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.