Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter thoughts

Easter – the celebration of God raising Jesus from the dead – is at the center of the Christian faith.

Without Easter, explaining Christianity's existence seems impossible. For example, Reza Aslan in Zealot concludes that Jesus was fully human without also being the unique, fully divine Son of God. Aslan's conclusion is not persuasive. Why would so many people have risked so much and, in some eras, suffered so much, to follow Jesus? In Palestine during the two centuries before and after Jesus, literally dozens of individuals claimed to be the messiah. These other messiahs proclaimed God's message, performed wondrous deeds, and attracted bands of Jewish disciples. Why did all of their movements soon fade away whereas Jesus' movement grew rapidly, becoming the Roman Empire's official religion within four centuries? Aslan does not offer a reasonable answer.

Alternatively, traditional Christian interpretations of the resurrection as physical or spiritual seem increasingly untenable. To argue that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead (i.e., God physically raised Jesus from the dead leaving the tomb empty) requires ignoring biological facts and historical probabilities. An Ethical Musings' reader noted in a comment on a recent post that "autolysis, the plunging PH at the time of death which releases the enzymes from the body's cells to decompose the body" makes a physical resurrection impossible. Also, physical bodies, whether original or resuscitated, die. Historically, the Romans left the bodies of those crucified hanging on crosses as a poignant reminder of the perils of challenging Roman rule.

On the other hand, spiritualizing Jesus' resurrection presumes a highly problematic divide between spirit and matter. Since Descartes, scholars from many disciplines (theologians, philosophers, natural scientists, and others) have struggled unsatisfactorily to explain the interaction of spirit and matter. No evidence for an ethereal, eternal aspect of human life exists. Given that humans evolved from other life forms, those who maintain that humans possess an ethereal spirit also face the challenge of describing at what point in evolution humans acquired that spirit.

Biblical accounts of the resurrection offer little help, offering contradictory images. The resurrected Christ moves through walls, seemingly unbound by physical or geographic constraints. Nevertheless, the resurrected Christ eats and his disciples touch his wounds.

The most intriguing, provocative, and promising approach to understanding Jesus' resurrection is that of Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman. He believes that historians can know three very important things about Jesus' resurrection with reasonable certainty:
(1) Some of Jesus’s followers believed that he had been raised from the dead;
(2) They believed this because some of them had visions of him after his crucifixion; and
(3) This belief led them to reevaluate who Jesus was, so that the Jewish apocalyptic preacher from rural Galilee came to be considered, in some sense, God. (How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, p. 174)


Jesus being present to his disciples in a vision is perhaps a spiritual interpretation of the resurrection. The visions must have felt real to motivate discouraged disciples and to give them the courage and strength to persevere in spite of religious and political opposition. Ehrman's theory advantageously coheres with historical probabilities and scientific fact. Does this make God's salvific activity in Jesus any less real than other theories of Jesus' resurrection?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Does this make God's salvific activity in Jesus any less real than other theories of Jesus' resurrection?"

Yes, somebody's 'vision' makes it all pointless. Atheism sounds more appealing than your teaching here. Denying the power of God to break the laws of nature that He established is heretical.

How about a rational, scientific explanation of Pentecost?

George Clifford said...

Presuming your request about Pentecost is not sarcastic (which seems dubious), I've taken your suggestion to heart and added that to my list of topics about which to write.

Eduard Zibnitskiy said...

Yes, George, I would like to join Anonymous comment. The idea of scientific and logical explanation of Bible was typical and excused for middle of XIX c. It ended with atheism and even antiChristian terror in some countries. Hegel started, Marx ended, Lenin did. Then people understood that science is not the thing we should put first and trust anyway as it's not able to explain everything and we question even language itself... How you can call yourself Christian denying New Testament and priest denying sacraments based on physical death and resurrection? That's kind of lie then.

Eduard Zibnitskiy said...

Priest is different from pastor in that way that he serves liturgy and Eucharist is based on death and resurrection of Christ as a man, as a man in all aspects, including human body, soul, will. Otherwise you don't need to be a Christian at all to say that Jesus was a great man with good ethics so his followers got crazy after his death, got 'visions' etc.

George Clifford said...

