“Is it true?” is still the question

Questioning the truth

There were over 100 talkative students packed in to the marquee which had been set up in a prominent spot at the centre of the university campus, and the guest speakers for this week of gospel-sharing events were wrapping up the final sessions. What struck me was not only the level of spiritual interest within this supposedly post-Christian generation, but the topic: is the resurrection of Jesus “true”, and what does it mean for us today? The speakers did a great job of outlining in an attractive and compelling way both the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and the implications of it for our life today.

I am used to hearing speakers enthuse about the “difference Jesus makes”, and even also the hope he to argue that the “post-modern” unconverted need to see that faith “works”, and are not asking “is it true?” The seekers that I meet want to know both, and they are smart enough to know that one (pragmatic relevance) rests upon the other (historical truthfulness). So what a joy to find that in 2017 spiritually interested undergraduates are hearing about the truth of the resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is true?

One speaker rehearsed the historical probability of the gospel accounts being literally true when they speak of a tomb with no body in it, and of appearances to a number of disciples on different occasions. He had clearly read and spoken on this theme many times before.

He offered Karl Venturini’s  swoon theory, proposed early in the nineteenth century and later adopted in form by Friedrich Schleiermacher (and more recently, Michael Baigent and Barbara Thiering). According to this, Jesus fainted on the cross, and then revived in the tomb and was rescued by his followers. The experienced student evangelist pointed out the historical improbability of this theory, given the professionalism and effectiveness of Roman execution, and the powerful effect of Jesus post-resurrection on all who met him.

The theory that the women who were the first at the tomb on Sunday morning mistook an empty tomb for the grave of Jesus was rightly dismissed as not only sexist (!) but as poorly fitting the gospel accounts. These record that multiple visits were made to the tomb by followers of Jesus, who had noted his burial place carefully. Furthermore, if they got the wrong grave, why did the Jewish authorities not immediately point out the mistake?

The speaker then alluded to the idea that Jesus’ body had been stolen by the authorities, and pointed out that if this was the case, the corpse is very likely to have been revealed since, but it has not. The suggestion that the disciples were creating a hoax about Jesus’ resurrection to achieve public fame for themselves was shown to be equally unfit as historical theory, given the same absence of a body, and also that most of them soon willingly faced prison and execution for this claim.

Finally, the theory that the disciples and women who saw the risen Jesus according the first written sources were hallucinating was recounted, and against it, the evidence of eminent psychiatrists that the appearances in the accounts do not remotely fit the pattern of hallucinations.

The speaker finished by challenging his sceptical listeners to come up with a better theory that has not been thought-of in the last 2000 years, or to accept the truth of the resurrection.

Time and again, historians and lawyers (see further reading, below) have trawled through the historical evidence and concluded that the interpretation of the eyewitness authors of the gospels is the most likely: on Easter morning Jesus had left the tomb and was about to appear to numbers of people over the following days and weeks showing his victory over sin and death to be complete and commissioning his Church to tell the world this news.

Evidence for God?

There are other strong arguments for the existence of God:

The cosmological (the existence of material objects and causes point to the existence of an immaterial Being who was before creation and initiated change and motion)

The teleological (the order, design and purpose in material objects point to the existence of a final cause, or Being, who has sovereignly overseen their creation to his own glory)

The ontological (the fact that we can imagine a Being as perfect as God points to the existence of such a Being)

The existential (the presence throughout history of a sense of the divine in human culture, especially in the witness of Christians to a transcendent and personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ, points to the existence of God as the source of these experiences)

The moral (the universal sense of right and wrong in human culture points to a Creator whose moral goodness has left this spark of conscience in us)

The aesthetic (the presence and awareness of beauty in the cosmos, whether in the form of music, art or nature, points to the perfect beauty of its Creator, of whom these things are each a taste or scent)

The ecclesiological (in the 2000 years since Jesus’ incarnation, the Church has made mistakes, but its influence upon culture, education, art, compassion, community life, and upon our attitudes to the sick, the disabled, slavery, race, women, and children, has been overwhelmingly good)

Even if some of these evidences for God are arguably stronger than others, I personally, like many, find these evidences for God compelling when gathered together.

