Absurdity compounded into blasphemy” is the way Paul Tillich describes the traditional Christian belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is not alone in his provocative and radical sentiment. A distressingly wide range of theological opinion today, centering in the Bultmannian camp, would agree that taking the Resurrection as a fact of history is more of an offense to faith than a support for it. Obviously this kind of assault on biblical Christianity deserves careful and decisive rebuttal. And it is well to realize the precise nature of the modern objection. For this skepticism goes far beyond mere doubt in the cogency of the evidences for the Resurrection into unbelief of a more subtle variety. If the Resurrection were, for the sake of argument, an actual occurrence, then what could it mean? It is the problem of meaning, hanging over the question of objectivity, that gives modern man a fright.

Paul was so certain that the Resurrection, like all other events, took place on the stage of world history that he confidently adduced proofs of its historicity (1 Cor. 15:3–11). Indeed, he boldly affirmed, “If Christ be not raised, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (15:14). The person who is prepared to expose the Resurrection to the test of impartial public examination like this is manifestly convinced of its occurrence. The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann is less sure but feels Paul’s argument at this point to be fatal. He is alarmed at the prospect of seeing the Resurrection rendered uncertain by critical investigation. Therefore, he seeks to immunize the event from the secular historian in the interests of faith. He does so by severing the resurrection event from the space-time line of world history, and by relocating it on the shadowy level of “theological history.” What he has done becomes clear immediately. By banishing the Resurrection from real history, Bultmann has also robbed it of its saving power. For its value to faith consisted precisely in this, that it occurred in genuine history.

Contrary to much modern theology, it is in fact no weakness to rest our faith on God’s activity in history. Biblical revelation and history go hand in hand. The Resurrection is an event that actually occurred in secular history, whether or not the non-Christian cares to admit it. The Gospel is universally valid for all nations, because its foundation articles are objectively true. Man is faced by a decision he cannot ultimately evade, because the Gospel confronts him in his world.

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Beyond The Evidence

The real enemy of the Resurrection is the philosopher, not the historian. The Greeks offended by Paul’s preaching on the Areopagus were upset, not by the misuse of historical evidence, but by the idea of a resurrected body. They might have been content with Paul’s message had he employed the Resurrection as a helpful parable or existential symbol. But the one thing they could not tolerate was a resurrection inside history. The implications of such a claim were just too revolutionary to be contemplated. An affirmation of grandeur concerning the prophet Jesus, yes; but nothing more tangible than that! It so happens, however, that the New Testament will not permit the loss of the factualness of this event.

Most modern unbelievers are not interested in the evidence for or against the Resurrection. In actual fact, such evidence is quite compelling. It is at least conceivable that, faced with the available historical data for the Resurrection, some non-Christian might admit its probability. But every investigator interprets his facts within a philosophical framework. For most secular historians this means that only those events have significance which fit in with the empirical universe, excluding God and the supernatural. Therefore, even if probable, the Resurrection would be such an odd, inexplicable occurrence that it would be absurd to the secular historian. It would remain an offensive surd until it shattered the naturalism that rejected it.

Modern man believes the Resurrection is absurd, then, not because the evidence for it is weak—he seldom pauses to examine that—but because it cannot fit in with his world-view. He is a confirmed naturalist. There is but one level of reality, Nature is all there is, the whole show. The Resurrection implies an inadmissible thought, that a higher level of being exists, outside the range of his senses, to which the glorified body of Jesus belongs. Until he will admit the possibility of a theistic world, no amount of evidence will convince modern man that the Resurrection is not absurd, it is an evangelical responsibility to clarify that understanding of reality, the biblical world-view, in which this event makes sense and indeed proclaims victory.

Though it seems a little odd, the radical Christians at Corinth did not actually deny the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:12). Instead, they rejected the coming resurrection of all men, an awkward concept they doubtless considered crude. It is extraordinary that Paul was able to convince them of the empty tomb. His evidence must have struck them with some weight, for their belief in this went against their normal disbelief in the idea of resurrection. The man who does not believe in ghosts, for example, requires very compelling evidence from the person claiming to have seen one! These Corinthians probably spiritualized the notion of resurrection and continued to think of life after death in terms of the immortality of the soul. For had they not already “risen” with Christ, being in possession of all that really mattered (Rom. 6:4; 1 Cor. 4:8)? Resurrection was a thing of the past (2 Tim. 2:18).