Eduard, your perspective on who is a Christian, and what defines who is and is not a Christian, is far from the only perspective on that subject. I respect your right to disagree, but am troubled by your suggestion that I am lying about being Christian. My ideas in posts, such as the foregoing Easter thoughts, are neither novel nor beyond the boundaries of the Christian tradition. Indeed, I suspect that I may be more open, and in that way more honest, about my divergences from what in prior centuries was deemed normative for Christianity. However, contemporary Christian theologians increasingly reject those anachronistic views because they recognize that those views are not only unsupportable but also often unintelligible in the twenty-first century.

Eduard Zibnitskiy said...

I didn't say "you are lying..."? I just meant: consider that: is it not a lie? You say you are a priest, so you do sacraments, which are originally were mystical, believed to be turning bread and wine in Christ's BODY and blood so we can share eternal life through physical human nature of Christ. I mean I don't see any reason in what priests do and in church in general in case of your approach. Look: the meaning of your ideas is: Bible lies, apostles were people with mental issues. Christians of first centuries were people with mythological stuff in their heads. What is the Church then you say you are a member of?

George Clifford said...

Eduard, I'm sorry if I misunderstood your earlier comment. Your last comment frames my views incorrectly. I do not say that the Bible consists of lies. I do say that the Bible is a window through which God's light shines and not a sourcebook for historical fact or propositional truth. I do not say that the apostles were people with mental issues. I do say that the apostles had a very different worldview from ours, a worldview that colored their perception of things even as my (or your) worldview colors my (or your) perception of things. Myth is a narrative that gives meaning; all theology is necessarily mythical because finite human words cannot directly convey a description or information about the infinite.

Eduard Zibnitskiy said...

Maybe I misunderstood something or used too simple language, sorry. No, you didn't say that Bible lies, I know. It's my interpretation, I try to take logically next step. Apostles said, and it was put in Gospel, that Christ resurrected in body. Theology of first 1500+ years mostly had been based on that. Apostles didn't say: we had vision, so Christ in our heart, we got his message in this vision but actually he's dead. They really believed Christ was back from dead to join them. Remember Thomas: he didn't trust until touched His body. So if you are right, apostles were not able to make difference between reality and vision (or illusion, or imagination) so they were mentally disable, so we can't trust the whole book, we can't trust Church whatever you mean by it. So we can't take serious what you do as a priest. It means you just play role of priest not believing in things believed when priesthood were established. I just try to be logic and show the whole process to you.

George Clifford said...

Eduard, one of my basic premises is that theology, no more than any other branch of knowledge, cannot be static. Consequently, I reject the idea of an unchanging deposit of the faith that one generation transmits to the next. Human knowledge has dramatically expanded in the last two centuries; theology, in my view, is now struggling to catch up. You are correct: I am not a priest of the sixteenth century; I am a priest of and for the twenty-first century. Consequently, my theology is very different and I offer no apologies for those differences.

Eduard Zibnitskiy said...

George, I agree that theology cannot be static and it never was. As a priest you know history of debates against Gnostics, Arius etc. Usage of Greek Platonic terminology was a revolution, new non-biblical topics were revolution too. Development of theology is good, but not in a way to be slave of science when whatever scientists discover or think they discover theology obeys saying that apostles had hallucinations etc. No, that's not development. Science has no right to claim theology's domain. Science (psychology, history etc.) makes a lot of mistakes while making progress on it's way.

Eduard Zibnitskiy said...

And (sorry for being so talkative, it's just interesting subject)I'm not sure I agree that the apostles had a very different worldview from ours, a worldview that colored their perception of things. Theoretically yes, you are right, but practically, it doesn't matter, that colouring, if you put your finger in Teacher's wound to see if it's ghost or not. It's not matter of worldview. No differences between the apostles and us really! They were practical, critical, down-to-earth guys living in multicultural society, speaking different languages, knowing different cultures. Paul was very skeptical guy, more brave in thinking than Nietzsche, and when he offered a paradox he realized it was a paradox.

George Clifford said...

We're going to have to agree to disagree. The apostles, I believe, had a very different worldview from us. The accounts of their experiences are not from them but result from multiple retellings of their experiences, framed by their first century, pre-scientific worldview.