Christ is Risen: How Do We Know?

Belief in Christ’s Resurrection Suggests We Live in an Open Universe.

The traditional Eastern Orthodox depiction of Christ’s resurrection from the Church of the Chora in Istanbul, 14th century.

During this holiday weekend, Christians around the world will shout out the ancient Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Critics of Christianity–as well as sometimes our own doubting selves–keep asking the question: How do we know that it is true? Is it just one vast delusion or even an egregious lie?

Categories of Evidence

The New Testament offers three categories of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The first is its stories of the empty tomb. When men and women on Easter morning come to the tomb where Jesus was buried, they find it open. Entering in, they find the grave clothes but no body in repose.

They also encounter strange figures in the tomb, which some gospel writers identify as angels. These strangers offer the meaning of the empty grave clothes. Jesus has risen, the angels tell them (see Matthew 28:1-8).

The second category of evidence the New Testament writers offer is the personal encounters various disciples have with Jesus. These include the encounter Mary Magdalene has with Jesus in the garden (John 20:1-18), the encounter the eleven disciples have with Jesus on Easter evening behind locked doors (John 20:19-23), and the encounter two disciples have with Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).

The gospel writers suggest that these encounters are more than ghostly visions by emphasizing very material things that Jesus does during these encounters. Luke, for example, tells us that the risen Jesus eats a fish in the presence of his disciples (Luke 24:41-43). John says that Jesus invites doubting Thomas to place his finger in the wound scars on his body.

What is fascinating to me about these two categories of evidence is that they depend upon each other for their full persuasiveness. The empty tomb, for example, has been challenged ever since ancient times. People have charged that someone stole Jesus’ body, or his disciples moved it.

The empty tomb is not persuasive by itself. But if you balance it with the stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, then the empty tomb begins to take on more persuasive power.

Likewise the stories of the encounters with the risen Jesus have been challenged. Some charge that they represent wishful thinking on the part of the disciples or possibly some kind of group hallucination.

Those challenges become harder to sustain when the evidence of the appearances is combined with the evidence of the empty tomb. If the tomb was truly empty of a body, then the appearances may be something more than ghostly apparitions.

So we find the two categories of evidence do not work well alone. They must work in tandem to support each other.

The Evidence of Changed Lives

The New Testament also offers a third category of evidence. That is the changed lives of the disciples.

The gospels are blunt that the resurrection of Jesus comes as a surprise to his disciples. They do not expect it. Instead the picture we get in the gospels of the disciples after the crucifixion is one of fear and disillusion.

The gospel of John, for example, says that when the risen Jesus appears for the first time to his eleven disciples on Easter evening, they are gathered in fear behind locked doors. They were afraid for their own lives.

When Jesus encounters two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s gospel, and they tell him of the events that have just happened in Jerusalem, they conclude their narrative with what I consider some of the most despairing words in the Bible: But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:21). That word had speaks volumes about their true feelings.

And the gospel of John tells us that after the events of the crucifixion, the disciples return to their old jobs of fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21). It’s as if now that their hopes have been dashed, they return to old, abandoned occupations.

Yet when we turn the pages after the Gospel of John, we find in Acts stories of these same disciples boldly preaching about Jesus despite all orders from the ruling authorities to cease. When the Sanhedrin orders Peter to stop preaching, he (the one who had denied Jesus three times out of fear) refuses, saying, We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

The other writings of the New Testament show these same disciples as well as others confidently presenting their message without any cowering fear for their own lives. Despite fierce opposition from both Jewish and Gentiles sources, they continue to boldly scatter out into the world with their message.

How do we account for this dramatic change? Something clearly happened that changed the way they looked at life and how they felt about their lives. Something extraordinary, in fact.

Identifying that something is one of the greatest challenges any historian of Christian beginnings faces. The New Testament attributes the change to the impact of Jesus’ resurrection and his subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit. These changed lives then become the third category of evidence. For me personally, it is the most convincing of the three categories of evidence.

The Challenge to Our World View

Whether any one individually finds these three categories persuasive will depend in large part on how willing we are to concede that we may live in a far more open and mysterious universe than we commonly imagine.

Those of us who are heirs of the Enlightenment live with an understanding of the world where the world’s natural processes are governed by scientific laws of nature. These laws not only describe how the universe operates but also how the universe must operate. The picture of the universe they give us is of a universe that is a closed system. And it permits no exceptions to its iron laws. This is why Enlightenment thinkers were convinced that all miracles were impossible.

