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 The Principles of Theology - Article 2

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< Part 2

Part 3. The Proofs Of The Resurrection[4]

As the Resurrection has always been regarded as vital to Christianity, it is not surprising that opponents have concentrated their attacks on it. There are several converging lines of evidence.

1. The first proof is the life of Jesus Christ Himself. Whether in ordinary experience or in fiction there is a disappointment when a life which commences well finishes badly. With Jesus Christ a perfect life ends in a shameful death, and it is impossible to regard this as a fitting close. The Gospels give the Resurrection as the completion of the picture of Christ. There is no doubt that He anticipated His own Resurrection, and His veracity is at stake if He did not rise. Thus, the Resurrection is that of no ordinary man, but of One whose character had been unique, and for whose shameful death no proper explanation was conceivable.[5] In view, therefore, of His perfect truthfulness, any denial of His assurance of resurrection is impossible.[6] Then, too, if death closed a life so remarkable, we are faced with the insoluble mystery of the permanent triumph of wrong over right;[7] so that the Resurrection cannot be isolated from what preceded it, and the true solution of the problem is to be found in that estimate which “most entirely fits in with the totality of the facts.”[8]

2. Another line of proof is the fact of the empty grave and the disappearance of the body. The details of the record as to Christ’s death and burial are not now seriously challenged, and yet on the third morning the tomb was empty and the body had disappeared. There are only two alternatives. His body must have been taken out of the grave by human hands or else by superhuman power. The human hands would have been those of His friends or His foes. Even if the former had wished to do so they could hardly have accomplished their desire in the face of the obstacles. If the latter had contemplated the removal it may be questioned whether they would have seriously considered it, since this would have been the most likely thing to spread the report of His Resurrection. As St. Chrysostom said, “If the body have been stolen, they could not have stolen it naked, because of the delay in stripping it of the burial clothes and the trouble caused by the drugs adhering to it.”[9] Besides, the position of the grave clothes proves the impossibility of the theft of the body.[10] Then, too, it is impossible to account for the failure of the Jews to disprove the Resurrection, since it was not more than seven weeks after the Resurrection that St. Peter preached the fact that Jesus Christ had been raised. If the Jews could have produced the dead body it would have silenced the Apostle for ever. “The silence of the Jews is as significant as the speech of the Christians.”[11] Thus, the fact of the empty tomb with the disappearance of the body remains a problem to be faced. It is now admitted that the evidence for the empty tomb is adequate, and that it was part of the primitive belief;[12] and it is important to realise the force of this admission because it is a testimony to St. Paul’s use of the term “third day,” and to the Christian observance of the first day of the week. And yet it is often argued that the belief in the empty tomb is impossible, and some interpret the idea of resurrection to mean the revival of Christ’s spiritual influence on the disciples. It is thought that the essential value of the Resurrection can be preserved even while surrendering belief in His bodily rising from the grave.[13] But how is it possible to believe in the Resurrection while regarding the foundation of this belief as an error? The disciples, finding the tomb empty, believed that He had risen, and the belief can hardly be true if the foundation is false. Besides, the various forms of the Vision theory are now regarded as inadequate, since they involve the change of almost every statement in the Gospel and the invention of new conditions of which the Gospels know nothing.[14] Why should the disciples have had this abundant experience of visions, and why should these have been strictly limited to a very brief period, and then suddenly come to an end? They knew of the apparition of a spirit, like Samuel’s, and had witnessed the resuscitation of a body, like that of Lazarus, but they had never experienced or imagined the fact of a spiritual body, the novel combination of body and spirit. It is, therefore, impossible to accept the theory of a real spiritual manifestation of the risen Christ, for no telepathic communication is equivalent to the idea of resurrection. Psychical research in any case does not answer to the conditions of the physical resurrection recorded in the New Testament. “The survival of the soul is not resurrection.” “Whoever heard of a spirit being buried”?[15] Even though it is said that faith is not bound up with holding a particular view of the relation of Christ’s present glory to the body that was once in Joseph’s tomb, yet faith must ultimately rest on fact, and it is difficult to see how Christian belief can be “agnostic” with regard to the facts which are so prominent in the New Testament, and which form a vital part of the Apostolic witness. The attempt to set faith and historical evidence in opposition is unsatisfactory, and there is a growing feeling that it is impossible to believe in the Easter message without believing in the Easter facts. When once the evidence for the empty tomb is allowed to be adequate, the impossibility of any other explanation is at once seen. The evidence must be accounted for and adequately explained. It is becoming more and more evident that various theories cannot account for the records in the Gospels or for the place and power of those Gospels in all ages of the Church. The force of the evidence is clearly seen by the explanations suggested by some modern writers.[16] Not one of them is tenable without doing violence to the Gospel story and without putting forth new theories which are both improbable and without any historical or literary evidence.

