I wrote a post yesterday saying we should not pretend to believe what we do not know. For example, if asked about whether the virgin birth or the resurrection actually happened in history, we would be more honest to say we do not know. In the conversation that followed, I was asked if I believed in the battle of Gettysburg. The questioner asked why believe witnesses in the case of Gettysburg, but not witnesses for the resurrection? It is a valid question and worth, I think, a morning meditation on the topic.
There are, let’s guess, one hundred thousand eye witnesses for the Battle of Gettysburg. There were tangible bullets and bodies as well as photographs. But what’s the actual historical proof for the resurrection? And let us resolve from the outset that we will use a method of verification we would accept for the supernatural claims of other religions. If we use a different standard for our own truth claims than for others, there is no point in even pretending to have this conversation. If we do not accept the scripture of other religions as historical and scientific proof of their claims, neither should we use that standard for our own.
The truth is, we have only four witnesses to the life of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All four were disciples of the faith in question. Each one claims there were other witnesses, but we are taking their word for it. So in truth we have only four witnesses to everything that happened.
The earliest texts of Mark do not mention either the virgin birth or the resurrection appearances. John mentions Resurrection appearances but not the virgin birth. So we actually have two witnesses to the virgin birth and three to the resurrection appearances.
Luke admits at the beginning of his gospel that he was not there and is basing his story on the hearsay evidence of those who were (Luke 1:1-4). John’s Gospel ends with evidence that his story is been redacted by later authors. (John 21:24). Matthew and Luke both quote from Mark and also from a manuscript now lost (the Q Source). This borrowing from other sources raises the question why eye witnesses would need to copy notes from someone else.
I do not point out these facts to be unpleasant or disrespectful. I believe we can be faithful people, and also honest ones. The historical proof for the resurrection of Jesus Christ would not be accepted in a court of law, and the church should stop pretending otherwise. Few of us would accept the witness of the followers of a cult leader for supernatural acts by that founder. We should hold ourselves to the same standards we use for others.
So why do I call myself a Christian and affirm the resurrection? Because I believe it not as an historical fact itself, but as the symbol of a fact about life itself. In my opinion, the question to ask of a religious symbol like the resurrection is not whether it happened, but what does the symbol reveal about our lives. We know that early Christians were willing to die for an experience they had had. Whether that experience was an external historical fact or one of personal and communal enlightenment we cannot know. We only know they made that experience the center of their lives.
So, for me, the “proof” of any symbol is in the experiences and intuitions it symbolizes. The meaning of the resurrection (again, for me) comes in the realization that love is stronger than hate, that gentleness is stronger than violence and that life is stronger than death. But it is idolatry to try to cast the intuition in stone, or to localize and concretize it in history. As CS Lewis said of revelation in general, “It’s not a light we can see, it is the light by which we see.”