The Easter weekend edition of Unbelievable? featured a debate over the plausibility of Jesus’ resurrection. It was a discussion between atheist sceptic David Johnson and Christian apologist Jonathan McLatchie which focused primarily on the veracity of the New Testament accounts. It was a debate we’ve all heard before, fought primarily on an academic battlefield where various pieces of historical artillery are positioned to inflict maximal factual damage. The problem I see is that this is a war the average Christian or atheist is ill-equipped to fight. They have already pledged their allegiance to one flag or the other but their oath of loyalty wasn’t penned in a scholarly tome but rather scribbled in ink from the well of daily experience.
If this is true, then the resurrection debate for the average man on the street is less about historical facts and more about life applicability. In a world that is becoming increasingly postmodern, historical and logical proofs for the resurrection are nothing but music for the mind. What the postmodern person really wants to know is if they can dance to its tune. They want to know why the resurrection is practically true and not logically true. Maybe the answer to the believability of the resurrection story goes beyond intellectual satisfaction and is found in the way we live and move and have our being.
Since the historical debate has been conducted by greater minds than my own, I want to offer another way of framing the discussion by building on a comment David made during the debate when Jonathan was integrating the various Gospel resurrection accounts (1:06). He said, “I have little patience for Biblical harmonists…I think it’s disingenuous.”
While David may not like harmonization, it is the task of every historian, philosopher, and scientist. Historians do it when presented with discrepant documents, scientists do it when confronted with conflicting data, and juries do it when they hear contradictory testimonies. Quantum physics is antithetical to classic physics yet physicists don’t get impatient and dismiss the differences, rather they dive in and do the hard work of trying to harmonize them into a theory of everything. We are all confronted with data that seems paradoxical yet we don’t give up. We make every effort to harmonize them because we know that if we don’t then we have failed to engage with the world the way it is.
Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I would argue that what he means is that if one doesn’t try to integrate that which seems disparate then he or she will fail to navigate life properly. Harmonizing isn’t about force fitting but being wise and taking the data seriously. Harmonization doesn’t dismiss seemingly contradictory facts but seeks to understand their connection. Maybe Socrates’ point was that failure to harmonize the seeming contradictions of life would result in suicide of the soul.
What if the resurrection wasn’t just a historical fact but was a metaphysical necessity? What if the Easter argument was less about an empty tomb and more about a fully fleshed out answer to our human dilemma? What if the amazing story in which we find ourselves can only be happily-ever-aftered if we have a resurrection? All the worlds a stage and we are but mere actors but without a cast party our performance turns out to be nothing but a tragedy. Death isn’t the end of the play but an invitation to an after(life) party without all the drama.
While studies vary, the data suggests that only 2-10% of the world’s population identifies as atheists (Wikipedia, demographics of atheism). In a world where a political mandate tends to be defined as 51%, it would seem that these numbers are overwhelming. Is it possible that the intuition of the majority of humans represents the truth and the speculation of the demographically challenged is the delusion?
The vast majority of us believe we are both physical and spiritual beings, the vast majority believe the world is not as it should be, and the vast majority recognize that the problem is humankind. I would argue that it is these near universal insights that drives religion. Humans recognize that these questions are too complicated to be solved by a simple appeal to concatenating atoms. People whose spirits are broken know that there must be a numinous solution.
Religion therefore, is man’s quest to harmonize these facts by explaining why mere mortals would have a spiritual experience, why we believe a flawed world should be idyllic, why the most advanced creatures on the planet would create a global problem, and finally why we need to make devilish humans more angelic? The question then becomes which faith tradition best harmonizes this disparate data and offers the most compelling solution. We cannot settle for second rate answers. Our religious quest must answer them all if we are ever going to sing in perfect harmony.
Interestingly, the answers to these questions are most clearly revealed in the afterlife scenarios offered by each religious tradition. Buddhism and atheism are similar in that they offer an exit from a world defined by suffering. Hinduism offers release from an illusory world and absorption into the unknowable divine. Other religions offer escape of the soul to a spiritual paradise or other planets. If death is such a glorious release then why do we fear it? I think it is because we actually find this planet to be an amazing place and are sad to think that we will have to leave it behind. The beauty of the resurrection is that not only do we not have to leave it behind but we also get to encounter it in the very good way it was intended to be from the beginning.
