The other day I posted the following survey on Twitter:
If the physical bones of Jesus were disinterred in Jerusalem, would it follow that Christianity is false?
— Randal Rauser (@RandalRauser) November 2, 2017
The results were not surprising. A full 75% of those surveyed — both Christians and non-Christians — believe that Christianity requires a resurrected Jesus. This is an important datum because, as should be obvious, all my Twitter surveys are fully scientific and provide accurate representations of public opinion within 3 percentage points 19 times out of 20 (or thereabouts).
Still, that’s 25% of people who think the resurrection of Jesus isn’t required. To those who think this miracle is required to sustain Christianity, this minority position can be perplexing indeed. Heck, Paul himself issued the following declaration in 1 Corinthians 15:
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.
So what explains the logic of that minority?
While we can hardly get into the head of every person with a particular opinion, we can seek to understand how many might be arguing. That brings me to my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (Biblica, 2011). In this book I seek to provide a bridge to understanding several groups that are commonly not understood by the conservative Christian (my primary audience target for that book). Included in the discussion are atheists, animal rights activists, and liberal Christians.
In the chapter on liberal Christians, I consider those who profess to be Christian while doubting or even denying the historical bodily resurrection of Jesus. In the following excerpt from the book (drawn from pages 124-132) I seek to provide a sympathetic reading of the liberal Christian who denies the resurrected Jesus whilst insisting they nonetheless maintain a Christian faith. This is in keeping with the long and noble tradition of attempting to steel man one’s interlocutor.
One more thing: I’ve included a couple additional reader’s notes in brackets with dark red font.
And now, without further ado…
* * *
I Believe on the Third Day He Rose Again . . . but Must I?
Although I do not know Marcus Borg [d. 2015] personally, I have two good reasons to think he is the genuine article. The first is the quality and integrity that comes through his writings. The second is the testimony of that towering intellectual pillar of Anglican orthodoxy, N. T. Wright. While Wright is widely lauded as one of the premiere New Testament scholars in the world, he is also good friends with Borg.
In the eye of many evangelicals the problem arises not with the friendship per se but rather with the fact that Wright believes his resurrection-denying friend is also a Christian. This is how he put it in a 2006 interview: “Marcus Borg really does not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead. But I know Marcus well: he loves Jesus and believes in him passionately.” So then why does Borg not believe? Wright suggested that “the philosophical and cultural world he has lived in has made it very, very difficult for him to believe in the bodily resurrection.” Is it possible as Wright said, that a person could be a Christian and yet reject the resurrection of Christ?
Let’s begin to address this question by turning to the Easter season. Just like clockwork, every Easter popular magazines like Time and Newsweek find a way to squeeze Jesus onto the cover, typically with a heading that carries a whiff of scandal like “How the Jesus of History Became the Christ of Faith” or “Did Jesus Really Rise?” Without fail, these articles are weighted more to hype than substance. But what if a story broke in the media about Jesus that actually had some substance to it? What if some real evidence arose questioning the resurrection of Jesus?
That scenario is addressed in Paul Maier’s novel A Skeleton in God’s Closet. In the story well-respected archaeologist and devout Christian Jonathan Weber is working on a dig for the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea when the remains of Jesus Christ are discovered. As you might guess, with this discovery Weber finds his faith coming under severe testing. After all, if Jesus’ bones remained in the tomb then Jesus did not in fact rise from the dead, and this means that a doctrine that has stood at the center of Christian faith for two thousand years is false. As news of the discovery sweeps the globe, it leaves in its wake a sea of deeply confused Christians.
However, Weber observes that not all Christians find their faith upended by the discovery: “A Methodist professor said he’d have to do a lot of rethinking. But an Episcopal rector said that finding Christ’s remains ‘would not affect me in the slightest.’ I recall being totally disgusted at that response. The one I easily agreed with was a Catholic New Testament professor at St. Louis University who said that he ‘would totally despair.’ Now, that was honest!”
The scenario leaves each reader to ask the same question for himself or herself. Would I be left to do a lot of rethinking like the Methodist professor? Or would I despair like the Catholic professor? And what about the Episcopalian rector whose faith never depended on the resurrection? What sort of faith is that anyway?
Let’s think about this question more carefully. If Jesus’ body were discovered we would suddenly find ourselves in Borg’s shoes (or a pair much like them), needing to decide whether to leave the faith or reinterpret it. There would be good grounds for the first move, given Paul’s declaration that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). So if Christian faith without Christ’s resurrection is useless, we might as well find something else to believe in. But what? Islam? Deism? Atheism? Amway? (Or perhaps a combination thereof?)
The more I think about the radically, sweeping implications of walking away from faith altogether, of rejecting everything in Christianity lock, stock, and barrel, the more game I am to consider the second option. The point can be made by considering G. K. Chesterton’s commentary on the complex reasons why people hold Christian belief:
[I]f one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.
