He is risen. He is risen indeed! A blessed Easter to all.
Today we look at the fourth chapter of Tom Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
Previous posts are:
1-2. Introduction, Confusion about the Afterlife in the World and Church
3. Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting
Chapter 4 is "The Strange Story of Easter."
A lot of the material in this chapter, again, is familiar from The Resurrection of the Son of God, but in Surprised it is in a very accessible form. He begins with a number of notable features to the gospel resurrection stories that imply that they have a historical basis.
1. They do not quote the Bible much.
If, as some have argued, the early Christians invented these stories because of expectations from the Bible, they have not left a paper trail. Where are the fulfillment quotes, "This happened that it might fulfill..."?
2. Women as the principal witnesses doesn't seem something you would make up.
"Nobody would have made them up" (55) and they are silently dropped from the tradition in Paul.
3. The portrait of the resurrected Jesus isn't what you would have expected them to make up.
He doesn't shine like a star as in Daniel. He has a body, but he passes through locked doors. "No biblical texts predict that the resurrection will involve this kind of body.
4. These texts don't mention the future resurrection.
While this was what it was previously all about. "Easter has a very this worldly present-age meaning" (56).
"I conclude this first section of the chapter with the proposal that it is far, far easier to believe that the stories are essentially very early, pre-Pauline, and have not been substantially altered except for light personal polishing, in subsequent transmission or editing" (57).
Easter and History
This section corresponds to a chapter in Resurrection (a much longer chapter). Wright proposes a two pronged hypothesis: "first, Jesus' tomb really was empty; second, the disciples really did encounter him in ways that convinced them that he was not simply a ghost or hallucination" (58).
Wright dismisses the cognitive dissonance theory, that the disciples so wanted Jesus to be alive that they convinced himself that he really was. The problem, as he explores in much greater detail in Resurrection, is that lots of "messiahs" and military leaders die without their followers thinking they were raised. And they don't end up with religions named after them still 2000 years later (I'm embellishing a little).
He runs through several other alternative explanations and finds them all wanting. He is not suggesting that the math proves the resurrection, only that it is by far the best explanation. He spends a little time talking about the presumption that, because resurrections don't happen, this couldn't have been one. "Worldview issues are at stake here and cannot be dealt with by the old liberal strategy of pretending... that to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is impossible for those who accept what one writer as called 'current paradigms of reality'" (69).
I suppose this is the key question from an evaluative standpoint. If resurrections can happen, then this event has all the markings of a true resurrection. If they can't happen, then there must be another explanation. Some of us are reading a book by John Polkinghorne that compares method in quantum physics with method in theology. He finds many parallels (he was a nuclear physicist who turned to the Anglican priesthood I think in his forties--physicists do their most significant work in their twenties, so I guess he retired to theology). He points out that quantum physics defies "common sense" regularly.
"What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science" (71). "The resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world (though it is that as well); it is, principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus" (73).
He ends with a quote from Wittgenstein: "It is love that believes the resurrection" (72). :-)