Poking around among evangelical books and websites that deal with the resurrection of Jesus is a pretty disappointing business. The things the NT has to say about Jesus’ resurrection are routinely ignored. The significance of the resurrection is rarely explained from a biblical theology standpoint. The significance of the resurrection is rarely explained at all. There is a strong assertion that it matters, but little on why it matters.
What is the issue that dominates evangelical discussion of the resurrection? Proofs. Historicity is the obsession. On the web, over 90% of the space seems to be given to this question. Can we believe it? Is it ridiculous? Etc. The resurrection is largely an apologetics issue.
Where significance is assigned to the resurrection, it is nearly always viewed as a proof. Jesus’ resurrection proves something else about him. His divine identity. Or maybe that his death was ‘successful’. That sort of thing. It doesn’t have theological content of its own, but it guarantees the truth of other things that do have such content.
So really, we’re spending our time on this giving proofs for something which is itself a proof of something else. That’s a few steps removed from the realities involved, isn’t it.
How much space does the NT give to proofs for the resurrection? Very, very little. Even in the preaching in Acts, there’s almost nothing. ‘We are witnesses’ – that’s about as close as it gets. But Paul, of course was not a witness, so he doesn’t bother with this ‘witness’ theme much at all (one mention in Acts). But ‘we are witnesses’ is not adduced primarily as a proof. It is not answering the question ‘how can we know these things really happened.’ True, it does encourage confidence in the message, but it serves a wider function. For one thing, it identifies the nature of Jesus resurrection as something physical and concrete, that could be seen. Also, it identifies the apostles as the ‘ones chosen’ (Acts 13) for the job of announcing Jesus. What they have to say about Jesus is uniquely authoritative. For they are the witnesses.
But there is no attempt to take the ‘proof’ angle on this. No guided tours of the empty tomb. No Exhibit A: the leftover graveclothes. People are simply invited to trust the apostles’ announcement.
In fact, throughout the NT, Jesus’ resurrection is not argued for, not defended or backed up. It is announced: boldly, joyfully declared. It is unpacked, dwelt upon, taught about, celebrated, explained, linked to the OT scriptures. We are told why it is important (1 Cor 15). We are not told why we should believe it, beyond this basic assertion of the witnesses. In other words, for the apostles the resurrection is largely a theological matter, rather than a narrowly apologetic concern.
The resurrection is sometimes treated as a sign or proof of something else about Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel. But this is only one angle on it out of many in the NT. And certainly not the main one. Paul isn’t really interested in this angle. Rather, the resurrection is loaded with its own theological content. There’s plenty of that to chew on, which Paul does at length.
In summary, there is a high degree of discontinuity between apostolic talk about Jesus’ resurrection, and evangelical talk about it today. We are not capturing the apostles’ witness or message. We’re not even trying. We’re off doing our own thing with the resurrection, scratching our own intellectual itches. The resurrection has been highjacked by the apologetics people, and doesn’t seem to be available for discussion outside that framework.
This amounts to a distortion of the gospel message in the evangelical tradition, at the point which biblical theology suggests should be the heart of the matter. In fact, we don’t seem to have taken on board the insights of Biblical theology at all, after a whole century. This is concerning.
Check out your favourite intro to Christianity course. What does it say about the resurrection, beyond apologetic defence of it? Is there any theological content given to it?
I took a look at 2 Ways to Live, and I’m pleased to say that it’s better than most at this point. It manages some content for the resurrection. The resurrection means that Jesus is now Lord and King over the world. That’s pretty good, as far as it goes. It’s narrowly focussed on the issue of rule. But it’s a good start! And at least they say something about what the resurrection means! Most evangelicals don’t manage even that.
In the prayer to pray, you say
Thank you for sending your son to die for me that I may be forgiven. Thank you that he rose from the dead to give me new life. Please forgive me and change me, that I may live with Jesus as my ruler. Amen.
That’s pretty good, isn’t it. It responds to Jesus’ death and resurrection, twice each. Hints of the new-age transformation which Jesus’ resurrection brings, even. There’s biblical theology shaping this, even though it doesn’t come through heaps clearly or richly.
Christianity Explored, by contrast, is very poor. In the prayer of response in Tice’s book, you say
I now understand who Jesus is. I understand that when he died on the cross, he was being punished in my place, so I could be forgiven and have eternal life. I gratefully accept that gracious gift.
And that’s it. That’s ‘who Jesus is’ – the one who died. The resurrection does not function at all. There’s nothing to respond to in it. Seems it plays no part in ‘that gracious gift’. The CE website page on Jesus’ resurrection sticks to historicity, issues – there’s not really any meaning given to the resurrection.
That’s a serious distortion. But it’s perfectly in line with how evangelicals everywhere are always presenting Jesus. Alpha is worse again. In reviews of Christianity Explored, I haven’t seen any evangelicals criticise this aspect of the course. Apparently people are pretty happy…
Don’t you think it’s time we evangelicals repented of these distortions, and let ourselves be challenged and guided by Biblical Theology? Because we know where it would guide us to: to the apostolic gospel – centred as it is around what God has done in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.