According to Chesterton, in much the same way that our commitment to civilization depends on a multiplicity of factors rather than a single point, so Christian faith also rests on a multiplicity of factors. A person is typically not a Christian for one single reason but because of a whole variety of factors. For instance, they have experienced God’s providential hand guiding their life, they have found inspiration and guidance in the Scriptures, they have had great Christian mentors and models, their nephew was healed of cancer after an all night prayer meeting, and God saved their marriage.
In short, they are a Christian because it provides the most complete, satisfying and plausible understanding of the human condition, where we came from and where we are going. For these reasons and many others, they could indeed resist the attempt to throw all this away on the condition that one doctrine should come up false, even if it is a doctrine as central as the bodily resurrection of Christ.
And so, when the alternative of rejecting faith is considered, it might seem preferable to retain our Christian faith, even given the discovery of Jesus’ body. But is this really a serious possibility? Or would keeping faith under these conditions be like keeping the marriage going after you discover your spouse is a bigamist? That is, as great as all these other things may be, without a resurrection of Christ is there really anything left to save?
While I appreciate the reservation here, I think we need to understand the real force of the civilization parallel. To push things further, consider a specific example. I know a missionary who was home on furlough raising ministry support and had come up short $300 a month. Just when he was about to give up, having exhausted every possible avenue of support, he received a call from somebody who felt God laying on his heart the need to support him . . . at $300 a month. (At this time nobody except the missionary’s wife knew of their specific financial need.) I refer to an event like this as a “LAMP” which is an acronym for “little amazing moments of providence.” Many Christians have experienced LAMPs like this in their life. Is it so obvious that the discovery of the body of Jesus would persuade people to dismiss all these LAMPs as mere happenstance? Would they really be forced to reject Christianity, kit and kaboodle, as plain false?
As A Skeleton in God’s Closet unfolds, Jonathan Weber wrestles with this question: should he surrender his Christian faith altogether, or could he instead adopt a faith like that of the Episcopalian rector?
[M]aybe Mark Twain was right, Jon finally had to admit to himself. And not only Twain, but all of liberal theology, which had been denying a physical resurrection of Jesus ever since David Strauss and Ernst Renan did so in nineteenth-century Germany and France. Yes, maybe all the higher critics, particularly Rudolf Bultmann, were right all along. The Resurrection never happened, but it was the faith and belief that it did that was important. And all his conservative, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Sunday school and Bible classes, and all the endless sermons . . . wrong!
As unsettling as the thought is, we ought to reflect on Weber’s questions. So I ask myself, if Jesus’ body were discovered would I leave the Christian faith altogether, or would I instead adopt a more liberal interpretation of that faith?
Try as I might I cannot be sure which of these options I would follow. The dilemma recalls the crisis that lies at the center of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice where we meet sweet and brooding young Sophie, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. As the novel unfolds we discover that Sophie was forced by a cruel Nazi to choose which one of her two children would live and which would die. How could any parent be asked to make such an unthinkable choice? The popularity of the book and subsequent film (starring Meryl Streep) led to the popularization of the term “Sophie’s choice” as a way to refer to any impossible or unthinkable decision.
It seems to me that where the Christian faith is concerned, the discovery of Jesus’ remains would pose just such a crisis of decision. Do I reject the faith altogether or do I set aside the centrality of the historic resurrection? It strikes me that this is by no means a straightforward or easy choice. And if it seems presumptuous to judge Sophie for making such a forced decision, it seems also presumptuous to judge a liberal Christian for having made a theological judgment under equally impossible circumstances.
This brings us back to the Episcopalian rector in Maier’s novel and the suspect bishop for the diocese of St. Joseph’s church. In the passage cited above where Jonathan Weber contrasts the Methodist professor, Episcopal rector, and Catholic professor, he finds the ease with which the rector accepts the news “disgusting” but considers the Catholic’s growing despair “honest.” The Catholic professor may indeed be honest, but does that mean that the rector is disgusting? Some liberals may be inexcusably flippant about, and even hostile toward, the doctrines of faith, but does that mean that all are?
Perhaps that rector had already passed through his own dark night of the soul some years before and emerged with an integral liberal faith that can handle a non-resurrected Christ. The question of how anybody could call himself a Christian while doubting Christ’s resurrection is transformed if we think of these “liberals” as people who have wrestled with a Sophie’s choice. If we do not judge Sophie for choosing one child over another in an impossible decision, can we necessarily judge others who have weathered their own Sophie’s choice?