Others suggest that the Resurrection was a real objective appearance without implying physical reanimation, that “the Resurrection of Christ was an objective reality, but was not a physical resuscitation.”[17] But difficulty arises as to the meaning of the term re-surrection. If it means a return from the dead, a rising again (re), must there not have been some identity between that which was put in the tomb and the “objective reality” which appeared to the disciples? Wherein lies the essential difference between an objective vision and an objective appearance? If the testimony of the Apostles to the empty tomb is believed, why may not their evidence to the actual Resurrection be also accepted. It is, of course, clear that the Resurrection body was not exactly the same as when it was put in the tomb, but it is also clear that there was definite identity as well as definite dissimilarity, and both elements must be explained. We are, therefore, brought back to a consideration of the facts recorded in the Gospels, and must demand an explanation which will take all of them into consideration and do no violence to any part of the evidence. To predicate a new Resurrection body in which Jesus Christ appeared to His disciples does not explain how in three days’ time the body which had been placed in the tomb was disposed of. The theory seems to demand a new miracle of its own.[18]

3. The next line of proof is the transformation of the disciples, due to the Resurrection. Through their Master’s death they had lost all hope, and yet this returned three days afterwards. When the message of the Resurrection first came they were incredulous, but when once they became assured of it they never doubted again. This astonishing change in so short a time has to be explained. Legendary growth was impossible in so brief a period, and the psychological fact of this marvellous change demands a full explanation. The disciples were prepared to believe in the appearance of a spirit, but never seem to have contemplated the possibility of a resurrection (Mark 16:11). Men do not imagine what they do not believe, and the women’s intention to embalm a corpse shows that they did not expect His Resurrection. Besides, hallucination involving five hundred people at once and repeated several times is unthinkable.

4. The next line of proof is the existence of the primitive Church. It is now admitted that the early community of Christians came into existence as the result of a belief in the Resurrection of Christ.[19] Two facts stand out: (1) the Society was gathered together by preaching; (2) the theme of the preaching was the Resurrection of Christ. The evidence of the early chapters of Acts is unmistakable, and it is impossible to allege that the primitive Church did not know its own history, and that legends quickly grew up and were eagerly received. Any modern Church could readily give an account of its history for the past fifty years or more.[20] There was nothing vague about the testimony of the early Church. “As the Church is too holy for a foundation of rottenness, so she is too real for a foundation of mist.”[21]

5. One witness in the Apostolic Church calls for special attention, the Apostle Paul. He possessed the three essentials of a true witness: intelligence, candour, and disinterestedness. His conversion and work stand out clearly in regard to his evidence for the Resurrection.[22] In view, therefore, of St. Paul’s personal testimony to his own conversion, and to his interviews with those who had seen Christ on earth, with the prominence given to the Resurrection in his teaching, we may rightly argue that he stands out beyond all question as a witness to the Resurrection. His twenty-five years of service were based upon the sudden change wrought at his conversion, and if his conversion was true, Jesus Christ rose from the dead, for everything the Apostle was and did he attributed to the sight of the risen Christ.[23]

6. The next line of proof is the record in the Gospels of the appearances of the risen Christ, and in view of the dates when the Gospels were written this should be considered in the order now stated. The Resurrection was believed in by the Church for a number of years before the Gospels were written, and it is therefore impossible for these records to be our primary evidence. We must get behind them if we are to appreciate the force of the testimony, and it is for this reason that, following the proper logical order, we reserve to the last our consideration of these appearances. The point is one of great importance.[24] Whatever theory may be held as to the origin and relation of the Gospels, the appearances can be safely and thoroughly examined. There are two sets of appearances, one in Jerusalem and the other in Galilee, and their number and the amplitude and weight of their testimony call for careful estimation. Books dealing specifically with the Resurrection examine each appearance minutely, but this is impossible under the conditions of this work, though it may be remarked that no one can read the story of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24), or the visit of St. Peter and St. John to the tomb (John 20) without observing the striking marks of reality in the accounts.[25] The difficulties connected with the number and order of the appearances are probably due mainly to the summary character of the story, and do not invalidate the uniform testimony to the two facts: (1) the empty grave; (2) the appearances of Christ on the third day.[26] The very difficulties in the Gospels are a testimony to a conviction of the truth of the narratives on the part of the Christian Church through the ages. The records have been fearlessly left as they are because of the facts they embody. If there had been no difficulties artificiality could have been charged against the records, and the fact that we possess these two sets of appearances is really an argument in favour of their credibility, since one set only might have been rejected for lack of support.

