Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is an utterly impossible event.
I’m serious. It is truly impossible.
When we make it into something that is “possible”—whether historically or scientifically—then we’ve stripped it of its power. When we make it into something that is “possible,” we miss the nature of “resurrection” as new creation invading the old, the transformative redemption of the old into something radically new. As I note in From Resurrection to New Creation, all this is rather scandalous for Christian faith: Jesus’ resurrection demands historical investigation at the same time that it defies historical investigation.
So why then do I believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? Why do I believe in something that is truly impossible?
After all, I don’t make a habit of believing in impossible things. Sure, we all believe things that may well be improvable, but that’s different from believing in things which are impossible. So why do I believe in this particular impossible claim, that something happened to the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth such that he was resurrected from the dead to a transformed bodily existence?
In From Resurrection to New Creation, I note that this “scandal of the empty tomb” places Christians in the “risky realm of faith—trusting in the primitive testimony of those very first witnesses as found in ancient traditions in later written records, and believing in the history-demanding yet history-defying claim that Jesus of Nazareth was ‘raised from the dead on the third day,’ transformed to an immortal bodily existence untouched by sin and death” (12).
I do think this is the most fundamental basis for belief in Jesus’ resurrection: the apostolic gospel, the “kerygma,” the message of salvation to which the Spirit through the Scriptures and the Church bears witness, calls us to faith in Jesus’ resurrection. But this is a general reality, a common thread which runs through billions of diverse experiences of faith.
So why do I—I, and not all Christians—believe in the impossible: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead?
Belief is a funny thing. We very often continue to hold to a belief for different reasons than we came to believe in the first place; the way we attain belief is not always the same as the way we sustain that belief. So it is that my own belief in Jesus’ resurrection was first prompted by the faith of others: my primary social community in my formative years of childhood and adolescence believed in Jesus’ resurrection, and they passed on that faith to me as well.
This “faith in the faith of my faith community” is still an important dimension of my belief in Jesus’ resurrection, but it is not in itself enough to sustain that belief for me. So, my own belief in Jesus’ resurrection is sustained by a few other things as well.
I have had several experiences of the “transcendent” or “supernatural” in my life—situations where things happened in an unusual and beneficial way, or impressions of something or someone “completely other” and “utterly beyond” engaging me in some way in my “inner being,” or the like.
I’m sure these can all be explained as coincidence in a chaotic world, or neurological processes in response to some subconsciously perceived external stimuli, or whatever. But there’s something about many of these experiences for which those explanations are—however true—not enough. Undoubtedly this simply reflects the fact that I want to believe there is someone somewhere out there who is “completely other” and “utterly beyond.” In any case, these experiences in many ways lay the groundwork for more specific belief.
I also have an ongoing and growing conviction that no other explanation than Jesus’ resurrection fully does justice to the texts and ideas, events and experiences of those first Jesus-followers after the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. Grave robbing and hallucinations, fainting and reviving, myth-creating and -telling, natural evolution of socio-religious ideas—none of these or similar explanations makes good sense to me of the specific traditions, writings, convictions, ministries, and deaths of those first followers of Jesus.
Now this is not the same as saying Jesus’ resurrection is “provable” according to the standards of historical criticism—I don’t think it is. Rather, it is more along the lines of saying—with deepest apologies to Sherlock and Sir Arthur for completely skewing a maxim of Holmesian logic—that when you have eliminated the improbable, whatever remains, however impossible, may well be the truth.
Nor is this simply another way of saying the same thing as I said above, that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is faith in the apostolic kerygma. This is rather what you might call a historical-but-not-critically-historical reason for cautious conviction that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
Also significant for my belief in Jesus’ resurrection is seeing individual lives and faith communities transformed by this belief, seeing Christian faith work in the daily grind of real life.
Again, alternative explanations are possible—people can make major, positive changes in their lives for a variety of reasons and from within (or apart from) a variety of faith traditions. And there’s no doubt that many who claim belief in Jesus’ resurrection see very little positive change in their lives, and can in fact do some pretty horrible things. But still, I can’t deny that this particular belief in this particular God who raised this particular Jesus from the dead has had some very positive effects on many individuals, communities, and even crucial moments in human history.
A not-unrelated factor is this: to me, a broadly Christian worldview works better epistemically than the alternatives, allowing me to make sense of my perceptions and experiences in the world in a way that is coherent and meaningful. And a crucial dimension of that Christian worldview is the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead, that God is a God who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist, a hopelessly optimistic notion that God alone provides hope for real, lasting change.
All these factors—my personal experiences of the transcendent, my heritage of faith and my faith community, the coherence of a Christian worldview for me, the positive change I’ve seen in the lives and communities of believers, my dissatisfaction with alternative explanations for the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances, and ultimately, the Scripture- and Church-witnessed apostolic kerygma—all these factors come together to prompt and sustain my belief in the impossible claim that the crucified Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
And this, in turn, changes everything.
This post is adapted from a post written in 2010 on a previous blog of mine. Also cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl. As a companion to this, you might want to check out my post, “Do Christians Really Need to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?” The answer is more complex than you might think!