Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times No. 21 - Apr 2006


Nearly 2000 years ago, some of the first Christians claimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. It sounds impossible. Is it? And does it make sense to base a living faith on believing an event from so long ago?

It sounds different now. Today what we notice is that it was a miracle. Most people think miracles don't happen. They break the laws of nature, and are therefore unscientific. Either, it seems, we believe in modern science, and conclude that Christianity is wrong, or we defy science and consider ourselves good Christians for doing so.

It's a modern dichotomy. The first Christians would not have understood our questions, because they did not believe in laws of nature. The word 'miracle' comes from a Latin word meaning 'something to wonder at'. For God to raise someone from the dead was, to them, astonishing but not impossible. They believed, like most people of their day, that events not caused by humans were caused by divine action, regular and irregular events alike. It was no more trouble for God to raise Jesus from the dead than to make the sun rise each morning.

It was not until the early modern period that problems arose. Scientific research depended on the assumption that regularities are not affected by unpredictable intervention by spiritual beings. Otherwise scientific progress would be impossible. That assumption is essential to us, every time we use the fruits of science; when we drive a car or take modern medicines, we trust our lives to the assumption that the research they are based on was not invalidated by spiritual intervention.

At the same time, however, nature's regularities came to be understood as laws of nature operating independently of God. Once they had become part of the mental furniture of Europeans, miracles came to be redefined as events which break the laws of nature.

In this vein many seventeenth century theologians argued that the truth of Christianity can be proved by the miracles in the Bible, since only God can break the laws of nature. It was a disastrous argument. Eighteenth century sceptics and atheists simply stood it on its head: as the biblical miracle stories break the laws of nature, they prove that the Bible is unreliable.

It is that debate which bequeaths us our dichotomy. On one side, as science has been so successful, enabling endless streams of new technology based on the principle that the laws of nature don't get broken, it looks increasingly convincing that miracles are impossible. On the other side, defenders of religious belief, under increasing pressure, have become more defensive. Religious traditions have increasingly defined themselves in opposition to the prevailing secular culture and emphasized their disagreements with modern science. In this context the significance of the Resurrection is all too often reduced to that of all miracles: defiant assertions by God of divine power to defeat the laws of nature.

It is a tragedy that gospel stories like the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth are so often reduced to identity badges. The Resurrection is scientifically impossible; I believe it happened; therefore I am a good Christian. This kind of religion is appropriate to those who are more concerned about club membership than the truth about God.

In fact both science and biblical studies have long since moved on. Scientists now accept that the universe is far too complex to be understood by the human mind. The more scientists explain, the more they discover which is still unexplained. All sorts of things happen today which science has not, as yet, been able to explain, and perhaps never will. There is ample scope for believing that the first Christians had an experience which astonished them and convinced them that God had raised Jesus from the dead, without making the additional claim that the event was theoretically impossible according to modern scientific standards.

Meanwhile biblical scholars have enabled us to appreciate what the authors of the New Testament were saying, without imposing so many of our own preconceptions on them. In Jesus' day there were Hellenistic wonder-workers who set out to achieve feats which would have been considered impossible, but the early Christians took pains to deny that he was one of them. If the New Testament authors had told their stories of the Resurrection in order to show that the impossible had happened, they could have made a better job of it. Instead, we have a varied collection of stories, each of which seems to be making a different point. Paul describes appearances of the risen Jesus but no empty tomb; Mark, empty tomb but no appearances. Paul's risen Jesus is in spiritual form, but Luke's eats fish and John's invites Thomas to touch him. Miracle for its own sake is hardly what comes across.

The current fascination with the Resurrection as modern miracle thus has two disadvantages. Firstly, it turns Christianity into a counter-cultural sectarian tradition, defiantly rejecting the mainstream scientific understanding of the world. It invites us to hold one set of beliefs when we attend church services, and another when we drive home afterwards.

Secondly, treating the Resurrection as modern miracle focuses attention on historical questions which we cannot answer. How was the tomb emptied? Was it Jesus' physical body which appeared to Peter? To the disciples? To Paul? We have no more information than the New Testament gives; and to wind ourselves up into a sense of conviction that we do know, simply reinforces the widespread impression that Christianity consists of irrelevant superstitious myths about the past. In fact neither the Christian tradition nor scientific research are in a position to establish exactly what happened, let alone how it happened.

Miracles in the New Testament are usually recorded not to be admired for their own sake, but to highlight the significance of the event accompanying them. The question we need to ask about the Resurrection is not 'Could it have happened?' but 'What point does it make?'

The answer is easiest in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul uses it to assure Christians that God will grant life after death to them too. This argument depends, not on any natural laws being broken, but only on the conviction that God has power over death. As soon as we realize that this is Paul's point, our attention is directed away from historical questions of two thousand years ago, back into the present, to a question which concerns people today - life after death.

Other passages do not make this particular connection. What seems central to all the New Testament Resurrection narratives is the claim that Jesus had been vindicated by God. To appeal to the Resurrection was, therefore, to make a claim about Jesus. Despite the hostility of leading Jews, despite the trial, despite the ignominious death, he was right after all. But to make this claim is, again, to draw attention away from the miraculous element. It invites us to ask what Jesus was right about; and the answers are to be found elsewhere in the Gospels.

Strip away the modern debate about miracles, read no more into the narratives than their authors intended, and the Resurrection makes its point again, directing our attention to things which still matter to us today.


Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest,  university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.