This is the final part of N. T. Wright's lecture, "Can a Scientist Believe the Resurrection?" He delivered it on 15th May 2007 at Babbage Lecture Theatre, Cambridge. It can also be found here.
When we plunge in to the stories of the first Easter
Day – the accounts we find in the closing chapters of the four canonical
gospels – we find that, notoriously, the accounts do not fit snugly together.
How many women went to the tomb, and how many angels or men did they meet
there? Did the disciples meet Jesus in Jerusalem or Galilee or both? And so on.
At this point I am fond of invoking the splendid story of what happened in
October 1946 when Karl Popper gave a paper at Wittgenstein’s seminar in King’s,
as written up in that recent book Wittgenstein’s Poker. Several highly
intelligent men – men who would modestly have agreed that they were among the
most intelligent men in the world at the time – were in the room as
Wittgenstein brandished a poker about and then left abruptly, but none of them
could quite agree afterwards as to what precisely had happened. But, as with
Cambridge in 1946, so with Jerusalem in AD 30 (or whenever it was): surface
discrepancies do not mean that nothing happened. Indeed, they are a reasonable
indication that something remarkable happened.
|Wright on Science and Resurrection
As part of the larger argument that I have advanced elsewhere, I here draw attention to four strange features shared by the accounts in the four canonical gospels. These features, I suggest, compel us to take them seriously as very early accounts, not, as is often suggested, later inventions.
First, we note the strange silence of the Bible in the stories. Up to this point, all four evangelists have drawn heavily upon biblical quotation, allusion and echo. But the resurrection narratives are almost entirely innocent of them. This is the more remarkable, in that from as early as Paul the common credal formula declared that the resurrection, too, was ‘according to the scriptures’, and Paul and the others ransacks psalms and prophets to find texts that will explain what has just happened and set it within, and as the climax to, the long story of God and Israel. Why do the gospel resurrection narratives not do the same?
We could say, of course, that whoever wrote the stories in the form we now have them had gone through, cunningly, and taken material out to make them look as if they were very old, rather like someone deliberately taking all the electric fittings out of a house to make it look like it might have done a century or more ago. That might be marginally plausible if we had just one account, or if the four accounts were obviously derived from one another. We don’t, and they aren’t. You either have to imagine four very different writers each deciding to write up an Easter narrative based on the theology of the early church but with the biblical echoes taken out; or you have to say, which is infinitely more probable, that the stories, even though written down a lot later, go back to extremely early oral tradition which had been formed, and set firmly in the memory of different storytellers, before there had been any time for biblical reflection.
The second strange feature of the stories is better known: the presence of the women as the principal witnesses. Whether we like it or not, women were not regarded as credible witneses within the ancient world. Nobody would have made them up. Had the tradition started in the male-only form we find in 1 Corinthians 15, it would never have developed, in such different ways as well, into the female-first stories we find in the gospels. The gospels must embody the earliest storytelling, and 1 Corinthians 15 a later revision.
The third strange feature is the portrait of Jesus himself. If, as many revisionists have tried to make out, the gospel stories developed either from people mulling over the scriptures following Jesus’ death or a new experience of inner illumination, you would expect to find the risen Jesus shining like a star. That’s what Daniel says will happen. We have such an story in the Transfiguration. But none of the gospels say this about Jesus at Easter. Indeed, he appears as a human being with a body that in some ways is quite normal, and can be mistaken for a gardener, or a fellow traveller on the road. Yet the stories also contain mysterious but definite signs that this body has been transformed. It is clearly physical, using up (so to speak) the matter of the crucified body; hence the empty tomb. But, equally, it comes and goes through locked doors; it is not always recognised; and in the end it disappears into God’s space, i.e. ‘heaven’, through the thin curtain which in much Jewish thought separates God’s space from human space. This kind of account is without precedent, biblical or otherwise, and it looks as if the writers knew it. And this rules out the old idea that Luke’s and John’s accounts, which are the most apparently ‘physical’, were written late in the first century in an attempt to combat docetism (the view that Jesus wasn’t a real human being but only ‘seemed’ to be so). If Luke and John were combatting docetism, they would never have said that the risen Jesus appeared and disappeared through locked doors, sometimes being recognised, sometimes not, and finally ascended into heaven.
