Posts tagged ‘NT Wright’

The Resurrection of Jesus in History

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

Yesterday, Christians around the world gathered to celebrate the defining claim of their faith:  the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The apostle Paul is very frank in his estimation of the importance of Christ’s resurrection:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17)

Paul places the full weight of Christianity’s reality and practicality on the resurrection’s actuality.  If the resurrection is not a historical fact, Paul declares, then the whole of the Christian faith is foolish.

But how can we decipher whether or not the resurrection happened historically?  N.T. Wright, in his seminal work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, notes that the empty tomb of Jesus combined with appearances from Jesus offers a compelling testimony to the historicity of the resurrection.  If only there was only an empty tomb, Christians would not have been able to claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  Likewise, if there were only phantasms of someone who looked like Jesus, Christians could not have claimed a resurrection.

Wright explains the power of this combination thusly:

An empty tomb without any meetings with Jesus would have been a distressing puzzle, but not a long-term problem.  It would have proved nothing; it would have suggested nothing, except the fairly common practice of grave-robbery … Tombs were often robbed in the ancient world, adding to grief both insult and injury.[1]

Indeed, grave robbery was so common in the ancient world that emperor of Rome shortly after the time of Jesus, Claudius, issued an edict meant to intimidate anyone who would consider pillaging tombs:

Ordinance of Caesar.  It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity … If any man lay information that another has either demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing or other stones, against such a one I order … the offender be sentenced to capital punishment.[2]

Apparently, the problem of grave robbery had become so pervasive that Claudius saw no other recourse to end it than to threaten capital punishment for it.  Wright consequently concludes:

Nobody in the pagan world would have interpreted an empty tomb as implying resurrection; everyone knew such a thing was out of the question.[3]

Wright continues by noting that mere appearances of Jesus alone could also not make a case for a resurrection:

‘Meetings’ with Jesus, likewise, could by themselves have been interpreted in a variety of ways.  Most people in the ancient world … knew that visions and appearances of recently dead people occurred … The ancient world as well as the modern knew the difference between visions and things that happen in the ‘real’ world.[4] 

It is only the combination of an empty tomb along with multiple appearances of Christ that could have given rise to the idea that Christ had, in actuality, risen from the dead.  This is part of Paul’s point when he writes that Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6).  Paul knows that one person can suffer a delusion of a resurrection.  It is much more difficult for 500 people to have the same delusion.  And in case anyone has any questions about what these 500 saw, Paul notes that most of them are still living.  People can simply go ask them.

With all of this being said, a primary objection to the historical veracity of the resurrection remains, which is this:  dead people tend to stay that way.  I have never – and I would guess that you also have never – seen a dead person come back to life.  So how can we accept something as fact in the past when we cannot repeat it in the present?

Again, N.T. Wright offers two helpful thoughts.  The first is that history, by its very nature, is the study of that which is unrepeatable:

History is the study, not of repeatable events as in physics and chemistry, but of unrepeatable events.[5]

In other words, just because we cannot – and, in many cases should not – repeat historical events – such as the crash of the Hindenburg, the sinking of the Titanic, or the horrors of the Holocaust – does not mean that they did not happen.  To apply a standard of “repeatability” to the resurrection in order to accept its truthfulness is to apply a standard by which no other happening in history could be deemed true.

But second, and even more importantly, Wright explains that the early Christians themselves would agree that dead people stay dead!  This is what makes their claim that there was a dead person who did not stay that way all the more astounding:

The fact that dead people not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.  The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim.  It is part of the claim itself.[6]

The early Christians fully understood that what they were claiming was radically unique.  But they claimed it anyway.  Whatever one may think of the historicity of the resurrection, one must at least admit that the biblical witnesses saw something and experienced something that they could explain in no other way than in a bodily resurrection from death.

