Before I go into Dr N T ‘Tom’ Wright‘s lecture on the Resurrection, for those who have not read it already I also posted previously on the Easter story of Doubting Thomas (John 20), who had to see and almost touch Christ’s wounds before he believed that it was He standing before him. This is an altogether human story of faith, even though Thomas — rightly or wrongly — has come in for a lot of criticism through the centuries. Think of those today who doubt Jesus’s resurrection for historical, revisionist reasons. Let us keep these people in our prayers in the hope that they come to a belief in Him as Saviour and Redeemer of the world.

On to today’s topic. As Dr Wright might well be a candidate as successor to the current Archbishop of Canterbury, it seemed apposite to examine his theology a bit more closely. It is clear that he is a man of faith and, indeed, he is a New Testament scholar and professor with a deep understanding of the Bible. He also has an engaging way of communicating it to an audience.

When Dr Wright was the Bishop of Durham, he gave a lecture at Roanoke College, Virginia, in 2007 about Jesus’s resurrection:

The lecture and question and answer period together last an hour and 20 minutes. The lecture begins at 10 minutes into the video.

Misunderstanding Heaven

Wright opens by saying that many Christians lack a theological understanding of Heaven, believing in a body and soul united and transformed immediatly after death. In fact, he explains that this union and transformation will not come until the end of the world at which point a new Heaven and new Earth will be created and conjoined. In the meantime, our souls will go to Heaven (or Hell).

The Westminster Confession of Faith explains the two-stage process of what happens to us after death (emphases mine):

Chapter 32

Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead

1. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.

2. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever.

3. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor; and be made conformable to his own glorious body.

This is what Wright is addressing. The second stage of a reunified soul with a transformed body will not happen until the creation of a new Heaven and a new Earth when the world ends.

Death and the ancient world

Wright then explored Jewish and pagan thought on death in the ancient world. Pagans believed that death led to the underworld with no way back. The idea of resurrection for them did not exist.

The Jews generally believed that God would look after a soul until such time as He transformed all the bodies of the dead and reunited them to their respective souls. There were exceptions, such as the Sadducees who did not believe in an afterlife and the Jewish philosopher Philo who believed in a disembodied soul.

For the new Christians, the Resurrection moved afterlife to the centre of belief. This extraordinary one-time event meant that as Jesus rose from the dead — signalling the New Creation — so would they one day as His followers. In the meantime, they believed that His Resurrection called them to co-operate with God to help further the New Creation on Earth through holy and ethical living. Wright cites the ancient Greco-Roman physician and philosopher Galen who wrote of his favourable impression of Christian sexual continence.

No other Messiahs?

In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Leading a Jewish effort to oppose them was a man named Simon, whom the Romans scourged then executed. Wright points out that people could have thought this man was the Messiah, as he was so closely connected in his attempts to defend the Temple and the Jewish people. Yet, no cult arose around him once he died.

Similarly, he says, people could have said that Jesus’s brother, James (the Apostle), was the Messiah. He was a powerful teacher and a central figure in the early Church. Yet, no one considered him the Messiah.

Paul called Jesus ‘Lord’, therefore, his converts adopted the same term. The concept of Jesus as Lord when the Emperor Caesar was not was revolutionary for the time. Jesus became their heavenly — and overarching — ruler of their lives, not the temporal emperor from Rome.

Wright, therefore, concludes that the Resurrection must have occurred because of the faith and devotion that so many people had in the Risen Christ thanks to the testimony of the disciples.

Inconsistent Gospel accounts

Wright believes that the inconsistency among the Gospel accounts lends credibility to the truth of the Resurrection. He uses the modern-day example of police evidence from various witnesses. Often, their testimony conflicts — exactly when, the number of people involved, sequence of events — however, all point to a significant event which occurred.

He observes that in all the other accounts of Jesus’s life, the Gospel scribes were careful to tie His Messiahship to Old Testament prophecies. However, the Resurrection surprised and astounded them so much that there are no such references in the Easter — New Creation — story. They hadn’t expected the Crucifixion much less the Resurrection.

As to the women being the first witnesses, which all include in their accounts, this disappeared in evangelism by Paul’s time, when women would not have been considered reliable witnesses. Therefore, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul airbrushed them out. Still, as the Gospels all have women as the first to see Jesus, Wright tells us that we can be sure it happened that way.

Paul was also the first to add the element of Christian hope as a result of the Easter story. He had never met Jesus and evangelised much later, and, as such, brought a new perspective to the narrative and what it meant to early Christians.

