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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Communicating the Claims of Easter

The focus of my last post was the public character of the resurrection that makes the gospel rather different from the sheer power of personal assertion or experience. Here are some suggestions for communicating this central Christian claim to others—and not only at Easter!

    Suggestions for Conversations

  1. The gospel’s effects are deep and wide, so you can start anywhere in the argument. For example, in the philosophers’ forum in Athens, Paul began by telling his Epicurean and Stoic audience that they misunderstood who God is and how he relates to the world. God is neither irrelevant and aloof from the world (contra the Epicureans) nor part of the world (contra the Stoics). Though he doesn’t depend on the world, the world depends on him and God is concerned and involved with the world he has created, governs, and saves. It’s an argument for Christian theism, showing unbelievers how they cannot even live consistently with their own assumptions unless the Triune God known in Scripture is the source of all reality. You can also begin the conversation by sharing your own experience—the difference Christ has made in your life, as long as you realize that this isn’t the gospel itself. Or you can go straight to the resurrection and work more inductively, from the most particular claim to its broader implications.
  2. On one hand, don’t assume that you and your conversation partner share the same assumptions. On the other hand, don’t assume that you don’t share any common ground. Especially to the extent that one has been shaped by the naturalistic presuppositions that dominate academic culture in our day, a claim like the resurrection will be ruled impossible at the start. Miracles do not happen because they cannot happen: that’s the a priori assumption of the deistic/atheistic worldview of today’s Epicureans. If you’re reasoning with modern “Stoics”—basically, a pantheistic worldview, the assumption will be that everything is divine and miraculous; so the idea of special divine interventions like the resurrection will seem just as foreign to New Agers as to New Atheists. Again, you can begin by exposing the irrationality and inconsistency of these worldviews and then discuss the resurrection within the context of a biblical worldview or begin with the resurrection claim. One strength of the latter approach is that the resurrection, as a historical event, disproves their worldview. Here is an event that actually happened, which their worldview cannot account for. Even if they do not accept the argument, much less trust in Christ, this can at least help to weaken their excuse that the biblical claim is nothing more than private assertion or experience, unaccountable to public debate. It can help to expose to our friend the fact that he or she is “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness”—that is, no longer rejecting the claim because of reason but because of the same irrational act of mere will that he or she had attributed to believers.
  3. Remind yourself that the Spirit alone can give people faith through the gospel. As in the account of his raising of Lazarus (Jn 11), Jesus may ask us to roll away stones, but only he can raise the dead. The apostles not only testified to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but reasoned with Jews and Greeks. They gave arguments and evidences. At the same time, the gospel itself is “the power of God unto salvation…” (Rom 1:16) and it has to be proclaimed.

    Some Arguments for the Resurrection

  1. First, the New Testament itself provides historical access to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To be sure, Scripture is the authoritative Word of God. However, even in conversation with those who do not share this conviction, we can point out that the New Testament texts enjoy an unrivaled transmission history compared with other historical texts.1 Historians rely on the eye-witness reports of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. You can pick up an English edition from Amazon. Yet there are only 8 copies and the earliest dates from 1,300 years after its original writing. However, we possess today fragments and manuscripts of the New Testament that date within decades of their origin and tens of thousands of ancient copies.
  2. Second, there is the evidence of the Old Testament prophecies. Perhaps a first-century Jew could have claimed one or two, but the probability of one person fulfilling literally hundreds of these prophecies made centuries before is statistically impossible. Except that one actually did. Like Cinderella, Jesus is the only one who fits the glass slipper of Old Testament promise. This is one reason why the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide startled the liberal Protestant academy in 1982 with The Resurrection of Jesus, arguing that Jesus rose from the dead—even though Lapide does not believe that he was the Messiah.
  3. Ancient Jewish, Roman, and Christian sources agree that Jesus lived, died, and was buried. This is not even disputed by the scholarly consensus.
    • According to the Jewish Talmud, “Yeshua” was a false prophet hanged on Passover eve for sorcery and blasphemy. Joseph Klausner, an eminent Jewish scholar, identifies the following references to Jesus in the Talmud: Jesus was a rabbi whose mother, Mary (Miriam), was married to a carpenter who was nevertheless not the natural father of Jesus. Jesus went with his family to Egypt, returned to Judea and made disciples, performed miraculous signs by sorcery, led Israel astray, and was deserted at his trial without any defenders. On Passover eve he was crucified.2
    • Late in the first century, the great Roman historian Tacitus referred to the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate (Annals 15.44). In AD 52, the Samaritan historian Thallos recounts the earthquake and strange darkness during Christ’s crucifixion (reported in Luke 23:44-45), although he attributes the darkness to a solar eclipse.3
    • Of course, alternative explanations to Christ’s death have been offered. The so-called swoon theory speculates that Jesus did not really die, but was nursed back to health to live out his days and die a natural death. In Surah 4:157, Islam’s Qur’an teaches that the Romans “never killed him,” but “were made to think that they did.” However, we know also from ancient sources how successful the Romans were at crucifixions. The description in the Gospels of the spear thrust into Christ’s side and the ensuing flow of blood and water fit with both routine accounts of crucifixion from Roman military historians as well as with modern medical examinations of the report.4 As for the Islamic conjecture, no supporting argument is offered and the obvious question arises: Are we really to believe that the Roman government and military officers as well as the Jewish leaders and the people of Jerusalem “were made to think that” they had crucified Jesus when in fact they did not do so? Furthermore, why should a document written six centuries after the events in question have any credence when we have first-century Christian, Jewish, and Roman documents that attest to Christ’s death and burial? Roman officers in charge of crucifixions knew when their victims were dead.