These considerations, of course, do not constitute an airtight or empirically verifiable case that the resurrection did, in fact, happen.  But history rarely affords us such luxuries.  Nevertheless, these considerations do present us with a case that makes the resurrection, according to the normal canons of history, highly probable and worthy of our consideration and, perhaps, even our embrace.  There is enough evidence that we must at least ask ourselves:  has Christ risen?  And the answer of not only Scripture, but of history, can come back, with sobriety and credibility:  Christ is risen!

Which is why, 2,000 years later, Easter is still worth celebrating.

___________________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 688.
[2] Ibid., 708-709.
[3] Ibid., 689.
[4] Ibid., 689, 690.
[5] Ibid., 686.
[6] Ibid., 712.

April 2, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Death Is Dying

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Even as we celebrated Easter yesterday, it was difficult not to be burdened by the death we see around us every day.  This past Sunday, 44 worshipers lost their lives at St. George Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, both in Egypt, when ISIS suicide bombers detonated themselves in the middle of these churches’ Palm Sunday worship services.  Closer to home, in San Bernardino, a man signed himself into an elementary school at the front desk and then proceeded to walk into the classroom where his estranged wife was teaching and fatally shoot her while also wounding two students, one of whom later died from the injuries he sustained.  After his shooting spree, he took his own life.  Then, of course, earlier this month, there were the sarin gas attacks by the Assad regime against his own people in northwestern Syria.  Death is all around us.

And this is why I am so glad we get to celebrate Easter.

The story of Easter is a story of many things.  It is a story of joy, as the people close to Jesus realize the man who they thought was dead has risen.  It is a story of fear, as the women who come to the tomb that first Easter morning encounter angelic beings who startle and scare them with their fantastic message.  But it is also a story of subversion.  It is a story of subverting all those who prefer death to life.

N.T. Wright explains the subversive nature of Easter well:

Who…was it who didn’t want the dead to be raised?  Not simply the intellectually timid or the rationalists.  It was, and is, those in power, the social and intellectual tyrants and bullies; the Caesars who would be threatened by a Lord of the world who had defeated the tyrant’s last weapon, death itself; the Herods who would be horrified at the postmortem validation of the true King of the Jews.[1]

In a world where terrorist attacks, school shootings, and chemical bombings instill fear into all who see and hear about them, the resurrection of Jesus reminds us that, in the words of the prophet, “no weapon forged against [us] will prevail” (Isaiah 54:17), even if these weapons kill us, for “the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us” (2 Corinthians 4:14).  A tyrant may kill us.  But God will raise us.  This is Easter’s promise.  And this is why it is so good to celebrate Easter at a time like this.  For Easter reminds us that even if this world full of death, we need not fear.  Christ has risen.  And because He has risen, we will rise.

Take that, death.

___________________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York:  HarperOne, 2008), 75.

April 17, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Turkey, Germany, Power, and Love

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Terror doesn’t take a break for Christmas.

This past Monday was a tragic day in Europe.  In Istanbul, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas, who shouted “Allahu akbar!” and “Do not forget Aleppo!” in an apparent protestation of Russia’s recent bombings of the embattled city.  Then, later the same day, in Berlin, a Tunisian man, Anism Amri, is suspected to have driven a semi-truck into an open-air Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring scores of others.  ISIS has claimed involvement in the attack.

In one way, this is all too predictable.  Terrorists are trained and indoctrinated to be callous to human carnage.  They seek power through the exercise of brute force.  ISIS has made no secret of its goal of a global caliphate and, even if it knows it can never realize such a theocratic dream, it will lash out at every opportunity possible to, at the very least, wield power through fear.  Terror attacks will continue.

It is difficult to imagine how Christmas must have felt for the loved ones of those lost in these attacks.  A day that celebrates history’s greatest birth is now tinged by the stain of death.  And yet, Christmas is precisely the message this world needs in the face of these continuing attacks.  For Christmas reminds us how such attacks will ultimately be overcome.

