The Resurrection

by Alister McGrath

If Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, never to die again, he is instantly marked out as being distinct from every other person in history. He would be unique. There would be something dramatically different about him. The only question remaining would relate to the nature of his uniqueness – a question which Christian theology has answered in the doctrine of the incarnation. Yet the apologist will be aware that the resurrection of Christ proves a major stumbling block to many people. [40] the ­reasons for this centre upon three issues: the improbability of the event, the unreliability of the New Testament witnesses to the event, and its irrelevance to life. We shall explore some of these issues in the present section.

The New Testament is permeated by the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The consequences of this event, both for the personal experience of the first Christians and for their understanding of the understanding of the identity and significance of Jesus himself, dominate the horizons of the New Testament writers. It was on the basis of their firm belief that the one who was crucified had been raised by God from the dead, that the astonishing developments in the perceived status and identity of Jesus took place. The cross was interpreted from the standpoint of the resurrection, and Jesus’ teaching was accorded reverence on account of who the resurrec­tion disclosed him to be. Jesus was worshipped and adored as the living Lord, who would come again – and not merely revered as a dead, super rabbi. The tendency to ‘think of Jesus Christ as of God’ (2 Clement 1:1) is already evident within the New Testament. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the most important developments in the Christian understanding of the identity and significance of Jesus Christ took place, not during the patristic period on account of the questionable influence of Greek meta­physics, but within twenty years of the crucifixion itself.

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Of course, modern critics of the resurrection argue, it was easy for the first Christians to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. After all, belief in resurrections was a commonplace at the time. The first Christians may have jumped to the conclusion that Jesus was raised from the dead, when something rather different actually happened. Although the crude charges of yesteryear (for example, that the disciples stole the corpse of Jesus from its tomb, or that they were the victims of mass hysteria) are still occasionally encountered, they have generally been superceded by more subtle theories. Thus, to note the most important, the resurrection was really a symbolic event, which the first Christians confused with an historical event on account of their uncritical presuppositions.

In response to this, however, it may be pointed out that neither of the two general beliefs of the time bear any resemblance to the resurrection of Jesus. The Sadducees denied the idea of a resur­rection altogether (a fact which Paul was able to exploit at an awkward moment: Acts 23:6-8) while the majority expectation was of a general resurrection on the last day, at the end of history itself. The sheer oddness of the Christian proclamation of the resurrec­tion of Jesus in human history, at a definite time and place, is all too easily overlooked by modern critics, even though it was obvious at the time. The unthinkable appeared to have happened, and for that very reason demanded careful attention…


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