This is the common vision of the world that I suspect most people absorb from their rather rudimentary education into the sciences. In that vision something as exceptional as a true resurrection is impossible. It cannot be believed.

To even concede the possibility of a resurrection, therefore, involves a willingness to accept that the Enlightenment view of the universe as a totally closed system may just be wrong. Modern science as it has developed in the 20th century with such things as relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. gives evidence that scientists may not be able to be so dogmatic about the universe as scientists sometimes seem to be.

Life and the universe may be just more open and mysterious than we are able at the moment to understand. If we accept the Easter proclamation as true, then we must be prepared for all our presuppositions about the universe and life to be shaken. And that includes our presuppositions about how we should live. An open universe becomes an invitation into a journey that will constantly shake us up and startle us, but at the same time astound us with its beauty and surprising hopefulness.

May I wish you all an Easter of joyful surprises.

What’s the Measure of Our Knowledge?

Jesus invites us to raise the ceiling level on our spiritual understanding.

In a block of parables (Mark 4:1-34) that Jesus teaches his disciples, he makes the following comment:

Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Mark 4:24-25).

It’s a puzzling statement, especially if you think Jesus is talking economics. In that context, Jesus seems to be giving sanction to blatant financial inequality. But the context in which the two verses appear shows that Jesus is not referring to financial concerns. He is talking about understanding the word of God and the pursuit of wisdom.

In that pursuit, Jesus is saying, I believe, that the amount of effort we put into the pursuit will in part determine what we find in our pursuit. So when we seek to understand the word of God, give full attention to our effort. Otherwise we will miss a lot, maybe miss the most important things.

If we take Jesus’ word seriously, it makes a difference in the way we read the Bible. When we hear the Bible read in church or we open our Bible on our lap to read, we need to give it as much of our attention as we can at that moment.

This does not mean we will understand everything we hear or read. We won’t. The Bible is full of puzzling statements. But if we listen intently, we stand a better chance of absorbing what the text actually says rather than what we think it says.

We may notice, for example, that the text surprises us by its peculiar choice of words. That’s not what we expect the author to say, but he does. That may cause us to ask why, and from pursuing an answer we may stumble onto a new insight.

Tools for Paying Close Attention

The practices of exegesis are one of the ways we try to listen intently to what the text says. Those practices are designed so that we do our best to draw the author’s meaning out of the text rather than reading our own meaning into the text.

These practices are not, however, peculiar to Bible reading. I first learned the basics of exegesis in a college class in poetry writing. We use these same techniques when we try to read any literary text closely.

In a future blog, I will try to describe some of these basic principles as I have come to practice them.

A second way we can let the text sink deeply into our consciousness is a form of Bible reading known as lectio divina (Latin for divine reading). This is a very old technique with roots in ancient Israel and Christian monasticism. It seeks to turn Bible reading into a means of prayer. It is also the roots of the Evangelical practice of the quiet time.

In lectio divina we are not trying to understand the text, but let the words sink into our consciousness and take root. As we read we stop at a word or phrase or sentence that reaches out and grabs our attention. We then turn that word over and over in our mind, as a cow chews its cud, exploring the different facets of that word, trying to understand why it speaks to us.

In the process the word, phrase, sentence stands a chance of becoming rooted in our memory. It is because of this practice, I suspect, that the words of Scripture became so embedded in the character and thought of the Church Fathers and the monks. It was almost as if they breathed Scripture.

The Spiritual Principle Behind Jesus’ Saying

Now the interesting thing in this Marcan saying is that Jesus seems to be saying that the measure of attention we give to listening will determine to a large degree the measure of insight we receive. In-depth listening will be rewarded with in-depth and growing insight; lazy, superficial listening will be rewarded with shallow insight. And the one who neglects listening runs the risk of losing whatever insight he or she has.

Jesus’ saying does not promise that careful, attentive listening will be rewarded with perfect understanding. No one, especially as an individual, is granted that blessing. But careful, attentive listening will open the door of the mind to ever deepening understanding.

Behind this saying of Jesus lies an even deeper spiritual principle. That is, that as we grow in the Spirit, we are granted an opportunity to grow in spiritual wisdom. And the measure of the intent of our search becomes a measure of what we will ultimately find.