Historical evidence that it’s true

But for me the most compelling and reliable place to look for the existence of God, and even more important, for His knowledge, is in His self-revelation in the historical events of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which the historical accounts of the eyewitnesses provide testimony. One of Jesus’ first followers, the apostle Paul, writing within two decades of the events, underlines the centrality of the historical resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. The reliability of the gospel accounts, on which the truth of the resurrection largely rests, has endured more than a century of sceptical attack from those arguing that the stories are embellished or concocted, but most of this attack has been upon the records of Jesus’ words (not the resurrection accounts), most of it has been well refuted by Biblical scholars, and none of it has yet found a convincing means or reason by which the gospel writers could have invented the resurrection as an explanation for Jesus’ extraordinary influence.

Further reading

Frank Morrison, Who moved the stone? (Authentic Media, 2006)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998)

John Wenham, The Easter Enigma: are the resurrection accounts in conflict? (Wipf and Stock, 2005)

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Faith and reason: a long and painful divorce

Aristotle Oxford Mus Nat Sci
Aristotle – Oxford Museum of Natural History

You are probably familiar with the polemical rhetoric of church father Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It set the tone in the early Christian centuries for the rejection of philosophy (his target then being neoplatonism). His reason for doing so was a laudable desire to affirm the simplicity and availability of knowledge of God through faith, in contrast to pagan metaphysics and dialectics in the style of Athens’ Plato, and his successors. Tertullian’s key text in doing so was Paul in Colossians 2:8 saying, “see to it that noone takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ”.

He was not however the only voice in the church of the first three centuries, because other Christian theologians like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, schooled in the philosophical air of Alexandria, were much more aware of the vital need to connect faith and reason, Bible and philosophy, in order to convince educated pagans to become Christians. They recognised (as did Calvin later) that Paul’s target in Colossians quoted above was not philosophy per se but only philosophy that is incompatible with Christ as sufficient Saviour and sovereign Lord. Origen for instance quotes Plato and has been accused of adopting the “middle Platonism” of his day; yet he was first of all a Bible commentator, and always saw the Bible’s account of creation and the Fall as deeper and more accurate than that of Plato. There is bad philosophy, but there is also good philosophy.

The debate continued through the later church fathers. Athanasius and Augustine welcomed ideas drawn from prechristian philosophy, whilst recognising how Christ transforms its ideas about God, the soul and immortality. In the middle ages great thinkers like Anselm, and particularly Aquinas, recognised the validity of drawing upon reason, whilst relying upon faith, in the pursuit of knowledge of God and in finding ‘analagous’ language, however imperfect, to describe Him.

The Reformation and subsequent enlightenment periods saw an increasing separation of faith and reason, perhaps not helped by the failure of the Protestant theologians to engage in serious metaphysical analysis, and Luther’s description of the philosophy of men like Aristotle as “the devil’s whore”! The Church became (not entirely justifiably) suspicious of the influence of Aristotle, with his emphasis upon this-worldly knowledge. Then following Descartes, rationalist philosophy through David Hume and others appeared at least to disconnect what can be known by reason from the experience of faith.

The consequence was the separation of science as a discipline of objective “knowledge” from religion as an exercise of subjective “faith”. This has proven inaccurate as an understanding both of science and of religion, but it remains influential in public perception and policy.

This long painful divorce will be destructive for religion and for society. Faith is and needs to be reasonable, and seen as such. In a secular culture which is growing more and more hostile to faith, it is my guess that the separation will be held up as evidence that faith is “unreasonable” and worthy only of marginalisation and muting. A brave new world of human reason and devoid of faith is the future some wish for already, but cries of “freedom and equality” fail to recognise that enforcing one inevitably requires crushing the other.

Faithful Christian philosophers and thoughtful apologists are going to be needed.