It’s alive! It’s alive! … Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!1
The words of Victor Frankenstein highlight our universal fascination with life after death. The notion has been both mocked and sought after in ancient and modern times. It has been ridiculed as foolish hopefulness or sci-fi fantasy. But it has also been the underlying promise in health products and miracle powders. The Netflix series Altered Carbon looks forward to a future where our consciences can be downloaded into empty human bodies. Many dream of a Transhumanism utopia of the future where eternal life exists without the need to pass through death. The death of death. In the popular culture, from Frankenstein to Altered Carbon, we have seen something of a microcosm of the overall human wrestling with eternity: both revulsion and attraction, fear and promise.
If God is real and good and created us for far more and better than life that abruptly terminates in death, then that desire within us to keep going—that desire that feels like, for some reason, we were meant to keep going and should keep going—is not there by mere coincidence or accident of history, but instead by God’s design. And when we reject this as a child’s wish, we may not realize we are actually settling for the brokenness of the cosmos, believing that we were created by nothing, for nothing.
But is this simply just a child’s wish clung to in the dark? First, logically speaking, even if someone did wish for resurrection to be possible, that would not mean that resurrection is false, any more than wishing for car safety to be true means seatbelts, airbags, and crumple zones are figments of our imagination. Second, even if there is a desire to live forever, resurrection is far from being an obvious choice for overcoming our mortality. Indeed, a word on the uniqueness of resurrection will show how, even if people did wish to live forever, resurrection was not an obvious or common answer. This is perhaps why today, even among Christians whose Scripture describes something wholly very different, there is widespread belief in a disembodied and other-worldly afterlife. Nonetheless, even if someone did wish for resurrection to be real and true, we can’t overlook the fact that sometimes wishes do come true.
Jesus the copycat?
A recent trend has seen critics trying to discredit Christianity on terms of originality and uniqueness alone. In our modern world where a unique, personal self-expression is what gives us meaning, the worst thing that could happen to someone is to be exposed as derivative—a copycat. You can read more about this in my article on the historical Jesus, but for now a small summary may suffice.
Those with a careful eye to historical detail note that many of the similarities between the gospel and the stories of other cultures—especially the alleged stories of “dying and rising gods”—are vastly different. To charge that these similarities must show some sort of ancestral familiarity is really to strain credulity and may have more to do with what one wants to be true than with what is. The truth is that the “dying and rising gods” motif is rarely clear; most academics in the relevant fields do not believe there are any clear accounts that predate Christianity. Of those that do exist, they are linked to vegetation cycles and have nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins. 2 There is also no sign of causal connection between them and the depiction of Christ’s resurrection. In regard to the “New Atheists”3 and others claiming that Jesus was copied from earlier pagan myths and religions, New Testament scholar Gary Habermas relays the overwhelming rejection of such ideas from even the most skeptical scholars who are actually trained in these areas of study:
The real oddity about this charge is the very real disconnect between popular skeptical critiques and treatments by equally skeptical specialists in the relevant fields. Seemingly a large percentage of the former adopt these complaints about parallel religions as if they are simply accepted by everyone except Christians, who apparently have their heads stuck in the sand. However, while the scholarly skeptics may occasionally note this or that minor similarity, they very rarely charge that early Christianity derived its resurrection teachings from prior religions.”4
Habermas goes on to explain many of the challenges for those who wish to consider Jesus an imitation of another dying and rising god: first, the notion these stories were rampant is dismissed by scholars now; second, the pagan stories are of mythical figures with teachings antithetical to Christ’s; and third, these “similar” stories had almost no influence in Jesus’s Palestine. More strongly, Habermas adds that alleged similarities with Buddha or Krishna come centuries after Jesus’s day, that no other major religious figures were crucified, and that “it cannot be demonstrated that there is even a single pagan resurrection account prior to Jesus, whether mythological or historical.”5
