Category Archives: NT Wright

Bell and Hell: NT Wright Comments

You can see the video here:

http://altervideomagazine.com/2011/05/23/wright-on-hell-bell/

It was a relief, after all of the firestorm of criticism, to hear a generally positive take from Wright – one that is not unlike my own. The last minute is the best summary of the book I’ve heard yet.

He questions American obsession with hell at the start, but I think he gives the explanation for it later: its become too central in the way many of us approach Christianity. I’m not sure why he can’t connect those dots.

My favorite line: one theologian, he says, states that “I’m not a universalist, but maybe God is.” I like that.

RSG 4: “I told you: I don’t believe in the resurrection! I only believe in science!”

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[This is the final part in a series of posts that summarize NT Wright’s argument for the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus in The Resurrection of the Son of God.  You can read my overview of his argument here.]

In my house, the movie Nacho Libre is treated with a level of affection that is normally reserved for cult classics, such as Blazing Saddles or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t quote or otherwise make a reference to a gag from this movie.

My favorite supporting character is Esqueleto, Nacho’s wiry, and not-so-bright wrestling partner, who is brought to life by Mexican actor Héctor Jimenez.

Esqueleto is an ardent athiest. When Jack Black’s character asks him why he has not been baptized (one suspects moreso because he is seeking every advantage he can find in his clandestine wrestling career than because he is concerned for his soul), Esqueleto repeats the classic line: “I told you: I don’t believe in God. I only believe in science!”

Jiminez delivers this line in a way that makes you fairly certain that – despite what he suggests – he has not spent a lot of time pondering the relative advantages of the modern/empirical and ancient/mystical worldviews. Nevertheless, Esqueleto does raise the objection that is the primary barrier to whether one can consider that the resurrection of Jesus has been “proven.”

Wright’s argument, you may recall, can be broken down into two parts. First, Wright argues extensively that the early Christians believed that Jesus really did rise from the dead. They weren’t using resurrection merely as a metaphor. They believed not only that it had happened, but that among them were many people who had witnessed it. Second, he argues that the best explanation for this belief is that it really happened. No other explanation – particularly an argument that the evidence of it was falsified – seems realistic.

But for people like Esqueleto, the term “realistic” is precisely the problem with the concept of resurrection. If one’s worldview is structured such that you don’t believe in God, and in which you are convinced that the universe functions solely in accordance with scientific laws, any other explanation is more acceptable than the explanation offered by Wright. It may be wildly improbable, for example, that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross after all, but at least it is possible in a universe that is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.

If you, like Esqueleto simply cannot escape a modern/empirical worldview which renders the concept of resurrection to be impossible, Wright understands. However, he does offer one parting thought, which he hopes may help to erode the foundation of modernism that has created so many skeptics.

Wright goes to great lengths – particularly in the early chapters of RSG – to demonstrate that the worldviews that were prevalent in Jesus’ time didn’t allow for resurrection, either. In an exhaustive analysis, for example, he showed that the pagan worldview always assumed that, once you were dead, there was no coming back. Indeed, for Platonic philosophers, it would not even be desirable to come back. Similarly, a large number of Jews adhered to the teachings of the Sadducees, who were clear that death is the end of existence.

Only the Pharisees believed in the possibility of resurrection. However, their belief was that resurrection was something that would happen on “the last day” – a day of judgment appointed by God. No  Pharisee ever thought that a resurrection had actually occurred, or that it was even possible that resurrection would happen before that time.

The point is simple: you can adhere to your belief that dead people don’t get up and walk around based on a scientific worldview, if you like. However, you should realize that your particular worldview does not put you in a superior position to judge the evidence, in comparison to those who actually claimed to have experienced it. They had every reason – maybe even more – to be skeptical about what had happened. Yet they still believed.

 

So there you have it: Wright’s remarkable defense of the historicity of resurrection. For those of us who are willing to think that there is more to the Universe than what we can see and measure, it is quite a convincing case. For the rest of us, the case isn’t as good. However, even for the skeptics, there are reasons for wonder.

