Doctrine of Christ (part 16)

January 11, 2012     Time: 00:31:40

We have been talking about the work of Christ. We did a section on the person of Christ, and now we have begun a section on the work of Christ. We talked about the death of Christ and theories of the atonement, and now we are looking at his resurrection.

We began to look at various theories of the resurrection, or interpretations of the resurrection. These included the original, literal view that was defended by the church fathers, the Conspiracy Theory of the early deists, the Apparent Death Theory of the natural explanation school of theology, the Myth Theory that was popularized by D. F. Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann, the Subjective Vision Theory, and the more recent Objective Vision Theory.

Interpretation Theory

Now we come at last to the view of the Interpretation Theory (this is what I call it, for want of a better name). This is a view of the resurrection that has been propounded by certain contemporary theologians like Willi Marxsen (a German theologian) or the Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong.

Basically what this view says is that the disciples, after Jesus’ crucifixion, had some sort of profound experience of Jesus – something that radically altered their lives – , but we can’t say what that experience was. Indeed, the disciples themselves really were at a loss for words to describe what this experience was of Christ’s presence and forgiveness. So, for want of a better interpretive category for this, they latched onto the Jewish category of resurrection from the dead. They said, “He is risen from the dead” – that was a means of expressing this sort of mystical experience that they had had of Christ after his death. So it wasn’t intended to be literal; it wasn’t intended to say that the body got up out of the tomb and was alive again. Rather it was just an interpretive category borrowed from Judaism to describe their mystical experience of Christ.

Spong relates this to Peter’s denial of Christ. He says that Peter had denied Jesus three times just at the time that Jesus needed him most; after Peter had sworn allegiance to Jesus until death, he then failed Jesus. So Peter went back to Galilee burdened with guilt, under tremendous anguish from having denied Jesus, and he couldn’t reconcile this in his mind. Here he had believed Jesus was the Messiah – Jesus was the one anointed and promised by God – , and yet now he was dead. And this just didn’t make sense to Peter. As a means of alleviating this sort of guilt complex that he wrestled with, he had this experience of Jesus and began to see that Jesus had forgiven him for his betrayal and that he was forgiven now by Jesus. Peter, in order to describe this experience, said, “He is risen from the dead!” The other disciples then also began to adopt this metaphorical language of being risen from the dead, and that is how the belief in Jesus’ resurrection originated as a sort of interpretive category for the experience of Peter.


Question : I was curious whether all these interpretations and explanations of the resurrection have been eliminated from current thinking or are they alive and well?1

Answer : I would say that the last three that we talked about are still on the table, at least to be discussed. You are quite right in saying that none of these views has attracted a great number of followers. They all represent small minority positions. But, for example, Spong is still a contemporary figure who holds to this view. Pannenberg – this Objective Vision View – I think is the one that is probably most widely held because, in a sense, it really is a belief in Jesus’ literal resurrection. It thinks that Jesus really did rise, but it denies the physicality of the resurrection appearances. So that one is still on the table. Lüdemann, for example, holds to this Hallucination Theory. If you deny that Jesus rose from the dead, then you pretty much have to hold to some sort of hallucinatory explanation of the disciples’ experiences of Jesus’ appearances because virtually everybody agrees today that these original disciples did have these experiences of seeing Jesus after his death. So if you don’t believe they really saw him, you pretty much have to explain it away psychologically.

Followup : So they are really naturalists – they don’t believe in any sort of supernatural intervention or explanation, so they have to hold on to this because it is the only way to make sense of it, given that basis and that foundation of their belief system, right?

Answer : Except for the Objective Vision Theory, I think that is quite right. They are very clearly motivated by naturalism. The watchword among these folks is that the resurrection of Jesus is not “the resuscitation of a corpse.” That is how they characterize the orthodox view – the resuscitation of a corpse. That is a caricature, obviously. No orthodox theologian thinks that the resurrection of Jesus is synonymous to the resuscitation of a corpse like Lazarus. Lazarus experienced the resuscitation of a corpse, or a revivification. But the resurrection of Jesus was a transformation of Jesus to an immortal, spiritual, powerful, glorious form of existence that is quite different than Lazarus’ revivification. Steve Davis, who is a contemporary Christian philosopher, has said that when he began to read literature on the resurrection by these critics, he kept wondering, who are these people that believe in the resuscitation of the corpse view? And he kept looking for them, and he said, of course, he never found them because this is just a caricature that is painted by these naturalists who reject nature miracles and so have to find some other way of explaining the data than an actual resurrection from the dead.

