Chapter 3: The Television Discussion
In the Meeting Point programme, televised on the evening of Easter Day, six people -- four men and two women -- assembled to question Professor Lampe on the sermon they had heard him preach that same morning. The six included two university lecturers: Dr Brewer, then a member of the English Department at Birmingham, and Dr Gowenlock, a member of the Department of Chemistry in the same university. There was also a teacher of theology from the Methodist Ministerial Training College in Handsworth, Dr William Strawson, together with a member of the staff of St Martin’s Parish Church, the Rev. Christopher Mayfield. The two ladies were Mrs. Jill Bell and Mrs. Monkhouse, both of Birmingham. After a brief introduction from the Chairman, Canon Purcell, and the showing of some traditional pictures of the Resurrection, the programme proper opened with a recorded extract from Professor Lampe’s sermon.
THE TELEVISION DISCUSSION
LAMPE: ‘If Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so is your faith . . . . But the truth is, Christ was raised to life.’ When Paul wrote those words he was face to face with a crisis of belief: the crisis of belief in which we also stand. One thing there was that he held on to: a fixed conviction that a man who had been executed, who was dead and buried, was alive now, a living person: that so far from that man’s death being the end of him, he was Paul’s own Lord and Master, the one whom he must follow, trust in and obey if life for him was to have any meaning. How could Paul believe anything so fantastic? Because he was absolutely convinced that Jesus, who had been sentenced to death at the instigation of Paul’s own friends for reasons of which he thoroughly approved, had encountered him personally with shattering effect. For that experience had turned his whole life and all its values upside down. It had made him devote the rest of his life, at the cost of immense risk and suffering, to the one task of spreading the good news: that God had said ‘Yes’ to Jesus; thus his way of life had been vindicated; that what he did and said had been true after all; that love, understanding, forgiveness, self-sacrifice are the real things that matter in the end. And Paul believed that many others before him had been encountered by the living Jesus. He can give names: most of those people were still alive when he was writing. For them, too, Jesus had come alive.
He had gripped them. Their lives had been turned upside down, too. They hadn’t dreamed it up for themselves. It had come to them out of the blue, when they were least expecting it. And they had become Jesus Christ’s own: Christians. Paul himself was actually on his way to round up some Christians and take them to jail when a flood of light dawned on him and he heard a voice saying, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’. Not a voice you could have recorded on a tape. No one else heard it.(Acts 9:7 and 26:9 are contradictory about the hearing of a voice.) The only words Paul could find afterwards to describe what had happened were, ‘He was seen by me also’. He doesn’t mean ‘seen’ as you can see me now with your two eyes. He means that a revelation came to him: in the way one might see God. And there are moments in life when one does see God.
That is the Easter story. Forget, if you will, the picture, beloved of the old artists, of a body, holding a flag of triumph, stepping out of a grave. That suggests a corpse come to life again on this physical plane. If that were what the idea of Christ’s resurrection means, then it were better forgotten. Such a Christ is dead. He remains buried. The real Christ is not a revived corpse. He lives in the fullness of God’s life. He is the life, the truth and the way for us.
PURCELL: Amen. So much for that. Now to our questions. Mrs. Bell.
BELL: Professor Lampe, you said this morning, referring to the sort of pictures we have just seen, that they suggest ‘a corpse come back to life on the physical plane’, and that ‘If that were all that the idea of Christ’s resurrection means, then it were better forgotten’. Why is it better forgotten? Is one not able to believe that Christ was resurrected in a physical form and still be an intelligent Christian? After all, it is what the Church has believed for two thousand years, isn’t it?
LAMPE: I shouldn’t want to say at all that it isn’t possible to be an intelligent Christian and take the story of the empty tomb as a literal historical fact. After all, a great many highly intelligent Christians do so. I do not, myself. I regard the story of the empty tomb as myth rather than literal history, and profoundly significant as myth. But what I was getting at in my sermon was not exactly that point. It was rather that, whether you take the empty tomb story literally or as a mythical description of what we mean by the Resurrection (namely that the living presence of the crucified Christ is present with us now), the idea is better forgotten, or rather is better not entertained at all, that the Resurrection is parallel to the raising of Lazarus from the grave in the Fourth Gospel. That was somebody who had died coming back to this life. He was not glorified. He didn’t enter into a new and higher mode of life. He did not become the source of new life for us. That was the sort of event which might make us marvel. We might say about it, ‘Oh wonderful’ or ‘Oh, how extraordinary’, but it would not necessarily communicate God to us at all; and Christ’s Resurrection does communicate God to us.