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The relevance of all this is clear. Jesus’ resurrection must have appeared to them as a freak event. They believed it, but it defied explanation in their worldview. And because a freak event is meaningless, it was but a very short step to denying the event itself. Unless this resurrection in the past has a meaning for us which only its literal eventness can convey, it is silly to insist on its objectivity. In point of fact, this is so. The rationale of the bodily resurrection lies deep in the nature of redemption. It was the first stage in the redemptive chain reaction that has our bodies in view.

Redemption Is Physical

The Bible describes the new creation in a far more concrete way than many realize. When the average man thinks of life after death, he sees a grey mist. He thinks of the beyond as timeless and spaceless, a world in which particulars are undifferentiated, dissolved into the ocean of generality. His conception is constructed out of negatives. Beside this the biblical picture is most specific, crammed with solid description of city and land, avenues and persons. The language may be profoundly metaphorical, but the analogy between this world and the next is nonetheless real. If C. S. Lewis was right, we may expect the new creation to be more real than the old! By contrasting the modern and biblical ideas of the world to come, we come into contact with the true problem of resurrection. There is no place in the modern conception for a resurrected body; this belief demands a radically different worldview.

It is time that evangelicals made this point very clear. Too often, reasons adduced for the bodily resurrection are trivial and inconsequential. The well-known hymn announces: “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” A warm sentiment, but a weak reply to doubt. This mystical nearness of Jesus is mediated by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). But his glorified body is not present in this world. The risen Christ dwells with the Father, interceding for us at his right hand (Rom. 8:34). Actually, the hymn requires only that the “spirit” of Jesus somehow survived his death, an idea very far from belief in resurrection. It is even insufficient, if not misleading, to speak of the Resurrection only as God’s seal on Christ’s atoning work. For this explanation makes the event simply a useful corroboration of something else; it does not establish its intrinsic value and indispensability. Other possibilities were then open to indicate his approval. But the Resurrection cannot be optional to Christianity. Its factual character is essential and is constitutive of Christian faith.

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Modern man is preoccupied with death. Philosophy has never found it possible to absorb this brute fact of life. Existentialism accepts death and the bitter nihilism that goes with it. Death allows man no peace of mind. It cancels his hopes and dreams. Nowhere does human life seem more absurd than in the shadow of death.

But the Resurrection can change all that. A new chapter in world history was suddenly opened. For the first time, the curse of sin was lifted from the creation. Death could not hold Jesus (Acts 2:24); he emerged triumphant from the grave. As risen Man, he stands at the head of a new humanity. Creation is poised on the rim of renewal. His glorified existence holds the promise of our own. Death has been overcome.

But this sounds strange to modern ears. Man forgets that his world is really God’s creation, that when God made a physical body, he meant it. Flesh is not repugnant to God. It is a worthy vehicle of existence and is capable of resurrection by God’s power. In Christ, God has begun to redeem the whole man, body and soul, whom he created in his image. In reality, therefore, the bodily resurrection is only “blasphemy” to Zeus, the Greek god of dualism. It is not so to Jehovah, the Lord of Creation.

Ultimately, rejection of the bodily resurrection boils down to rejection of the doctrine of creation. Modern man does not accept his nature as embodied creature. He seeks, not salvation by resurrection, but escape by deification. It is not intellectual integrity that forbids belief in this event! It is a deliberate philosophical refusal to face the world as God created it. God would save the whole man; the unbeliever wants no part of this. And apart from repentance and faith, he shall have none.

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The universe has heard the word of triumph and longs for deliverance from corruption and decay (Rom. 8:19–22). But it has this hope solely because a Man was raised in glory from among its children. The Resurrection announces that new day when sin and death will be banished and God alone will be King in the midst of his new people (Rev. 21:1–22:5). Hallelujah! “He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken.”

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