Dr. Jeffrey Burton Russell

13 April 1998

All of us, whether we believe it or not, will rise from the dead in our own bodies. This is the teaching of Orthodox Judaism, and it is the teaching of Orthodox Christianity. Easter is the day that Jesus of Nazareth rose, in his body, from the dead. Easter is crucial to every citizen of this earth, this state, and this university, because if Jesus did not rise from the dead, Christianity is false: it must go. But if he did rise from the dead, that is the single most important event in all of time. We none of us can escape the power of the claim of the Resurrection. If Christ did not rise, then my own life has to be seriously adjusted--the way I live, the way I act, the way I feel, the way I think. And if he did rise, our lives have to be seriously adjusted--the way we live, the way we act, the way we feel, the way we think.

This personal commitment is the crux. Many people refuse to believe in the resurrection exactly for the reason that if they do, it will change their lives. One way it changes lives is by making us aware that there is much more to life than the consumption of material goods, products, and pleasures. Our society ignores Christ or hates him or declares him silly because our society is based on consumption. But consider whether we may have been brainwashed. In whose interest is it for us to believe that happiness is material possession? Might it be, for example, industrialists, wholesalers, retailers, advertising agencies,lawyers, and the media that feed on us by selling us their products?

What if life could be more exciting, more joyful, more fulfilling, more generous, and even more fun, than a life of consuming and excreting matter?

THIS is the Word of the Lord in the Old Testament:

Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews upon you and will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. (Ezekial 37.5-6)

Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, o my people; and I will bring you back to the Land of Israel. (Ezekial 37.12)

And in the New Testament: Martha said, he has been dead four days; by this time he stinks. Jesus said to her: your brother shall rise again. (John 11. 39, 24)

And THIS is the Christian affirmation of faith:

I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

The earliest Christianity of the first two centuries affirms the bodily resurrection and has no concept of an immortal soul.

Look this up if you don't believe me, but nowhere in the Bible (either the Old or the New Testament), or in Jewish tradition, or in the early Christian writers, is there any mention whatever of the "immortal soul." The phrase does not appear before the third century, when it was introduced by Greek philosophy, especially Platonism, into Christian theology. Given the overwhelming testimony of both Testaments to the salvation of the body, the separate immortality of the soul is incompatible with Biblical teaching. What Jews and Christian affirm instead is the resurrection of the body. The New Testament follows the Old Testament on the unity of the entire human personality rather than separating soul, spirit, and body. The entire human being is saved. Christ did not extract Lazarus' soul from his body; he raised him whole. Stink and all. Christ did not say "talitha cumi" to Jairus' dead daughter in order to save her soul; he restored her body and told her family to give her something to eat. Christ did not leave his body behind in the tomb; he rose as he had died, body and soul. The resurrected Christ showed his wounds to his disciples and ate fish with them, and then he went body and soul to his Father in heaven.

The resurrected body is a fulfilled, completed, body, a glorified body, but a body recognizable as our own. Early Christian writers belabored the point: "In this very body we shall rise." Paul asserts the salvation of a transformed, "imperishable" body (1 Corinthians 15.35-54). There can be no life without a body. Indeed the main reason that the Athenians rejected Paul was his determined proclamation of bodily resurrection against all the assumptions of Platonism. At the sound of the shofar, the dead will be raised imperishable.

The earliest Christian writers followed and developed Paul's views. They confirm that at the resurrection we shall have a body identical to the present one. If the resurrected body is not our own earthly body, there is no point in the resurrection at all. Bodies, however mutilated, will recover their perfect integrity. Wholeness and integrity entail lack of disease and deformity, and they also entail the fulfillment of all our potentials, including parental, filial, and marital love.

The creeds--formal statements of faith--of early Christianity affirmed the resurrection of the body against gnostics, Platonists, and other skeptics. They made the point again and again: "We believe that we . . . will be raised on the last day in that flesh in which we now live. . . . Not in an ethereal or in any other widely different flesh, as some assert in their foolishness, will we rise again, but, as our faith teaches, in this self-same flesh in which we live, exist, and move." Support comes for this ancient idea from a surprising source: the contemporary novelist and poet John Updike: "Make no mistake: if He rose at all, it was as His body; if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall."

We often assume that modern scholarship dismisses the resurrection. It is true that most modern academics do dismiss it, but it is false that they have evidence for doing so. They have only their own a priori assumptions. They are acting on faith every bit as much as those scholars who affirm the resurrection.

Scholars who are able to free themselves from the artificial constraints of current ideology affirm the resurrection because they are convinced by the testimony to the appearances of the risen Jesus.

