Do Christians Really Need to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?

It’s a question I’ve heard many times over the years: “Do Christians really need to believe in Jesus’ resurrection?”

It is, after all, a pretty difficult idea to accept. And this is not just a modern difficulty—it’s been obvious to humans for a very long time that dead people stay dead.

It can also seem irrelevant, even unnecessary. Many Christians focus on Jesus’ death, some on Jesus’ teachings and way of life. What difference does it make whether Jesus was raised from the dead or not?

I used to think the answer to the question, however, was a straightforward and resounding, “Yes, of course we have to believe in Jesus’ resurrection!” But now I think the question requires a little more nuance.

Jesus’ resurrection is specifically mentioned dozens of times in the New Testament, by almost every author. The one notable exception is the author of the letter we know as the Epistle of James, yet even there Jesus’ resurrection is probably behind phrases like “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 2:1).

This particular example from James points to the reality that even where Jesus’ resurrection is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament it’s almost always there in the background. It can be seen in language of Jesus and “glory,” Jesus as “Lord,” Jesus as “exalted” or “at God’s right hand,” and more.

Jesus’ resurrection is everywhere in the New Testament. It is even affirmed in the Gospel stories well before their resurrection accounts. All four Gospels foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection before the end, even having Jesus predict it in advance.

Jesus’ resurrection is also in all the earliest and universal creeds of Christianity. The informal “Rule of Faith,” the early Old Roman Creed, the later Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds—these all have Jesus’ resurrection at the centre, often with the language of the very primitive “Gospel Creed” cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, that Jesus “was raised on the third day.”

All this is to say that the resurrection of Jesus is pretty important to Christian faith and life.

But here’s where the nuance comes in.

The New Testament emphasizes Jesus’ resurrection throughout, yes. But there is a diversity of perspectives in the New Testament as to exactly what Jesus’ resurrection looked like and how best to understand it.

Some New Testament accounts give rather bare-bones descriptions of Jesus’ resurrection state, as if what had happened were little more than the resuscitation of a corpse. Others view Jesus’ resurrection as still “bodily” in some way, yet with a “body” of a different kind than our present, earthly bodies. Some use “vision” language to describe Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, while others are sure to emphasize the real flesh-and-blood nature of their encounter with the risen Jesus.

And then there’s what Jesus’ resurrection means. The idea that Jesus’ resurrection was a divine vindication of Jesus runs right through the New Testament, but beyond that there’s plenty of diversity. Jesus’ resurrection as participation in the coming new creation, as foretaste of the future resurrection, as victory over sin and death, as manifestation of God’s power—all these and more get explored by various New Testament authors.

So, part of the nuance required with saying that “Yes, Christians should believe in Jesus’ resurrection,” is recognizing that there is room for a diversity of perspectives on exactly what happened in Jesus’ resurrection and what this event means.

But there’s more. There’s a fascinating statement in the conclusion to Matthew’s account of the resurrected Jesus. It’s often skipped over because we Christians are so eager to get to the Great Commission. The risen Jesus has gathered with the Eleven disciples, and there in Matthew 28:17 are these words: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

“Some doubted.” Even after everything they had witnessed, even with the resurrected Jesus standing in front of them, “some doubted.” To me this only makes sense as an expression of doubt that the Jesus standing before them was truly who he said he was, that Jesus had truly been resurrected from the dead. Doubt like this, even among the Eleven remaining apostles!

All this suggests that however vital the resurrection of Jesus is to Christian faith and life, there is room among followers of Jesus for diverse understandings of Jesus’ resurrection, and even for those who doubt whether it really happened at all.

But why is Jesus’ resurrection so important?

Put another way, why do we need Jesus’ resurrection in Christian theology? What would we lose if we simply left off this particular belief? Would it have been such a big deal if Jesus’ story had just ended with his death?

Well, I wrote a whole book about this that you can check out. But I’d highlight these as the most significant reasons.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is Jesus’ vindication by God. The powers-that-be had given their verdict on Jesus: guilty, and therefore to be shamed and cast out and executed on a cross. However, by raising Jesus from the dead God reverses that verdict: Jesus is declared righteous by God, he is glorified and worthy of all honour, he is brought to God’s right hand, and he is given true life untouched by sin and death.

This has a whole world of implications. That God has vindicated Jesus means that Jesus’ teaching is as Jesus claimed it to be: having the authority of God. It means Jesus’ way of life is as Jesus claimed it to be: evidence of God’s kingdom, the outworking of God’s good news for the world. It means Jesus’ death was not simply a horrific tragedy, the death of an innocent man; it is the very undoing of the ways of the world, the way of death, and so it is the epitome of God’s love and wisdom and power.

This was a world-changing belief for those early followers of Jesus, that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead by God. This is why we have the Gospels, why we have the New Testament, why Jesus is more than just a historical footnote as yet another failed Messiah: because these early Jesus-followers believed Jesus had appeared to them, resurrected and fully alive.

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Second, Jesus’ resurrection is creation’s affirmation by God. This is why the bodily nature of Jesus’ resurrection is so important (however “bodily” is understood). By resurrecting Jesus in body God affirms the essential goodness of our bodies, the goodness of the created order, the goodness of human existence and human history.

