While some assert that Christianity stole the idea of resurrection from various mystery religions featuring a dying and rising figure, the Gospel accounts breathe a far different air – the air of factual actuality, of datable, verifiable history” (Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics).
Consider the claim of theft. Someone in the distant past develops a religious teaching about people coming back to life. Another religious teacher elsewhere at a different time or concurrently speaks of people returning to life. Still another guru or religious master passes on what he heard from another about a cycle of death and life then death again and life in another form. Today, we refer to this type of teaching as reincarnation. As oral traditions arise from the past from a number of sources, the stories in those traditions change through secondary and tertiary retelling of the stories.
Inseparable Essentials: God and Resurrection
While these secondary sources arise from an original, the primary thought of someone returning to life is a common theme. Is the theme just as false as the stories surrounding the theme? Is there any evidence for the original claim although details change over time through a variety of sources? Was there an actual event that gave rise to the various stories? If not, how did the idea of someone returning to life enter individual thoughts?
These questions about resurrection from death is similar to the question, “If God did not exist, would we have to invent Him?” That is, if the idea of resurrection did not have its source in reality or history, would someone have to imagine it and spin it into a legend, fable, or myth? If nothing existed to give rise to the idea of resurrection, how could one spin a legend, fable, or myth around non-existence? The same thinking arises concerning God. If someone invented God, as atheists claim, how did the notion of God even arise in our thoughts if He were simply an invention and not part of existence? The parallel between an actual resurrection and the existence of God are worth exploring for arriving at the truth about them, especially the resurrection of Jesus. They are two indispensable claims underlying the Christian faith.
If they can be shown to be valid, then such faith has solid and sure support. If no evidence exists for either, then the Christian faith would be vain as Paul noted (1 Corinthians 15:13-17). Both claims depend on history and not imagination or fiction. Truth cannot arise from fiction. Such foundations are unlike other world religions because historicity is not so instrumental to them. One could remove the idea of reincarnation (fiction) from the religions that claim it, and those religions would not necessarily fall. They would simply revise their teachings to accommodate another idea and integrate this idea with existing beliefs. That occurs frequently in religions over the span of time as religious teaching change over time. Their tenets change to integrate current philosophies.
On the other hand, the teachings of God and resurrection have never departed from biblical faith. Granted, many who bear the name Christian have ceased to believe in the historical resurrection (i.e., Paul Tillich (1886-1965, John Hick (1922-2012), John Shelby Spong (1931-)). However, it does not depart altogether. Resurrection echoes from the beginning of time. This article will later explore this fact. In many Christian segments that reject the historical resurrection, it still remains as a symbol and attaches to a belief system within those Christian segments. However, does such symbolic attachment discount or rule out God’s existence and the resurrection?
God, Resurrection, and Naturalism
Let us consider these two claims. One, the resurrection, depends on the other, God’s existence. According to naturalists, both seemingly defy the way the natural world works. Notice the disclaimer in the previous statement: “seemingly.” Does the material order refute God and the resurrection? Do the laws of the natural order rule out God and resurrection? Douglas Groothuis does not believe the natural order rules them out. He makes the following statement:
But miracles do not break natural laws. The day Christ raised Lazarus, people all over the world were still dying and staying dead. The law of nature had not changed. But natural laws speak only to natural events. Supernatural events are outside of their purview” (Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, IVP Academic, 1988, Kindle, Location 5764-5765).
C. S. Lewis expands on the issue of miracles of which the resurrection of Jesus is one,
“The divine art of miracles is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into the patterns” (C. S. Lewis, Miracles, Harper, 1974, Kindle, p. 95).
Lewis provides the example of natural law’s pattern of cause and effect to support his claim. That is, one of the laws of nature is cause and effect (If A then B). He claims that a miracle does not suspend this law but rather has a cause with a corresponding effect and therefore abides by it. The “new event” is not A in this case but A2, that is God as the cause with the corresponding event as the miracle (B2). This miracle occurs “according to Natural law,” Lewis claimed. However, he goes on to say,
Its peculiarity is that it is not in that way interlocked backwards, interlocked with the previous history of Nature” (p. 95).
He adds that naturalists have a problem with and cannot tolerate such logic. The reason why is that they begin with rejecting God as the Creator and believe that Nature is the sum of existence. In rejecting His existence, they refuse to accept that this God they consider non-existent could intervene in Nature with an event consistent with Nature (birth, death, and life). Consequently, they lock themselves into a closed system that excludes anything that does not fit their materialist worldview. That is, material is the sum of all existence, and there is nothing beyond the material. That means the supernatural.
What About Resurrection?
Let us consider the question, “How did the idea of someone returning to life enter individual thoughts?” We know that ideas of resurrection came about prior to Jesus. Religious leaders (Pharisees) of His time believed in it. Did the resurrection of Jesus arise from myth or was it a true historical event given the preexistence of the idea of resurrection? We need only return to the beginning of creation to discover seeds of resurrection. Consider the creation. God created life from nothing (lifelessness) by speaking (Genesis 1-2). We read of a parallel when Jesus spoke and raised Lazarus from death (John 11). Abel presents a motif of resurrection. The letter of Hebrews reads,
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).