BELL: But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary clasped the feet of the risen Jesus. This is recorded in St. Matthew. If he wasn’t in physical form, how could this be?
LAMPE: Your question raises the whole problem of the nature and value of the historical evidence for what happened at Easter. This is a vast subject, and perhaps other questions that may be asked will bring us back to it again. For the moment I will only say that the Resurrection narratives contain material of very different and sometimes apparently contradictory kinds, and of unequal historical value. I think it is clear that the earliest and most reliable tradition, as you find it in St. Paul, tells us of appearances of the risen Lord: of an experience of vision, an objective, compelling and convincing revelation that Jesus was not dead, buried and forgotten, but was here and now the living Lord. I think the earliest tradition is in that form and not in terms of a physical resurrection.
BREWER: But isn’t it the case that if we say that the story of a physical resurrection of Christ is a legend, the legend is in direct opposition to what you are supposing to be the actual truth, that is, that Christ’s body rotted? The legend would therefore be a lie?
LAMPE: No. I don’t think that is the right way to think of it. I think that the question of historicity is finely balanced, and one can’t afford to be dogmatic about it. Certainly not negatively dogmatic, and I think not positively dogmatic either. But I think there is good evidence that the tradition about the Resurrection was gradually built up in the course of the growth of the New Testament. As I see it, it starts with the experience which St. Paul describes by saying that the risen Jesus was seen by so-and-so and so-and-so, and by himself: that is, in the encounter on the Damascus road. Then, naturally, people began to think about the question of what gave rise to that experience: about what the mechanism of it was, as one might say. This would produce the stories of the empty tomb. But no deliberate falsification is implied.
BREWER: Yes. But as the story is told, presumably only one of only two things could have happened. Either the body of Christ was physically raised or it physically rotted. There is a dilemma here. The story, or myth, says that it was raised, and that is in direct opposition to what you contend is the implication of the most reliable tradition.
LAMPE: Oh, of course, there is direct opposition. It’s perfectly clear that either the body somehow emerged, was removed or disappeared from the tomb, or it remained there. But what you find in the New Testament, I think, is, first, people who were convinced through mysterious experiences that Jesus was, in fact, actually with them as their Lord and Master. Then the tradition shows that the question began to be explored of how this might have come about; and, particularly in a Jewish environment where there was a strong belief in a future bodily resurrection, the natural explanation would have been that Jesus’ physical body emerged to life out of the grave.
GOWENLOCK: You said this morning that when Paul refers to his vision of the risen Christ ‘he doesn’t mean see as you see me now with your two eyes; he means that a revelation came to him’. And of the disciples you said, ‘On Easter morning Jesus encountered them’. Now in what ways do revelation and encounter differ from self-induced hallucination and delusion?
LAMPE: I don’t know whether you would agree with me here, but I don’t think there is any kind of built-in quality about a revelation or an experience of encounter which in itself distinguishes this from a self-induced hallucination. You cannot differentiate between them simply by reference to the strength or vividness of the experience itself; for an hallucination might be extremely powerful. I don’t think there is any built-in criterion here. I think you can only apply the test, ‘By their fruits you shall know them’. What persuades me that the Easter stories of the Resurrection appearances are true and that something objective happened to those people, which was not mere hallucination, is first of all the context in which they seem, according to the records, to have taken place. They seem to have come straight out of the blue and not in a situation where anything of the kind might have been expected to occur. Secondly, there is the consonance of that experience with the subsequent experience of Christian people.
GOWENLOCK: You are implying, then, that there is no contact here with objective reality, as some people might define objective reality. I mean, something outside oneself -- or is it outside oneself?
