Saturday, April 28, 2012

Did Jesus Rise From The Dead? (A Church Without God - Chapter V)

Rev. Ernest Harrison dedicates the fifth chapter of his controversial book from 1966 A Church Without God to the topic of Jesus' resurrection. He begins by stating that "the new Christian is called upon to face a living relationship with Jesus Christ, and he does so in terms of resurrection."  He then says that it is important to look at the Biblical account and how we interpret the resurrection story.

Harrison begins by pointing out some discrepancies in the Biblical resurrection stories.
  • The women who are to visit the tomb buy their spices and perfume on Friday, according to Luke; on Saturday evening, according to Mark.
  • The women who visit the tomb are described differently, as is the whole episode. In Matthew, two women, the two Marys - come; there is a violent earthquake; an angel descends from heaven, rolls the stone back, and sits on it; there are guards who shiver with fear; the angels tell the women what to do. In Mark, three women - the two Marys and Salome - bring the oils, see the tomb empty, and enter to find a youth wearing a white robe sitting on the right side; he tells them what to do. In Luke, three women - the two Marys and Joanna - bring the spices, find the stone rolled away from the tomb, and enter to find two men in dazzling garments at their side who tell them what to do. In John, the embalming is not done by the women at all, but by two men - Joseph and Nicodemus
  • Matthew and Luke appear to refer to the resurrection appearances as occupying a single day; John gives an account that spreads them over more than eight days; Acts fixes the period at forty days.
Harrison continues by stating the possibility that Christians came up with the empty-tomb story to counter rumours that they themselves had taken the body of Jesus. In any case, "the resurrection stories need not be taken as factual."  Harrison says that it is no surprise that Paul, while arguing for the resurrection, never mentioned the empty tomb. He surmises that the later gospel accounts beefed up the empty tomb story to back up the resurrection claims. 

He then goes on to say that "If we are not committed to taking these narratives of the empty tomb and the appearances to the disciples as precise recordings of events, we are liberated to enter a deeper response. If the writer is trying to spell out the underlying meaning of the story, then we have to meet him at a more personal level than if he is simply reciting a series of incidents."
Harrison says that while everyone living on the planet believes in death, the promise of an afterlife is becoming less believable, even to Christians. He unequivocally says that "it is a doctrine that has no meaning." I must say that personally, I have not given much thought to the after-life for many years. This is in no doubt due to the fact that I used to worry about Hell so much when I was a fundamentalist Christian that it was a relief when I gave that belief system up to no longer have to worry about burning.

Harrison argues that for Paul and for many of today's (1966) Christians, the resurrection was an eternal now, not something in the past or future. "But if you ask me to believe that my body or my personality will somehow come alive again beyond the grave, you ask me to believe something that eludes me - something that I can no longer accept.

Harrison knows that there are plenty of Christian who take the resurrection accounts literally and believe in an after-life, and says that "in the pluralism of modern Christianity, there is no reason why one should try to win over another group to one's own convictions."

Harrison continues by saying that the best evidence for the historical nature of the resurrection events is the change that took place in the life of the apostles. After the crucifixion, the apostles were weak and timid and met in secret. After Pentecost they became courageous leaders in the Church. Harrison then cites a book from 1956, When Prophecy Fails, which suggests the following. "Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief and that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervour for convincing and converting other people to his view."  Harrison then goes on to say that there have been many events that have never taken place, still many followers remain faithful. In the 2nd century, Montanus declared that the Second Coming was at hand, and though it didn't occur, many still believed. He cites forecasts by the Jehovah's Witnesses as another example.  A modern day example is the radio evangelist Harold Camping, who predicted the end of the world on a certain day, and when it didn't happen, he claimed that forces had shifted and that the end would come a few months later (we're still here).

Evangelist Harold Camping
Harrison says that one possibility is that after a period of grieving for Jesus, the disciples turned their despair (the cross) into a success, saying that it was the ultimate triumph. Still, he writes,
"The significance of the resurrection is great. In their rationalizations to prove that the cross instead of a defeat had really been a victory, the apostles were not rationalizing from an absurd belief into an absurd alternative. The death on the cross was real. Jesus died. His death was inevitable, given the circumstances of a rebel who opposed the leaders of church and state and stirred up the people into independence. It had always happened before; it will always happen again. He declared himself to be truly and fully man, and he got in the way of those who wished to use men and ride them to their own advantage. He was truly man, and he died."
Harrison says that how much of the resurrection stories stem from the apostles' rationalizations "we shall never know. Rationalizing, though it may be observed as an attempt to escape dissonance, may produce a consonance which is true in itself and to life." Basically Harrison is saying that even though the resurrection may never have taken place, the story that built up after Jesus died carries on a life of its own, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. According to Harrison, "if the apostles, faced with a clear disconfirmation of the event they had expected, turned instead to a proclamation of resurrection, then we have a greater support for the continual rising of the human spirit than the old interpretations."

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The Easter story used to mean a huge deal to me when I was a fundamentalist Christian. It was a given that Jesus died, was in the grave for 3 days, after which he bodily rose from the dead.  After I left fundamentalism, I didn't quite know what to think of the Easter story, and that was just fine with me. Eventually I became involved with a movement called Unity, which re-interprets the Easter story in its own way, though my mind couldn't really work its way around that either.  Today I believe that Jesus lived in such a contrary way to other religious and political leaders of his day that they considered him a threat and killed him.  I honestly don't know what to make of the resurrection. It stirs excitement to think that a man can be raised from the dead. As far as my personal resurrection goes, I agree with Harrison and others that it is "the eternal now" and not something that happens when I die. While I do not believe that my body will be physically resuscitated, I do believe that somehow, in some way, my spirit will live on.

And that's enough for me.

1 comment:

Rev. Alison Longstaff said...

Me too. Thank you as always for your thoughtful reflections.