The fourth strange feature of the resurrection accounts is the entire absence of mention of the future Christian hope. Almost everywhere else in the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus is spoken of in connection with the final hope that those who belong to Jesus will one day be raised as he has been, and with the note that this must be anticipated in the present in baptism and behaviour. Insofar as the event is interpreted, it has a very this-worldly, present-age meaning: Jesus is raised, so he is the Messiah, the world’s true Lord; we therefore have a job to do, to act as his heralds to the entire world. Once again, had the stories been invented towards the end of the first century this interpretation would certainly have included a mention of the final resurrection of all God’s people.
What do we conclude from all this? That the stories, though lightly edited and written down later, are basically very, very early. They are not, as has so often been suggested, legends written up much later to give a pseudo-historical basis for what had been essentially a private experience. And when we ask how such stories could have come into existence, the obvious answer all the early Christians give is that, though it was hard to describe at the time and remains mind-boggling thereafter, something like this is what happened. And it is now time to ask, at last: what can the historian today say about all this? And, then, what can the scientist say about it?
The only way we can explain the phenomena we have been examining is by proposing a two-pronged hypothesis: first, Jesus’ tomb really was empty; second, the disciples really did encounter him in ways which convinced them that he was not simply a ghost or hallucination. A brief word about each.
For the disciples to see, or think they saw, someone they took to be Jesus would not by itself have generated the stories we have. Everyone in the ancient world (like many today) knew that people sometimes had strange experiences involving encounters with the dead, particularly the recently dead. However many such visions they had had, they wouldn’t have said Jesus was raised from the dead; they weren’t expecting such a resurrection. In any case, Jesus’ burial was a standard primary burial which would require a secondary burial in an ossuary at some later point. Someone would have had to go and collect Jesus’ bones, fold them up, and store them. Nobody in the Jewish world would have spoken of such a person being already raised from the dead. Without the empty tomb, they would have been as quick to say ‘hallucination’ as we would.
Equally, an empty tomb by itself proves almost nothing. It might (as many have suggested) have been the wrong one, though a quick check would have sorted that one out. The soldiers, the gardeners, the chief priests, other disciples or someone else might have taken away the body. That was the conclusion Mary drew in John’s gospel, and the story the Jewish leaders put about in Matthew’s. Unless the finding of the empty tomb had been accompanied by sightings of, and meetings with, the risen Jesus, that is the kind of conclusion they would all have drawn. The meetings on the one hand, and the empty tomb on the other, are each therefore necessary if we are to explain the rise of the belief, and the writing of the stories as we have them. Neither by itself would be sufficient; put them together, though, and they provide a complete and coherent explanation for the early Christian belief.
All this brings us face to face with the ultimate question. The empty tomb and the meetings with Jesus are, in combination, the only possible explanation for the stories and beliefs that grew up so quickly among his followers. How, in turn, do we explain them? What can the historian say? What can the scientist say?
In any other historical enquiry, the answer would be so obvious that it would hardly need saying: the best explanation is that it happened that way. Here, of course, it is so shocking, so earth-shattering, that we rightly pause before leaping into the unknown. And here, indeed, as some sceptical friends have cheerfully pointed out to me, it is always possible for anyone to follow the argument so far and to say, simply, ‘I don’t have a good explanation for what happened to cause the empty tomb and the appearances, but I choose to maintain my belief that dead people don’t rise and therefore conclude that something else must have happened even though we can’t tell what it was.’ That is fine; I respect that position; but I simply note that it is indeed then a matter of choice, not a matter of saying that something called ‘scientific historiography’ itself forces us to take that route.
But at this moment in the argument all the signposts are pointing in one direction. I have examined elsewhere all the alternative explanations, ancient and modern, for the rise of the early church, and I have to say that far and away the best historical explanation is that Jesus of Nazareth, having been thoroughly dead and buried, really was raised to life on the third day with a new kind of physical body which left an empty tomb behind it because it had ‘used up’ the material of Jesus’ original body, and which possessed new properties which nobody had expected or imagined but which generated significant mutations in the thinking of those who encountered it. If something like this happened, it would perfectly explain why Christianity began and why it took the shape it did.