Wright also notes that Jesus’s body was transformed post-Resurrection such that His disciples knew it wasn’t His former body, yet, He was recognisable enough as Jesus and not as a ghost.  Also, an empty tomb would have been commonplace at the time, as there were grave robbers, but their encounters with Him on Easter and afterward confirmed that the Resurrection did indeed occur.

Historical revisionism

In addressing the secular complaint that the Gospel narratives are not objective, Wright counters that no account of any event is ever objective. Every author, historian, philosopher and journalist brings his own bias to the table.

He adds that most of the Apostles gave their life in Christ’s cause. Surely, if there had been anything doubtful about the Resurrection, they would have stopped believing before that point.

Wright also notes the mindset of the secularist who relies on the 18th century Enlightenment to inform his thought. Wright says that to these secularists the Enlightenment was the climax of history. Everything which came before is fiction, uninformed or a fairy tale.  It occurs to me that this is why the confessional Protestantism of the Lutheran and Reformed churches is largely derided in today’s society: ‘Who were Luther and Calvin and how uninformed were they?’ (I would add that Wright himself seems to fall into this trap with his New Perspectives on Paul which imply that Luther and Calvin didn’t know nearly as much about Paul as we do today! However, that topic will be coming up this week — stay tuned.)

The other problems with the Resurrection, Wright says, are twofold. One, the world cannot cope with the idea of a resurrected Jesus.  A dead Jesus is fine to unbelievers; from there they can say that He was a good man who died atrociously — end of story. However, a Jesus who returned to life transformed means that Scripture must have been fulfilled in some sense, which is also evidenced by the growth and continuation of His Church. As such, the Bible puts Jesus into context. That will surely rankle an unbeliever.

Second, the Resurrection is both historical and spiritual. It is likely that unbelievers sense this, even though they are unwilling to admit it. Wright says that the post-Enlightenment mind does not want to know.

He points out that the unbelieving 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said:

It is LOVE that believes in the Resurrection.

(This essay from the University of Reading in England contains the quote and the thinking behind it.)

Therefore, Wright observes, Thomas’s belief in John 20 and Peter’s repentance in John 21 serve as evidence of the compulsion to a new faith (and I would add repentance) in light of Jesus’s New Creation which was the result of the Resurrection. Wright says that the Resurrection is the central event of this New Creation, of which Jesus is Lord, and requires a believer’s complete engagement based on love. This love requires a connection with the reality of our world but in a positive, affirming way.

Wright notes that St Paul said that without the Resurrection, our faith means nothing. It is futile. See 1 Corinthians 15:14:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.

Women evangelists

Wright entertained a few questions from the audience after his lecture. One of these concerned the place of women in evangelism.

Someone asked if Luke and Acts — which have the same author — were written by a woman. Wright responded that it was unlikely because too few women were educated enough at the time. Most were illiterate.

Another question concerned the witness by women at Jesus’s tomb and their subsequent airbrushing in St Paul’s accounts. Wright said that men at the time — as the Apostles themselves did — thought that women were easily frightened and prone to exaggeration, essentially distorting a truth. This was why Paul did not mention them as he most probably thought they would detract from the veracity of the story. However, Wright says that this is no reason to discount the significance of their being the first and only ones to go to Jesus’s tomb to find it empty. So, he believes there is certainly a place for women in evangelism. (He explains a bit more in a video I’ll post this week.)

Mark’s Gospel

Readers of the New Testament know that Mark’s Gospel has an abrupt ending. Wright adds that the beginning is also shaky. He believes that the beginning and the end became detached after time from the ends of the scroll on which they were written.

Dispensationalism and the Rapture

Wright has some knowledge of the Rapture (part of Dispensationalist eschatology) and surmises that it came about by a misreading or misrepresentation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

The Coming of the Lord

13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.

Wright says that Dispensationalists read this account out of context and put it into a ‘dualistic framework’. He points out that other heavenly appearances involved a downward movement towards Earth: Moses coming down from the mountain with the tablets, Daniel’s Son of Man coming on the clouds (Daniel 7:13), the Transfiguration and the Book of Revelation.

I was interested to read one of the YouTube comments in which a viewer said that the video converted him. I wouldn’t promise that it is a force for evangelism, as it does speak to Christians more than to enquirers. However, Wright’s reasoning can help us to better counter objections to Gospel accounts and to the historical Resurrection.

Tomorrow: More N T Wright videos

Next week: Forbidden Bible Verses returns