First consider that immediately after the crucifixion and death of Christ, the disciples had run away from Jerusalem in terror. They had been mocked and threatened for following a silly man who even failed to save himself from being tortured to death. Are the disciples likely to have invented a preposterous story about a dead man coming alive again, a story that would expose them to even greater ridicule and contempt?

Second consider that the first people who testified to the resurrection were women. Society in the first century placed little value on the testimony of women. Yet the Scriptures report that the tomb was found empty--not by men, but by women. Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome set out for the tomb to anoint Jesus in preparation for his burial. The three women made their way to Jesus' tomb. Jesus had been buried there; a large stone had been rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb; and the authorities had established a guard post in front of it for the express purpose of making sure that the grave was not tampered with. But when the women got there the tomb was empty. They saw that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance of the tomb. A young man in white sitting by the right side said to them: "Whom are you seeking?" "Jesus of Nazareth," they said, "who was crucified." "Be not afraid," he replied, "he is not here; he has been raised." Against the prejudices of their time, the disciples told the truth that women saw the resurrected Jesus first, just as women had remained by the dying Jesus on the cross. In fact, the very reason that many of the skeptics at the time sneered at Christianity was because Christians took women's witness seriously, for the skeptics assumed that women are silly and unreliable.

Third, the disciples confirmed the women's account by first going to the tomb and checking for themselves and then seeing him in the body on the road to Emmaus. Finally, five hundred people at one moment saw him alive and in the flesh.

Fourth, after the resurrection an extraordinary thing happened. The dispirited and terrified disciples, who had fled the scene in fear of their lives, and whom the mob, the scribes and Pharisees, and the Romans all hated or despised, emerged as a viable, cohesive, successful group. Some event must have occurred to effect that change from terrified dispersion to cohesive confidence. There is no evidence whatever for any such event other than the resurrection itself.

Now: suppose the whole story was made up from nothing, and Jesus' body really continued to be in the tomb after all. But then the Roman and Judean authorities would have immediately refuted the disciples' claim of resurrection by producing and displaying the body of Jesus. No. Either Jesus had left the tomb himself or someone had removed him.

Take the hypothesis that Jesus left the tomb himself: he either did so resurrected or still alive. If he had been entombed alive, would he have had the strength, after torture and crucifixion, to roll the stone away and elude the guards? No. Take the hypothesis that someone moved him alive and resuscitated him. But the problem remains: the guards were there to prevent any such occurrence; besides, Christ in that condition would have been a broken man, not an impressive figure at all. The disciples would have tended him with pity, not declared him their savior. At any rate, crucifixion was not a punishment that anyone survived.

But what if someone had removed the dead body? Who? Neither the Roman nor the Judean authorities had any motive to do so: it was the worst outcome they could imagine, for they desperately wanted Jesus to be demonstrably dead.

Suppose then that the disciples moved the body. This is the commonest objection to the resurrection testimony. According to this criticism, the disciples stole the body and then falsely claimed that Jesus had come alive again in the flesh. This theory supposes that the disciples were able to do so and that they chose to do so. But they would have been unable to do so owing to the presence of the guards, who would have prevented them. And they also are unlikely to have chosen to do it. No one would have invented such a story, as preposterous in their day as in ours. A dead person coming alive again was just as unlikely in the first century as in the twentieth.

The theory that the disciples were victims of mass hallucination is equally unlikely: there has never been any psychological evidence for such a mass hallucination, particularly one occurring at different times and places to different people.

Yet another theory, popular seventy years ago, is that Jesus rose only in spirit. It was argued that we must take the miracle stories on faith but make them credible by removing all that is miraculous. It is bizarre that theologians ever took this theory seriously. Either accept the accounts for what they say, orreject them altogether; but why accept the accounts and then deny what they say, supplying a different meaning altogether. At any rate, what in the world would it mean for a person to rise from the dead in the spirit? It makes no sense.

If the disciples were inventing something to cover their disappointment in the death of Jesus, they could have proclaimed that he had gone directly to heaven, an assertion that no one could disprove. Why make the story more implausible by insisting on the one thing that was most likely to evoke ridicule: a dead man coming alive again in his physical body. The disciples would not have believed in such a story themselves. Indeed, in the New Testament accounts they don't believe--until they see Jesus alive and eating fish with them!

Finally, early attacks on Christianity by the chief scribes (Sadducees) and the Pharisees, far from denying the empty tomb, concentrated on the claim that the disciples had stolen it. The most convincing thing that the Pharisees and Sadducees could have done would have been to say that they had seen the dead body before it was taken away. But they did not say so.