But this is where I want to heed carefully the warnings of those theologians who have cautioned against any attempt to stand on the ground of rationalism and to attempt to ‘prove’, in some mathematical fashion, something which, if it happened, ought itself to be regarded as the centre not only of history but also of epistemology, not only of what we know but of how we know it. This is where the third element in knowing, the puzzling bits beyond science or history but still interacting with both, inevitably come into play. I once imagined, to make this point, a fantasy Oxbridge scenario: a rich old member gives to a College a wonderful, glorious painting which simply won’t fit any of the spaces available in College, and which is so magnificent that eventually the College decides to pull itself down and rebuild itself around this great and unexpected gift, discovering as it does so that all the best things about the College the way it was are thereby enhanced within the new structure, and all the problems of which people had been aware are thereby dealt with. And the key thing about that illustration, inadequate though it is, is that there must be some point at which the painting is received by the existing college, some epistemological overlap-point to enable the college officers to make their momentous decision. The donor doesn’t just come along, blow up the college unasked, present the painting, and then say ‘now figure out what to do’. My point is that the resurrection of Jesus, presenting itself as the obvious answer to the question of ‘how do you explain the rise of early Christianity?’, has that kind of purchase on serious historical enquiry, and therefore poses that kind of challenge to the larger worldview of both the historian and the scientist.
The challenge is in fact the challenge of new creation. To put it at its most basic: the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or the theologian, not as a very odd event within the world as it is, but the utterly characteristic, prototypical and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world, but the symbol and starting-point of the new world. The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: that with Jesus of Nazareth there is not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.
Now that might seem to be an epistemological, as well as a theological, pre-emptive strike. If there really is a new creation on the loose, the historian wouldn’t have any analogies for it, and the scientist wouldn’t be able to rank its characteristic events with other events that might otherwise have been open to inspection. What are we to do? No other explanations have been offered, in two thousand years of sneering scepticism against the Christian witness, that can satisfactorily account for how the tomb came to be empty, how the disciples came to see Jesus, and how their lives and worldviews were transformed. But history alone, certainly as conceived within the modern western world, and placed on the Procrustean bed of the science which (rightly) observes the world as it is, appears to leave us like the children of Israel shivering on the sea shore. It can press the question to which Christian faith is the obvious answer. But if someone chooses to stay between the Pharoah of scepticism and the deep sea of faith, history itself cannot force them further.
Everything then depends on the context within which the history is done. The most important decisions we make in life are not taken by post-enlightenment left-brain rationality alone. I would not suggest that one can argue right up to the central truth of Christian faith by pure human reason building on simple observation of the world. Indeed, it is should be obvious that one cannot. Equally, I would not suggest that historical investigation of this sort has therefore no part to play, and that all that is required is a leap of blind faith. God has given us minds to think; the question has been appropriately raised; Christianity appeals to history, and to history it must go. And the question of Jesus’ resurrection, though it may in some senses burst the boundaries of history, also remains within them; that is precisely why it is so important, so disturbing, so life-and-death. We could cope – the world could cope – with a Jesus who ultimately remains a wonderful idea inside his disciples’ minds and hearts. The world cannot cope with a Jesus who comes out of the tomb, who inaugurates God’s new creation right within the middle of the old one.
That is why, for a complete approach to the question, we need to locate our study of history within a larger complex of human, personal and corporate, contexts, and this of course forms a challenge not only to the historian, not only to the scientist, but to all humans in whatever worldview they habitually live. The story of Thomas in John 20 will serve as a parable for all of this. Thomas, like a good historian, wants to see and touch. Jesus presents himself to his sight, and invites him to touch; but Thomas doesn’t. He transcends the type of knowing he had intended to use, and passes into a higher and richer one. Suddenly the new, giddying possibility appears before him: a new creation. Thomas takes a deep breath, and brings history and faith together in a rush. ‘My Lord,’ he says, ‘and my God.’ That is not an anti-historical statement, since the ‘lord’ in question is precisely the one who is the climax of Israel’s history and the launch of a new history, and since once you grasp the resurrection you see that Israel’s history is full of partial and preparatory analogies for this moment, so that the epistemological weight is borne not by the promise of ultimate resurrection and new creation alone but by the narrative of God’s mighty actions in the past. Nor is it an anti-scientific statement, since the world of new creation is precisely the world of new creation and as such open to, and indeed eager for, the work of human beings not to manipulate it with magic tricks, nor to be subservient to it as though the world of creation were itself divine, but to be its stewards; and stewards need to pay close, minute attention to that of which they are stewards, in order the better to serve it and to enable it to attain its intended fruitfulness. What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science. 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 which simply inhabits a totally different sphere, discontinuous from either, in a separate watertight compartment. Rather, this kind of faith, which is in fact like all modes of knowledge defined by the nature of its object, is faith in the creator God, the God who has promised to put all things to rights at the last, the God who (as the sharp point where those two come together) has raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving as I said evidence which demands an explanation from the scientist as well as anybody else. Insofar as I understand scientific method, when something turns up which doesn’t fit the paradigm you’re working with, one option at least, perhaps when all others have failed, is to change the paradigm, not to exclude everything you’ve known to that point but to include it within a larger whole. That is, if you like, the Thomas challenge.