Liberal Rabbi Samuel Sandmel observes, “The ‘Christ-myth’ theories are not accepted or even discussed by scholars today.”5 Even Marcus Borg, co-founder of the radical “Jesus Seminar,” concedes that Christ’s death by Roman crucifixion is “the most certain fact about the historical Jesus.”6 There are numerous attestations to these facts from ancient Jewish and Roman sources. Even the liberal New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson concluded that the burial of Jesus in the tomb is “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”7

The burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels (Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:50; Jn 19:38-39). This is a specific detail that lends credibility to the account. Furthermore, it’s an embarrassing detail that the disciples would not likely have forged. After all, according to the Gospels, the disciples fled and Peter had even denied knowing Jesus. Yet here is a wealthy and powerful member of the ruling Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), coming to Pilate to ask for permission to bury Jesus in his own tomb.

Adding to the embarrassment, according to John 19:38-42, Joseph was assisted in the burial by another leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus (who met with Jesus secretly in John 3). Joseph was of such a stature that Pilate conceded to deliver the body over to him, but only after confirming with the centurion that Jesus was in fact dead (Mk 15:44-45). Everybody who was anybody knew where this tomb was, especially Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There was no question about where Jesus had been laid.

The controversial claim is not that Jesus lived, died, and was buried. A little more controversial, though, is the claim that his tomb was empty on the third day. However, this is disputed by contemporary rather than ancient opponents.

  • Romans, too, were concerned about the disruption caused over Jesus’ empty tomb. A marble plaque was discovered with an “Edict of Caesar” commanding capital punishment for anyone who dares to “break a tomb.” Called the Nazareth Inscription, the decree was provoked by disturbances in Jerusalem and the plaque has been dated to somewhere near AD 41.8
  • Suetonius (75-130 AD), a Roman official and historian, recorded the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 48 because of controversy erupting over “a certain Chrestus” (Claudius 25.4).
  • In a letter to the Emperor Trajan around the year 110, Pliny the Younger, imperial governor of what is now Turkey, reported that Christians gathered on Sunday to pray to Jesus “as to a god,” to hear the letters of his appointed officers read and expounded, and to receive a meal at which they believed Christ himself presided (Epistle 10.96). Although unable to locate Jesus, dead or alive, the very fact that Jewish and Roman leaders sought alternative explanations for the resurrection demonstrates that the empty tomb was a historical fact. For the gospel story to have come to an easy and abrupt end, the authorities would only have had to produce a body.

Unsatisfied by alternative explanations (mass hallucination, a mere vision of a spiritually risen Christ, the disciples’ theft of the body from the tomb, etc.), Pinchas Lapide concludes that “some modern Christian theologians are ashamed of the material facticity of the resurrection.” Their “varying attempts at dehistoricizing” the event reveal their own anti-supernatural prejudices more than offering serious historical evaluation. “However, for the first Christians who though, believed, and hoped in a Jewish manner, the immediate historicity was not only a part of that happening but the indispensable precondition for the recognition of its significance for salvation.”9

Today, like every day since the first Easter, some mock, others express openness to further discussion, while still others embrace the Risen Christ, exclaiming with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). Not only the Lord and God, but “My Lord and my God!” If faith involves knowledge, it is more than that; it is trust. It is not merely believing that Jesus of Nazareth is the risen Christ, but embracing him as our Lord and Savior.

