[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.