Now the Objective Vision Theory is different. People like Grass and Pannenberg, I think, are open to the miraculous. Pannenberg would say, and has said, that the historian cannot assume that miracles do not occur. You cannot use our present experience to rule out the extraordinary and the unusual in the past. Every event in history is, in a sense, unique, and we must let history speak for itself, and we can’t impose the grid of the present over the past to reduce it all to just natural events. So these folks would be open to supernaturalism. But they are different from the literal view in that someone like Grass doesn’t think that the tomb was empty. He thinks that Jesus rose in a spiritual body that was quite different from the physical body that remained in the tomb. Pannenberg, on the other hand, does believe in the empty tomb. He thinks that the body in the tomb was transformed into some sort of a spiritual body. But both of them would deny the physicality of the resurrection appearances. This would be the view that would be the closest to the literalist view – this Objective Vision view.

Question : You mentioned Pannenberg. I know you studied with him. Why would he find it easier to accept a supernaturally implanted objective vision than he would just to a literal resurrection? Is that because the degree of miracle involved; that it appears to be easier to accept?2

Answer : That doesn’t seem right, does it? If you believe that God raised the body of Jesus from the dead and transformed it into some sort of spiritual existence, how is that any less miraculous than physical appearances after the resurrection? It doesn’t seem to make sense. I don’t think that Pannenberg’s objection to the appearances is based on naturalism or a bias against miracles. He is already committed to miracles in affirming the empty tomb. Rather, I think it would be exegetical, frankly. He is convinced by Grass’ exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15 that when Paul talks of a spiritual body, what he is talking about is an immaterial, invisible, unextended body. Therefore, the Gospel appearance stories are late legendary developments that represent a kind of materializing of the original, primitive, spiritual experiences. The original experiences were just these visions of Jesus. It would be similar to Stephen’s vision of Jesus in Acts 73. When Stephen is being stoned, he sees the heavens open and he says, “I see the Son of Man in the heavens.” Nobody else saw anything, but Stephen saw this vision of Jesus. And I think that Pannenberg would say that that is similar to what the original resurrection appearances were. They were these visionary events and then they got corrupted and materialized and turned into the Gospel appearance stories, which are very, very physicalistic. So his ground for denying the physicality of the resurrection body and the appearance stories isn’t philosophical; I think it is exegetical. I think it is based on a bad exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15.

Followup : Where does Karl Barth fall in this spectrum?

Answer : Karl Barth was perhaps the most influential theologian in the 20th century. He wrote very early in the 20th century and then throughout. Barth helped to lead the rebellion against the old liberal theology represented by people like Schleiermacher that we talked about before. Barth reasserted what has been called neo-orthodoxy – a kind of return to orthodoxy. But it was very ahistorical and in a sense almost anti-rational. Barth distinguished between two adjectives in German – that which is geschichtlich and that which is historisch. The word geschichtlich comes from the word Geschichte, which means “history”. It just means historical. Historisch is just a different version of the word “historical.” In German you sometimes have words that have different roots but they are virtually synonymous – they mean “historical.” But Barth distinguished between what is geschichtlich and what is historisch. We can render this in English maybe in this way – what he meant by geschichtlich is historic and by historisch he meant historical. There is a difference between something’s being historic and something’s being historical. To say it is historical meant it really happened. But to say it is historic meant it is of monumental significance and importance and it makes a difference. You might say, for example, that George Washington’s chopping down the cherry tree was a historic event in its importance. But in fact it wasn’t historical – it never really happened. So what Barth says about Jesus’ resurrection is that it is geschichtlich, but he doesn’t want to affirm that it is historisch. He doesn’t want to make it available or accessible to the secular historian to explore. He wants to shut off the resurrection of Jesus from the knives of the biblical critics, who will go after the resurrection historically and try to disprove that it occurred. So it is a kind of strategy of insulating the resurrection from history by saying it is historic, but he won’t affirm it is historical, and that way it is sealed off from the negative critiques of the historical critics.4

Well, Pannenberg was Barth’s student! I have heard Pannenberg say, and he says in his writings, that the problem with Barth’s view was that it made Jesus and the resurrection safe only by making it irrelevant. It put it off in a sort of fairyland safe from the historical critics, but then at the same time immune to historical verification. And it becomes virtually the same as mythology, as any other non-historical myth that has great historic significance. Barth once said that “the resurrection of Jesus touches history only as a tangent touches a circle, that is to say, without really touching it.” That is virtually a quote from Barth. I am not even sure about the analogy because a tangent does intersect a circle, right? It intersects it at one point. So at least there is a point of history where you would want to say this really occurred. But I think you can see how Barth wanted to isolate or insulate the resurrection from historical criticism. So, did he believe in the resurrection of Jesus? I think he did. I think he probably really believed it happened, I suppose. But his theology of the resurrection is such as to make this dichotomy between this event and history.

