The Doctrine of Christ (part 13)

June 08, 2008     Time: 00:25:40


Craig continues on the Doctrine of Christ (Christology). Resurrection of Christ and competing theories offered. Literal event in history vs. conspiracy theory. Deists. Apparent death theory. Strauss and the mythological interpretation. Subjective visions theory. Objective visions theory. Interpretation theory of the resurrection.

Paul, in Romans 4:24, says, “Christ was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” So the death and the resurrection of Christ together go to earn our justification before God. We’ve been discussing the various theories of the atonement that are found in church history, and I’ve defended a Penal theory of the atonement such as Martin Luther suggested. But today we want to look at the resurrection of Christ and various interpretations of it that have been offered.

You are familiar by now in this class with the historical evidence with the resurrection with the apologetic or defense of the fact of the resurrection that might be offered. So I am not going to repeat that. Rather, what I want to do today is look at various competing theories of the resurrection that have been offered down through history. Then when we come back next week I will say something more about these by way of assessment.

First of all is the traditional view that the resurrection was a literal event. This was the view that prevailed all the way from the beginning right up until the 18th century after Christ. Christ literally came alive in the tomb, left the tomb so that there was an empty tomb left in his wake, he appeared physically and bodily to the disciples, and then finally ascended into heaven, and someday he will return from there to Earth again in the same personal, physical, bodily way in which he left. On the traditional view, the resurrection of Jesus is conceived to be a literal event of history.

This theory came under attack during the Enlightenment. We had the Conspiracy theory offered as an alternative theory of the resurrection. For example, the deists typically embraced this explanation of the resurrection. Who were the deists? Deism was a movement that arose in Europe during the late 17th and then 18th centuries. The deists believed that there is a Creator God of the universe who designed and brought the universe into being and is the source of moral values and to whom we are held responsible for our moral duties, but they denied any special revelation of God in the world. Thus, they denied that God had revealed himself, for example, in the Old Testament law to Moses or in the New Testament to us as the God of Jesus Christ. They would deny that God has revealed himself in the Qur’an as Allah. For them, God is simply the God of nature. God’s general revelation is the only revelation of God that we have. Those of you who have been in this class from the beginning will remember when we discussed doctrine of revelation that theologians distinguished God’s general revelation from his special revelation. His general revelation is his revelation to all men everywhere through nature and conscience. The deist accepted his general revelation, but they denied any special revelation from God. As part of that, deists deny the miraculous. They denied that the God of nature ever intervened in history to produce miracles, which would be a special revelation of himself. For them, this was unthinkable that the Creator God of the universe who made this great mechanism that was often compared to a clock or a machine that this God would interfere with the workings of this great and beautifully functioning machine by tinkering with it and performing miracles. Therefore, an event like the resurrection of Jesus was simply out of the question for them because the resurrection would be evidently a miracle if it were to occur.

So, for example, a theologian like Hermann Samuel Reimarus, who was a German theologian, claimed that the disciples had hoped that Jesus would restore the throne of David to Israel and establish the Kingdom of God but things went wrong and he was crucified.[1] The disciples, however, enjoying the easy life of preaching that they had had with Jesus during his lifetime decided that they would like this cause to go on. So they conspired together to steal the body of Jesus out of the tomb and lie to people about the resurrection appearances by saying Jesus was risen from the dead. Thus the resurrection of Jesus was the result of a great conspiracy among the disciples who hoaxed the resurrection of Jesus. Sometimes these conspiracy theories can be quite elaborate. For example, one of the deists suggested that perhaps Luke the physician had administered drugs to Jesus that would help alleviate his pain and that other members of the order of the Essenes (the Dead Sea Scroll community) were also conspiring in this to hoax the resurrection of Jesus. All sorts of elaborate conspiracy theories were proposed to explain how it is that belief in the resurrection came about. But basically it was a result of conspiracy.

This theory was soon supplanted by another theory in German theology which is called the Apparent Death theory. This was proposed by German rationalists. The rationalists were German theologians who did not want to become deists. They did not want to deny the truth of Christianity, but nevertheless they accepted the deists’ critique of miracles and did not want to allow miracles to occur in history. Rather than simply denying the truth of the biblical accounts of miracles, therefore, the rationalists would try to come up with some sort of naturalistic explanation of the miracles. So all sorts of elaborate natural explanations were developed by these rationalists to explain the miracle accounts of Jesus in the Gospels. For example, Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes was accomplished by having secret comrades hidden in a cave with a store of bread and fish and they would hand the bread and fish out to the disciples from the cave to distribute to the crowd. Or Jesus walking on the water was accomplished by a floating wooden platform just beneath the surface of the waves so that it would appear that Jesus was walking on the water. In this way they would seek to preserve the letter of the Gospel narratives that these events really happened but they would rob them of their miraculous character by providing naturalistic explanations of them.