RSG 3: The Explanation for Resurrection

[This is part 3 of a series of posts that summarize NT Wright’s argument for the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus in The Resurrection of the Son of God.  You can read my overview of his argument here.]

As I’ve already mentioned, Wright is essentially making two broad moves in his argument for a literal, physical resurrection. First, he demonstrates that the early Christian communities firmly believed that they had witnessed a physical-plus-more resurrection of a human corpse. I sketched out the major lines of arguments for this move in my last post. Second, he argues that the most reasonable explanation for this belief is that it actually happened, though some of the accounts that are passed down to us may not be correct in every detail.

image If it didn’t happen as the Christian communities believed, what are the alternative explanations for their strong convictions to the contrary? The three that are most often cited are: (1) Jesus didn’t actually die, (2) mass hysteria or illusion, and (3) the accounts were fabricated by some of Jesus’ closest disciples.

Wright does not give much credence to (1) or (2), and he doesn’t spend much time addressing them. They are not very popular among modern critics of a literal resurrection. The first alternative explanation (that Jesus never actually died) assumes a failed crucifixion. But, at the time, the Roman army was the most efficient killing machine to have existed in history. If they knew nothing else, Roman soldiers knew how to kill people – and they certainly would not have wanted to be accountable to their superiors for failing to get the job done in a simple execution. Likewise, hysteria – or some other psychological explanation – seems unlikely in light of the number of different witnesses on different occasions.

The alternative that is most often proffered by modern critics is #3, the argument that Jesus’ disciples simply fabricated the account of the resurrection. Here, Wright’s argument is quite elaborate, but I will try to highlight what I think are the two most important threads.

The first question to confront in the face of this theory is: “Where is the body?” Within a few short months after these events, Wright argues, Jesus’ disciples were openly claiming in Jerusalem that Jesus had risen from the dead. This claim, we would expect (and we are told), was an outrage to the Jewish leaders. At this point, it would have been quite a simple matter to produce a body – one that was allegedly buried just outside of Jerusalem. Once such gruesome evidence was produced, the entire matter would have been diffused. No one would have believed Peter and the other apostles any longer. Yet it is clear that the Christian church was birthed in just this environment – Jerusalem, the city of Jesus’ alleged burial, just a few short months after his death. This could never have happened if a body was available.

(There is no account that explicitly describes an effort to produce a body. However, the closing chapters in Matthew’s gospel suggest that, by the mid-first century, accusations were floating about that the disciples had stolen the body. This would seem to imply that, by that time, it was well known that no corpse had ever been produced by any of the authorities.)

The second thread involves Wright’s assertion that it is unlikely that anyone would “invent” a story of this nature. Why?

  • The chief/primary witnesses to the empty tomb are women – a fabricated story would likely involve men in this role.
  • Most people didn’t believe it was possible for the dead to rise, and the minority who did (the Pharisees) only believed it would happen on God’s “return” to judge the world. No one thought or expected something like that would happen in advance. What would inspire someone to fabricate a story of this nature?
  • While it is noted that Jesus had predicted his resurrection, the Gospel accounts repeatedly emphasize that the disciples had no idea what he was talking about. This rather unflattering characterization – particularly of Peter – would not be the best way to bolster his credibility, or that of the other apostles.
  • The idea that God or the gods could die and rise from the dead simply didn’t exist. Some pagans believed that their gods, in a sense, died and rose with the harvest, but nobody claims to have seen their “dead” god eating Fish on the beach last Tuesday. Christians did.

Wright’s conclusion, then, is that the best explanation for the early Christians’ conviction that they had witnessed the resurrection of Jesus is that it actually happened.

That is all well and fine, you may say, but don’t we now know that people simply don’t rise from the dead? Isn’t that explanation simply preposterous on its face? Aren’t the other explanations, though problematic themselves, more likely because they are at least possible?

Wright has an answer to this, but I want to address it in another post, where we can explore a little more deeply his ultimate explanation for the nature of the Christian “faith” in resurrection.

