5 Views Pertaining to the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus

This may seem like an odd topic to be discussing nearing the Christmas season. However, every major Christian holiday is coupled with drawn-out attacks pertaining to the historicity of the event being celebrated. The resurrection of Christ takes center stage in this regard. How do people view the historicity of the events within the pages of the Bible?

I have been reading a fantastic work by Alister McGrath called Christian Theology. On pages 309 through 313, McGrath discusses 5 ways that people during the past few centuries have evaluated the historicity of the miraculous biblical claims. The resurrection of Christ is the pivotal miracle as it most relates to the viability of Christianity.

The Enlightenment View: The Resurrection as a Non-event

First, there is the view held by individuals in the days of the Enlightenment.[1] Individuals during the days of the Enlightenment, as least those accepting the popular claims of the time, viewed history with great skepticism, especially if that historical event is rooted in the miraculous. David Hume claimed that any miraculous event was impossible to prove and impossible to believe because the event did not represent what was the normal operation. Anything that operated beyond the scope of those things that are normally observed could not be proven, and, therefore, could not be accepted as fact.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was more lenient than Hume concerning miracles. However, he still did not view the miraculous as something that could be demonstrated as history. Lessing noted,

 “I do not for one moment deny that Christ performed miracles. But since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles happening in the present, they are not more than reports of miracles…I deny that they could and should bind me to have even the smallest faith in the other teachings of Jesus.”[2]

Thus, Lessing, like Hume, did not accept the miraculous as a historical event due to Lessing’s belief that miracles did not continue to occur. Thereby demonstrating that miracles hold no legitimate claim to history, Lessing felt that faith in the teachings of Christ was invalid. Lessing and the views of those in the days of the Enlightenment were extreme. A less critical view was held by Strauss.

The View of David F. Strauss: The Resurrection as a Mythical Event

David Friedrich Strauss, in his work Life of Jesus, notes the “central importance [of the resurrection] to the Christian faith.”[3] However, due to the Enlightenment criticism of the miraculous, the resurrection is best seen as a myth according to Strauss. Strauss believed that the resurrection was the result of the disciples’ “social conditioning and cultural outlook”[4] more than a recollection of a real, historical event. Thus, while Strauss accepted that the disciples believed in some form of resurrection, the idea was more an allegory than an event found in reality. Strauss’ views would be picked up and expanded by a man who served as a predecessor to the modern, liberal Christian outlook—Rudolf Bultmann.

The View of Rudolf Bultmann: The Resurrection as a Mental Event

Bultmann, like Strauss before him, believed that miracles were impossible to accept in a scientific age. Miracles were not acceptable to modern, scientific minds according to Bultmann. Unfortunately, many accept Bultmann’s cynical prognosis. Because of this, Bultmann thought that the church must de-mythologize the Bible to keep Christianity relevant for modern minds. Otherwise, Christianity would fade away in the halls of history. So what does Bultmann do with the resurrection, the pivotal event of the Christian faith?

Bultmann accepted the resurrection as a “mythical event, pure and simple.”[5] Bultmann denotes,

“The real Easter faith is faith in the word of preaching which brings illumination. If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the rise of faith in the risen Lord, since it was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. The resurrection itself is not an event of past history.”[6]

In other words, Bultmann believed that the resurrection of Christ was not the literal bodily revivification that orthodox Christians accept. Rather, Bultmann thought that the resurrection of Christ was the continuation of the Christian message after Christ’s death. Taking Bultmann’s concept to its end, the body of Jesus still lay in a tomb. However, the message of the Christ continued. For Bultmann, that was the resurrection. Luckily, Bultmann’s beliefs did not represent all of Christianity. Karl Barth would legitimize the resurrection event where Bultmann and Strauss did not.