There is one significant problem with the argument so far, and I know that were Ted with us he would point it out. Astute amateur apologist that he is, Ted would reject the assumption that, where the resurrection of Christ is concerned, Christians (liberal or otherwise) face anything like a Sophie’s choice. Ted has read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and he is quite familiar with the excellent historical grounds for the resurrection. So even if A Skeleton in God’s Closet suggests a possible scenario in which faith would be challenged, that scenario cannot be invoked in defense of liberals like Marcus Borg.
I would agree that the available historical evidence strongly favors the resurrection. But the central point at issue here concerns not what the best objective assessment of the data is but rather whether certain individuals who are neither stupid nor wicked perceive there to be a real crisis with the church’s conception of resurrection. And Marcus Borg seems to constitute just such an example (due perhaps, as Wright believes, to the “philosophical and cultural world” that he accepts). Whatever the genesis of their doubt, these individuals find themselves in much the same place as Jonathan Weber in A Skeleton in God’s Closet with a genuine crisis of faith.
Let me suggest a way to explore and expand our sympathy for the liberal. It has been said you ought not judge a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. (Or, if you prefer, you ought not judge a fashionista until you’ve walked a mile in her four-inch stiletto-heeled pumps.) With that in mind, a little role-playing is always helpful in thinking through these types of issues. And so let’s put Ted in the place of Jonathan Weber. [Note to reader: in You’re not as Crazy as I Think the character of “Ted” is a fictional character that I refer to throughout the book to embody some standard evangelical traits.]
Now it is Ted who has been left to agonize over the apparent discovery of Jesus’ body in an archaeological dig. Many of Ted’s evangelical friends do not yet appear particularly disturbed by the discovery. Some are too busy to worry, occupied as they are with the more mundane matters of shifting mortgage rates and car payments coming due. Meanwhile others are content to put it all back to faith, without giving a second glance to whatever evidence may arise. But Ted has looked at the evidence of the discovery and he is deeply disconcerted. Ted knows that his friends are chalking up his doubt to a faith weaker than their own. But even so, he cannot shake the sense that this is a genuine crisis of faith and he has a real obligation to respond. As time drags on Ted becomes more desperate for a resolution, and so he reads all that he can get on the topic from archaeologists, apologists, and historians. Finally, after several months of agonizing over the discovery, Ted painfully and tentatively concludes that Jesus was not bodily resurrected.
But even in this difficult hour, Ted finds himself unwilling (or unable) to walk away from the faith altogether. He simply has too much invested in Christianity; it makes too much sense in so many ways. For one thing, Ted has his own LAMPs that speak of the fundamental truth of the faith. It all began that chilly winter night when that Campus Crusade for Christ worker came out of nowhere and interrupted Ted’s suicidal thoughts with the shattering message that Jesus loved him. And then there was the time when Ted came up $876 short on making the payroll at his business, only to find an envelope with that exact amount sitting in his church mailbox. Could he really throw out these LAMPs, and many others, by calling Christianity a big mistake? What if instead Ted found himself ending up one Sunday morning at St. Joseph’s with a new humility and an openness to a church that offers a warm pew to doctrinally stumbling disciples like himself. What do you suppose that Ted would then think of his award-winning “Sunday at St. Joe’s” skit?
This brings us to the core debate: is the evidence for the great truths of Christianity such that an honest person cannot consider them carefully and still find him or herself in doubt? Or is it indeed possible to find ourselves honestly doubting some of these doctrines? If we conclude the latter, then it would seem that we simply cannot adopt the sweeping cognitive or moral judgment of the liberal.
Here it needs to be noted that any judgment is complicated by the fact that there is no single threshold of evidence that would convince everybody of a given truth. Some Christians, like the Episcopalian bishop, give up key doctrines like the bodily resurrection of Christ in response to comparatively low thresholds of evidence. Others would require much greater evidence: perhaps bodily remains that clearly evince the marks of crucifixion being discovered in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. (Evidentially speaking, this is about where Jonathan Weber finds himself.) Still others would retain faith unless further evidence was added to the body, such as additional first century documentary evidence that revealed a malicious plot among the apostles. (Perhaps this is where Ted would find his threshold.) And finally, a few others (some of Ted’s friends included) would never abandon their faith no matter how strong the evidence against it. (Nor is that unwillingness necessarily admirable.)
Here then is our question: which of these evidential thresholds is the proper point at which faith should be abandoned? The fact is that there is no simple answer to this question. But as we wrestle with it, we will begin to see the tension with the very notion of “liberal” and “conservative.”
To read more, check out You’re not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions.
 Borg and Wright explored their differences in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2007).
 See the interview with Jill Rowbotham: “Resurrecting Faith,” The Australian (April 13, 2006), available at http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=3903.
 Paul Maier, A Skeleton in God’s Closet (Nashville, TN: Westbow, 1994), 258.
 Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; Reprint: London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996), 119.
 Maier, A Skeleton in God’s Closet, 200.