(C) 2003, Don Mize
An article, “The Jesus debate that never dies,” carried by the Africa News Service in 13 April 1998, restates the arguments against the resurrection of Jesus. The original article seems to have been written by Margaretta wa Gacheru and to have appeared in The Nation (dateline Nairobi). Many of the arguments are merely updates of ancient rhetoric and can be summarized as follows: Jesus only appeared to die on the cross; the whole story is an invention; the scientific world view makes it impossible to believe; the resurrection was a psychological reaction on a mass scale; and/or that the disciples stole the body of Jesus.
An empty tomb proves nothing but that the tomb is empty. An absent body proves only that the body is gone. However, arguments for the resurrection have always existed. An 11 April 2001 United Press International article entitled “Faith: Historians Say Resurrection a Reality” gives an update. A summary follows: the earliest Christian writings insist on the admittedly illogical fact of the bodily resurrection as central to the gospel (I Corinthians 15), choosing fact over understanding; Tacitus, the Roman historian, mentions the death of Christ (Tacitus, Annals XV); Luke should be taken as seriously as any other ancient historian; early Jewish arguments against the resurrection agree that the tomb was empty; Jesus probably could not have survived, medically speaking, given the torture and the crucifixion (Matthew 26-28); a half dead Jesus escaping the tomb wouldn’t cause a reaction of worship.
Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish New Testament scholar quoted in the article, points out that for a beaten and weary band of disciples to be transformed overnight into a victorious faith movement by some psychological delusion would be a greater miracle than the Resurrection. Also, Lapide points out that anyone attempting to invent a story would not have women be the first to find the empty tomb: women were so lowly regarded in that society as to make their witness useless. The article concludes by pointing out that the resurrection of Jesus remains the best explanation for the origin of the Christian faith.
As interesting as arguments for and against the resurrection may be, the fact remains that few people believe in a risen Christ because of logic or probability. The risen Christ walks abroad confronting, now as then, those in despair. An article in the 3 January 1997 issue of Theological Studies by Kilian McDonnell entitled “Spirit and experience in Bernard of Clairvaux” discusses the concept of “experience” in the writings of St. Bernard (1090-1153). St. Bernard lived before modernism drove a wedge between theology and experience. McDonnell concludes, among other things, that Bernard’s concept of experience is that the experience of God is a gift, not something a person can make happen.
Also, Bernard saw the dangers involved in interpreting one’s own experience. For Bernard, faith and Scripture marked the boundaries of experience, acted as escorts for experience, and authenticated experience. McDonnell rightly concludes that, even though an appeal to experience has dangers, religious experience cannot be replaced by texts, authority, theological demonstration, or anything else.
Dostoyevsky, the Russian novelist, was arrested as a young man and sentenced to be executed by a firing squad. Mark Richard Barns tells the story in the1 September 1998 issue of the World & I in an article entitled “Dostoyevsky and holy Russia.” Minutes before his scheduled execution as he was saying goodbye to his friends, Dostoyevsky looked at the world and the people around him with a new fascination. A general rode up and read a decree from Czar Nicholas I that reduced the death penalty to hard labor. Dostoyevsky always dated the beginning of his spiritual regeneration to the minutes before his mock execution: he saw things differently. While in prison in Siberia, and during his forced service in the army, he read the Gospels constantly. After he was pardoned by Czar Alexander II in 1859, he began to set forth his insights in novels considered among the greatest in world literature.
Dostoyevsky wanted to restore the mystical element to the Russian Orthodox Church, for he realized that the living Christ made present through the Holy Spirit is not understood by logic but by experience. In Brother’s Karamazov, in a fable told by one of the characters, the Grand Inquisitor jails the returned Christ and points out all the weaknesses of his followers after fifteen centuries of Christianity. The only answer Christ gives to all the arguments is to kiss the old man, shaking him to his core.
When I was fourteen years old, during a family crisis, I began to pray
and read my Bible in a different way. The resulting religious experiences
changed my life. Although my understanding of my faith has changed
(and will continue to change), no one can take away from me those early
experiences. I discovered in my own existence the first gospel proclamation:
“he is not here; he is risen.”