RSG 2: The Claim of Resurrection

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[This is part 2 of a series of posts that summarize NT Wright’s argument for the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus in The Resurrection of the Son of God.  You can read my overview of his argument here.]

For me, the best place to begin an explanation of Wright’s argument is with his account of what, exactly, early Christians claimed about the resurrection. This starting point is critical because of the tendency, on the part of modern historical and literary criticism, to de-mythologize scripture.

I spoke about this concept in a recent post. The last 100-200 years of Bible scholarship has been characterized by a growing trend to view scripture as a-historical. Bible stories, we are told, exist as myth, and we can best understand them if we recognize and remove the mystical elements and view them solely as history. Thus, it is argued to be unlikely that Jonah – if he existed at all – spent three days in a whale, that the Earth literally stopped spinning during a battle in the Old Testament, or that the Nile river actually turned to blood, as we are told in Exodus. It may be true that a small band of Hebrew slaves migrated out of Egypt during a particular Egyptian Dynasty, and that they later violently conquered territory that they claimed to be their own, but the fantastical accounts should often (or always) be dismissed as myth. Indeed, it is often argued, not even those who wrote the accounts intended for them to be taken literally and/or historically.

Wright recognizes many valid points from this trend. He does not understand that all of scripture should be treated as history in the sense that modern science would approach the subject. He might even concede (though I’ve not heard him do so) that Jonah may not have really been in a whale for three days. However, when it comes to the resurrection, he argues, we must conclude that something important, something extraordinary did, in fact, happen within human history during the days after the death of Jesus.

Be clear: Wright is not saying that every Gospel account of the resurrection in every detail can be seen as historically valid. We cannot know, for example, the exact names and number of people who saw the empty tomb on Easter Sunday (though the Bible tries to give us an account of that). Nor can we know whether Jesus himself had a conversation with Mary Magdalene at the tomb (only one gospel, John, tells us a story of this nature). Indeed, he recognizes that some of the accounts are contradictory. He is saying, however, that two broader points can be readily supported using basic, historical-critical tools:

  • That on Easter Sunday, a number of disciples discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty.
  • That, subsequently, a large number of Jesus’ followers had a series of extraordinary experiences involving “appearances” of Jesus, in which Jesus was physically present.

For me, it is Wright’s refusal to overreach and claim – as Evangelicals would – that every account is absolutely true in every respect, that makes his argument remarkable. Using my own experiences, I often illustrate it this way: in a lawsuit involving a car accident, there is often a dispute over an important fact – say – whether a traffic signal was red or green when someone entered an intersection. Clearly, someone got a particular detail wrong in their account. However, no one argues that, because of the dispute over the details, a collision did not occur at a particular time and place. In RSG, Wright argues in favor of the collision, so to speak, but not necessarily in favor of what people said about the stop lights. This gives us less certainty, perhaps, about exactly what happened, but – if we are willing to consider it carefully in this way – we soon begin to see a coherent picture that, while blurred on the edges, points to something very clear and extraordinary in the center.

The early Christian belief was very simple: the empty tomb PLUS the subsequent “appearances” of Jesus indicated that God had raised him from the dead on Easter Sunday. The earliest account of the resurrection, as I understand it, comes from Paul in I Corinthians 15:

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.

Here we have a standard teaching/formulation that, as Paul says, predates Paul’s involvement in the Christian community. Its something he has told the Corinthians before, and it is something that was given to him by the other Apostles. As such, it likely relates back to the very early days after Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus, he says, was seen by Peter and then the Twelve. Then, in an extraordinary event that is not recorded anywhere else, Jesus made an appearance to 500 people at the same time. Paul is clear that most of those 500 are still alive.

Pay careful attention to what Paul is repeating here. There is a list. Someone within this early Christian community is keeping count. There are people within the community who can point at someone – still living – and say: he was there when Jesus appeared to the 500, or she was there when Jesus appeared on the beach. Presumably, at the time, you could have gone over and asked one of these alleged witnesses to tell the story themselves.

