Chapter 11: The Crucial Issue

God Our Contemporary
by J.B. Phillips

Chapter 11: The Crucial Issue

The Resurrection of Jesus is plainly the crux of the Christian Faith. I must therefore remind the reader of some important points in the issue.

1. Those who have taken the trouble to study the evidence closely and exhaustively have frequently reached the conclusion that the events described, somewhat disjointedly in the gospel narratives, and in I Corinthians 15, did in fact take place. One famous example of a trained mind seeking the truth behind the Resurrection stories is that of Mr. Frank Morison, whose thoroughgoing attempt to disprove the Resurrection ended in his own conviction that Jesus really rose from the dead. His well known book Who Moved the Stone? (Zondervan) is valuable and lasting evidence of the result of honest inquiry. But Mr. Morison is not the only first-class mind to come to accept the truth of the objective Resurrection of Christ. The trouble is that so many have prejudged the issue. They have already decided that the whole story may be dismissed as mass hallucination, for example, and they never give their serious adult critical attention to this, the most significant of all human events.

2. Those who would explain away the Resurrection of Jesus by saying that he never really died, but revived in the cold of the tomb, leave themselves with insuperable difficulties. The practical impossibility of removing a body from a sealed rock-tomb guarded by Roman soldiers, conveying it to a place of safety and recovery, and re-establishing the resuscitated body as the Leader who has "risen from the dead" seems to me to present far more difficulties than does belief in the recorded story. Is it really possible to believe that the young Church as it moved into action was founded upon a swindle? Can it be seriously maintained that a dispirited group of disillusioned disciples were permanently transformed into a close-knit fellowship of spiritually resilient heroes by a concocted story?

I have grown convinced that more often than not it is sheer ignorance, sheer lack of study of the actual records, which makes clever as well as foolish men say, "Well, of course, he was a great teacher, but I cannot accept the claim that he was divine." For such a remark completely fails to account for the joyful certainty, courage, confidence and tenacity exhibited by the young Church. Unless we are prepared to deny the historical evidence altogether, all these qualities spring from one unforgettable demonstration -- that after a public execution Jesus Christ rose again from the dead. To the early Church this well attested fact proved his claims to the hilt.

3. According to the records the appearances of Jesus were extraordinarily unlike the apparitions seen by disordered minds. There was no atmosphere of expectancy or even of hope, and several times his sudden appearance struck his followers not with reassurance and joy but with a very natural terror. (Who among us could bear with equanimity the experience of watching our greatest friend publicly executed on Friday and then of seeing and hearing him alive and well on the following Sunday?) On one occasion at least (Luke 24:41) Jesus insists on the disciples’ proving to themselves that he is not a ghost or an apparition. "Feel me and see," he said, "ghosts don’t have flesh and bones as you can see that I have." And when their minds still could not react properly to what had in fact happened he asked for food -- for everyone knows ghosts don’t eat! We can imagine their frantic dash to the shelf for food, and all that they can find is a piece of cooked fish and part of a honeycomb. It is not until he has begun to eat this strange meal of fish and honey before their eyes that they realize that he is unquestionably alive -- that he has conquered death as he had said that he would.

4. It is worth remembering that behind our ostensible reasons for believing or not believing a thing there are often unconscious reasons which go very deep. There are undoubtedly some who know intuitively how much depends upon the historic truth of the Resurrection. Should they once admit it to be true that this earth has been visited by the Creator, then the standards and values of the man who was also God will inevitably challenge and judge their lives. To some minds this must on no account be allowed to happen, and every ingenious argument and every literary resource must be employed to avoid the unwelcome conclusion.

5. Since most people have not studied the New Testament with their adult minds, and probably have not read it as a whole for many years, they are only too ready to accept someone else’s disparagement of the Christian position without going to the trouble of examining the relevant documents for themselves. I think I may claim to know these records pretty well after many years spent in translating them into modern English. And I will say simply that in consequence I have become a hundred times more convinced of their authenticity than when I began the work. After even a moderate familiarity with these brief and sometimes almost naïvely simple documents, it becomes impossible to dissociate Jesus the ethical teacher from Jesus who claimed to reveal the Character of God, who quite naturally forgave sins and who spoke with authority about human life, death and the world beyond death. We may, if you wish, allow that he was sometimes imperfectly reported, and it is certain that we have a very inadequate "coverage" of the most important life the world has ever seen, but the more one studies these brief and incomplete records, the more unthinkable it becomes that they should be mere human fabrications.

For the New Testament as a whole speaks with a new certainty. God is no longer the distant unknowable Mystery; his Nature and Character have been revealed through a man, Jesus Christ. It is now known for certain that God’s attitude toward mankind is one of unremitting love. The Master Plan which exists beneath the superficial activities of human beings is now becoming intelligible to them. The reconciliation between the holiness and perfection of God and the selfishness and evil of men has been unforgettably demonstrated. Death, the old dark bogey, has been exposed and resoundingly defeated. And as if this were not enough Good News for human beings to accept, they know now, by the acted parable of the Ascension of Christ, that God and man are eternally inseparable. Humanity is assured of its entry into the timeless life of God. A new dignity has been conferred upon the whole human race for God himself has become a man. New exciting possibilities appear as men begin to understand that the purpose of God’s descent to the human level is to enable them to rise and live as sons of God. And what is more, he is prepared to enter human personalities by his own Spirit to make such dreams come true. This temporary life is seen to be no more than the training school for a purpose that points to dimensions beyond the confines of time and space. The center of gravity of the new Faith is not in present earthly activity but in a person and purpose far transcending it.

If Christianity today has degenerated in some quarters into a dull and spiritless moral code, that must not blind us to the tremendous fact upon which all Christian churches are founded. What could be more exciting than to know that the very feet of God have walked this earth of ours, that his authentic voice has spoken to men like ourselves? It is on this issue that we have to make up our minds and adjust our hearts. The Good News may have to be rescued from the encrustations of tradition, the confines of caution, and the dullness of familiarity, but it is still there! The historic fact remains, and we in the twentieth century, with a conception of God infinitely greater than that of any previous generation, may have to short-circuit the centuries and let the startling truth break over us afresh -- that we live on a visited planet.