By Dr. John Bowen
I remember once doing a debate on the rationality of faith with a philosophy professor in Montreal. In the course of the debate, I said something about Jesus coming back from death, and he immediately shot back, “Sure Jesus is alive. You mean like Elvis?” For many thoughtful people in our world—and some in our churches—that is what the resurrection means. A combination of wishful thinking, sentimentality, and superstition—on a level with thinking that Elvis is alive.
Let me offer you six ways I find helpful in thinking about the resurrection:
1. The historical approach
Some people begin to believe by considering the historical evidence for the resurrection. My wife became a Christian while a student at Oxford, under the influence of some friends who had themselves recently come to faith in Jesus, and they gave her books on this subject. Her conclusion, like that of many others who have followed that route, was that Jesus must indeed have risen from the dead, and that therefore she should follow him.
What is the evidence? It’s a big subject, but here’s just one clue. There were dozens of so-called Messiahs around at the time of Jesus, and most of them ended up getting crucified. However, in most cases, when that happened, that was the end of the matter. In the case of Jesus, the opposite happened: the movement he started, instead of dying with him, grew until it reached the whole world. Something must have happened: but what was it? That’s the question. The resurrection, impossible though it may seem, makes the best sense of the data.
2. The Butterfly Approach
Then there are some people say, “Spring is coming: trees and flowers which seemed to be dead are coming to life, butterflies will soon burst out of apparently lifeless chrysalises. There’s resurrection for you. It’s all around us. What’s your problem?”
Now, there is a world of difference between a seed that appears to be dead and a person who is actually dead. And seeds “come to life” millions of times every day, yet there is only one recorded instance of a human resurrection. So it’s hardly a fair comparison.
At the same time, it is the same Creator who is behind the spring and the resurrection; and Jesus did say his death would be like a seed falling into the ground to die and then bearing fruit. So there is a kind of (what can we call it?) stylistic similarity that makes a connection between spring and resurrection very attractive.
3. The Consistency Approach
Some people are helped by not centering out the question of the resurrection and looking at it as an isolated event in the Gospel story. After all, whether you believe in the resurrection depends on what you believe about God. If there is no God, of course, it’s highly unlikely that there could be a resurrection. But, on the other hand, if there is a Creator like the God Jesus spoke about, then resurrection makes perfect sense. In fact, what would have been strange would have been if there had been no resurrection.
4. The Experience Approach
Others are helped by listening to people’s stories. I think of three friends who have spoken publicly about the influence on their lives of the Jesus-who-is-risen. None of them is (what shall we say?) given to mindless religious fanaticism. One is a librarian, one a military chaplain who has served in Afghanistan, and one a criminal lawyer.
Newton’s second law of motion says that a body moving in a particular direction will change direction only if a force from outside, moving in a different direction, impacts it. That’s what these people are saying: my life was going in one direction, then it changed direction, and I believe that the “outside force” was that of Jesus. So many have stories like this. The question is: do these stories ring true? Are the witnesses credible?
5. The Imaginative Approach
Some people find it helpful to do a thought experiment: not so much looking into the tomb to see if we can figure out what’s there (or not); but rather standing at the door of the tomb and looking out at the world. How does the world look different if Jesus did rise? How would my life look different today? This week? How would death look different if Jesus did rise? Would the world make more sense or less? Try it and see what happens.
6. The Choice Approach
A friend in Ottawa is a senior civil servant. For years he went to church with his wife because she believed, and he wanted be supportive. But he didn’t have what he considered the necessary feelings to call himself a Christian. Then a mutual friend said, “Dave, faith isn’t a matter of feelings. It’s a matter of choice. You choose to believe.” Dave isn’t particularly into “getting in touch with his feelings” anyway, but the idea of choice is something that made sense to him. So he chose to believe, and his life changed. Maybe that is the approach that will work for you.
It may be that you say, “Well, I still can’t believe.” Personally, I am encouraged that the first disciples also had a hard time believing. Even after forty days of resurrection appearances, as Jesus was about to return to heaven, Luke tells us “and some doubted.” And yet they are still called disciples.
The thing to do with our doubts and questions is to bring them to Jesus, and to say, “Lord, I find it very difficult to believe this stuff, but I do want to follow you, and I’m open to learning if you’re open to teaching.” And you know what? He is. And as John’s Gospel promises, as we learn and follow, we will figure out what to believe and find “life in his name.”