Based on this, and a considerable array of other indicators, Wright argues, it can’t be said that early Christians were claiming that the resurrection was merely mythology or metaphor. Rather, it was something that happened before their very eyes. The community was saturated in stories from multiple witnesses who claimed to have had a real experience of Jesus.

So what were they claiming to have seen? A ghost? Unlikely, he says. First, like our own culture, the culture in which the early Church existed had its own, unique language for ghosts. The accounts of Jesus walking on the water (in which Jesus is at first believed to be a ghost) illustrate that they knew full well how to describe an experience involving an encounter with a ghost. These are not the stories that we are told. We are instead told stories about Jesus eating bread and fish, of Jesus inviting doubters to reach out and touch him. Plus, he reminds us, we are told about an empty tomb. There is no need to emphasize an empty tomb if you want to talk about a ghost. Both corpse and ghost can exist at the same time.

Having said that, it is also important to recognize that what the witnesses claimed to have seen was more than a resuscitated corpse. The risen Jesus appears in rooms with closed doors. At one moment, he is unrecognizable, and then can be readily identified at the next. He vanishes in plain sight. He has a physical reality to be sure, but he is more than that. He is, as Wright coins the term, transphysical; more than a physical being, but not less. (He observes that the Church came to believe that these properties were manifestations of God’s new creation, a new kind of world, or reality. To put it in terms that would be used in connection with modern physics, Jesus was thought to be the first bit of matter, the first human, to exist in this new state.)

Finally, and most startlingly, Wright asks us to consider the beliefs that early Christians held about life after death. Here, perhaps, is the most brilliant move of all. It is developed in remarkable detail.

I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but in the Jew-plus-Gentile world of the early Church, there were three competing views about life after death. They were as follows:

  • The Pagan View. Under this view, the dead become spirits or ghosts, diminished versions of the people they once were. Their spirits are then consigned to Hades, the realm of the dead, where they remain for eternity. They do not come back.
  • The Sadducee’s View. The Sadducees viewed death as an end. Once one is dead, they are gone forever. No spirit remains, and certainly no one returns from the dead.
  • The Pharisee’s View. The Pharisees believed that one does, indeed become a spirit after death. They also believed, however, that God would eventually raise the righteous dead (and/or all of the dead) to life again, in the “last day.” Then, the dead would be judged and God would renew his creation for the benefit of the resurrected.

The disagreements between these viewpoints were not minor. Strident, heated debates were known to break out, particularly in the Jewish community – and at least two accounts of such a debate can be found within scripture itself. Think, if you will, about the major schisms that exist today about atonement theories in the theological realm, or even about subjects like health care in the political realm, in which emotions run high. People were highly opinionated and entrenched when it came to the question of life after death.

So what does this have to do with the early Church? Isn’t it bizarre, he argues, that you don’t see this debate raging within the early Church? One would expect, he says, in a relatively large community of Jews and Gentiles to see strident debates continue on about which view of life after death is appropriate. But you don’t get that. Instead you get – quite consistently – an agreement/belief that endorses the view of the Pharisees, a view which holds that people can, in fact, rise from the dead.

What could this community have possibly experienced that would so convincingly convert everyone to this one view?  To hold this view, they would have to be convinced, at a bare minimum, that physical resurrection is possible. This is not a belief in a metaphor of resurrection, nor an endorsement that ghosts of the dead can sometimes appear to the living (both of which would be consistent, at least, with the Pagan view). This is a belief that people really can – and will – physically rise from the dead.

The conclusion of this line of thought is that there ought to be very little doubt that the Christian community believed – and was deeply convinced – that a resurrection had actually happened within their realm of immediate experience, and that it involved a transformation of a human corpse into a physical-plus-more state. No metaphors. No parables. No ghosts. They were quite serious and quite clear about what they claimed had happened.