If Thomas represents an epistemology of faith, which transcends but also includes historical and scientific knowing, we might suggest that Paul represents at this point an epistemology of hope. In 1 Corinthians 15 he sketches his argument that there will be a future resurrection, as part of God’s new creation, the redemption of the entire cosmos as in Romans 8. Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism. It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, new creation can happen. There is more to be said about this, but not here.
I want, rather, to finish with Peter. Epistemologies of faith and hope, both transcending but including historical and scientific knowing, point on to an epistemology of love – an idea I first met in Bernard Lonergan, but which was hardly new with him. The story of John 21 sharpens it up. Peter, famously, has denied Jesus. He has chosen to live within the normal world, where the tyrants win in the end, and where it’s better to dissociate yourself from people who get on the wrong side of them. But now, with Easter, Peter is called to live in a new and different world; where Thomas is called to a new kind of faith, and Paul to a radically renewed hope, Peter is called to a new kind of love. Here I go back to Wittgenstein once more, not this time for a poker but for a famous and haunting aphorism: ‘It is love that believes the resurrection.’ ‘Simon, son of John,’ says Jesus, ‘do you love me?’ There is a whole world in that question, a world of personal invitation and challenge, of the remaking of a human being after disloyalty and disaster, of the refashioning of epistemology itself, the question of how we know things, to correspond to the new ontology, the question of what God’s new world is like. The reality which is the resurrection cannot simply be ‘known’ from within the old world of decay and denial, of tyrants and torture, of disobedience and death. But that’s the point.
As I said, the resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world, though it is that as well; it is the defining, central, prototypical event of the new creation, the world which is being born with Jesus. If we are even to glimpse this new world, let alone enter it, we will need a different kind of knowing, a knowing which involves us in new ways, an epistemology which draws out from us not just the cool appraisal of detached quasi-scientific research, but the whole-person engagement and involvement for which the best shorthand is ‘love’, in the full Johannine sense of agape. My sense from talking to some scientific colleagues is that, though it’s hard to describe, something like this is already at work when the scientist devotes him- or herself to the subject-matter so that the birth of new hypotheses seems to come about, not so much through an abstract brain (a computer made of meat?) crunching data from elsewhere, but more of a soft and mysterious symbiosis of knower and known, of lover and beloved.
The sceptic will quickly suggest that this is, after all, a way of collapsing the truth of Easter once more into mere subjectivism. Not so. Just because it takes agape to believe the resurrection, that doesn’t mean that all that happened was that Peter and the others felt their hearts strangely warmed. Precisely because it is love we are talking about, not lust, it must have a correlative reality in the world outside the lover. Love is the deepest mode of knowing, because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality. This is the mode of knowing which is necessary if we are to live in the new public world, the world launched at Easter, the world in which Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t.
That is why, although the historical arguments for Jesus’ bodily resurrection are truly strong, we must never suppose that they will do more than bring people to the questions faced by Thomas and Peter, the questions of faith and love. We cannot use an supposedly ‘objective’ historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter. To do so would be like someone who lit a candle to see whether the sun had risen. What the candles of historical scholarship will do is to show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn’t look like it did last night, and that would-be ‘normal’ explanations for this won’t do. Maybe, we think after the historical arguments have done their work, maybe morning has come and the world has woken up. But to find out whether this is so we must take the risk and open the curtains to the rising sun. When we do so, we won’t rely on the candles any more, not because we don’t believe in evidence and argument, not because we don’t believe in history or science, but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home. All knowing is a gift from God, historical and scientific knowing no less than that of faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.