This is the fourth post in a series examining N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Today we're looking at Chapter 4: The Strange Story of Easter.
The first time I read Chapter 4, The Strange Story of Easter, I didn't underline much or make many margin notes. And as I re-read the chapter this evening – granted, an evening marked by sick-child-induced fatigue – I can still say that I am not greatly moved by much of it. What gives?
Much of the chapter argues in some detail for the historical reliability of Jesus' resurrection. If you haven't ever given much thought to this topic, this chapter is a must-read. [Having read Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus: This Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels I didn't need any more convincing – perhaps explaining some of my boredom with this chapter.] In the previous chapter Wright argued that the accounts of Jesus' resurrection are so unique when compared to contemporary belief systems, that something had to have happened. In this chapter he fleshes out that supposition.
He starts out the chapter by naming four aspects of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection that point to the story's early dating and thus, to its historicity. Contra arguments that the Gospels were written – created? – 50+ years after Jesus, Wright suggests that though they were first written down in the 80s or 90s, the Gospels' resurrection accounts "go back to very, very early oral tradition, which was formed and set firmly in the memory of different storytellers before there was any time for biblical reflection" (page 54). The four characteristics of the Gospels that he highlights as witnessing to their early origins are somewhat complex, and I'll leave you to evaluate them on your own (see pages 53-58).
Having established the historicity of the resurrection accounts, he then goes on to detail how Jesus' empty tomb and his post-resurrection appearances are "the only possible explanation for the stories and beliefs that few up so quickly among Jesus' followers" (page 63). That is, as Wright has said elsewhere, something must have happened for this early Christian community to forge such a unique set of beliefs and practices within the broader setting of Judaism.
In assessing the historical reliability of the resurrection, he first shows that the early Christians had words to describe various spiritual and supernatural encounters. Their consistent use of the word resurrection, however, coupled with the radical shift in belief and practice of the early Christians, suggests that something really unexpected (ie, resurrection) happened. He briefly examines and responds to various skeptical questions about the resurrection (pages 58-63), not in an attempt to prove the resurrection but to show the inadequacy of the supposed "historical" or "scientific" arguments against resurrection. Again, his points are complex and don't lend themselves to a quick summary here, so I'll leave you to evaluate his arguments.
In his questioning of the academic arguments against resurrection lies the most valuable part of this chapter – his redefinition the terms of discussion. He calls out our culture's rational skepticism as a worldview inherently skewed against the notion that the dead could be raised.
"What is at stake is the clash between a worldview that allows for a God of creation and justice and worldviews that don't. . . . What the Easter stories do – and what, I argue, the whole existence of the church does, from the very first days onward – is to pose a huge question" (page 69).
That is, if we accept his argument for the historical reliability of the resurrection accounts found in the Gospels, we are left with the question of how to make sense of it all, with the task of developing a worldview that "transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science" (page 71). That worldview is faith.
Faith of this sort is not blind belief, which rejects all history and science. Nor is it simply – which would be much safer! – a belief that inhabits a totally different sphere, discontinuous from either, in a separate watertight compartment. Rather, this kind of faith, which like all modes of knowledge is defined by the nature of its object, is faith in the creator God, the God who promised to put all things to rights at the last, the God who (as the sharp point where those two come together) raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving evidence that demands an explanation from the scientist as well as from anybody else" (pages 71-72).
This radically real, radically historical, radically in-this-world, in-your-face God gives us a radical new hope and bestows on us – through faith – a radical new worldview, quite different than that of the dominant culture. Again, by believing – if we do – that Jesus raised from the dead – we believe that death no longer has any power, and we threaten an entire social and political system derived, in some way, on the power of death.
"Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world" (page 75).
That final claim merits further scrutiny – especially in light of
the power of human sin – but the message is clear – in Christ we have
more than a guru. We have the power of God in this world, a God who changes
reality and inaugurates a new creation.
The Lutheran Zephyr responds:
This is some good stuff, for sure. Having previously been convinced of the historicity – the reality – of the resurrection, I found much of this chapter to be tedious, personally. But for those haven't thought seriously about the resurrection – as I hadn't, until I read Johnson's book just over a year ago - Wright's arguments in this chapter make a compelling case for a very real, very flesh and blood, very radical resurrection. And if that happened . . . well, that changes everything (this is where it gets exciting). It sets in motion an era of New Creation, the dawning of a New Kingdom, a new way of life for people of faith.
I have often questioned the relationship of Church and State on this blog, arguing for greater separation. The concern is that the church has become too well established in the power structures of our society and government to act as a faithful counterpoint to it.
So too with our culture's power structures of thought. Have we so fully accepted the prevailing intellectual structures and assumptions that we no longer are able to believe the in the essential and founding truths of our faith? Perhaps we need to separate ourselves from a full and unquestioning embrace of that Englightenment skepticism and return anew to the life-giving witness of the Gospels which tell us – reliably – that God is making a New Creation. Right now.
A New Creation? Right now? That'll shake things up . . .
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Read the chapter for more details, as my late-night summary is surely lacking. And return here later this week for a look at chapter 5, Cosmic Future: Progress or Despair?