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All evidence suggests the resurrection didn’t happen. Here's why I believe anyway.
I enjoyed considering Preston’s hypothetical because I think a lot of people wonder if they can follow a resurrected savior if the resurrection didn’t happen. In fact, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that the belief in the resurrection of the dead is essential for our faith:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:12-14)
Let's pause to talk about the occasion in Corinth before we go on. Why are these Corinthians, who just converted to Christianity on the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection deny it so quickly? Two options: 1) On one hand, perhaps they already thought they achieved it. 2) They believed in the resurrection, but only a spiritual resurrection, not a bodily one.
The latter seems more likely than the former because Paul is tying the resurrection of the dead to the resurrection of Christ. He is saying it clearly: this is not a metaphorical resurrection, it isn’t a spiritual resurrection, it is an embodied one. And because it is an embodied one, the resurrection of our dead must be possible too.
Paul is saying you don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, you cannot proclaim the resurrection of Christ. And he is emphasizing the materiality of both. Christ materially resurrected and so will your dead. He is directly advocating bodily resurrection and claims the entire faith and our salvation hinges on that.
This powerful idea has been muted or reduced to a belief in the resurrection of Jesus and that belief stays in your head or in your heart and that’s the long and short of it. We spend so much time agonizing over our beliefs, over when we are convinced, but Paul is moving us in another direction. He’s moving us (and the Corinthians) beyond their head and into their bodies.
So often we are caught up in faith as certainty and belief as something that we merely ascent to. But it is so much more than that. Paul is emphasizing the embodied nature of our faith, of the resurrection. He is exhorting the Corinthians that the lived reality of their church plant based on the faith
Preston’s question implies that a reason we have faith is that we don’t have definitive evidence that Jesus didn’t resurrect, and because the evidence isn’t definitive, we can still believe. The problem with the question is that we don’t have definitive evidence for anything. Most material truths we live by, even truths like the law of gravity, don’t have “definitive evidence,” but rather enough evidence. The idea that we can hold on to our faith because the resurrection of human bodies, or specifically Jesus’ resurrection, hasn’t been disproven is an incredibly weak basis to hold onto our faith. Similarly, believing in any conspiracy theory that hasn’t been definitively proven is an exercise in futility. In general, it is advisable to listen to the conclusions of the scientific community about material truths, even if there is no way to know for sure. Climate change is real, the earth isn’t flat, marijuana doesn’t cure cancer, vaccines are good for us, and there is no secret ring of pedophiles that control the government.
To believe in the resurrection using the same rationality as conspiracy theories makes usfoolish as they are. And it also suggests that the reason we believe and have faith is somehow rooted in our material reality. The thing is, all empirical evidence suggests that he didn’t resurrect, yet faith overcomes that data. Every single thing we know about material and natural science suggests that the resurrection of the dead is impossible. It’s preposterous. It’s unbelievable. Yet, we still believe. We don’t believe because of definitive evidence, we believe despite there being none. Christians don’t follow Jesus because they are definitively certain of one thing or another. We follow because we have faith. We have faith because of the internal and external transformation we have experienced through relating to Jesus.
Christians go on a fool’s errand when they try to literally prove the resurrection. Some go to great lengths to offer evidence that it happens. In high school, Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict was passed around to prove the existence of God and the Lordship of Jesus. Christians in that era, and still now (the book is apparently still in print), think that it is essential that we use the tools of the current epistemology to conclude whether we have faith or not. But not only is such evidence specious, but the evidence in its opposition is also too great to overcome. So even if we have some data that suggests the resurrection of Christ happened, when we start dealing with that currency, so to speak, the other side has so much more that we are defeated before we started.
The truth is we have enough data to suggest the resurrection of Christ didn’t happen. But we believe despite that. We believe despite it being irrational to do it. We believe despite it being foolish to do so. We believe because we yearn and long for a world different than this one. When we start looking at the forces of death in our world, we may think that they will be an eternal part of our life. What hope do we have against climate change? Against institutional racism? Against ableism? Against heteropatriarchy? Against militarism? Against greed and capitalism? These forces seem doomed to defeat and oppress us. And you know what? All material evidence suggests that they can’t be defeated.
But despite the evidence, we long for hope, for the impossible. We yearn to have faith. We don’t succumb to despair, to cynicism, to our anguish. It costs us nothing to simply be self-defeated. And I know that in certain seasons, it can feel impossible to overcome our dread. I know when I have had to face impossible difficulties, the road against them has been filled with trauma, abuse, and pain. It often feels like we face the impossible, the unimaginable, we have constant signs that we did the wrong thing. That we did something absurd.
But the truth is that we need a little belief in absurdity and foolishness to overcome the despair of the world. We need imagination to overcome what they tell us can’t be imagined. During some seasons, the peace of God that will feel like it surpasses our understanding, and so our faith may sometimes feel like it surpasses our understanding.
Holding on to the impossible can feel like a daunting, impossible task. But envision faith as a kettle grill full of burning coals. The ones that are alone, go out quickly. But when they are near hot ones, they stay hot, sometimes even lighting unlit coals. That’s what the hope of a Christian community can be. We can keep each other warm. The pandemic made that almost impossible. Our rituals were disrupted, our faith was undone, but we found new ways to keep moving forward. The best way to believe the impossible then is to stay disciplined, keep praying, keep worshiping, keep talking, and keep communing with God. The disciplines matter as we receive the gift of grace and hope from God. We keep accessing them through our shared lives and our shared journeys.