On the one hand, we should be thankful that responsible governments work tirelessly both to prevent these attacks and to bring attackers to justice. On the other hand, we should never forget that such efforts, no matter how noble they may be, are ultimately stop gap measures.  The defeat of terrorism lies not in the power of human governments, but in the meekness and weakness of a babe in Bethlehem.  N.T. Wright explains why this is the case when he writes:

You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means.  If one force overcomes another, it is still “force” that wins.  Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love.[1]

Terrorism is rooted in a lust for power.  But a lust for power cannot, in an ultimate sense, be exorcised by a use, even if it’s an appropriate use, of power.  A lust for power can only be defeated by, to use N.T. Wright’s phrase, “self-giving love.”  And this is where Christmas comes in.  For it is self-giving love that moves God to give His one and only Son to the world as a babe at Christmas.  It is self-giving love that moves God’s one and only Son to give His life for the world on a cross.  And through the meekness and weakness of the manger and cross, victory is won over every sinful use of power.  To use the words of the apostle Paul: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

In the 1980s, one of TV’s most popular shows was MacGyver.  At the heart of the show’s popularity was the fact that no matter how perilous a situation he may have found himself in, MacGyver always seemed to find a way out of it using the simplest of means. A pair of binoculars that deflected a laser beam.  A paper clip that shorted out a missile on its countdown to launch.  MacGyver’s strange and unexpected hacks to disarm every danger imaginable have become so eponymous with MacGyver himself that his name has turned into a verb.  If there is a problem that calls for a creative solution, you can “MacGyver” it!

In a world that knows only the use of force in the face of force, Jesus pulls a MacGyver.  He solves the problem of the abuse of power in a way no one expected.  He uses a manger to enter the brokenness of our world.  And He uses a cross to overcome the sin of our world.  In this way, a Turkish assassin is no match for the manger.  And a Tunisian terrorist is no match for the cross.  Why?  Because though the former things may engender fear, the latter things hold forth hope.  And hope will win the day.

________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York:  HarperOne, 2016), 222.

December 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

2015: It’s Going To Be A Great Year

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA As we begin a new year, it is useful to take a moment to reflect on our lives – where we are, where we have been, and where we are going.  Reflecting is important not only for the realms of finances, family, or fitness, but also for the realm of faith.  For above all, we must realize and recognize who we are in relationship to our Creator.  The British theologian N.T. Wright has written a set of five questions every Christian must answer – or, perhaps more accurately, simply remember the answer already given – in order to appropriately and insightfully take stock of his or her life.  I relay these questions – and their answers – so that you may remember who you are in God’s sight.[1]

Who are we?

We must never forget that, as the apostle Paul writes, we are “in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22).  This means our identity and purpose must always and only be founded and grounded not in the things, titles, or accolades of this world, but in the cross of our crucified Savior. This is certainly where the apostle’s identity is found: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).   If we find our identities in anyone or anything else other than Christ and His cross, we are called to repent and turn back to Him.

Where are we?

N.T. Wright reminds us that we are “in the good creation of the good God.”  Sometimes we can forget, especially when life becomes dark and difficult, that when God created the world, He created it “good” (Genesis 1:25).  Yes, not all is right with creation.  Yes, there is pain, suffering, and tragedy – none of which were part of God’s dream and design.  But try as it might, evil cannot utterly destroy the goodness of God’s creation.   Indeed, God promises to restore the complete goodness of His creation on the Last Day: “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).  For all of its brokenness, we are still in a good place.  Thus, we ought to celebrate and appreciate the home in which God has given us in His creation.

What’s wrong?

In a word, sin is what’s wrong.  Indeed, this is why God’s good world appears so marred and messed up.  Each of us is born into sin generally.  Because of Adam and Eve, the effects of sin plague us all.  This is called “original sin.”  But each of us also commits sins individually and personally.  We transgress God’s laws and do not do what we are commanded to do.  This is called “actual sin.”  Another answer to the question of what is wrong, then, is that we are what’s wrong.  We are the ones who make God’s good world a mess through our injustice and iniquity.

What’s the solution?