Christianity takes each essential question seriously and offers the most satisfactory explanation. Genesis describes humans as image-bearers that are both spiritual and physical formed from the dust of the earth yet breathed into by God. The unity of body and soul that God made at the beginning is preserved by the reuniting of body and soul at the resurrection. God initially created a perfect Edenic world and placed humans in it to work and care for it so whenever we consider the lilies we are actually flashing back to better Garden days.
Our faint memories of an idyllic existence are made vividly real at the resurrection. Our rebel yell in the Garden caused the entire creation to groan and we hear its complaints daily. Deep down we know that we are the ones who put creation under bondage to corruption and are well aware that until we are made right the planet will continue to grumble. The resurrection promises that the perishable will put on the imperishable, the mortal body will put on immortality and we will resume our proper place as the children of God and in the process free creation from its captivity. The Good News is that the world we love so much was also loved by God so much that He sent His only Son to save it. Jesus’ resurrection is the preview to the ending of a story that is to good not to tell the whole world about.
Since the majority of people believe in an afterlife we need to take this idea seriously. Holy Books offer us glimpses into what may await us but there is also a significant body of literature cataloguing the stories of those who were clinically dead and encountered a world beyond the grave. While we need to carefully vet these reports and be cautious about building a theology around them, it is surprising how much these Near-Death Experiences (NDE) mimic the Christian resurrection vision. The reports of those who experience NDE’s describe a place of indescribable beauty that looks very much like earth with trees, grass, rivers, and animals. They encounter loved ones and believe that they are in the presence of a being of pure love. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, had such an experience and describes his journey in his book ‘Proof of Heaven’.
I was flying, passing over trees and fields, streams and waterfalls, and here and there, people. There were children, too laughing and playing. The people sang and danced around in circles, and sometimes I’d see a dog, running and jumping among them, as full of joy as the people were.
A scene not unlike that described in the Book of Revelation.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him (Revelation 22:1-3)
Maybe the afterlife isn’t about less earth but a better earth. Maybe death isn’t leaving this planet but arriving where we started and knowing the place for the first time (T.S. Eliot). What if the afterlife is less about cloud condos and more about Garden city living? The resurrection of Jesus was the preview of our own resurrection and answers our universal questions. The One who created the universe restores both the planet and the image-bearers by being the firstborn of the dead. He paves the way for our future stroll on the streets of gold
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
Resurrection isn’t a magic trick or a conjuring act. Resurrection is a fish fry with old friends, a walk with God on a road trip to Emmaus, and a surprise word with a favorite Teacher we thought was on sabbatical. Resurrection is a sign at a Crossroads which says “next exit paradise” even though it feels like our life is on a highway to hell. Resurrection is a breath of fresh air to inspire a diverse people to common action. It is the promise of another wine tasting in the kingdom to come. It isn’t coming back from the dead to once again get lost in the wilderness but a new life as a citizen of a Garden city. Jesus didn’t leave the planet and say so long and thanks for all the fish (and loaves) but remains present in the church today. Although He sits at the right hand of God, He is with us in Spirit as he animates His Body on earth.
Paul says that without Jesus’ resurrection our faith is to be pitied because it means that this life is all there is and our existential questions will never be answered. We all fear dying but it is only through the resurrection that we can look death in the eye and ask, “is that all you got?”
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19, my emphasis)
I’m sure I will be accused of promoting a wish fulfillment scenario bereft of facts and figures but maybe my critics need to ask their left-brain dictator to take a seat and invite the right brain poet up to the podium to reflect on the big picture.
I think we need ask ourselves whether resurrection is a novelty or a necessity and the only way to answer that question is to examine our lives. The resurrection is important because without it we have to walk in David’s shoes and be content to leave a temporary footprint on this earth, but with it the daily walks never cease and we always have a walking Partner in the cool of the day. If your afterlife scenario doesn’t answer your existential questions then maybe you need to rethink your worldview.
Harmonization isn’t such a bad thing, in fact, it makes beautiful music. I’m happy that David finds meaning in an atonal life written by a materialistic one hit wonder but the rest of us want life to be a symphony where the woodwinds, strings, and horns come together in glorious harmony.
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Dr. Erik Strandness is a neonatal physician and Christian apologist living in the Pacific Northwest. He has authored three apologetic books and blogs on a regular basis at http://www.godsscreenplay.com