LAMPE: I think this is extraordinarily difficult. We are on very delicate philosophical ground when we begin to try to draw a hard and fast dividing line between subjective and objective. I don’t know how one could do it.
GOWENLOCK: But you would say, then, that at any rate the relationship is personal.
GOWENLOCK: And that there is some sense of continuity of relationship involved in all the Resurrection appearances.
LAMPE: Yes, indeed I do. It seems clear that there was a very deeply convincing and moving experience: so moving and convincing that it changed all these people’s lives and has gone on changing the lives of people who try to understand it. And this was undoubtedly an experience of relationship: a personal relationship with Jesus which was renewed and recreated.
BREWER: This is the sort of question that really underlies a good deal of the problem: the question of the nature of the evidence for the Resurrection. It is clear that St. John’s Gospel is different from the other three, though the other three have minor differences. St. John’s Gospel is much more concrete even than the others about the physical reality of the risen Christ. But from what you said you appear to deny the physical reality of the risen Christ. I wonder what you think really happened.
LAMPE: I think the last part of your question is almost impossible to answer: ‘what really happened?’ That’s because here, you see, we come back to Dr. Gowenlock’s point about the subjective and objective aspects of the event. The people from whom the tradition originated were absolutely convinced that there was an encounter, which they hadn’t dreamed up for themselves, between the objective presence of Christ, ‘outside’ themselves, and their own selves. That happened. I think you have got exceedingly strong historical evidence for that, evidence which is very early indeed because the tradition had come to Paul himself from the first Christians. He actually mentions names, and appeals to the witness of people still alive who had had that experience. Above all, what impresses me is the experience of Paul himself:, which we have got at first hand. He couldn’t say much about it. I don’t think he could describe what happened; but he knew that somehow or other he had met the Lord.
BREWER: Is St. John’s Gospel any help in this, do you think? In the way he talks about the grave-clothes. You remember it says the head cloth was in one place . . .
LAMPE: Yes. I was just going to question your remark about the Fourth Gospel being much more concrete than the others about the physical reality of the risen Christ. I don’t think that this Gospel simply stresses the physical aspect of the Resurrection, as such. I think there’s a steady build-up of the tradition of the empty tomb through the Synoptic Gospels. But when you get to the Fourth Gospel I am always impressed by the way in which, although it seems to be literalistic, yet when it makes us look at the arrangement of the grave clothes, to which you referred, it doesn’t suggest at all that there is a body which has emerged: in such a way, I mean, that if Pontius Pilate had happened to be walking past the garden at the right time he would have seen it happen. I don’t think the Fourth Gospel thinks like that. In its description of the arrangement of the grave clothes it suggests that the physical body has simply gone. Then, I think, this Gospel goes on to lead the reader beyond the point where one is concerned with the physical body of Christ; and in the story of Thomas it shows that faith is not to be established by sight; that you have got to look beyond any objective truth of the kind which might be established by visible, tangible, corporeal manifestations: to look beyond that to something different. And I think the something different is the kind of experience Paul speaks of.
MAYFIELD: If we have got to look beyond the objective proof to some experience, many people would ask, ‘Is there any objective proof in the first place?’ This is the stumbling block. Is there any objective proof or isn’t there? And if we can’t have an objective proof, are we not in the position of having to say that the Resurrection is null and void and the life of Jesus Christ was a hopeless failure?
LAMPE: No. I’m sure we aren’t.
MONKHOUSE: Could we consider it from another angle, not looking so much at St. Paul’s experience, which might have been hallucination, but looking at it from the point of view of the Church, which is the only objective verifiable result of the Resurrection? While maintaining a reverent agnosticism about what happened physically, can we not look on the Resurrection as the birth of the Church and the continuation of its life through the ages?
