Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Resurrection: Surprised by Hope

This week are only a few brief reflections on one of the reasons the Resurrection matters, based largely on NT Wright's book Surprised by Hope.
The other day, while reading through NT Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven and the Resurrection, a few pages he wrote stood out. The book itself is a marvelous reflection on what Christians ought to think about life after death and why, and why what we think about the next life matters so much in this one. After spending a couple early chapters discussing the historical basis of Christian beliefs on life after death (or as he says more appropriately, life after life after death), Wright turns to drawing out the meaning and importance of those beliefs in the rest of the book. Before he gets there, however, he offers a few brief reflections on why people do not want to believe in the Resurrection.

By way of example, he offers the following scene from Oscar Wilde's play, Salome, when King Herod hears reports about Jesus of Nazareth raising the dead. Herod is furious. "I do not wish him to do that... I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead. This man must be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead" (Wright 75).

This, Wright says, is the bluster of a tyrant who knows his power is threatened. Who, he continues, was it who do not want the dead to be raised? The tyrants and bullies, whether, social, political, or intellectual. "The Ceasars who would be threatened by a Lord of the world who had defeated the tyrants last weapon, death itself... And this is the point where believing in the resurrection... becomes of matter of rediscovering hope in the 21st century. Hope is what you get when you realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview where the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word (Wright 75).

The tyrants who would insist that "dead men don't rise" are of various sorts, they take the form of people or places like Stalin or China who would ban religion. They might take the form of some intellectual bully (college professors are a common one) who insists that no "modern" person could possible believe Resurrection (though this belief is not modern at all, but very old and outdated, Homer and pagan Greece and Rome thought as much). All such and others would try to deny to the modern world the sort of hope the resurrection provides, because people without hope, are people who are easier to control. People with hope can transform the world.

But the hope of the Resurrection cannot be brushed aside. This hope is not optimism or a warm, fuzzy feeling of the sort that may be provided by a smooth talking politician or a sufficiently large alcoholic libation. Hope is the determination in a future world, with death defeated, a future world that begins here and that we are called to begin here. It is not "going to heaven when you die;" It is bringing the Resurrection and the new creation to the present world. To paraphrase Fulton Sheen, the Resurrection is not something that has happened, it is something that is happening, and something for us to participate in.

Happy Easter

No, they're not "special"

Contrary to greeting card sentiments, I do not think that the Eucharist is meant to make us "special."

Last week, we were going to a First Communion, and I wanted to give a card. And of course I wanted to find a good one. So we (yes, I made him come look with me) went to look for a card. The first place we looked only had one left that I didn't like very much. So the next day we tried another place, which had a bunch to choose from, and one annoying thing in common. There is a very great over-use of the word "special" in these cards. "For a special boy" dominated the fronts of many of the cards, or sometimes something about "your special day" or, to really overdo it: "For a special boy on his special day." Yes, some cards did actually have an otherwise meaningful sentiment inside, and I found a couple that I really liked. I give extra points to cards that actually use the words "Eucharist" or "Sacrament" as well.

I know that I should not place too much importance on how greeting card sentiments are written, or have too high an expectation of knowledge on the part of those who write them. Some of the sentiments in the cards, though, did seem to have been written by someone with at least some understanding of the doctrines around the sacrament of the Eucharist. Some even sounded as if they may have been written to be Catholic, with reference (or at least implication) to the Real Presence of Jesus. The people who write these cards seem to know that a) receiving the Eucharist for the first time is a big deal and b) it's a big deal because of what it has to do with Jesus/ God's Grace, etc. They must know at least that.

So why this apparent need to assign "special"ness to the recipient? Why cloud the meaning of an otherwise meaningful sentiment about receiving the Grace of the sacrament with a "you're special" statement stamped first and foremost? The main problems I see with this are a dislocation of the significance from the sacrament itself to the recipient, and also an invention of personal achievement on the part of the recipient.

There seems to be a strong need to emphasize individual specialness in our culture, as in, being inherently and independently "special"n in one way or another, or just in a general sense. If we are "special," whatever that is supposed to mean, we are such because that is the way God has created us, but it does not come from the reception of a sacrament itself, as if it's a personal achievement of some sort; that's not what the sacraments are for. We do gain something from every sacrament that was not there before we received it, but to use an over-applied term like "special" really cheapens the value of the sacrament. To use it in the context of conveying a message to a child, it is particularly misleading to him. A child will not realize that in this context, "special" is (hopefully) meant to imply being imparted with God's grace, but to him it means "I am special, I have achieved something because of how special I am on my own, all by myself." I don't think this is what we should be teaching our children when they receive the Eucharist. Instead of saying "You're so special you get to have communion with everyone else now," we should be saying, "This is God and his grace you are receiving, this is why you need it, and why it will now help make you a better person."

