At Easter time we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the biggest event in the Christian calendar, for Christians, everything hinges on this one event in history (1 Corinthians 15:19). Our world today struggles with this event and we are full of doubt. We live in a modern scientific world, a world of cynicism, a world full of information. We live in a world which has made much progress but also in a world that is still often in turmoil, war, violence, greed, debt, anxiety and deep sadness. The answers that our world has constructed about why we are here and what life is all about don’t always cut the mustard. It seems to me that many people today still live without much hope for the future. The event of the resurrection is at its heart about new life and hope amongst brokenness. Can we trust that the resurrection of Jesus is true? Did it actually happen? If it did, why is it good news?
N.T. Wright has written a whopper of a book on the resurrection of Jesus. It is 817 pages long and I must confess I haven’t read all of it yet. What I have read has brought clarity around the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and what this means. Since it is Easter Sunday here I offer a short summary of Part V of this book.
Wright opens this section by making the point that a belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has been at the centre of Christian belief since the dawn of the Church.
Tom wants to make sure that it is clear that we can trust historical research as a way of knowing about reality. There are significant historical reasons that we should believe that what happened on Easter morning as told in the Gospels actually happened. Historical research isn’t like science where we look under a microscope or repeat experiments in labs. It relies on eyewitness accounts, stories and documents collected from the past.
What does history tell us about this event?
1) The tomb was empty.
2) People met with the risen Jesus.
If we just had an empty tomb, we could believe that Jesus’ body had been taken, his grave may have been robbed. This was a common thing in ancient times and wouldn’t have been that hard to believe. But because Jesus appeared to his disciples it becomes clear that something else happened.
If we just had Jesus appearing to his disciples, we might believe that the disciples had visions or saw a ghost, again in the ancient world accounts of this kind of thing happening were common.
But because we have both an empty tomb and Jesus appearing to the disciples we have good reason to believe that the resurrection actually happened.
Wright makes his point by talking about necessary and sufficient conditions saying:
“The broad difference between necessary and sufficient conditions is not difficult to grasp. A necessary condition is something that has to be the case for the conclusion to follow: it is a necessary condition of my computer working properly that the house be connected to an electricity supply. A sufficient condition is something that will certainly and without fail bring about the conclusion: it is a sufficient condition of my having a sleepless night that somebody should practice the bagpipes outside of my bedroom window. The difference between the two appears if we consider the alternatives. Connecting the house to the electricity supply may be a necessary condition for my computer to function, but it is certainly not sufficient; any number of things might go wrong with the machine itself. Bagpipes at midnight are sufficient for my sleeplessness, but they are certainly not a necessary condition; a pot of strong coffee, or a pneumatic drill in the street, would have the same effect. The supply of electricity is thus a necessary but insufficient condition of the computer functioning; the bagpipes are a sufficient but unnecessary condition of my sleepless night.”
With this is mind let’s consider Wright’s observations about the empty tomb and the appearances to the disciples. He says: “We have seen that they (the tomb and appearances) are, by themselves, insufficient to generate early Christian belief. Bring them together, however, and they form, in combination, a sufficient condition” (as outlined in above argument).
So there we have what Wright sees as a sufficient condition for belief in the resurrection, but what about a necessary condition? Wright admits that this is harder to prove by historical proof. Rather, Wright turns to examining the meaning of the resurrection saying: “We may insist, in fact, that whatever else happened, if the body of Jesus of Nazareth had remained in the tomb there would have been no early Christian belief of the sort we have discovered…the specific faith of the earliest Christians could not have been generated by a set of circumstances in which an empty tomb did not play a part. I therefore regard the empty tomb as a necessary condition for the rise of the very specific early Christian belief.” Wright then notes that the appearances are a kind of supplementary necessary condition in that they make the first condition plausible. Tom isn’t so naive to think that there aren’t various objections to his argument and he outlines the opposition arguments in his chapter (for those, read the book!).
Wright also makes the point that the resurrection of Jesus is not just some kind of miracle that God does to prove himself. Rather the resurrection is an event at the turning point of history – a shocking, surprising event that has changed everything.
“The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it. The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation. The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is part of the claim itself.”
The claim that “Christ has risen!” is not just a statement of fact like any other, it is also “self-involving.” Tom says:
“There are various levels of self-involving statements. If, walking down the street, I say ‘I think that was the Number 10 bus’, the statement is only minimally self-involving; I do not want to go where the Number 10 bus goes, and anyway I prefer to walk. But if, arriving breathless at the bus stop on the way to a vital appointment, I look despairingly up the street and say ‘I think that was the Number 10 bus’, knowing that the next one is not due for another two hours and that there is no other means of arriving on time, the statement not only involves me, it plunges me into gloom. The point is that one cannot say ‘Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead’ with the minimal involvement of the first of those statements. If it happened, it matters. The world is a different place from what it would be if it did not happen.”
Tom Wrights book “Resurrection of the Son of God” invites us to look at the historical reasons for the resurrection but it doesn’t stop there. This isn’t just a curious game. Rather, to examine the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is to be invited to participate. This story changes the meaning of history itself and points to the reality that God has ushered in the beginning of a “new creation” through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the hinge point of God’s plan to restore this broken world and put things right. That is why the resurrection is such a message of hope in our world. To dig into the reasons for the resurrection further I invite you to explore N.T. Wright’s epic book on the world changing event of Jesus’ resurrection. Happy Easter.