Friday, March 17, 2006

Is the Resurrection a Dangerous Idea?

Back when I did the dangerous ideas list, Michael Pahl had suggested that Jesus' resurrection qualifies. I'd meant to address this at more length back then, and was reminded of it this morning as I was going through a part of Dale Allison's book. In the best treatment of the subject, Allison offers the following reasons why he would like the resurrection to be true:

1. Jesus' bizarre teachings need endorsement. "Unlike the wisdom sayings of Proverbs, Jesus' sometimes otherwordly, sometimes ascetical, often eschatological, often counterintuitive teachings -- love your enemies, do not be angry, do not divorce and remarry -- are not self-validating. They further self-destruct if the humble, including Jesus himself, are never exalted. So the crucifixion and Jesus' cry of dereliction require a sequel."

2. There's too little evidence that God cares about people. "I am a reluctantly cryptic Deist. My tendency is to live my life as though God made the world and then went away. It is hard for me to see the hand of Providence either in human history or in individual lives, including my own... So I would welcome an intervening God who, at least for a bit, cares more about making a point than keeping the so-called laws of nature... who comes out of hiding for a moment to break the monotony of death and do something truly wonderful."

3. Resurrection would point to the goodness of human flesh. "Belief in the resurrection should allow one to recite the words of b. Ber. 60b without discomfiture: 'Blessed is he who formed human beings in wisdom and created in them many orifices and many cavities.'"

4. Resurrection would point to an afterlife. "Most days I sympathize with Dante in the Convito: 'I say that of all the idiocies, that which holds that after this life there is no other is the most stupid, most vile, and most damnable.'... The heartbreaks and horrors and injustices of this age cannot be squared with the doctrine of a consoling Providence unless all is not as it seems to be, unless there is something more than death and extinction... The resurrection is the denial of death, and I want to deny death, or at least its finality."

(From Resurrecting Jesus, pp 214-219)

Allison's candor speaks well for him, all the more because he ultimately eschews apologetics. (His book isn't exactly for those who favor the claim that Jesus' resurrection falls "in the same sort of category of historical probability so high as to be virtually certain, as the death of Augustus or the fall of Jerusalem" (!) (Tom Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p 710).) Dale being a "reluctantly cryptic Deist" results in some healthy approaches to these things. He lists reasons for wanting the resurrection to be true -- perfectly natural reasons, perfectly normal reasons -- but no reasons for not wanting it to be true (though he acknowledges reasons for doubting it may be true depending on how one treats the subject matter: pp 219-228).

For the sake of quibbling, I'll note that it shouldn't take a resurrection to convince anyone of the validity behind reasons (1) and (3). Anything which seems strange and counterintuitive -- whether it comes from a religious figure like Jesus or a scientist like Richard Dawkins -- may well stand a good chance of being true, and that was the whole point of the dangerous ideas, both in biblical studies and science. Jesus had dangerous ideas of his own, and the merits/demerits of those ideas aren't determined by the postmortem state of his body. Regarding (3), nothing religious is required to appreciate the goodness of human flesh. As the Mission U.K. sings in "Wasteland", "the spirit is willing and the flesh is great"... Well, no elaboration necessary.

It's (2) and (4) for which a resurrection would provide the most hope. Two unpleasant facts are that the world abounds with horror and injustice, and that each of us will die. Resurrection counters this reality and tells people, as Allison says, what they want to hear. For this reason, I don't think the resurrection qualifies as a "dangerous idea", but just the opposite. I've yet to hear a good reason why someone would not want Jesus' resurrection to be true.


Blogger Chris Petersen said...

Good post. I finished reading Allison's "Resurrecting Jesus" not too long ago myself. Though I myself am a believer in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, I can't stomach those who simply treat it as an apologetic tool in order to validate their own beliefs and do not go further to ask about its significance.

Allison is definitely a good correction against Wright's overt apologetic for the resurrection. By the way, if you haven't read Allison's dissertation "The End of the Ages Has Come," you should. I have found it to be the best of his works.

Carry on with the great posts.

Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

I would say that one of the things that weighs on those who do not believe in the resurrection is that for them it would make God's actions even more inexplicable. Why does God intervene then to raise Jesus and not on other occasions to save starving children from death, and so on. I think it would be fair to say that for people like Michael Goulder, their faith in a God who intervenes goes first, and on the grounds of the problem of suffering and so on, and their questioning of the resurrection accounts comes next. But that may be a bit of an oversimplification.

Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

Mark Goodacre: "I think it would be fair to say that for people like Michael Goulder, their faith in a God who intervenes goes first, and on the grounds of the problem of suffering and so on, and their questioning of the resurrection accounts comes next. But that may be a bit of an oversimplification."

It probably is an oversimplification, but it isn't a bad rough outline. I find that the world at large seems to lack evidence of God's existence, with the resurrection an apparent outlier. Given the problematic reliability of the Gospels, that apparent outlier is just not enough to hang a worldview on.


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