Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Can we prove the resurrection?

Can we ever “prove” the resurrection of Jesus, either historically (e.g. Pannenberg, N. T. Wright) or probabilistically (e.g. Richard Swinburne) or scientifically (e.g. various nutty apologists)? In my view, such “proof” is neither possible nor desirable. For resurrection is not a natural or historical possibility, but it is precisely a contradiction of the whole order of the possible. It is not one event alongside other events within world-history, but it is the end and boundary of history as such.

I’m not talking here, of course, about a Newtonian notion that the world is a closed causal system (so that “divine intervention” is impossible by definition). Instead, my point is simply that the resurrection must be understood theologically, as the eschatological act of God in which the existing structures of the world are torn open and something wholly new is brought into being.

Since the resurrection contradicts the very structures of reality, it could be called an impossible event – impossible in the strictest sense of the word! It is not a “historical” event, since it punctures the linearity of history and confronts history with its own shattering “end.” In short, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is both the dissolution of the world and the startling creation (ex nihilo?) of a new cosmos. It is the end and the beginning, the last and the first.

All this means that the concept of “resurrection” can never be introduced as the most likely explanation for any historical data. To introduce the resurrection in this way is simply to forget the very meaning of “resurrection”. All such apologetic strategies aim to reduce the resurrection to one particular possibility within the structures of being and history – so that the resurrection is “proved” only by first being rendered innocuous.

We might seek to prove historically that the tomb of Jesus was found empty, and that the disciples had certain experiences after Jesus’ death. Such historical proofs have their own significance – but they are in no sense proofs of the resurrection. Similarly, it’s worth remembering that the early Christians narrated stories of the empty tomb and of the appearances without once attempting to narrate the event of resurrection itself. (Contrast this to the final scene of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, where the camera gives us direct “objective” access to the event – and in this very “objectivity,” the event is rendered meaningless, absurd, and godless. At precisely this point of the film, it becomes clear that Gibson’s Christ is in fact a pagan figure, and that this figure is encountered in the objectivity of voyeurism rather than in the subjectivity of faith.)

When the early Christians wanted to speak of the resurrection, they realised that the event can be named only by speaking (or stammering) of God – after all, as Karl Barth has put it, the word “resurrection” is really just a paraphrase of the word “God.”


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