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Stephen Rankin: Ignoring the Resurrection Deniers

Guest blog by Stephen W. Rankin. Stephen is a Pastor, Campus Minister, Professor, and Chaplain. He is Chaplain and Minister to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He is a lifelong United Methodist (a preacher's kid), and an ordained elder for 25 years this year. He is married with four children and two grandchildren. He says: “I love ministry in the academy, but I write always with the church in mind. I care deeply about vital Christian discipleship and the Body of Christ.’

And, to that end, he recently authored
Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of The Christian Life (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

Stephen blogs at
The Rankin File. You can also follow him on Twitter @stephenwrankin.

Ignoring the Resurrection Deniers

Part of today’s lectionary reading comes from Revelation 12, in which the saints overcome the Accuser “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony…”  Their witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection was intellectually offensive to the Greeks and morally offensive to their Jewish compatriots.

And so it goes today.  This time every year we get a slew of magazine articles, TV “documentaries” and (now) blog posts and Twitter comments about the believability of Jesus’ resurrection.

Lots of good possibilities for serious give-and-take between believers and non-believers.  I love talking to honest skeptics.

But there’s one group I admit I’ve grown weary of: Christian resurrection-deniers.  Not resurrection deniers in general, but those who claim to follow Jesus, who blithely assert that thinking people simply cannot believe the hocus-pocus about Jesus rising bodily from the dead.  If resurrection means anything, so this line of thinking goes, it can only have metaphorical/symbolic significance.

Let me narrow my charge a little more.  A Christian struggling intellectually with belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, who honestly wants to know the truth and pursues it with transparent intensity and a willingness to learn; for this kind of Christian
I have utmost respect.  After all, one of the major characteristics of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection is how Jesus’ own followers doubted!  But the easy, breezy, smooth-talking, read-the-latest-John Spong-Marcus Borg-Dominic Crossan-and-now-we-know-what-really-happened Christian, tries my patience mightily.  A Christian who confidently denies the resurrection is an oxymoron.

I repeat: it is not argumentation, doubt or critique of the resurrection that bothers me.  It is the facile dismissal — by Christians! — of a central belief of our faith.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ, says John Polkinghorne, “is the pivot on which Christian belief turns.” (
The God of Hope and the End of the World, p. 76).  And by “resurrection,” he does mean “bodily.”

Not Resuscitation

Before going any further, let’s be clear about what the resurrection hope does not mean.  It does not mean “resuscitation.”  Resurrection does not mean the
return of biological life to a corpse.  It is not a going backward to resume an old way of life.  The Gospel claim regarding the resurrection of Jesus is, in a sense, a going forward – a glimpse of the future that has come to us.  It is the cause of our hope of our own resurrection.  Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of the New Creation.

Is this claim something modern, thinking, enlightened people simply cannot believe?  In a word, no.  Double negatives don’t work very well, so let me state it positively. Intelligent, modern, well-informed, aware-of-the-issues people can and do believe in the bodily resurrection.  And that’s one reason why I’ve picked John Polkinghorne as Exhibit A. Polkinghorne, as many of you know already, is a particle physicist and an Anglican priest, who gives articulate expression to belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.  So, let’s follow, a little bit of the argument from Polkinghorne’s The God of Hope and the End of the World.

A Science-Aware Argument for the Resurrection

Let’s start with this conundrum about how, even in normal life, “minds” continue while the physical substrate of our bodies changes.  Knowing that “we have very few atoms in our bodies today that were there even two years ago,” (p. 105), how is it that we can have consciousness of a continuing existence?   How does the “self” persist over time, when the physical stuff we’re made of changes?

Thomas Aquinas, using Aristotle’s metaphysics, taught that the soul is the form of the body. ”Form” here might best be thought of as the organizing principle of the body. Polkinghorne, following research related to how information works in complex systems, suggests the analogy that information is to energy what soul is to body. Just as the information in a system is not limited to the “bits and pieces” of matter/energy making up the system, the soul, though it does not exist apart from the body, is still something distinguishable from the body. The soul (self/person) is the “information-bearing pattern of the body.” (
God of Hope, 106).  This is a tentative answer to how a person – whose physical body is constantly changing – can persist over time. We are, as Roger Penrose once said, more than “computers made of meat.”

So, what does all this have to do with resurrection? Polkinghorne once more: “It is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern [of information] that is a human being could be held in the divine memory after that person’s death…It is a further coherent hope, and one for which the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the foretaste and guarantee, that God…will re-embody this multitude of preserved information-bearing patterns [people] in some new environment of God’s choosing,” (107-108).  Resurrection!  Bodily.

If that idea seems utterly preposterous to you, consider this.  If you believe in a God strong enough and smart enough to create a universe; that is, if you are any sort of believer in a God who creates, then you already believe in a Reality similar to what I just described.  A God who is able to create is surely one who can re-create.

Philosophers can raise objections to this view and my point here is not to claim proof.  My point, rather, is to give an example of how some pretty smart people confidently express belief in Jesus’ resurrection while being fully engaged in modern scientific and philosophical dialogue.

Thus, the time has come for us to start ignoring those who claim that thinking, enlightened people cannot possibly believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.   Having doubts, raising arguments and probing our faith is totally fine with me.  Presumptuous dismissal, because 
now we know so much better, is one of the Accuser’s wiles.

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