LAMPE: Yes, certainly. I very largely agree with you, Mrs. Monkhouse. I think the great objective proof, if you can talk in those terms (and I’m not sure if you really can) -- the nearest, at any rate, that you can get to objective proof of the Resurrection -- is the birth of the Christian Church, this community of people who live by faith in the living Lord, and the continuity of that community down the ages in that same faith. I think that’s the tangible thing that you’ve got. But I wouldn’t go all the way with you, because the existence of the Church itself depends, doesn’t it? on the testimony of certain people like Paul and like the others before him (Peter and the rest) whom he points to as original witnesses on the basis of whose testimony the Church itself started. So I think there is a little difference between us here. For I don’t think that the truth is simply that the Church is the Resurrection. I think the Church represents a kind of gathering up of an experience of Christ as the living Lord, and that this begins with certain people who did in fact have this direct and immediate experience of a quite shattering kind.
STRAWSON: This morning, Professor Lampe, you said, ‘As far as human nature is concerned, when you’re dead, you’re dead’. Now what I want to know is, What other sort of nature is there beside human nature, and how does this connect with the age-old Christian belief that there is a personal destiny, a continuity of some kind between this life and the life hereafter? If as far as human nature is concerned we are dead, then what nature survives, if any?
LAMPE: Well, I will tell you what I was trying to say this morning. I don’t know how effectively it was said, but what I was driving at was this. I believe that when we come face to face with the prospect of death there is nothing in ourselves and nothing built into ourselves which we can trust in. When we come face to face with death I don’t think we can say to ourselves, as it were: ‘Well, all right. This body is going to dissolve, but I am confident that somewhere in me there is a sort of built-in "me", a soul or what have you which is inherently immortal. So I can put my trust in that and I know that come what may I am going to survive in some way.’ I don’t believe that. I believe that when we come face to face with death we are face to face with annihilation, so far as we are concerned. There is nothing in us to give us hope or confidence. Our confidence and hope seem to me to rest entirely and solely in God. That is what I think the Easter message is about. It is about God’s personal relationship with us, his love and care for us, surviving death. I believe that this relationship that we have with God, which is all his doing and is due entirely to his initiative (for it is God taking hold of us and making us his Own), is stronger than death because God is eternal and unchanging. I believe that this is what is demonstrated at Easter.
GOWENLOCK: You are saying, then, that the relationship which Jesus had with his disciples survived the physical death of Jesus, and you are now saying, too, that our relationship of faith and trust in God survives, or can survive our death through what he does.
LAMPE: That’s what I believe, yes. And I believe it, I think it is true to say, against all ordinary human probability. I think it is a matter of sheer faith in God, and I find that faith justified for me by the experience of those first Christians and by the continuing experience of the Church that relationship with God through Jesus survived his death.
STRAWSON: But is this relationship only for people in the Church, or is everyone in some sense in a relationship with God?
LAMPE: Everyone is in some sense in a relationship with God. They must be, mustn’t they, if one gives the kind of meaning to the word ‘God’ that I think all of us would want to give?
STRAWSON: So we are all going to heaven?
LAMPE: I don’t know about that at all. Who can say? I shouldn’t want to put it in quite those terms, anyway -- though I should find it very difficult to believe in God if I didn’t believe also that his care extends to all his creatures.
BREWER: But isn’t this completely diluting the Church and dissolving the Church into all the rest of humanity?
LAMPE: No. I think there are two questions here which are getting rather confused. One is: ‘Is everybody in some sort of relationship with God?’ That is what Dr Strawson asked me. Yes, of course; because otherwise God would surely not be God. The other is: ‘Is there a more limited number of people who are in a particular relationship to God through their acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and through their recognition that, because of that relationship, they are sons of God?’ Yes, there is.
MONKHOUSE: I wonder, Professor Lampe, if you could tell us anything about the relevance of the Resurrection to the present day. Humanists and Christians both try to do the best they can for people in the world, and these good works are surely good in themselves. Does the Resurrection help us at all to understand the difference?
LAMPE: I am sure that humanists and Christians do the same good works, works which are of equal value as such. I also believe that the Easter message of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ provides a new context or dimension in which the Christian can set this doing of good works. It puts our relationship to other people on a different footing by placing it in the perspective of relationship to God. This perspective extends beyond the limit to which the humanist can follow, because faith in the living Christ transcends death. But, of course, if you ask me precisely how this relationship to God survives death, that is, how we shall be recreated in a continuing relationship with God on the other side of death, one simply cannot answer.