So I guess what I am getting at is that we seem to think that we are already inherently great persons, and do not need God in order to achieve this personal greatness which we already assign to ourselves. This error we convey to our children when we emphasize specialness over God.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Resurrection and History

We continue to celebrate the Easter Season by considering the Resurrection. Last week’s post was some simple reflections on Updike’s famous poem on the Resurrection; this week briefly considers some historical evidence for the Resurrection; the next couple weeks will consider other aspects of it and why it matters.

St. Paul famously wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is in vain,” while centuries later John Updike echoed him saying if He did not rise in His body, “the Church will fall.” Unlike every other religion and mythology, Christianity is unique in being based on a single historical event, without which it cannot survive (1); here then, I will consider briefly some evidence for that event sketching an argument developed by modern scholars such as N.T. Wright and William Lane Craig.

A good sketch of evidence for the Resurrection will have two parts, 1. Establish 3 facts (the empty tomb, appearances of the risen Christ, and the origin of Christian belief, and 2. Establishing that the best explanation of those facts is that the Resurrection really occurred.

I. The Three facts:

A). Jesus’ Burial and discovery of his empty tomb three days later.

1. The discovery of the empty tomb in multiply attested in early, independent sources. The pre-marken passion source, Paul’s letter to Corinthians mentions it, Matthew is an independent source since he includes the guard at the tomb, which is not in Mark.

2. Mark’s story is simple and lacks significant legendary development. (esp. compared to later Gnostic gospels which are real legends.

3. The empty tomb was discovered by women. Women were not regarded as reliable witnesses, so their presence indicates the account is probably legit, since no one would invent women as discovers of the empty tomb.

4. The earliest Jewish allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body (Matt. 28.15) shows that the body was in fact missing from the tomb. The only reason to put that story there was if the Jews were really claiming that Jesus’s followers stole his body, by which they admitted the tomb was empty.

5. The disciples could never have preached the Resurrection unless the tomb were really empty. No one would have believed them

- For these and at least 3 other reasons, Gary Habermas found in a survey that 75% of scholars admit the empty tomb. “Experience of the Risen Jesus” Dialog 45 (2006):292.

B. Appearances of the risen Christ on multiples occasions to multiples individuals.

1. “The list of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances which is quoted by Paul in I Cor. 15. 5-7 guarantees that such appearances occurred. These included appearances to Peter (Cephas), the Twelve, the 500 brethren, and James.”

2. The gospels account for multiples appearances, including to the women. The latter are probably reliable for the reason given above. They would not have been made up.

3. The appearances were physical. Paul in Corinthians implies this, Jesus invites Thomas to touch his side, Jesus eats a fish. If the appearances were not physical, the disciples would not have said Jesus was raised, they’d say they saw his ghost.

- Even the radical skeptic Ludemann agrees that these appearances happened. He simply disagrees on the best explanation of them, by arguing that they are simply hallucinations.

C. The Origin of Christian Belief: The Disciples Came to Believe, in Spite of Every Reason Not to, That Jesus Was Really Raised From the Dead (This section is largely from NT Wright).

1. The ancient world always used the word “Resurrection” to mean a physical bodily resurrection. And they universally, from Plato, to Homer, through ancient Greece and Rome, agreed that Resurrection in this sense did not happen.

2. The sole exception was the Jews, who came to believe there would be a Resurrection of all the just, at the end of time.

3. Among the early Christians, however, this belief underwent some remarkable changes: a. Resurrection moves from the periphery to the center, b. Early Christians came to believe one man has been raised ahead of time, c. Early Christians came to believe that the Messiah has been raised, d. Resurrection becomes something Jesus’ followers could contribute to in the present life.

4. Finally, in early Christianity, as opposed to Judaism and paganism, there was virtually no spectrum of belief of life after death.

5. Beliefs in life after death, being very important and precious to people, tend to be very conservative. For Christians to 1). show such changes and 2). agree almost completely, this demands explanation

Part II- The explanation of these three facts.

The most probable explanation of these three facts is that Jesus of Nazareth really did rise from the dead leaving behind an empty tomb. It easily exceeds other explanations in explanatory scope, power, and other criteria for best explanation.

Please Note- none of these arguments assume the Bible was written early or that it was written by the first generation. I only claim that it is sufficient, when treated as a historical source, to establish the facts listed above.

Further Reading:

- Beginner/Popular Level:

NT Wright, Surprised By Hope Rethinking Heaven and the Resurrection, chap. 3-4.

NT. Wright,

William Lane Craig, The Son Rises

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, chap. 8.

- Academic

NT. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God.

(1). Of course, we cannot confuse the existence of the event with evidence for the event. If the Resurrection were shown not to have occurred, then Christianity would fall, but it might have occurred and there could simply be little evidence for it (though I think the evidence remarkably good).