The View of Karl Barth: The Resurrection as a Faith Event

Karl Barth was amazed at the writings of Bultmann. Barth accepted the resurrection as a historical event. He emphasized the importance of an empty tomb, especially later in life. However, Barth did not place a lot of emphasis on the historicity of the resurrection event. Rather, he focused on the faith in the event which he thought was the emphasis of the early disciples. Barth did not so much question the historicity of the resurrection as much as he questioned the historical enterprise. Could anything be accurately demonstrated as historical? As McGrath notes, “Barth is left in what initially seems to be a highly vulnerable position. Concerned to defend the resurrection as an act in public history against Bultmann’s subjectivist approach, he is not prepared to allow that history to be critically studied.”[7] Another individual would take the historicity of the resurrection to another level—Wolfhart Pannenberg.

The View of Wolfhart Pannenberg: The Resurrection a Historical Event

Wolfhart Pannenberg accepted both the historicity of the resurrection event and the historicity of the events described in the Bible. Faith only makes sense if it is rooted in reality. Pannenberg writes,

“History is the most comprehensive horizon of Christian theology. All theological questions and answers have meaning only within the framework of the history which God has with humanity, and through humanity with the whole creation, directed towards a future which is hidden to the world, but which has already been revealed in Jesus Christ.”[8]

For Pannenberg, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a historical event. Because it was a historical event, it is open to the scrutinies of historical research. Therefore, the historian researching the resurrection event should approach the event without preconceived biases against the miraculous. The historian must be neutral. So which of these approaches best works with the miraculous events of Christ and Scripture in general?

Conclusion

Bultmann and Strauss are children of the Enlightenment. The views of the Enlightenment, Strauss, and Bultmann all find themselves in some form of a Humean philosophical presupposition (that is, the idea that miracles cannot occur because they are aberrations to the norm—stemming from secular humanist David Hume). However, just because something does not ordinarily occur does not indicate that the event could never occur.

For instance, the Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series in over 100 years. People derived from the Cubs post-season performance that they would never win another World Series. Their presupposition was based upon the ordinary workings of the Chicago Cubs. Enter the 2016 Cubs team. The 2016 Cubs team defeated the Cleveland Indians in the 2016 World Series! Was their win a historical event? Absolutely! Had it normally happened? No.

Bultmann, Strauss, and the thinkers of the Enlightenment think either that God does not exist (e.g., Hume) or that God does not interact with the world in miraculous means (implied by Bultmann and Strauss). Therefore, their ideology is rooted in an anti-supernatural bias. For the record, Craig S. Keener has written a 2-volume work titled Miracles which reveals various modern day miracles performed in the name of Jesus. While miracles are not the norm, such an investigation divulges that they are not as uncommon as Humean thinkers suppose.

Karl Barth accepts the resurrection as a historical event. However, he exposes a critical weakness in his argument when claiming that such things cannot be demonstrated historically. Did the event truly happen? If so, then it stands to reason that the event actually occurred within space and time. If the event took place within space and time, then the event is historical. If the event is historical, then it can be historically scrutinized. Such an argument reveals the weakness in Barth’s view and the strength of Pannenberg’s.

I also take issue with Barth’s idea that the disciples only pleaded for faith in Christian adherents rather than acceptance of things taking place in history. Throughout the OT, one finds reminders of God’s deliverance of the people from the hands of Egypt. In addition, one finds reminders of the reality of Christ’s historical resurrection. Paul argues that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 20).[9] Paul directed the attention of the Corinthians back to the reality of Christ’s historical resurrection. Much more could be said, but I have far extended the length of most of my articles. So, let us conclude by saying that Christ’s resurrection is a historical event. Therefore, it should be possible to examine the resurrection from a historical perspective. The same is true for most miracles in the Bible.

 

© December 5, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] The Enlightenment is a period lasting from the 17th and 18th century found mainly in Europe. The period focused on importance of human reason, claiming that human reason could explain all things. Miracles and the sort were viewed with great skepticism. David Hume, the great secular humanist, lived in this period.

[2] Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, “Uber den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft,” in Gotthold Ephraim Lessings samtlichen Scrhriften, vol. 13, Karl Lachmann, ed (Berlin: Goschen’sche Verlagshandlung, 1897), 4-8, 20.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackburn, 2011), 310.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in Basic Questions in Theology, vol. 1, George Kehm, trans (London: SCM Press, 1970), 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] McGrath, 312.

