Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why I believe in Jesus' Resurrection

I was not born a Christian: my parents were not church-goers in my early years. They did not set out to teach me anything about religion. Still, especially from my very liberal mother, I did pick up a mocking attitude. I still remember the first time when I was little when a neighbor child mentioned "God" seriously to me and to my brother: we traded a shocked look then laughed in her face. That was how I was raised. But still that attitude was more reflex than well-thought, so when another friend invited me to go to Sunday school and then church with her, I came to see. I began reading the Bible without too many preconceptions either from the mockers or the church, though I had been exposed to both at that point. Later on, my parents came to church with me for a few years, before they stopped again; I continued, my religious beliefs still tentative and forming. (It's likely that my religious beliefs will always be forming.) My religious beliefs did not come from my parents, so I consider myself a convert to Christianity.

When I began reading the Bible to figure out how it fit into the world and what I should make of it, I didn't come with any fundamentalist preconceptions about "inerrancy"; and my friend's church was not a fundamentalist church, so the idea of "inerrancy" was still unknown to me when I first read the Bible. When it came to the gospels, that didn't look like the way the authors of the gospels thought about their own writings, from what I could see. I also didn't come with the preconception that miracles must be myth or legend.

So why do I believe in Jesus' resurrection? It comes to this: the people writing the accounts of the gospels came across, like most people, as basically sane and basically honest people. People who are basically sane and basically honest are not wrong about something of that nature for that length of time. The disciples' reactions even to the resurrection come across as both honest and sane: they react with shock and disbelief at first, outright skepticism about a thing like that. Even seeing is not quite believing, at first, for something that out-of-the-ordinary. It takes awhile for them to believe their own eyes. From reading the early writings, it was more that when someone stays -- not a mere vision or phantom or hallucination -- stays and has conversations with you and eats meals with you, after awhile the reality sinks in: he's alive.

Haven't I heard the counter-challenges? Well, yes. As an adult, I've considered it a basic matter of something that we would call "due diligence" in the business world to make sure I give an honest hearing to the major different religions besides Christianity, and the major arguments for and against Christianity. And due diligence is done with my loyalty squarely on the side of reality wherever that should lead.

When it comes to the resurrection, the only substantive argument I've heard against it is, "Miracles don't happen." Many other arguments take the general form "The real explanation for the events must have been _____"; I have yet to see an argument in that format that had much merit of its own as an explanation; generally they don't have much more merit than their premise, "Miracles don't happen." The arguments that the gospels are myth or legend again generally don't have a lot of merit beyond their premise, "Miracles don't happen." But when I read the accounts in the gospels, based on what I read, I think those miracles did happen.

Why do I think those miracles did happen? A lot of it is the basic credibility of the narrators. Saying this usually results in a flurry of nit-picking about the gospels. But I've never read an account of anything, anywhere that couldn't be nit-picked. I've looked over the usual criticisms of the gospels, and haven't found anything that looks like it's relevant to whether the narrators were basically sane and honest. Remember, I don't have the preconceptions of an inerrantist. So if the narrator doesn't have a total recall grasp of every detail, or was giving the words as best they could remember instead of a word-for-word transcript like from a tape recorder -- so that someone else might have a slightly different wording of the same conversation -- that's normal for any account we have from the days before electronic recording. It doesn't mean the people writing the records were insane or rampant liars, which they would have to be if they were wrong about the kinds of things I'm looking at. If a mistake is an honest mistake -- no signs of being intentionally misleading -- and is about a peripheral detail that didn't matter at the time and doesn't matter now --  it doesn't bother me. So the endless criticisms about minute points of the gospels has seemed to be about trivial matters. It often seems nearly petty.

Again, why do I think those miracles did happen? A lot of it is the uniqueness of Jesus. If there is one thing that was very plain to me from reading the gospels, it was this: in Jesus' words, here are teachings that are extraordinary in their picture of holiness as a thing of beauty, desirable in a way that we might actually hunger and thirst for it. His teachings resonate with depth, power, purity, and humility, and are in words so simple that a farmer or a fisherman can not only understand but teach and live. I understood that Jesus had thoroughly earned and deserved that his teachings should be considered among the great religious teachings in the history of the planet; I still think those who have never read or heard Jesus' teachings have been deprived of a great and profound human experience. The list of people who teach religion on a world-class level is a short list. If I were to find real miracles anywhere in the world, I should expect to find them coming from somebody on that short list, and if I did not find them there, I would not expect to find them anywhere at all. That is to say, if there is such a being as "God" and if miracles are his actions in this world, then I should expect to find out more about miracles somewhere among the best of the religious teachers. If the best evidence for miracles were from someone whose life and moral thoughts were unremarkable, it would be easy to dismiss as a fraud. But from Jesus in particular? Here is a case where, if miracles would happen at all, here is a place where you could expect them. Yes, I think those miracles did happen.

For Jesus' resurrection, why do I think that particular miracle did happen? The early writings have records of Jesus' meals with his disciples and conversations with his disciples after he rose from the dead. I have mentioned briefly already that I do not see any reason to dismiss those writings as lies or the product of delusion. In the surviving records, they mention enough detail that I am convinced this is no hallucination or mistake or legend. We have the entire first generation of Christians -- however many thousands of them -- who knew these people, the eyewitnesses to the miracles and especially to Jesus' resurrection, from the disciples' years of travels to spread the news of the resurrection. Some of the people who knew Jesus in person, who saw him and spoke with him and ate meals with him after he rose from the dead, were public figures for decades afterwards and spoke of it often. It created a burst of writings on the topic in which we have many documents dating to the lifetime of people who knew Jesus that speak of his resurrection. The circle continued later with those who knew that first generation, who had themselves known Jesus' disciples, and so on. For centuries of the ever-expanding following of Jesus as a religious figure, there was not an ever-expanding list of documents that were considered trustworthy. It had to trace back to people from that first generation, to the apostles and those who had known them in person.

The opposition to Jesus (or orthodoxy, or Christianity) in modern times has been something I have looked at, in the course of my due diligence. Again, my allegiance is to reality, wherever that leads. I have looked at questions of authorship, questions of dates, alternative gospels, synoptic similarities, a few ancient manuscripts, and anything that seemed relevant to the question, "What's really going on here?" I can only hope that in my lifetime I get the chance to write down what I found when I checked the facts and evaluated the arguments, though some of that can already be found on this blog. I know I haven't heard all the details of all the arguments back and forth; but I've heard so many of them that I'd think that if there was some other major line of argument, I'd at least be aware that the argument existed. This I will say: to this point, nothing I have found changes my evaluation that the gospel writings are honest, trustworthy early accounts of Jesus' life and teachings, and miracles, and his resurrection from the dead.

I believe in Jesus because of the accounts I have read of his life, and after considering various arguments I think that these accounts are trying to faithfully record Jesus as his disciples knew him. When I believed the records of Jesus' life, it was not because I already believed in miracles and God and the Bible. Instead, whatever I believe about miracles and God and the Bible is because I believe in Jesus.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...


Thanks for your perspective.