We also discover the theme of resurrection in the historical account of Abraham of which the letter of Hebrews also testifies,
Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore” (Hebrews 11:12).
Again, the author writes of Abraham,
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Elijah brought a widow’s son back to life (1 Kings 17:17-24). The creation was not myth. Abel, Abraham, and Elijah were not myths. History left traces of resurrection that all pointed to the single historic event of Jesus rising from death. Individuals embraced the resurrection because God Himself left traces of it in His own works and through actual events. Creation, Abel, and Abraham represent God’s works while Elijah exhibits an actual ancient biblical event. Jesus’ resurrection did not depend on myths, fables, or legends. God intervened in events prior to Jesus’ resurrection. The history of the resurrection of Jesus rested on God and His intervention in historical events. This intervention confirms that God works in history to demonstrate His power not only in events that preceded Jesus but also with the resurrection of Jesus..
God and Nature
We may ask those who reject God to explain chance and accidents and how the principle of these events is any different from explaining miracles. Are “accidents of nature” and chance just as inexplicable as a miracle from their perspective? Many new occurrences today baffle scientists and doctors just as others did centuries ago. However, new discoveries explain the inexplicable of a century or two ago, but today’s undiscovered or unknowns remain just as puzzling as unknowns did to those in the past. However, one variable could always exist: there may never be a discovery that explains all unknowns due to the temporal restraints of our finite being and the limitations of the tools available now or in the future. Speculation rules over unknowns among the finite. Just because the resurrection cannot be explained today by known natural laws does not mean that it can never be explained by any existing laws. God’s laws of all existence exceed natural laws. If scientists cannot explain chance and accidents they consider within the the natural world, how then can they explain laws beyond the natural existence? To reject God is just as irrational as believing in chance or accidents.
His intervening acts with us are of a supernatural sort that requires a different kind of explanation, the supernatural, just as those beyond our grasp as so-called accidents or chance does to the naturalist. By the very definition of accident and chance, naturalists seem to suspend cause and effect, whereas miracles do not. Chance cannot cause anything unless it has intelligence to give direction and will things to happen. An accident is its corollary. Neither can cause anything. Yet naturalists want us to believe that chance prompted (caused) an evolutionary outburst (effect).
All the while, they reject the source (God) that gives way to the natural law of cause and effect. They reject Him while calling Him to mind and making mention of him. One cannot think or speak of that which does not exist. Thinking assumes knowledge. There is no knowledge in non-existence. However, when those who reject God think of Him, they affirm what they deny.
The rejection of God in favor of chance places those who reject Him in the precarious position of also rejecting and suspending the laws of nature (that is, cause and effect). God does not suspend the laws of nature with the resurrection of Christ from death. Rather, He worked within those laws. Douglas Groothuis asserts that people still die. That law remains the same. God (the supernatural Cause) intervened to raise Jesus from death. On the other hand, chance remains chance regardless what naturalists desire to impute to it – some sort of causal agent. We must ask ourselves which is the most rational, the causal agent of God or an event lacking cause and effect – chance.
Since God is the Creator, He is beyond the entire created order. As the Creator, He then holds sway over the created (natural) order and its corresponding laws. He created those laws. Therefore, the natural order and the supernatural order both exist. God consists of the supernatural order . With such a scenario, chance and accidents are not options. Cause assumes a determinant, which is an agent that places something in motion for the desired effect. God has not endowed some event called chance with directional capacity. Accidents do not just happen, because all things are within God’s purview and control.
God and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
God is not only the Creator but also the Redeemer. What is a Redeemer? Redeem means to purchase back. The Law of Moses revealed the meaning of this kind of purchase (Exodus 13:13; 34:20; Leviticus 25:25-26; Numbers 18:15). Why redemption? The human condition called for it. All chose to go their own way, away from God. God took the initiative to intervene and revealed His redemptive hand in the Law of Moses. He also revealed the way through a Redeemer, His only Son, whom He sent into the world to purchase back those sold to slavery to rebellion and their waywardness. Their penchant for rebellion and condition prevented them from coming to God on their own. They needed a Redeemer. Jesus came and lived in the form of man, was executed, and came back to life.
The resurrection affirms two truths for those who believe in Jesus. First, death has died. Jesus showed He had life in Himself by rising from death (John 5:26). Death had no hold on Him. This truth is a “far different air,” as Groothuis claims, than mythical stories of resurrection. No material being has life in itself. All life derives from God. All other so-called stories of resurrections were myth while having their roots in historical reality. There was no theft from other religions. Rather other religions distorted the truth and created fiction. That truth resided in historical events with the grandest truth being Jesus’ resurrection.
Second, Jesus’ resurrection was the true life from death, the historical event that changed all history. Given His resurrection as a true historical event God determined from all eternity, what weight does that carry with us? Faith in Jesus means all the world and eternity for us, for that faith also transports us to new life from spiritual death and after death. Chance has no basis in history. There would be no history by chance. The living God controls history and set the course of redemption in motion with its fulfillment in Jesus’ resurrection. The living God and the resurrection are inseparable essentials. Are you willing to bet the rest of your life and eternity on chance? Paul wrote,
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
Paul discusses two outcomes resulting from the resurrection of Jesus: judgment for those who reject Him and assurance of life for those who believe Him. Place your wager.