This reminds me of another saying of Jesus:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10)

I suspect that it is an understanding of this principle that lies behind the apostle Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. He laments that he would like to speak to them as spiritual people, but he cannot because they are only beginners in the life of the spirit.

He compares them to infants that he must feed with milk, because they are not yet mature enough to eat solid food. And what shows their immaturity? The level of jealousy, strife, and quarreling that is going on in the congregation. This behavior reveals the immature level they have attained so far in their spiritual lives. If Paul were to speak about spiritual things at a deeper level with them, it would be like what Jesus describes as throwing pearls in front of swine (Matthew 7:6).

I think C.S. Lewis says something similar about growth in moral knowledge. In his book Mere Christianity, he writes:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.*

 The Sign of One’s Growth in Spiritual Wisdom

One last thing to say about this principle of the spiritual life. If we are growing in our spiritual understanding, we are not growing in infallibility. We are instead growing in our awareness of our capability of being wrong. We are confident but confidence does not award certitude. Instead we know how easy it is to get things wrong. We therefore welcome doubt as a precious companion in our journey to understand. In the highest levels of spiritual wisdom we become the most humble about what we know just as much as we are about how good we are.

* C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1958. Book III, Chapter 4, “Morality and Psychoanalysis.”

Inviting in the Devil

An ancient Bible story serves up a warning to Christians in the current political campaign.

A scene from the obelisk of Shalmaneser III, showing the Israelite king Jehu paying obeisance to the Assyrian emperor.

 Sometimes when we read the Old Testament, we read ancient stories that seem to have no relevance to us today. So we shelve them away out of our consciousness. But sometimes–and now is one of those times, in my opinion–those ancient stories come keenly alive.

The Old Testament passage I am thinking of is Isaiah 7-12. These five chapters may be hard for an uninformed reader to follow, even though they contain some of the most beloved prophecies that we read in our Christmas services every year. But if you read them in their historical context, they speak of something much more sinister than Christmas tinsel.

The chapters deal with a national crisis that hits the kingdom of Judah under the reign of king Ahaz. Two of Judah’s neighbors, the kingdoms of Aram (centered in Damascus) and of Israel (centered in Samaria) have joined forces to invade Judah. Their intention is to overthrow Ahaz and install a puppet on his throne.

Faced with this deadly peril, Ahaz searches for a savior for his kingdom. He looks at the far-off but mighty Assyrian empire centered in Mesopotamia. Assyria is a powerful military machine and has subdued vast portions of the Middle East. Ahaz contemplates inviting its emperor to come to his rescue. That emperor will bully Aram and Israel into submission.

As Ahaz contemplates this course of action, God sends the prophet Isaiah to the king to warn him not to do this. Instead the prophet calls upon Ahaz to place his trust in God. If so, in a couple of years, Aram and Israel will no longer be threats because they will no longer be kingdoms.

As a seal guaranteeing that this will happen, Isaiah announces that God will give Ahaz a sign. He declares this sign in a passage that has reverberated through the 2,000 years of Christian history:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

Christians have read this passage as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. In an extended sense, the New Testament so reads it. But in its original context, it was meant to be an assurance to Ahaz to place his trust in God’s care.

Despite repeated words from the prophet, Ahaz ignores this word from God. He does invite in Tiglath-Pileser III, emperor of Assyria. Assyria invades, annihilates the armies of Aram and Israel. Judah is saved, but also now serves as a vassal of Assyria.

Under Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, Judah seeks to re-establish its independence, political and spiritual. This provokes another Assyrian invasion that ravages the land. Judah’s cities are razed to the ground, their populations slaughtered or carried into exile, while the Assyrian king gloatingly boasts of his prowess in the carvings on his steles and palace walls.

Jerusalem survives only by the skin of its teeth. God directly intervenes for its salvation. But under Hezekiah’s heir, Judah becomes thoroughly submissive to Assyria, even being required to install the religious images of Assyria’s gods in the Jerusalem temple. Judah remains under Assyria’s thumb until the Assyrian empire suddenly collapses in 612-609 B.C.

Ahaz invited in the devil. He saved his throne and his life, but at the cost of corrupting Judah’s political independence and spiritual identity. He ignores the word of God that comes to him through the voice of Isaiah. He chooses political expediency over trust in God.

How An Ancient Story Comes Alive

How does this ancient story come alive for me today? By nature, I am reluctant to bring religion into politics. Often this ends up besmirching the name of God. But as I watch the current campaigns under way for the presidency, I am constantly reminded of this ancient Bible story and its warnings.