Question : So Pannenberg believes that Christ died and sowed a physical body and raised a spiritual body? Why does Pannenberg think that he was not able to materialize with that spiritual body just like the angel did with Samson’s parents?5

Answer : Good question! My former Greek exegesis teacher, Murray Harris, who is a New Zealand New Testament scholar, had a view according to which Jesus’ resurrection body is essentially immaterial and spiritual, that is to say, he accepted the view that Christ’s resurrection body is this immaterial, invisible, intangible “body.” But since Harris taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, which is an orthodox institution, he affirmed that Jesus made these special materializations in the appearances to the disciples because he was, so to speak, condescending to the disciples’ level to help them understand that he was risen from the dead. They wouldn’t get it otherwise. So this was his way of kind of stooping down to their level to appear to them materially so that they would believe that he was risen from the dead. But, in fact, the resurrection body wasn’t really material in that way. Why doesn’t Pannenberg hold a view like Harris’? I think probably Pannenberg would just say that that is ad hoc, that is to say, contrived, and that it is better to just say that the appearance narratives in the Gospels are legendary and therefore they are not reliable.

Question : This seems a throwback to Gnosticism – a false dichotomy between the physical and spiritual. The question is – well, if this is a spiritual resurrection, then the authorities (Jewish and Roman at the time) had a vested interest in producing the body, so why didn’t they just produce the body?

Answer : Those are excellent points. I do think that contemporary liberal theology has a definite tendency towards Gnosticism in its bias against the materiality of the resurrection and the resurrection body. I think Platonism is a lot stronger than we think. As you say, Christianity has been anti-Gnostic in affirming the value of the material body, the goodness of the physical creation6. We do not regard the body as Plato did, as the prison house of the soul from which we want to be liberated and fly away. Rather the doctrine of the resurrection shows the everlasting value of human materiality and corporeality, and Jesus takes it with him into the afterlife. He doesn’t slough off the body and leave it behind. It is a very anti-Gnostic point of view. What motivates this [Gnostic view] is what someone said earlier – namely, scientific naturalism – which thinks that miracles are impossible and therefore you have to just have sort of spiritual events taking place but you can’t have literal physical events that would be miraculous in nature.

Question : I remember you addressed this objection, but I don’t remember what your answer was. The objection is, what about “flesh and blood can’t enter the kingdom of heaven?”

Answer : In 1 Corinthians 15:51, Paul says, “Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed . . . at the last trumpet.” He says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither can the corruptible put on the incorruptible.”7 Some exegetes have said this proves that Paul did not think that the resurrection body would be physical because he says “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” What these folks fail to understand and what commentators in general recognize is that the expression “flesh and blood” is an idiom in Semitic speech for this perishable human nature. Paul isn’t talking about anatomy there. He is saying this perishable human nature cannot inherit the kingdom of God and therefore needs to be transformed. When you look elsewhere in the New Testament at how Paul uses the expression “flesh and blood,” this is very evident. For example, in Galatians after his conversion on the Damascus road, he says, “I did not confer with flesh and blood, but I went away into Arabia.”8 Obviously, he is not talking about anatomical flesh and blood that he would go and confer with! He meant, “I didn’t talk to people; I didn’t talk to anybody; I went away into Arabia.” Or in Ephesians 6, he says, “for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness.”9 There Paul is contrasting earthly human creatures with these heavenly, powerful, demonic beings, and he says our struggle isn’t with flesh and blood. Obviously, again, he is not talking about anatomy there. This is an idiom that connotes the human nature as we experience it now. Paul is saying that this human nature – frail, sinful, perishable, corruptible – cannot inherit the kingdom of God and therefore must be transformed. So the second half of the verse repeats in parallelism exactly what the first part of the verse says: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does the corruptible inherit the incorruptible.” Therefore, you must have this transformation into an incorruptible, immortal, resurrection body. So I think those who try to use that verse to say that Paul did not believe in a physical resurrection body have failed to understand the idiom behind it and the structure of the passage.

