate, but there is no law that says the truth has to be pleasant. And nature does not owe us a meaningful life. It is up to us to make it so.”

i) Of course, we’ve come to expect this sort of thing from Dawkins. Dawkins speaks as an outsider who makes no effort acquaint himself with real Christians and why they believe what they do.

Dawkins has misdirected the motive. This is not the reason why Christians accept the event itself; rather, it’s the reason why they refuse to accept rationalistic reinterpretations of the event.

ii) Many Christians do believe in the Resurrection because of good evidence. The fact that Dawkins doesn’t think there’s any good evidence for the Resurrection doesn’t mean they share his opinion.

He’s projecting his own scepticism onto the Christian, which is rather incoherent, for if they were as sceptical as he was, they wouldn’t be Christians in the first place. He’s imputing his own sceptical motives to them in order to then impute an existential motive. This is a complete mess.

iii) In addition, he hasn’t see all the same evidence they have, for he hasn’t bothered to familiarize himself with the standard literature in defense of the Resurrection.

iv) Notice how he goes wobbly in the knees at the very end. After the hortatory, stiff upper-lip shtick, he then says it’s up to us to make life meaningful.

But this is “grotesquely false logic.” If human existence is objectively meaningless, then any attempt to infuse it with a dose of subjective meaning would be play-acting.

So, for all his high-strutting atheism, Dawkins also loses his nerve when he’s staring into the abyss. He clings to a beautiful illusion as soon as the despairing outlook of atheism proves to be unbearably bleak.

Dawkins is like the leader of a suicide cult who shames the reluctant members into drinking the Kool-Aid. “If you really loved me, you’d die with me. This is the true test of your faith. Don’t be a coward!”

But after Dawkins has shamed his epigones into imbibing the Kool-Aid, he has second thoughts. He chickens out at the last minute. After gingerly stepping over the corpses of all his devoted disciples, he escapes into the la-la land of Existentialism.

[Charles Moore]
“Yes: he overcame death, body and soul. However, this is a statement of belief, not science. If archaeologists could prove (which they won’t) that they had found the bones of Jesus in Jerusalem, Christianity would still be true. This sounds like a contradictory statement, but I do not think it is.”

Yet another classic expression of fideism. Have you ever noticed that the more educated some people get, the dumber they get?

There is, in academia, an affectation to deny the obvious. For to affirm the obvious is…well…obvious. Any country bumpkin can affirm the obvious.

So what sets us apart from the common herd and proves us to be true sophisticates is our ability to deny the obvious. That’s so much more profound, you see.


  1. Is there anything you could direct me to on the subject of "a local mode of existence allied to a discontinuous mode of translocation."

    I've always accepted the "Jesus walked through a solid door" explanation, it's the only interpretation of v19 I've ever heard.

  2. I don't know if your posing a philosophical or exegetical question. On the exegetical question, a couple of good resources are:

    Mark Stibbe, "The Elusive Christ: A New Reading of the Fourth Gospel," JSNT 44 (December 1991), 19-37.

    Robert Gundry, "The Essential Physicality of Jesus' Resurrection according to the New Testament,"
    Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ. Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament
    Christology (Festschrift I. Howard Marshall)
    Ed. J. B. Green and M. Turner (Eerdmans 1994), 204-219.

    If you're asking a philosophical question, I don't know of any extant literature that address this precise inquiry.

  3. " . . . although we can do certain things to cultivate or undermine a belief by what evidence we avoid or expose ourselves to."

    Does this mean CHristians should not read opposing viewpoints? Does reading Loftus' blog undermine one's faith?

  4. It depends on how sophisticated the Christian is. A Christian intellectual should familiarize himself with both sides of the argument.

    To an astute Christian, reading Loftus' blog will only serve to confirm that atheism is an intellectual and moral blind alley.

  5. I know Rowan Williams can be muddled on a variety of topics, but his answer seemed unequivocal. Why are you casting him in the light of previous positions he might (I don't know) have held? Perhaps those positions have changed since he read Wright's book. :) Or whatever, but don't you think he should at least be at least cut a little slack?

  6. Liberals often make "unequivocal" statements with their fingers crossed. But all the caveats come out in answer to the follow-up questions.