This also has several profound implications. Christianity, the way of Jesus, is not some kind of disembodied ideal, trying to renounce our human desires or deny our essential humanity. These things are given by God, and they are good—and this is affirmed not only by humanity’s creation but also by Jesus’ resurrection.

This means that salvation, then, is not some kind of disembodied ideal. Salvation is not about escaping our bodies, flying up and away from the world, and living eternally as spiritual beings up in heaven. Jesus’ resurrection affirms that God’s desire in salvation is to transform us and our world, restoring humanity and creation to God’s original intention, all things experiencing justice and peace and flourishing life, heaven come down to earth.

And the fact that God has raised Jesus from the dead means that all this—this whole grand sweep of salvation—has begun, and it is assured to one day reach its completion.

So, “Do Christians really need to believe in Jesus’ resurrection?”

Jesus’ resurrection is vital to Christian faith and life. It’s a pillar—even, I would say, the very foundation—of Christian theology and ethics and mission.

However, if you find yourself thinking of Jesus’ resurrection differently than others, or even if you’ve got your doubts about whether it really happened, there is plenty of room for you among the followers of Jesus—just like there was for those first disciples.

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4 thoughts on “Do Christians Really Need to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?

  1. Myron Penner

    Two quick comments – not by way of rebuttal, b/c in many (probably the deepest) respects I agree w/ you, but rather as thoughts inspired by thinking about this: (1) when it says in Mt 28 “they doubted” doubt in this pre- or non-modern context probably means something more like “despair” in our post-/modern context. That is, in this sense “they doubted” means something more like they were having trouble integrating and accepting what they were experiencing and hearing as part of their personal identities, in light of everything they believed and wished to be true. Which is something quite different from a modern questioning of something as fitting with what I believe to be true about or possible in the world. Whatever the case, I can’t see how we can map the Mt 28 statement right over our modern sense of doubt without some problems. And so (2) how does this pre-pentecostal despair (or doubt, if we insist on that term) come to be taken as normative (in any sense)? It would suggest (to me at least) that that state of doubting/despairing is a pre-pentecostal state. Now, how to relate that to my own experience of doubting and despairing?

    1. Hey, Myron. Great comments/questions. A couple thoughts in response:

      1) There are several Greek words that are translated “doubt” in the NT, and some of them could convey the idea you express. Even closer to that would be NT language related to “fear” or “anxiety” or “despair” or “hopelessness,” which are different words. This particular word is distazō, which has the idea of having second thoughts about something heard or experienced, “second guessing” one’s perception or interpretation of one’s experience. It’s similar to another word used in the NT, diakrinō, which has the idea of making a judgment about whether or not some statement is true or some claim to experience really happened. All that’s to say that there are many Greek words behind the English word “doubt” in the NT, and this one does seem to be more along the lines of what I’ve suggested: they doubted whether they were really seeing the resurrected Jesus.

      2) Your second point is a valid one, in the sense that although some of the Eleven experienced doubt at this point, after Pentecost they became bold witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. I wouldn’t say (and didn’t suggest) that this doubt was “normative”: what is normative for Christians is believing that Jesus Christ was resurrected by God on the third day according to the Scriptures. However, I see it as significant that in spite of these disciples’ doubts they are still included among the followers of Jesus; they are not pushed to the side because of their uncertainty or second thoughts about the resurrection. This story (along with many others in the Bible, including some post-Pentecost) thus gives encouragement to those Jesus-followers who find themselves doubting even some of the core doctrines of Christianity. As I put it to someone on Facebook in a related discussion: Gnosticism is bad theology, but Gnostics can be good Christians.

      1. Myron Penner

        Thanks for the reply, Michael. My first point was not a linguistic one, but a conceptual one – perhaps quite poorly articulated. More specifically, an appeal to an overall conceptual framework or “social imaginary,” as Charles Taylor would call it, that gives shape to the cognitive/semantic content and orients it existentially. I am not sure that an appeal to terminological clarity – helpful, to be sure – addresses that. Whatever else their questioning involved, I have a difficult time believing it meant the same thing to them, that it does to us now (for reasons Taylor says quite well in A Secular Age, and I have said elsewhere). But that, I admit, may be more my problem than anyone else’s, as I tend to see doubt as a kind of existential, despairing stance – a kind of resolve (or resignation) to inhabit a world of a certain horizon. As for the second point, “normative” perhaps was not exactly the right word – I meant to indicate a sense of “remaining within bounds.” And I absolutely agree that whatever the case, this oft-overlooked text gives encouragement to those modern doubters who struggle with cognitive assent to the propositions of orthodoxy.

      2. Myron, thanks for replying again. I did get that your point was a conceptual one and not a linguistic one, though my own reply could have been clearer on that. It seems to me that the only way we know about an “overall conceptual framework” or “social imaginary” of a given society or era is through the material remains and linguistic data (texts, inscriptions, etc., made up of grammar and words) which that society or era leaves behind for us. And the “linguistic data” of the NT era point to a wide array of ways of thinking about doubt/despair. I don’t doubt (!) your central thesis of a shift in doubt/despair between pre-modern and modern/postmodern contexts- in general terms. But there are plenty of specific examples from the ancient world (even well beyond the NT) where language of “doubt” or “disbelief” is used to reflect people’s questioning about what actually happened (which is what I think is going on here in Matt 28:17), or even, as you put it in your first response, “questioning of something as fitting with what I believe to be true about or possible in the world.”

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