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.

As a companion to this, be sure to check out my post, “Why in the World Do I Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?” As well, you might want to see my reflections on “faithful doubting”: “Confessions of a Faithful Doubter.”

Trust in God, Love One Another

One of my parishioners in a former church used to say that preachers really only have two or maybe three different sermons. “Every sermon they preach—doesn’t matter the text or the title—is really just a variation of one of those two or three sermons,” he’d say.

I’m not quite that cynical about the average pastor’s ability to navigate through a wide terrain of topics and Biblical texts. But I do think my friend was on to something. In fact, as I’ve been reflecting back on three years of preaching here at Morden Mennonite, I think pretty much all of my sermons—along with my pastoral counsel—can be boiled down to one of these two basic exhortations:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Exploring the mystery of the divine? Trust in God.

Dealing with the latest hot issue? Love one another.

Facing a financial crunch? Trust in God.

Wondering how to strengthen your marriage? Love one another.

Grieving the loss of a loved one? Trust in God.

Got a difficult situation with a co-worker? Love one another.

Needing to make a major decision? Trust in God.

Your son has just come out as gay? Love one another.

The Return of the Prodigal SonOf course, by themselves these refrains—“Trust in God” and “Love one another”—can sound trite. They can be trite: overly simplistic, pat answers, bumper sticker slogans empty of any real meaning or usefulness. Life is complicated, and these statements need to be nuanced and explained, their significance teased out in practical ways.

And in my preaching and teaching and pastoral guidance I certainly say a whole lot more than just “Trust in God” and “Love one another.” I attempt to set biblical texts within their ancient context, and then try to let them speak to us in our current context. I invite us to enter into the theological and moral imagination of Jesus and his first followers. I talk about what this “faith” and “love” looked like when Jesus did them, and what they might look like for us today, in our particular circumstances.

And yet, distilled to their most concentrated form, my sermons and conversations always seem to be some version of these two simple appeals:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

I’ve been reflecting again on the Gospel of John lately. It’s curious how I keep coming back to that Gospel, or maybe more that John’s Gospel keeps coming back to me. I gravitate toward the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—and the letters that bear Paul’s name. And yet every time I attempt to articulate the core message of these other writings, or the heart of my Christian faith, I seem to end up using John’s language to do so. So it is once again.

Because in the living waters of John’s Gospel two verbs keep rising to the surface, over and over again: “believe” and “love.”

The first one, “believe,” is pisteuō in Greek. This word is not as narrow as the English word “believe.” We tend to use “believe” as “I believe x to be true,” where x is some statement or claim. Or we simply say “Just believe!” or (same thing) “Believe in yourself!”—be authentic to who you are, trust your instincts, your own inner resources. In John’s Gospel, though, as throughout the New Testament, “believe” is more the idea of “I trust in, I rely upon, I am committed to God/Jesus.” It’s a personal thing, an interpersonal thing, our dependence upon and fidelity to the God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Good SamaritanThe second verb, “love,” is John’s comprehensive ethic: it’s every good thing that anyone does for anyone else. God loves Jesus. God loves the world. Jesus loves his disciples. Jesus’ disciples love Jesus, and love God, and love each other. This love is not about natural attraction or permissive tolerance, but rather selfless giving: a Father giving his beloved Son for the world, a Son giving his life for his disciples, his disciples giving themselves for one another and the world.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Simple, isn’t it? Maybe. But it’s certainly not easy. In fact, these are the most difficult things we can do.

Trust in God—even when the whole world seems paralyzed by fear of the unknown other, the unknown future.

Love one another—even when the whole world seems caught up in a self-righteous cycle of harm and offense, hostility and retaliation.

Trust in God—right at that moment when your resources are low and your worry is high and you can’t see a way out of this mess.

Love one another—yes, even that person, the most unlovable, annoying, strange, disturbing, [insert negative adjective here] person you know.

Trust in God—cry out to God with your anger, your fear, your unbearable sadness, your overwhelming loneliness, and then look for God’s presence right where you least expect it, right where you most need it.

Love one another—hold that hand in awkward silence, listen to that wounded heart, speak up for that voiceless person, give that fifty bucks, change that flat tire, celebrate that achievement, learn about that culture, learn that child’s name.

Trust in God—pray and worship, weep and lament, sing and rejoice, question and complain, contemplate and meditate, explore with raw wonder the transcendent mystery and immanent presence that is God.

Love one another—be kind, be generous, show compassion, show respect, speak truth, seek justice, be patient, be gentle, be humble, be delighted, be encouraging, forgive, forgive, and forgive again.

Simple, but not easy.

Hard, but necessary.

The essence of Christianity, the essence of human life—and, apparently, the only two sermons I ever preach. No coincidence there—they’re also the two things I most need to be reminded of myself.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son; Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

Why in the World Do I Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?