When we examine all these converging lines of evidence it seems impossible to escape from the problem of a physical miracle, and this is the prima facie view of the evidence afforded. It is this question of the miraculous that is at the root of much modern disbelief in the Resurrection. The scientific doctrine of the uniformity and continuity of nature leads to the conclusion that miracles are impossible. We are either not allowed to believe, or else we are told that we are not required to believe, in the reanimation of a dead body. If this view is taken, “there is no need, really, for investigation of evidence; the question is decided before the evidence is looked at.”[27] But this position proves too much, since it would rule out all Divine interventions which might be called miraculous. On this view it would be impossible to account for the Person of Christ at all. “A sinless Personality would be a miracle in time.” Those who hold a theistic view of the world cannot accept any a priori view that miracles are impossible. The Resurrection, therefore, means the presence of miracle, and “there is no evading the issue with which this confronts us.”[28]

Of recent years attempts have been made to account for the Resurrection by means of ideas derived from Babylonian and other Eastern sources. It is argued that Mythology provides the key, and that not only analogy, but derivation is to be found in it. But there is nothing worthy of the name of historical proof afforded, and the idea is often quite arbitrary and prejudiced by the attitude to the supernatural. There is literally no link of connection between these Oriental cults and the Christian belief in the Resurrection.

And so we return to a consideration of the various lines of proof. Taken singly, they are strong; taken together, the argument is cumulative and almost irresistible. Every fact must have its adequate cause, and the only proper explanation of Christianity today is the Resurrection of Christ.


>> 4. The Theology Of The Resurrection


[4] The substance of this section is taken from an article by the author in the International Standard Bible Encyclopædia. See also his Christianity is Christ, Ch. 7.

[5] Denney, Jesus and the Gospel, p. 122 f.

[6] C. H. Robinson, Studies in the Resurrection, p. 30.

[7] C. H. Robinson, ut supra, p. 36.

[8] Orr, The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 14.

[9] Quoted in Day, Evidence for the Resurrection, p. 35.

[10] See Greek of John 20:6, 7; Cf. 11:44; Grimley, Temple of Humanity, pp. 69, 70; Latham, The Risen Master; Expository Times, Vol. 13, p. 293 f.; 14, p. 510.

[11] Fairbairn, Studies in the Life of Christ, p. 357.

[12] Streeter, Foundations, pp. 134, 154.

[13] Orr, ut supra, p. 23.

[14] Orr, ut supra, p. 222.

[15] Orr, ut supra, p. 229.

[16] Those of Oscar Holtzmann, K. Lake, and A. Meyer can be seen in Orr, The Resurrection of Jesus, Ch. 8, and that of Reville in C. H. Robinson, Studies in the Resurrection of Christ, p. 69. See also article by Streeter, in Foundations.

[17] C. H. Robinson, ut supra, p. 12.

[18] Kennett, Interpreter, Vol. 5, p. 271.

[19] “There is no doubt that the Church of the Apostles believed in the resurrection of their Lord” (Burkitt, The Gospel History and Its Transmission, p. 74).

[20] Orr, ut supra, p. 144.

[21] Archbishop Alexander, The Great Question, p. 10.

[22] “He affirms that within five years of the crucifixion of Jesus he was taught that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures’” (Kennett, ut supra, p. 267).
“That within a very few years of the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus was, in the mind of at least one man of education, absolutely irrefutable” (Kennett, ut supra, p. 267).

[23] It is well known how that Lord Lyttelton and his friend Gilbert West left Oxford University at the close of one academic year, each determining to give attention respectively during the Long Vacation to the conversion of St. Paul and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, in order to prove the baselessness of both. They met again in the autumn and compared experiences. Lord Lyttelton had become convinced of the truth of St. Paul’s conversion, and Gilbert West of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[24] Denney, ut supra, p. 111.

[25] “It carries with it, as great literary critics have pointed out, the deepest inward evidences of its own literal truthfulness. For it so narrates the intercourse of ‘a risen God’ with commonplace men as to set natural and supernatural side by side in perfect harmony. And to do this has always been the difficulty, the despair of imagination. The alternative has been put reasonably thus: St. Luke was either a greater poet, a more creative genius than Shakespeare, or – he did not create the record. He had an advantage over Shakespeare. The ghost in Hamlet was the effort of laborious imagination. The risen Christ on the road was a fact supreme, and the Evangelists did but tell it as it was” (Bishop Moule, Meditations for the Church’s Year, p. 108).
See also Orr, ut supra, p. 176 f.

[26] Orr, ut supra, p. 212.

[27] Orr, ut supra, pp. 44, 46; C. H. Robinson, ut supra, Ch. 2.

[28] Orr, ut supra, p. 53.

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Article 4

>> Introduction

>> 1 - Teaching of Apostles

>> 2 - Place in N.T.

>> 3 - Proofs

>> 4 - Theology

>> 5 - Ascension and Session

>> 6 - Return and Judgement

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>> Preface by J I Packer

>> Introduction

>> 1 - Trinity

>> 2 - Christ

>> 3 - Descent into Hell

>> 4 - Resurrection

>> 5 - Holy Spirit

>> 6 - Holy Scripture

>> 7 - The Old Testament

>> 8 - The Three Creeds

>> 9 - Of Original or Birth Sin

>> 10 - Of Free Will

>> 11 - Of the Justifcation of Man




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