We know God as our redeemer through his saving work in Jesus Christ. It is this revelation that is strange, counter-intuitive and even offensive to our fallen hearts. Contrary to our distorted intuitions, the gospel does not encourage our conquest of heaven through intellectual, mystical, and moral striving. It announces that even while we were enemies, he reconciled us (Rom 5:10). While we were dead in sins, he made us alive in Christ (Eph 2:5). We are saved by God’s good works, not our own (Eph 2:8-9). Because we are sinners, God’s speech is disruptive and disorienting. It is not we who overcome estrangement, but God who heals the breach by communicating the gospel of his Son. |The Word of the Risen Lord ~Our Lord’s resurrection is not just a wonder: one of those things that we chalk up to mysteries that we don’t yet have the tools to explain in natural terms.

First, the resurrection means that Jesus’s claims concerning himself must be ours. This one who was raised claimed to be the eternal Son of the Father who came down from heaven, the Word incarnate (Jn 1:1-4, 14). He prophesied his own death and resurrection, as well as the destruction of the Temple (which occurred a little over three decades later). The religious leaders were able to conclude from Jesus’ words and deeds that he “made himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18), and Jesus did not dispute this charge. Jesus assumed the role of judgment on the last day, which the prophets reserved exclusively for Yahweh.

Second, the resurrection means that Jesus’ view of Scripture must also be ours. Even Jesus submits himself to Scripture and the phrase, “It is written,” is for Jesus the highest court of appeals. The words of the prophets are simply the word of God for Jesus (Mt 4:4, 7, 10; 5:17-20; 19:4-6; 26:31, 52-54; Lk 4:16-21; 16:17; 18:31-33; 22:37; 24:25-27, 45-47; Jn 10:35-38).

Jesus assumes as historical truth the miraculous events, laws, and doctrines of the Old Testament. Also well-attested is the calling and authorization of the Twelve as his apostles, although Judas was replaced with Matthias. Jesus said that to hear the apostles is to hear Jesus himself, and to receive them is to receive the Father and the Son (Mat 16:16-20; 18; 28:16-20; Ac 1:8). The apostles themselves understood that they were speaking authoritatively in Christ’s name and in spite of some friction early on, Peter acknowledges Paul’s writings as “scripture” (2 Pe 3:16). Taken together these writings are called a canon (from the Greek kanon, “rule”): the norm for faith and practice.

Even more decisive for the liberation of his kingdom than George Washington for the American republic, Jesus founds his empire in his own blood. And the New Testament is his new covenant constitution.

[1] Historians today rely on classics like Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, Caesar’s Gallic War, and Tacitus’ Histories. The earliest copies we have for these date from 1,300, 900, and 700 years after the original writing, respectively, and there are eight extant copies of the first, ten of the second, and two of the third. In contrast, the earliest copy of Mark’s Gospel is dated at 130 AD (a century after the original writing) and there are 5,000 ancient Greek copies, along with nearly 20,000 Latin and other ancient manuscripts. The sheer volume of ancient manuscripts provides sufficient comparison between copies to provide an accurate reproduction of the original text. Ironically, a number of fashionable scholars attracted to the so-called Gnostic Gospels as an “alternative Christianity” have far fewer manuscripts and the original writings cannot be dated any earlier than a century after the canonical Gospels.[Back]

[2] Joseph Klausner, Yeshu ha-Notzri (Hebrew), Shtible, 1922. Translated and reprinted as Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Bloch, 1989), 18-46. Collected over the two centuries following Christ, the Talmud is of course further removed from the events than the New Testament. However, it contains a number of older fragments. Even the liberal Jewish Rabbi Samuel Sandmel observes, “Certain bare facts are historically not to be doubted. Jesus, who emerged into public notice in Galilee when Herod Antipas was its Tetrarch, was a real person, the leader of a movement. He had followers, called disciples. The claim was made, either by him or for him, that he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem, possibly in 29 or 30, and there he was executed, crucified by the Romans as a political rebel. After his death, his disciples believed that he was resurrected, and had gone to heaven, but would return to earth at the appointed time for the final divine judgment of mankind” (Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3rd ed. [Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010], 33). The basic historical claims of the Apostles’ Creed are present in this description of the earliest belief of the Jewish Christians.[Back]

[3] Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 19-20. [Back]

[4] See, for example, William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255 (1986). See also the extensive bibliography on this point in Gary R. Habermas, “The Core Resurrection Data,” in Tough-Minded Christianity, ed. William Dembski and Thomas Schirrmacher (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 401 fn 10-11.[Back]

[5] Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3[rd] ed. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publications, 2010), 197.[Back]

[6] Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1987), 179.[Back]

[7] John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973), 131.[Back]

[8] Clyde E. Billington, “The Nazareth Inscription,” Artifax, Spring 2005.[Back]

[9] Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1982), 130.[Back]