Having established that this was the belief/conviction of the early Christian community, Wright can now turn to explore the possible explanations for their conviction – chiefly, the possibility that someone successfully falsified the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. If none of those possibilities are satisfying, he argues, we can conclude that what they claimed had happened is what actually happened.

We will turn to some of those alternative explanations in the next post.

RSG 1: An Overview

res%20son[1] Over the years, I have found a lot of books useful on my spiritual walk, but very few (perhaps no more than 1 or 2) have had more influence than NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

RSG arrived at my doorstep at a time when I was ready to piece together some big questions about God, the nature of scripture, and the Christian hope. I expected RSG to provide a piece of that puzzle. However, when I started making my way through Wright’s massive volume, I quickly discovered that I was getting more than I bargained for. Sprinkled along the trail of Wright’s primary argument in the book – a stunning defense of the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus – Wright lays out in massive detail an entire theological framework for understanding resurrection that dramatically sharpened my thinking, beliefs, and view of the subject. As an academic work, it really is a tour de force.

My only objection to RSG was that it isn’t the sort of book that you recommend to your friends for casual reading. After finishing it, I felt like Wright needed to create a parallel book that (a) was more friendly to lay readers and that (b) explored the implications of Jesus’ resurrection, as he presented it, more directly. About the time I finished the book, I was pleased to find Surprised by Hope – a book that does just that – on Amazon. If this review piques your interest enough to explore further, but you are intimidated by the task of trying to work your way through an expansive academic treatment of the subject, Surprised by Hope is a great place to go.

My goal in this series of posts is to outline of Wright’s argument – in both books – in favor of the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus. This won’t be a traditional summary/review, however. Wright develops the argument inductively, and brilliantly, but you have to be very patient to follow him along many trails before his view takes shape. The book is much like a long, sometimes difficult hike that slowly brings into view a breathtaking vista. In this series, I’m going to take a deductive approach to the subject – allowing the argument, rather than the evidence, to shape its structure. I think that will make it easier to follow things, and I will do my best to translate the gist of his argument into cleaner propositions.

Wright’s central argument is this: that we can know with reasonable historical certainty that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. He does not posit that it can be known as an absolute truth, but he believes that we can know it in the same way, for example, that we know whether or not Washington crossed the Delaware. The point is thus not strictly apologetic – to prove his proposition to be absolutely correct. Rather, he says, the evidence ought to be enough to cause us to want to investigate the truth of it ourselves – by immersing ourselves in the practice and traditions of Christianity. If we can be convinced that the sun has risen with some degree of reasonable certainty, he suggests, we will probably want to open the curtains to investigate for ourselves whether it is true.

The structure of Wrights argument is a very traditional, disjunctive syllogism. That is, he offers a list of potential explanations for the early Christian account of resurrection, and argues that the most reasonable explanation of that account is that it really did happen.  Specifically, his argument rejects the following alternatives:

  • The resurrection accounts were meant as parable or metaphor, not history
  • The resurrection accounts were intentionally fabricated
  • The resurrection accounts were a result of hysteria or illusion
  • The resurrection accounts falsely assumed Jesus had died

Of all of these, the first and second are treated as more credible, and they get the most attention in the books.

I should also note that, by “early Christian account of resurrection,” Wright refers not only to the resurrection of Jesus, but to the overall belief of the community that there will be a general resurrection of the dead at some point in the future. That the Christian community immediately and universally adopted this view (one that was in opposition to other strongly and widely held positions) is also, he will show, a remarkable testimony to a series of credible experiences of the risen Jesus within their community.

If, at the end, one is still unconvinced because of a presupposition that it isn’t possible for a person to rise from the dead, Wright will respect that position. However, he warns, this presupposition isn’t supported by…

  • The fact that we “know better” than they did because of modern science (they, too, knew and believed as strongly as we do that dead people don’t get up and walk around); or
  • The lack of historical evidence (which is as extensive as you will find for a massive array of other well-recognized events in history)

I am going to try and flesh out these arguments in a little more detail over four or five more posts, so stay tuned.