Beyond this myth of the dying and rising god, as New Testament scholar NT Wright has pointed out, ancient paganism viewed any concept of resurrection as foolish and unrealistic, when they thought of it at all (which was not very often). “Indeed,” Wright explains, “whenever the question of bodily resurrection is raised in the ancient world the answer is negative. Homer does not imagine that there is a way back; Plato does not suppose anyone in their right mind would want one. There may or may not be various forms of life after death, but the one thing there isn’t is resurrection: the word anastasis [Greek for “resurrection”] refers to something that everybody knows doesn’t happen.”6 Elsewhere, he explains one of the reasons why the resurrection was such a stumbling block in its ancient context, which it should not have been if everyone thought it happened all the time anyway: “The immediate conclusion is clear. Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false. Many believed that the dead were non-existent; outside Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection.”7
Interestingly, even though the Jewish people never went the direction of the Jesus revolution, the fundamental elements of the salvation narrative (from sacrificial death to resurrection victory) are already contained in the Old Testament and point forward to a more robust realization in the future. However, as Paul Barnett explained, this doesn’t mean that Jews weren’t also taken off guard:
Jews were then expecting resurrection, but it would happen at the end of history and it would involve every person who had ever died. Thomas’s skepticism about resurrection reports was probably a typical reaction. To assert that one person had been raised permanently that day would be as unimaginable and unacceptable as announcing to World Cup soccer fans at halftime that the game was over and that there would be no second half.”8
Indeed, many Jewish people today still look forward to a bodily resurrection either during or after the messiah comes. There were also themes in which the coming shepherd-king would somehow be both God and man (Ezekiel 34), and texts like Genesis 18, Psalms 110, and Proverbs 8 (among others) had led to some speculation in Second Temple Judaism about the exact nature by which God was “one.” Previously, one may have heard the argument that God becoming man was so foreign to Judaism 9 that it must have come from some another religion’s teachings; now, however, some scholars have shown that the building blocks were already in place, as Christians have believed since the time of Christ. 10 The point is, the early Christians didn’t need to borrow from pagan myths. What would be the point? They had all they needed in their own scriptures.
Paradox(es) of Grand Proportion
How strange this notion of resurrection appears is not at all lost on me. Trust me, I’ve been there. I was once an arch skeptic and atheist. The idea of a God who became man, then died, then was resurrected sounded absolutely bonkers—until it didn’t. In my quest to prove it a fallacious claim, I was confronted with something I did not expect to see. Christianity asks us to believe in what we’ve been conditioned to disbelieving. It reverses and turns upside down all we thought clear about the world, like the notion that dead animals stay dead. Edward T. Oakes describes the paradoxical nature of these beliefs well and succinctly: “And so if theology is ultimately faith seeking understanding, what is faith called upon to understand? Nothing less than this: an infinite God who is a finite man, a virgin who is a mother, a God who dies, a dead man who lives, a baby born into the very world it made, a prince who is a pauper, in short, Infinity dwindled to infancy.”11But one thing at a time.
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This is part 1 of the Resurrection Series. You can read part 2 here.
All Posts in this Series
- Frankenstein, directed by James Whale (Universal Pictures, 1931), 71 min.
- Michael Licona in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 160-61.
- A term used to describe people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, among others, who have taken their disagreements with religion beyond what most atheists of the past did. Whereas past atheists saw that religion could sometimes be a good for the world, or that there was some helpful, perhaps even necessary utility of believing in a divine Lawmaker and Judge, New Atheists believe that religion is decidedly harmful to the world, morally, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually. Religion is the root of all evil in this rendering.
- Gary Habermas, “Tracing Jesus’ Resurrection to Its Earliest Eyewitness Accounts,” in William Lane Craig and Chad Meiester (eds.), God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 213.
- NT Wright, “Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins,” in Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (eds.), Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007), 123. This excerpt was originally published in Gregorianum, 2002, 83/4, 615–635.
- NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 34.
- Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 120.
- “Second Temple Judaism” refers to the time between the construction of the second temple in 515 BC, and its destruction by Rome in AD 70, a span of about 600 years including the time period of relative “silence” between the Old and New Testaments. This period has been increasingly studied by scholars seeking to understand the world in which the New Testament was written in the hopes that we can gain a better understanding of the New Testament writings themselves.
- See, for instance, Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019) and Christopher Seitz’ The Elder Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018).
- Edward T. Oakes, SJ, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 6.