The most effective attack on the Resurrection is simply to reject the New Testament sources entirely. For the last two centuries many scholars have claimed that these sources are unreliable. On the contrary, the sources for Jesus are more complete than those for almost any other figure of the ancient world. Furthermore, Paul's written account of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians dates less than five years after the event, very close indeed by any historical standards for the pre-modern world.

But all this aside, isn't the Easter story really impossible? On what basis can we make the statement that Christ rose from the dead? What about science? What about history? The first thing to clear out of our minds is that either science or history disproves the resurrection. Instead, what has happened is simply that the academic professions of science and history define themselves in such a way that they exclude the subject from their fields. They do not disprove it; they ignore it. For example, one historian stated that "it is the essence of the modern historian's method and criteria that they are applicable only to. . . human phenomena of a normal, that is, non miraculous, non-unique, character."

This sort of statement reveals a slippage, sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious, on the part of historians and scientists. That slippage comes when they say: the only game you are allowed to play is their game. In other words, they say: we are playing basketball, and you are playing football, and you are not allowed to play football, because footballs don't belong on the basketball court. Science, many people assume, has all the truth we can have or at least will get it. Anything that science cannot determine to be true cannot be true.

Underlying all the criticisms is an a priori assumption, a circular reasoning: that The New Testament account cannot be true precisely because it testifies to something that could not happen. Because the event is impossible, the account must be false. In other words if one makes an act of faith in naturalistic reductionism (the idea that there is no truth other than scientific proof), then one necessarily rejects the resurrection. But there is no reason to make such an act of faith. Make it if you like, but don't imagine that science or history argues in its favor: it is not an argument at all but a gratuitous assumption.

The foundations of philosophical arguments against the Resurrection account and miracles in general were laid by David Hume in the eighteenth century. Though refined in this century by atheist philosophers, their arguments are the basis for the philosophical rejection of miracles and of the Resurrection in particular. Stripped of rhetoric, the atheist arguments are without merit because they beg the question: they assume the results in the way they pose the question to begin with. Hume argued that the more unusual event, the more evidence is required to demonstrate its validity. For Hume, no amount of evidence whatever for a unique or metanormal event such as the resurrection could weigh against what he called the universal experience of humanity--namely that the laws of nature are regular and unchangeable. As a general rule of thumb, Hume's principle works, but note the trap: he admits no possibility of any exception at all, ever. That is always a dangerous position to take. Whereas eighteenth-century scientists thought that they had the immutable rules of nature firmly in hand, sophisticated scientists and philosophers today make no such assumption. Further, what Hume was doing was asserting that the a priori assumption--assumption, mind--of immutable laws of nature rules out the most immense conceivable empirical evidence on the other side. One of his French followers asserted that he would refuse to believe in a miracle even if the entire population of Paris, including judges and skeptical philosophers, all affirmed that they had witnessed it. It is as if today every Justice of the Supreme Court and every philosophy professor in the country testified to a resurrection; Hume insists that we refuse to consider their testimony at all. You see how this begs the question. By defining the resurrection as impossible to begin with, one comes to the inevitable logical conclusion that the resurrection is--impossible. This is not a philosophical argument at all, but a statement of faith in naturalistic reductionism, every bit as much an act of faith (if not more so) than the Christian affirmation of the resurrection. Every single disproof of the resurrection--however long and however reworded--is based upon this statement of faith. That a given proposition is formed in scientific terms does not give it any more inherent probability than a proposition formed in other terms. That is to say that we must not assume that science is the only way to make valid statements. Poetry, history, and art make other sorts of valid propositions according to different methodologies. History need not be subsumed under natural "laws"; in fact, its methodology is quite different.

A dominant, tenaciously held view among academic historians is that they must have nothing to say or do with what is commonly called the supernatural or metanormal. Historians react angrily or contemptuously to the suggestion that such events as miracles may have occurred in the past and may occur in the present. Most historians assume that what is beyond the boundaries they have drawn for their field cannot be true. But essential to the method of history is suspending prejudice and weighing the veracity of reports.

Academic historians often say the following: there can be no historical evidence for the Resurrection because we have ruled such an event beyond the limits of historical evidence. In other words they say that no evidence can exist outside what they have already defined as historical evidence. They insist that we play their game and deny that any other game is possible. A better principle is this: that "the historian ought first perhaps, as a methodological principle, to seek natural causes of the events under investigation; but when no natural causes can be found that plausibly account for the data and a supernatural [or metanormal] hypothesis presents itself as part of the historical context in which the events occurred." Then to dismiss the miracle is merely an a priori act of faith with no basis in logic and actually contrary to the empirical evidence.

