The Historicity of the Resurrection
"All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth." (Matthew 28:18)
As mentioned previously, as Easter approaches I hope to take a closer look at the historical and theological significance of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Often as we consider the Gospel, many of us rightly focus in on the importance of Christ's substitutionary atonement. But as I re-read through the Gospels and Epistles of Paul I am struck by the fact that at the center of the gospel is the message of the resurrection. Both the atonement and the resurrection are inseparable and, by God's grace, I hope to shed some more light, beyond a mere apologetic, as to why the resurrection itself is significant to our salvation. Considering how infrequently we hear sermons on this, perhaps many of us have missed the fact that the message of the resurrection is the power of the Gospel to us. We may have also overlooked its historical significance ... but the early church heralded the resurrection as the central historical redemptive act in the Gospel. Next time I hope to begin talking about the theologial significance of the resurrection to our faith, but today, the historical factor is where we will start.
Prior to the time the Lord opened my heart to the gospel, some of you may know that I was deeply involved in a new age hodgepodge of religions that included the tenents of various aspects of most world religions. Some religions are based on nature, some on mythology, some on mysticism. As I reflect back on what I believed, I recognize that my most cherished presuppositions were utterly devoid of any historical grounding. In fact, at the time, I did not even think to ask how we knew what we believed was true. Instead I simply experienced it through meditation, mystical visions and what I thought to be higher consciousness. Mine was an Oceanic religion, meaning I was was the drop of water merging into the ocean, so to speak.
As I look about the world we find ourselves in, the religions man has developed all seem to derive their authority from some unhistorical philosophical speculation or mystical experience, or even inward experience. For example, Buddhism believes that the world around us is illusory and if we simply emptied ourselves of all our desires and balanced our karma, we could eventually transcend the cycle of re-birth and merge into some egoless void. These are interesting sentiments but the concepts are largely derived through the fruits of meditation and "enlightenment". The question is, enlightened from who or what? No one knows, but they can feel and experience inward sensations which gives validity to the truth of thier claims. But nothing historical, in any way verifies these claims. We are merely told to inwardly experience it. Likewise, religions like Islam and cults like Mormonism, which both have a remarkably similar beginning, rely on the testimony of one person who claims to have met with an angel who gave them revelation. And its adherants are told to trust the experience of the one person. And in the case of Mormonism, if you don't trust him, then trust the burning sensation you feel in your heart.
In the early Church, Gnosticism based its ideas in higher knowledge which despised the world of matter and history. The Old Testament was therefore despised because it was a recounting of redemptive historical events, not some abstract philosophy or way of life. Modern liberal theologians likewise attempt to dehistoricize Christianity any opportunity they get so they can make it simply a moralistic or philosophical system (by removing the miraculous). Remove the truth of resurrection and you remove the offense of the gospel, for what you have left is moralistic platitudes.
The Scriptures of Judaism/Christianity, by contrast, strenuously and repeatedly affirm a God who enters human history, and each redemptive event is accompanied by a great cloud of witnesses to its veracity. It is not based on ideas or mystical insights, but is the narration of an event(s) which was witnessed by many people. There was not merely one person who witnessed the resurrection but 100's, and most of these were still alive when the gospels and epistles were written. They could have debunked it if it were unhistorical, but many of them willingly lost their lives for it. In a similar fashion, the Bible is not written merely by one man, but by an array or persons from various socio-economic backgrounds through history witnessing the actions of the same God.. and the New Testament writers all witnessed the same event. Christ did not leave our religion to chance or speculative moralisms, but centered it on an historical event, the resurrection, Christ's crowning achievement in which he was declared with power to have all authority in heaven and earth.
The exciting aspect of our faith is that it is an historical one which is grounded in true events that occurred in history in first century Israel. If we do not remember that the reason all of our doctrines are true is because of the history that came before them, then our doctrines risk becoming lifeless. Doctrinal beliefs alone do not save us, but rather the historical person and reality to which they point. The history of the resurrection declares that God's redemptive work of history has been accomplished in the Person of Jesus Christ. (As an aside, that is why we must not only study systematic theology, but also just as strenuously study biblical theology. They go together.) Again, we have our doctrinal formulae because of real redemptive historical events carried out by the God who entered space-time history. God actually intervened in the events of normal providence, and Jesus physically rose from the dead. This means our religion is not based in mystical speculation but in real events and experiences through which God made himself known.
Turning to the epistles of Paul, we find that he was not teaching us an abstract philosophy we must follow to earn God's favor, or to live a happy balanced life. Instead, the center of his message was always the historical redemptive event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:1-4). As a result of this, Christianity has always contrasted sharply with other religions.
And it is the centrality of history in Christianity which makes it so scandalous to unbelievers. It means that Christianity alone is true because God has revealed himself in these particular historic events, but not others. This is why the resurrection is historically important to us.
Next time, if the Lord tarries, I hope to focus in on why the resurrection is more than merely an apologetic of Christ's deity - that it also is the fulfillment of the meaning of all history, and then how the resurrection itself is important to the Gospel message.