One of the striking features of the current Republican campaigns for the Republican nomination is the fervent support many Christians are giving to Donald Trump. This surprises many observers, including myself, because Trump seems to manifest many features that are at serious odds with an orthodox Christian lifestyle and morality.

One can hardly imagine someone who in his swaggering speech and values exemplifies less the spirit of Jesus. Trump trumpets the supreme value of winning, whereas Jesus teaches his disciples, If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all. (Mark 9:35)

So why are so many Christians throwing their support to Trump? I have asked myself that question. And in reading political commentators on the campaigns, I’ve noted that repeatedly observers report that many Christians in America feel under siege. They feel they are being attacked by the dual enemies of secularism and liberalism. The political leaders they elected cannot protect them. So they are looking for a strong arm to come to their protection.*

Trump promises to be that, saying he will protect Christianity. So they are flocking to an alliance with this seemingly strong arm, trusting that he will not turn on them in the end.

When I read news reports like this, I think of Ahaz and his appeal to the Assyrian emperor. An ancient story is repeating itself.

And so the preaching of Isaiah speaks to us again. In the words of the prophet:

For the Lord spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. (Isaiah 8:11-15)

Instead the prophet calls upon Judah to place its trust in its Lord, as he and his family will do:

I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Isaiah 8:17-18)

As Christians ponder where to give their support in this campaign, I ask them to read again and ponder this ancient story. For I fear that those Christians who look upon Donald Trump as the great savior and protector of Christianity are inviting in the Assyrian emperor into their land of Judah. The consequences for Judah were fatal in the end, politically and spiritually. They may likewise be for the cause of American Christianity today.

* One of those observers is the conservative opinion writer Charles Krauthammer, who wrote a column titled “Donald Trump: Defender of the Faith,” published in The Washington Post, on March 3, 2016.

We Praise Because We Are

Psalm 148 gives the amazing grace of being as the rationale for praising God.

A NASA photo looking out into outer space.

The last five psalms in the Book of Psalms are known as the Hallelujah psalms. That’s because each starts and ends with the word Hallelujah, which in Hebrew means “Praise the Lord.”

Why praise the Lord, however? The five psalms give different answers. The answer given by Psalm 148 is one we might not expect. It comes in verses 3 through 5. There the psalmist summons the heavenly bodies–sun, moon, and shining stars–to join the angelic choirs in singing God’s praises.

But why? Because God commanded and they were created (Psalm 148:5). They are to praise God because God summoned them into being.

This turns out to be a rationale for praising God for not only the heavenly beings, but for every existing thing, including us humans. The psalmist calls upon all creation, including us, to praise God just because all creation exists. This summoning into being is a gift, in fact, one of God’s greatest gifts to all that is.

I say it is a great gift because the alternative is not to be. If we had never been, we would have missed out on this great privilege of being alive and a part of this splendid creation that God is making.

God considers it important that each one of us be a part of this great work, and so he summons us into being. I know that life can bring many disappointments, sufferings, and sorrows, but I wonder how many of us pause now and them to remind ourselves of what an astonishing gift it is to just be.

The Question Science Can’t Answer

Science tells us a great deal about how the universe and living things came into being. They say it all began about 13 and a half billion years ago with a stupendous, big, explosive bang.

They have mapped out the many evolutionary stages that that expanding universe has gone through in the billions of years since to bring us to the amazing planet on which we now live with all its teeming life.

But there is one thing I am convinced that science cannot answer. That is the question Why? Why does the world exist? Why do we exist? What is the universe’s meaning? What is its–and our–purpose?

Science is not able to answer that question. In fact, many scientists today, relying only on scientific observations, will tell us that the universe has no meaning. So human beings must turn to philosophy and religion to find an answer.

I believe that Christianity has an answer to this question Why? The answer is: Because of the overflowing love of God. The God we acknowledge is one who out of love creates because it gives God pleasure and God wants to share that pleasure with an abundance of other material and living beings.

When my Presbyterian heritage asks the question–“What is the chief end of human beings?”–it answers it with a statement of faith–“To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” God creates the universe–and each one of us individually–so that we can all share in his life of super-abundant love. Creation gives God delight and God can’t keep that delight to God’s self.

That is a compelling reason for the invitation to praise God that the psalmist issues to us. Let everything that is praise the Lord.