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?

PrintIn 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.

Rembrandt EmmausI 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!

“Aha” Moments: Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories: Michael Pahl

This post first appeared on Pete Enns’ blog. Re-posted here on February 15, 2017, though dated back to the original date of its first appearance.

profileToday’s “aha” moment is by Michael Pahl (PhD, University of Birmingham). Pahl, as you may recall, was one of the casualties of Cedarville University’s theological purge of 2012. He is now pastor of Morden Mennonite Church (Canada). You can find more about Pahl at his website. Pahl has written 3 books including The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’s Stories and Revelation’s Visions and co-edited 2 others including Issues in Luke-Acts: Selected Essays.

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I still remember winning the VBS Sword Drill one summer. I was maybe seven, and I could already pick out Obadiah with the best of them. I could also quote John 3:16, Romans 3:23 and 6:23, and all the other must-have-in-your-back-pocket verses crucial for salvation. Our church had prophecy conferences, where smart men in suits quoted the Bible left and right in building their towers of end-times prophecy, right to the new heavens.

I knew the Bible. I loved the Bible. And with that particular knowledge and love of the Bible came a whole set of expectations about what the Bible is and what it’s all about.

It is God’s word straight from God’s mouth, internally consistent from cover to cover. It is God’s literal, inerrant truth about anything that matters, but what matters most is personal salvation: people being saved from eternal hell, God’s just judgment for their sin, in order to spend eternity with God in heaven.

A lot changed for me over the years following my VBS triumph. We attended a different church through my teen years, not quite so hard-and-fast conservative. I then went through some crises of life and faith that pushed me to explore other denominations, even other religions.

I was hungry for meaning, and this hunger became so intense I did the only thing I could think to do: I read the Bible.

I skipped my university English classes to binge-read the Bible, devouring it not in single sword-drill verses but in large chunks: all of Isaiah in one sitting, all of Paul’s letters in another, then all of Genesis, then all of Luke, and so on.

This Bible binging was just what I needed—I found the meaning for life I was craving—but it was also the beginning of the end for the view of the Bible I had grown up with.

For the first time I saw the Obadiahs and John 3:16s of the Bible as pieces of a much larger narrative, a narrative centered on Jesus and encompassing the entire creation.

I realized God wasn’t concerned so much with personal salvation but with cosmic restoration.

I discovered that this world really mattered, that our bodies really mattered, that this life with all its joys and sorrows really mattered, that God created all things good and longed to return all things to that original goodness—or even better.

For the first time I also read the pieces of the Bible alongside each other: two creation stories in Genesis, two renditions of the Ten Commandments, two accounts of Israel’s kingdoms, four Gospel stories of Jesus.

This raised all sorts of questions for me that I wasn’t yet prepared to answer, but there was no doubt in my mind that these parallel pieces were different from each other.

It wasn’t until later, when I began to explore historical setting and source criticism and literary genre that these questions began to be answered—but in a way that made it impossible for me to hold on to the view of Bible I had inherited.

“I was always taught the Bible says X but now I just don’t see it.”

I could fill in that X with quite a few things.

I was taught that Genesis 1 was all about when and how God created the world—in six literal days a few thousand years ago, directly by a series of divine commands. I was taught that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that Deuteronomy’s account of his death and mysterious burial was an instance of prophetic foresight.

I was taught that Jesus’ words in the Gospels were word-for-word what Jesus said. I was taught that there are no real contradictions among the Gospel accounts, that if you just look hard enough there is always a harmonizing explanation.

I was taught that Paul’s gospel was all about how individual sinners get saved, so that after death we can escape hell and enter heaven. I was taught that Revelation was all about when and how God would wrap it all up—pretty much like Left Behind, only for real.

I was taught a bunch of things “the Bible says” that I no longer believe the Bible says.

But yet I still believe.

I remain a committed Christian, in many ways a deeply conservative Christian (hey, I can recite the Apostles’ Creed without crossing my fingers—just one little asterisk by “he descended into hell”). How can that be, when so many have abandoned their faith after leaving behind their conservative bibliology?

I think the answer to that comes down to two things.

First, early on in my journey I came to the realization that Jesus, not the Bible, is the foundation and center and standard and goal of genuine Christian faith and life.

During those early days of reading the Bible in large swaths, I found Jesus, and that makes all the difference: paradoxically, the Bible matters less even as it matters all the more.

And second, along the way, even in the strictest of conservative environments, I always found people who gave me space to ask hard questions and avoid simplistic answers—because they themselves were in that space. It’s a dangerous place, that risky grace of a humble search for truth.

I’m grateful to those who have created those “dangerous places” for me in my life, even at great risk to themselves—and I’m committed to providing that same space of grace for others.