When it came to the resurrection of Jesus, rationalists like Heinrich Paulus, one of the greatest of these rationalist theologians, said that what happened on the cross was that Jesus did not really die. He had gone to the utmost extremity; there was barely a spark of life left in him when he was taken down from the cross. But somehow laying in the tomb with the lightning storm going on around him, the electricity in the air, the moist atmosphere in the tomb, somehow the life forces within Jesus were regenerated and Jesus came back to consciousness, revived, and managed to escape from the tomb and present himself to the disciples who came to believe that he was risen from the dead. Thus, all of the narratives are preserved – there was an empty tomb, there were appearances, but they are robbed of their miraculous character. Sometimes these explanations of the resurrection could be quite colorful. For example, when Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and Jesus says “do not touch me” Paulus says this is because he was still aching from the wounds of the crucifixion that he had so he didn’t want Mary to be handling him because of his injuries.[2] Interestingly enough this same Apparent Death theory was adopted by the so-called father of modern theology Friedrich Schleiermacher. It is, I think, poignant that the so-called father of modern theology would himself have embraced so fanciful a hypothesis as the Apparent Death theory. It say something, perhaps, about the progenitor of liberal theology.

The Apparent Death theory did not long survive. It was dealt a death blow by the German biblical critical David Friedrich Strauss who proposed in its place a mythological interpretation of the resurrection. In the year 1835, Strauss wrote a book called The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. This really marks a watershed in the history of Christianity. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of Strauss’ book. What Strauss did was apply to the Gospels a hermeneutic or an interpretive framework of mythology. He denied the Conspiracy theory. He said the Conspiracy theory of Reimarus is ridiculous because no great religious movement has ever been founded on a hoax or deliberate falsehood. It was obvious that the original disciples sincerely believed what they claimed was true. Nor could the Apparent Death theory be plausible in Strauss’ view. He says a half-dead Jesus who crept out of the tomb desperately in need of medical attention and bandaging would hardly have elicited in the disciples the worship of him as the risen Lord and conqueror of death. But his rejection of the Conspiracy theory and the Apparent Death theory did not mean Strauss was ready to embrace the literal understanding of the resurrection. Rather, Strauss said that the resurrection of Jesus is a myth. What Strauss meant by that is that myths and legends tend to fasten upon historical figures. So in time fanciful tales about them begin to grow. Think, for example, of the legends of Robin Hood who was apparently a genuine historical individual but around whom all sorts of myths and legends eventually accrued. On Strauss’ view, the resurrection of Jesus is the product of a period of mythological and legendary reformulation of the early church. He thinks that the earliest disciples probably did have visions of Jesus, but in time, as a result of the influence of mythology, this came to be embodied in the narratives of the Gospels of Jesus being physically and bodily risen from the dead and the narrative of the empty tomb.

Interestingly enough, in the 20th century the explanation of Rudolf Bultmann, who we looked at last week, is virtually identical to Strauss’. Bultmann also says that the resurrection and the resurrection narratives of the New Testament are the result of mythological and legendary influences and therefore are not historical and have no historical value in them. The only difference between Strauss and Bultmann would be the philosophical truth that they see in the resurrection. Again, here is Bultmann’s program of demythologization where you strip away the myth to try to discern the truth at the kernel of the myth – the truth that the myth is trying to suggest. For Strauss, he interpreted the truth of the resurrection to be embodied in the philosophy of the 19th century German philosopher Hegel whereas Bultmann, being a 20th century philosopher, turned to the existentialism of Martin Heidegger to find his meaning of the resurrection.[3] Both of them were involved in the same demythologization. Strauss thought that it expressed the truth of the Hegelian philosophy of the unity of the infinite and finite – that really all is one, God and the world are the same, there is no ultimate distinction between infinite and finite. Whereas Bultmann said the truth of the resurrection is Heidegger's insight that we can live authentically in the face of death and that death does not remove the meaning of our existence. On this model, both of them basically conceive the resurrection to be a non-historical product of mythology and legend.

