If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised… and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins... If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15.13-19)
Stark words from Paul, a founding figure of Christianity.
This passage is often quoted by those in the church pulpit, highlighting the centrality of the resurrection to the Christian faith. Other doctrines may be considered peripheral; you can disagree on a number of issues while still remaining safely within the lines of orthodoxy. Not the resurrection, however. If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, then questions around baptism, women in leadership and whether or not to have a drum kit in church all fade into insignificance.
What also makes the resurrection stand out is its nature; it’s not simply a matter of abstract theory or theological speculation, it’s a historically-verifiable event! Of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that. Things rarely are.
In practice, while the resurrection is the event on which Christianity would rise or fall, it’s also impossible to know with any certainty whether it actually took place.
To give full disclosure, I’m certainly no expert in this area. Nonetheless, a few years ago I read through Michael Licona’s seven-hundred-page epic, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, in which he outlines his case for the resurrection. The book is highly commended, and at the time I read it, I was a wavering Christian desperately wanting to be convinced of its truth.
I was left with a feeling of, ‘Huh, that’s reassuring, I guess.’
It was a well-crafted case, raising a number of points that the skeptic would need to address, and the reader was assured that there was indeed some historical grounding for their beliefs. So why did it feel so hollow?
I suppose at this stage it would be helpful to provide a very brief summary of the evidence that is generally presented to support the historicity of the resurrection. Firstly, some would argue that an early ‘creed’ or statement of faith regarding the resurrection can be dated to within years of the supposed event, leaving little room for the wholesale invention of legend. Secondly, the fairly rapid expansion of the early church would indicate that there was indeed a real cause which ignited it, in particular as some of the first Christians died for their faith, something which would make little sense if they knew that what they were dying for was false. And thirdly, the conversion of Paul from Christianity’s fiercest opponent to its greatest advocate would be difficult to account for if it weren’t for an encounter with the risen Jesus.
There are other details as well – and a great number of counter-arguments – but those are the highlights.
Ultimately, while the story added up, it also felt underwhelming. I suppose I’d hoped that the Son of God being raised from the dead would have left a little more immediate historical impact than what we had been left with, as it appeared a matter of interpreting some complex and contested claims to find the best fit. But I suppose that's history for you. And that summarizes how I understand the nature of the evidence in favour: it’s enough for a Christian to feel confident that they’re holding a reasonable position, but not enough to persuade someone who is skeptical or indifferent.
I saw this play out in practice a number of years before even reading the book, as I invited one of my close friends to a church service. The youth pastor was giving the talk that evening, and to my pleasant surprise he delivered what I saw as a compelling case for the resurrection event. Over the course of the sermon I would snatch glances sideways to see if it was making any impact, though it was hard to tell. I don’t remember our conversation afterwards in any detail, but suffice it to say that he was not as convinced as I was.
And why should he have been? I wanted it to be true, and I believed that it was, so of course I would leap on anything that appeared to give substance to my faith! He had no reason to jump to any such conclusions, however. It simply wasn’t compelling to anyone unless they wanted it to be.
If I have sufficient cause to doubt Christianity as a whole, it therefore provides a good grounding to doubt the specific resurrection claim.
I sometimes hear Christians say that if it were proven to them that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, they would no longer believe. That of course makes sense, and the reverse would be true for me. But it nonetheless feels like a disingenuous claim.
You see, given the nature of the event in question, I’m not sure it’s possible to prove that it didn’t take place, nor could you prove that it did (through historical means at least; if Jesus appeared in person today, that should convince most skeptics!) The most you could do is offer the best explanation for the minimal facts available. That’s where this matter seems to be oddly weighted: it’s the single part of Christianity on which everything else rests, and yet it’s also the least verifiable; it’s always going to be interpreted based on the observer’s prior commitments.
This is why you don’t find a great number of people changing their religious positions based on historical evidence for the resurrection. I’m aware that accounts such as that recorded in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ might seem to fly in the face of what I just said, but the rarity of such stories, and the high regard Christians hold them in as a result would make them exceptions which prove the rule. Most converts who enter the church tend to do so for social reasons or through some kind of religious experience; they’re usually not driven through the doors by historical data.
In fact, a resurrection of divine origin is not really a historical claim, it’s a theological one. That does not discount it in itself, but it means that it must be evaluated within the theological framework from which it cannot be separated.
If I’m told an unlikely story by someone I have prior cause to doubt, then that is sufficient grounding to disbelieve what they say. Of course, if I’m later faced with undeniable evidence for their tale, then I would be forced to rethink my position, and perhaps regain a tentative trust for that person. But until then, I’m simply left with an unverifiable story from a questionable source.
And that’s what I see with Christian claim for the resurrection.
It’s the theologically-interpretive nature of the evidence which is ultimately why I remain unconvinced; I have a number of problems with the Christian worldview. I’m aware of the argument that if Jesus really was raised from the dead, then that should give me good reasons to reevaluate how I see the world, but it also works the other way around: if I have sufficient cause to doubt Christianity as a whole, it therefore provides a good grounding to doubt the specific resurrection claim.
The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is embedded within a framework which includes historically-untrustworthy scriptures, a deity with a morally-dubious character, logically problematic doctrines, inconsistency between theology and experience, and a number of other difficulties. With this great weight stacked up against it, I’m hesitant to jump on board with any assertion the tradition makes, let alone the one that God became human, was put to death, breathed once again, and then lingered around for forty days before ascending into the sky.
I should clarify that this does not mean I am wedded to some form of methodological naturalism by which I believe that any natural explanation is automatically more plausible than the resurrection, no matter how ridiculous. I am aware of and agree with the difficulties that accompany such a position, namely that if Jesus actually did rise from the dead, it would be impossible for the naturalist to accept this.
The resurrection is a possibility in my mind, but a possibility it remains.
As I close, I would like to emphasize what I hope I have made clear throughout: belief in the resurrection of Jesus is a reasonable position to hold. In the same way, I also believe that various forms of Christianity, excluding its more fundamentalist incarnations, are also reasonable. The fact is that people can approach a topic rationally and still arrive at different – and sometimes opposite – conclusions. That is simply the nature of evidence and interpretation.
The only claim I am making is that the nature of the evidence in question is overcast by the great weight of problems I find within the belief system in which the resurrection story is embedded.
That’s why I’m not sold.