[8] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Redemptive Event and History,” in Basic Questions of Theology, vol. 1, George Kehm (London: SCM Press, 1970), 15.

[9] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2011).

Challenging Humean Presuppositions

One of the first tasks for the apologist is to understand the arguments of one’s opposition. David Hume and Anthony Flew provide astute arguments against the possibility of the miraculous. But, perhaps the most challenging is the issue behind how to define and defend a miracle in the first place. David Hume writes that a miracle “is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined” (Hume 1997, 33). Hume continues by claiming that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish…the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior” (Hume 1997, 33). In other words, Hume argues that since the laws of nature are so established and a miracle is a violation of such laws, then no amount of human testimony could override the commonly held laws known by every person. Thus, for Hume it would appear that the miraculous is impossible to demonstrate historically since such occasions are inferior to commonly held natural occurrences. The skeptic would merely find some rational way to explain away such an occurrence. So, how might one answer such a claim?

First, it should be duly noted that Hume is operating from a naturalistic presupposition. For Hume, God does not exist, or at least may not, thereby excluding any possibility that God could engage in the natural world. If God were to exist and this God were to interact upon the laws of nature, those laws would be for his to bend and/or suspend. If God is the creator of said natural laws, then it is feasible that God would counteract those laws in times of necessity. Thus, Hume’s argument is guilty of anti-supernatural bias. He has negated the possibility that any miracle could occur while arguing that miracles cannot occur due to natural laws. By Hume’s own reasoning, he demands the need for objective truth which essentially demands for an objective reality—God. Frank Turek makes the argument that “all debates presuppose that an objective truth exists outside the mind of each debater. Each debater is trying to show that his claims are closer to that objective truth than his opponent. Every truth claim—whether it’s ‘God exists’ or ‘God doesn’t exist’—requires unchangeable laws of logic” (Turek 2014, 33). Thus, while Hume seeks to avoid the implications of the divine by dismissing the miraculous, in essence Hume pleads for objective truth which pleads for an eternal objective Mind.

Second, what if the superior claim gives greater assurance to the viability of a certain miraculous event rather than a naturalistic explanation? For instance, a miracle being found in the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the appearances of Jesus. Hume argues that one cannot accept the testimony of any number of people to assume the validity of a miraculous event. However, what if he were to hear that in the 1960s humanity propelled human beings to the surface of the moon? It may seem improbable that such an occurrence could happen. But what if several individuals claimed to have seen this particular man (Neil Armstrong) walking on the surface of the moon? It may seem fantastic, but Hume would most likely agree that such an occurrence took place. Why then should it be any different for the miraculous unless Hume presupposes that God could not exist? Being a weightlifter, I could lift a bar all day long. However, if one denies my existence, it would seem preposterous that such a bar could move. If there is sufficient historical evidence which demonstrates that Jesus of Nazareth walked out of the tomb on the first Easter Sunday, then one must concede that a miracle took place. If a miracle took place, then one must concede the existence of a divine Being. It must be remembered that “History is a friend of science” (Habermas 2014, Video). For Hume, it appears that his issue is more of an anti-supernatural presupposition rather than an openness to follow the evidence wherever it could lead. As Gary Habermas states, “When I talk about evidence for miracles, I talk about different kinds” (Habermas 2014, Video). Evidence exists for the miraculous and for the resurrection of Christ. That being the case, Hume’s anti-supernatural presuppositions begin to crack at its foundation.

 

Sources Cited

Habermas, Gary. “Philosophical Objections—Not Enough Evidence.” Liberty University (2014). Video Lecture.

Hume, David. “Of Miracles.” In In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History. Edited by R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1997.

Turek, Frank. Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014.

***Note…the previous article was first posted as an assignment. Thus, please make sure you quote any of the material properly so as to avoid charges of plagiarism.***

 

Copyright, November 23, 2015. Brian Chilton.