The veracity of the resurrection is essentially more a historical question than one of natural science. Some modern philosophers assume that history is a subset of science and must fall under its rules. On the contrary, as the great contemporary philosopher Arthur Danto has shown, history has a methodology quite different from that of science, namely narrative. That history possesses a unique methodology is a hint that history need not fall under the naturalist rubric. Rather than assuming a priori that any given event could not possibly occur, historians (when acting thoughtfully and not simply following current intellectual fashions) measure the veracity of an event by the weight of the testimony in its favor. Historians are quite willing to state as facts events for which the witnesses are fewer and their accounts at a much more considerable remove from the event than the testimony for the resurrection of Christ.

The prior question is whether the cosmos has inherent meaning, a question that has often been complicated beyond necessity. The logical premise is this: we all of us live in the same cosmos, and this cosmos is either one in which miracles do occur or one in which they do not. We have no choice as to which kind of cosmos it is. This is not a dogmatic assertion of any sort but a simple statement of what ought to be obvious. Subjectivism and relativism are irrelevant. If the cosmos has no miracles, we are simply wrong to believe that it does; if it does have miracles, we are simply wrong to believe that it does not.

Granting the possible existence of miracles, however, is a long way from asserting that they actually have occurred or do occur. To determine the facts, historians must examine the claim for any alleged miracle scrupulously, rejecting all claims that do not rest upon firm testimony and pursuing those for which the degree of probability is high. A fact is merely a statement with a high degree of probability. Once we grasp that, we can indeed argue that some miracles are facts. The key is the testimony that the historian must evaluate.

"The question is: what could conceivably make miracles not just logically possible, but really, historically possible? The answer is the personal God of theism. . . . If the existence of such a God is even possible, then one must be open to the historical possibility of miracles. [Only one committed by unshakable faith in atheism can reject this opening], "for even an agnostic must grant that if it is possible that a transcendent, personal God exists, then it is equally possible that He has acted in the universe." The statement "God does not exist" or "miracles do not exist" is no more logically valid than the statement that they do exist, and empirically less valid, for there exists weighty testimony for a number of miracles. "The testimony in history for the general pattern of events cannot overturn good testimony for any particular event." Sophisticated social scientists have long recognized that is illegitimate to impose the general upon the particular: that 99.9% of the town of Zitz, Ohio, voted Republican does not mean that Jane Smith of Zitz did not vote Democratic. Of course the Resurrection of Christ is a particular and improbable event: no one at the time would have denied that it was. But its statistical unlikelihood does not mean that it did not occur. That is the main point of statistics, after all.

There is no getting away from the fact that we all have worldviews and that we find things consistent with them easier to believe. This is natural, but it hardly gives us--least of all academics and intellectuals--the lazy license to leave our worldviews unexamined. Everyone--including historians and scientists--wants his or her world to be ordered and predictably patterned, and we are all tempted to discard things that do not fit into these patterns. Not very reflective--and not very empirical either.

Law courts, tending to the empirical and very practical, have made a number of interesting calls. The question of whether alleged scientific evidence outweighs other evidence, such as the coherence of witnesses, is still unresolved. In the Daubert case in 1993, the question of expert testimony raised the whole question of what constitutes valid testimony and whether so-called scientific experts are more reliable than other sorts of witnesses. "All expert testimony embodies, expressly or impliedly, a theory of the world or some aspect of it. . . . The testimony of an experienced river pilot as to why a boat went down relies upon a theory supported by experience as much as does the testimony of an epidemiologist regarding the cause of a birth defect." In fact, scientific evidence in law is a subclass of the category of expert evidence and is not assumed to have higher validity. Nor is testimony from religious sources considered invalid. In US vs. Ballard in 1944, a family was prosecuted for mail fraud: they sent out literature claiming to have been visited by Jesus Christ and told by him to raise money for their movement. After an initial conviction and many appeals going up to the Supreme Court, they were found innocent. The courts decided that the US Constitution prohibited the courts from determining whether metanormal entities could in fact contact people; in other countries, such as the UK, which lack separation of church and state, the question might not run into insuperable constitutional obstacles.

The great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel said: "Two different attitudes through which we can approach the world: one in which we seek to accumulate information in order to dominate, the other in which we deepen our appreciation in order to respond." It is honest not to impose ideological restrictions upon thought. It is honest to respond to the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thus says the Lord God to these bones:

I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews upon you and will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. Ezekial 37.5-6.

"It is honest not to impose ideological restrictions upon thought. It is honest to respond to the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thus says the Lord God to these bones:

I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews upon you and will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. Ezekial 37.5-6.