Assessing the Different Theories

Conspiracy Theory

Let’s begin to look at the apologetic significance and assess the different views. I am going to skip over the literal view and save that for last and go to the first counter- explanation of the resurrection, which was the Conspiracy Theory. According to this view, the resurrection was a hoax perpetrated by the earliest disciples – they basically banded together and said, “Let’s lie to people that Jesus is risen from the dead. We will steal his body out of the tomb, dispose of it secretly, and then tell people that we have seen him risen from the dead.”10

Well, this theory on the face of it is outrageously implausible psychologically. Nobody who reads the pages of the New Testament can doubt that these people sincerely believed the message that they proclaimed. Indeed, they were willing to die for the truth of this message, and some of them did die for it. Now you might say, “Lots of people have died for a lie – David Koresh or Jim Jones or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Muslims in many cases.” Right! But in every case, they thought it was the truth! This view suggests that these people made up this hoax and then went out preaching this view and were willing to suffer horrible deaths for it. That is just enormously implausible psychologically. There can’t be any doubt that these people, even if deluded, at least sincerely believed that Jesus was risen from the dead.

Even more fundamentally, however, the Achilles Heel of this Conspiracy Theory is that it is anachronistic. That is to say, it tries to interpret the disciples’ situation through the rearview mirror of Christian theology. It looks back on the disciples and says, “Oh, they wanted to convince people of the resurrection, so they stole the body and lied about it.” But that is to look at their situation through the rearview mirror of a church and a culture that already believes in the resurrection of Jesus. You have got to go back to first century Judaism and put yourself in the disciples’ shoes, when no one had heard of such a thing as a [historical] resurrection from the dead. For a first century Jew, the idea of a Messiah who, instead of triumphing over the enemies of Israel, was defeated by them and humiliatingly executed as a criminal was just a contradiction in terms. There was nothing in antecedent Judaism of such a Messiah. Messiah was supposed to be the royal Son of David, the heir to the throne of Israel, who would reestablish David’s throne in Israel, throw off Israel’s enemies and subjugate the Gentiles around them. Of course, in the first century, that meant Rome. That meant that the Messiah had to throw off the yoke of Rome and reestablish David’s throne in Jerusalem. The idea that this Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified by the Romans, naked, as a common criminal, that he was really the Messiah after all, is just absurd from a Jewish point of view.

Moreover, there was no connection whatsoever between being the Messiah and being risen from the dead. Even if the disciples had come to believe that Jesus was a Jewish martyr or something of that sort, the resurrection from the dead was something that only occurred after the end of the world on judgment day – the so-called eschatological resurrection, the end-time resurrection. There is no resurrection to glory and immortality within history. There is never the resurrection of an isolated person separated from the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.

So the idea that the disciples would cook up this scheme to say that Jesus was resurrected from the dead is totally anachronistic. Given their first century Jewish thought forms and frame of thought, they would have simply preserved Jesus’ tomb as a shrine where his bones could reside – the bones of the dead were collected into ossuaries to await the final resurrection at the end of history – , and his bones could reside there in his tomb. Perhaps they could make pilgrimages to the tomb on a regular basis, and they would look forward with longing to that day when he and they and all of the righteous dead of Israel would be reunited in the kingdom of God in the resurrection of the last day. But to suggest that he was really the Messiah and was risen from the dead is something that is completely anachronistic. It is putting later Christian theology back onto the disciples in a way that is not true to the historical situation in which they found themselves.

Therefore, I am not aware of any contemporary scholar who would hold to the Conspiracy Theory. This theory has been dead for over 200 years.11


Question : I would agree with you except I wouldn’t say it is 100% anachronistic. I would say it is 80%. A relatively small body of Messianic prophecies had what is called the “suffering Messiah” as typified by Isaiah 53. The rabbinical training – I guess we can forgive them for saying how can you have a suffering Messiah and an all conquering Messiah all in the same person. Since they were looking to overthrow Rome and looking for a national identity, they accepted the majority of the prophesies. We now know that you can explain that with two trips: the first trip he came to die, and the second trip he will come for other things.

Answer : Exactly, it is all done in retrospect! I would say the same thing about the Isaiah prophesies. Those are not Messianic prophesies, read from the standpoint of a first century Jew. Those are about the suffering servant of Yahweh, but there is no suggestion that this is Messiah. It is only when you read them in retrospect later on that you could then reinterpret them in that light and say, “Ah, now I see them in the light of Christ!” But we are talking about people who are in a first century situation before any idea of [historical] resurrection from the dead or anything of that sort. They would not and did not (that is historically the case!) read those prophesies in that way. The dominant image of Messiah was this royal Davidic king, which Jesus just didn’t fit the image of.12


1 4:55

2 9:53

3 cf. Acts 7:54-59

4 15:11

5 cf. Judges 13

6 20:00

7 cf. 1 Corinthians 15:50, 53-54

8 cf. Galatians 1:16-17

9 cf. Ephesians 6:11-12

10 24:56

11 29:45

12 Total Running Time: 31:40 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)