In a word, Jesus is the solution.  Jesus is God’s remedy to sin and redemption from sin.  The apostle Peter writes, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).  It is important to note that not only is Jesus God’s solution to sin, Jesus is God’s only solution to sin: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  This means that all other attempts to deal with sin – be they moralistic or legalistic or liberalistic or relativistic – will ultimately fail.  If Christ is not your Forgiver and Redeemer, your sin has not been solved.  Period.

What time is it?

In the Scriptural view, time is not marked by the days on a calendar, but by the acts of our God.  In other words, what matters about the new year is not that we have transitioned from 2014 to 2015, but what God has done for us in the past and will continue to do for us into the future.  N.T. Wright explains cogently the time in which we live:  “We live between resurrection and resurrection, that of Jesus and that of ourselves; between the victory over death at Easter and the final victory when Jesus ‘appears’ again.”  What ultimately makes 2015 so special, then, is that we are another year closer to the coming of Christ and the salvation of our souls.  And that sure and certain hope makes this year a year worth celebrating!

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[1] The questions and quotes in this blog can be found in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 275.

December 29, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Resurrection, It Does a Body Good!

In his book, The Historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan says of Jesus’ resurrection, “Nobody knew what had happened to Jesus’ body.”[1]  Crossan is well known for asserting that Jesus’ resurrection was not a bodily resurrection, but a series of mystical visions experienced by and subsequently promoted by early Christians.  As for the fate of Jesus’ body after death, Crossan believes it was thrown in a shallow grave where it was quickly scavenged by wild animals.[2]  And Crossan is not alone in his belief.  Incredulous at the notion that a dead person can physically rise, many post-Enlightenment thinkers and theologians will speak of Christ’s resurrection as one that took place merely in the minds or hearts of His earliest followers.

The biblical account of Christ’s resurrection is not nearly so scientifically sterilized as Crossan and others make it out to be.  Whatever these people may believe about Christ’s fate after His crucifixion, the biblical authors believed that Christ rose bodily.  Indeed, this is Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15:

Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. (1 Corinthians 15:20, 42-43)

Paul’s argues that Christ’s bodily resurrection is the first resurrection in a long line of bodily resurrections that will come on the Last Day.  The bodies of believers, once perishable, will be raised imperishable.  The bodies of believers, born into the dishonor of sin, will be raised into the glory of perfection.  The bodies of believers, formerly weakened by the Fall, will be raised in eternal power.  The resurrection, Paul says, is bodily.  And not just Christ’s resurrection is bodily, our resurrections are too.

Jesus Himself speaks to the corporal nature of His resurrection when He appears to His disciples:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus Himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at My hands and My feet. It is I Myself! Touch Me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and feet.  And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, He asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?”  They gave Him a piece of broiled fish, and He took it and ate it in their presence. (Luke 24:36-43)

Jesus will not have His resurrection mistaken by His disciples for a measly apparition.  This is why He invites His disciples to look at and touch His hands and His feat.  This is why He eats a piece of fish.  Jesus has risen bodily.

So why is this even important?  Why make such hay out of whether or not Jesus rose bodily?  Three reasons come to mind.  First, the bodily resurrection of Christ is the linchpin of our faith.  To deny this is to lose everything.  As the apostle Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).  To deny the resurrection of Christ is to deny all of Christ and His work.  There can be no compromise on His resurrection.  Second, the bodily resurrection of Christ affirms the goodness of God’s creation.  God created bodies.  And He cares about bodies.  Christ’s resurrection is proof of this.  For God could not stand by to see His Son’s body wrecked and ruined by a cross.  And God will not stand by to see our bodies and wrecked and ruined by sin.  And this leads to the third reason Jesus’ bodily resurrection is so important.  The bodily resurrection of Christ is a promise our bodily resurrections on the Last Day.  The fact of the matter is this:  our God is just getting going when it comes to resurrections.  One day, graves will be emptied, death will be defeated, and the redeemed of the Lord will cry,  “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting” (1 Corinthians 15:55).  What a glorious day this will be.  And this is why I believe in the resurrection of Jesus’ body and in the resurrection of mine.  For such a resurrection is the hope and promise of life everlasting.


[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 394.

[2] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 160.

April 9, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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