Why Raise Jesus from the Dead?

This is a continuation of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. Mr. Martin's article is being reprinted this spring in a book by Prometheus Press. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin, further installments will be published on this blog. The entire response is also available here.

Mr. Martin's original article gives prominent place to one particular complaint: there is (he states) no plausible reason why the resurrection should have occurred. In the course of this response, I will discuss a number of the reasons for Jesus’ resurrection.

God's Purposes and Jesus' Resurrection

When discussing the resurrection and God’s purpose, Mr. Martin limits the discussion to theories of atonement. While I will respond to Mr. Martin on the atonement, the discussion of God’s purpose will not be limited to atonement alone. We will also consider the resurrection in light of the view that a miracle may also be a sign which communicates a message.

In preparation, we will first recall some known facts -- our background knowledge for assessing the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. The first thing to recall is that Jesus is among a very rare group of people in the history of the world: people who founded a major religion. While this is undisputed and very likely to be relevant, Mr. Martin does not consider it in his assessment. From a simple standpoint of logic, it can easily have a bearing on whether God has any purpose in resurrecting Jesus from the dead. Another thing to recall is that, in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, previous teaching on resurrection was not especially strong, with no explicit support for it in the Torah and no other officially-recognized scriptures besides the Torah. In that day, it was an acceptable Jewish belief that there was no resurrection from the dead, with the party of Sadducees holding that belief. If the teaching of a future resurrection of all people from the dead is true, it is among the most relevant and important teachings in the history of religion. To be sure, some people had taught as if a resurrection would come. But these had not gained full acceptance as of the time of Jesus.

Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that clarifies the answers to many questions:

  1. It serves as a final answer as to whether there is life after death. As a sign, it clearly indicates that God raises the dead.
  2. It serves as a sign validating Jesus' teachings on the resurrection. It indicates that among the various teachings of what happens after death, Jesus’ teaching on resurrection is true. This gives certainty of Jesus' teaching of a general resurrection in the future.
  3. It shows God’s faithfulness to his creation. From confirming Jesus' teaching of the future resurrection of all people, it follows that it is also a sign that God has not abandoned humanity to pain, meaninglessness, and death. It confirms Jesus' pledge to us that our own tombs will one day be empty, and we will rise to life again as he rose. From this we can see the reason for the hope we have in us.
  4. It foretells the promised renewal of creation to a state of goodness that is no longer subject to death and corruption. Restoring nature to what God intended is one connecting link between Jesus’ healing miracles and his resurrection. Jesus’ work restoring nature is affirmed as God’s own purpose by Jesus’ restoration to life. Together with the background of Jesus’ other miracles restoring the sick, the blind, and the crippled, it shows that any evil, disease, death, or destruction that may confront us still cannot defeat God’s purpose of restoring us and renewing all things.
  5. The resurrection is a sign indicating the final practical resolution of the problem of evil. It is a sign showing the weak and temporary nature of suffering and death, and the truth of Jesus' promises regarding the world to come.
  6. It is a vindication of the goodness of God. If suffering, death, and meaningless had in fact been the final result of our lives, it would be problematic to maintain the reality of God's love of mankind. Instead, the resurrection demonstrates death's inability to destroy us and to undo God's purposes for us. As the generation that saw Christ raised from the dead put it, "Death, where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?" The resurrection, as a sign of the general resurrection to come, provides a clear indication that God does value mankind.
  7. It confirms the uniqueness of Jesus in God's purposes in the world. Among that very, very small group of people in the history of the world who have founded major religions, Jesus is unique even within that group in rising from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection plainly shows which leader to follow. It renders foolish the argument that God has not made clear which religious leader to follow.

Atonement Theories

The sign value of the resurrection alone is enough reason for the resurrection to have occurred. But the matter of our atonement still needs to be discussed because of the resurrection’s role in it. Martin, oddly enough, discusses in detail only Origen’s primitive ransom theory in which Jesus supposedly paid a ransom due to the devil, a theory which is not fully Scriptural. Martin passes over other theories of atonement just by listing a number of them and stating that he finds "all the historically important theories" do not explain some aspect of the atonement to his satisfaction, referencing his book The Case Against Christianity. This present article will not review every theory of atonement or respond to an entire book. For the moment, let us give Martin the benefit of the doubt and suppose that with every given theory of atonement, he has found some major point that is not addressed. But by refuting theories of atonement singly, it seems likely that Mr. Martin does not appreciate that various theories of atonement are complementary; many of them do not preclude each other but instead work together to explain different aspects of our atonement.