A fifth theory of the resurrection would be Subjective Visions. On this theory of the resurrection, the resurrections were hallucinations induced in the disciples by some sort of psychological trauma. Examples of theologians that held to this view would be people like Immanuel Hersch earlier in the 20th century, Maurice Goguel also in the earlier 20th century. More recently, Gerd Lüdemann, whom I have debated on this subject at Boston College and then again at CalPoly Pomona. Lüdemann would be a contemporary advocate of subjective visions. On Lüdemann’s theory, Peter, having denied Jesus three times prior to his crucifixion, was so guilt ridden that he needed to have some sort of a psychological catharsis to rid him of his guilt. So employing the depth psychology of the German psychologist Carl Jung, Lüdemann thinks that Peter projected externally to himself in the form of hallucinations a kind of deep archetype in the collective subconsciousness of humanity, this archetype of immortality and immortal life, and projects a vision of Jesus alive from the dead. Peter then convinces the other disciples that Jesus is risen from the dead and this leads to a chain of hallucinations so that people come to think that Jesus is actually bodily risen from the dead. In time the legend of the empty tomb of Jesus develops and finally comes to be written down in the New Testament, but originally there was no such empty tomb. So the Subjective Vision theory is one that is still alive today.

Many theologians, however, hold to a different theory of the resurrection which we can call Objective Visions. This seems like something of a misnomer. How can a vision be objective? The idea here is that in an objective vision, one is not simply hallucinating. One is actually having an experience of some reality that is not physically visible. So you are seeing something that is real. It is not just psychologically induced from yourself, but nevertheless, it is not something that exists in the external, extra-mental world. An example would be in the Bible when people have visions of God. God will cause people to see a vision of himself. They are not literally seeing God, because God is invisible, but neither are they just hallucinating. It is not as though they are just bringing forth these visions from their own subjective psychological predispositions. Rather they are having an actual experience of seeing something, but it is not something that is physically visible. It is something that is brought on by God. On this view, the disciples are not hallucinating when they see Jesus risen from the dead. Rather, they are seeing visions of Jesus in glory, risen to heaven.[4] God has given them visions of Jesus in this spiritual reality of being in heaven. They interpret these visions to mean that Jesus has risen from the dead. Again, the empty tomb is usually taken to be non-historical legend. Examples of theologians who have held to this have been Hans Grass who wrote a book in 1956 defending this view, and then more recently my own doctoral mentor Wolfhart Pannenberg takes a view of this sort. Although Pannenberg does accept the empty tomb. Pannenberg believes that the body of Jesus in the tomb was somehow transformed from a physical body into a spiritual reality – that is to say, a non-physical, immaterial reality – and that God gave the disciples objective visions of this spiritual reality which is the resurrection from the dead. Grass and Pannenberg would differ in that Pannenberg would say something actually happened to the physical body of Jesus, whereas Grass would hold (like Lüdemann) that nothing really happened to the physical body of Jesus. It just rotted away in the ground or in the tomb as the case may be, but the disciples saw these visions of Jesus in his spiritual reality.

Finally, the last view is what we might call the Interpretation theory of the resurrection. On the Interpretation theory the theologians claim that the disciples lacked the categories for understanding the experience that they had had. After Jesus’ death, they had some kind of experience of the presence of Jesus with them; somehow Jesus was still real, he was still with them in some way. They experienced his ongoing presence. Not knowing how to express this, they fastened upon the category and language of the Jewish belief of resurrection from the dead. They expressed their experience by the interpretative category of the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead. So they said “Jesus is risen from the dead” or “God has raised him from the dead.” But they didn’t mean that literally. This was just the best they could do to interpret or articulate this experience of the ongoing presence of Jesus in their lives. Examples of theologians who have held to this view would be Willi Marxsen who says basically the resurrection of Jesus means die Sache Jesu geht welter which means “Jesus’ cause goes on.” Even though he is dead, somehow his cause continues – his ongoing presence with them. Then, again, John Shelby Spong, whom I debated on Palm Sunday evening of this year, also holds to this view. He says that after the crucifixion the disciples returned to Galilee where Peter struggled to understand the death of Christ. He had believed that Jesus was the Messiah and yet had been crucified. Peter struggled and agonized for months to understand how to put these two things together. Finally what Peter saw was that the resurrection is the meaning of the cross, and that is that it is in giving love away that you find love. And it is in giving your life away that you find life. So Jesus is still alive in the heart of God. Peter could not find any categories to articulate this insight, so he said Jesus is risen from the dead. He explained this insight to his fellow disciples. They also came to share this insight, and they also adopted Peter’s language of saying God has raised him from the dead, not meant in the sense of a literal event but again just in the sense that Jesus is alive in the heart of God and that this insight is true that it is in giving your life away that you find life. So the belief in the resurrection of Jesus was born.

These are some of the various interpretations of the resurrection of Jesus that have been offered down through history. What I would like to do next week is to give some assessment of these various interpretations.[5]

[1] 5:20

[2] 10:10

[3] 15:09

[4] 20:00

[5] Total Running Time: 25:40 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)