On a Christian view, the whole of atonement requires a number of things. Atonement involves satisfying both justice and mercy, causing us to despise evil, humbling us, leading us to trust in God, cleansing us from the stain of past sin, cleansing us from corruption and the desire to sin, establishing a covenant (binding agreement) between us and God, planting the beginnings of eternal life inside us and making us children of God. The atonement involves Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. It is no legitimate complaint to take one theory that explains one part of it and mention that it does not explain all of it; it was probably never intended to. For example, Martin mentions the Christus Victor theory – that Jesus has won victory over the adversaries of mankind (for example, death). Given the sign value of the resurrection, it is clear that Jesus has won the victory over death; this is most certainly true. That one theory does not address a number of other points that need to be discussed, but that does not make it untrue. It complements other theories, it does not compete with them. Athanasius, writing in On the Incarnation of the Word of God, refers to a number of different theories of atonement and different aspects of atonement and does not confine himself to an either-or view of atonement theories.

Atonement In Action

I would also like to quickly review the two complaints Mr. Martin specifically mentioned about various views of atonement: "that they either fail to explain why God sacrificed His Son for the salvation of sinners or else make the sacrifice seem arbitrary." When we look at our own guilt for various things we have done, we know that our simple regret – as genuine and miserable as it may be – neither works to destroy the evil that is in us nor satisfies those we have wronged. While on the surface the idea seems attractive that God might forgive us without any punishment, if that had been the case then we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not really that serious. And we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not very serious based on what (in that case) would have been fact – that God simply shrugged and forgave. Now, shrugging and forgiving may be fine for a small and accidental thing. But there is a lot worse going on in this world than small and accidental things, and a notable percentage of people are involved at least occasionally in these larger and more deliberate wrongs.

Given that God has the power to heal all the harm done and restore peace and cleanness to all the souls (both the wrongdoer and the wronged), it would be arbitrary if God chose a line of badness and said "beyond this, I will not forgive." But what if God opens his power for all people who turn to him, not just those who were not that bad in the first place? (I expect that many who read this may not suspect that there is much wrong within their own souls, so I write as to those who consider "the worst of sinners" to be someone else. Those of us who follow the example of Paul should hesitate to think that the worst of sinners is anyone but ourselves, as Paul said of himself.) If God only forgave those who were not so bad in the first place, then how could we escape the view that he saved those who were good enough? How could we deny that they owed their forgiveness in part to their own goodness – or worse, to their superiority over those who were lost – as much as to God’s mercy? But if God was willing to redeem anyone, no matter how serious the offense, then how would justice be satisfied? What is the worst punishment that justice can ask? There is no crime for which justice may ask a worse punishment than death, especially the slow and painful death of the cross. Jesus’ punishment – the extreme punishment of death, reserved for the worst of crimes – is sufficient to satisfy justice for the most serious of offenses. In this way our atonement has left no doubt that the wrongs being atoned are not a slight matter but are in fact dreadful. In this way our fear is quieted as to whether our particular sin is beyond the price that was paid. In this way our atonement increases the disgust for wrongdoing, rather than decreasing it, in those who understand their forgiveness.

The question implied at one point of Martin’s article is, "Why Jesus? Why the Son of God?" First, it would need to be someone sinless; otherwise we could never be certain that this person did not simply pay for his own crimes. Notice also that the atonement would leave us in the unique debt of the one who atoned for us, as much to that one as to God. It is fitting that the payment should be taken on by God himself. If our debt had not been taken by God himself, then we would have had cause to honor another as much as God, and cause to doubt God’s love of us, if he had created us but left it to someone else to redeem us. In providing for all wrongdoers, our atonement makes plain that we are indebted to God’s goodness rather than our own. It demolishes boasting about our own goodness and restores us to humility; all alike are in need of mercy. And in God’s providing atonement himself, our atonement restores our trust in God rather than sending us to look elsewhere for our redemption.

The response to Mr. Martin will be continued here. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin at this time, the entire response is also available here.


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