This third excerpt from John Polkinghorne’s chapter on “Motivated Belief” is about Jesus. He also sets readers up for a subsequent discussion of the Resurrection (which I will present in the next column), with a brief consideration of what he calls “the theological problem of miracle” (my italics). Just one caveat: everything he talks about in this excerpt—and in the next one about the Resurrection—has been discussed at great length by many authors for many, many years. No one, not even a writer as eloquent and learned as Polkinghorne, can adequately summarize the complexity and wide range of that conversation in just a few pages. Polkinghorne himself has said more about this general topic elsewhere, and others have said a great deal more about it. These excerpts should be understood simply as short, accessible introductions to the attitudes and instincts of a “bottom-up thinker” on this crucial topic.
My editorial policy for these excerpts is explained at the bottom of this post.
Motivated Belief (part 3)
Jesus had a comparatively short public ministry, but it had enormous local impact, drawing crowds who were anxious to hear his words and who often sought the healing ministry that he exercised. Then, on a last visit to Jerusalem, it all seemed to fall apart. The authorities, civil (Roman) and religious (Jewish) acting together, moved in to avoid trouble. Jesus was arrested and hastily executed, suffering the painful and shameful fate of crucifixion, the kind of death reserved for slaves and rebels and seen by pious Jews as being a sign of God’s rejection (“any one hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” Deuteronomy 21:23). Except for a few staunch women, his followers ran away, overcome by despair and disappointment. From the place of execution there came the cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).
On the face of it, Jesus’s death seems a moment of pathetic failure, the final disillusionment of the followers of a rejected man whose grand pretensions had suddenly and definitively been found wanting. If that really was the end of the story of Jesus, I believe that most of us would never have heard of him. At best he would have seemed to be no better than other first-century messianic pretenders whose causes also finally failed. So the first remarkable thing about Jesus is that he is known to all of us. We need to look closer into the New Testament to find out why, against all reasonable expectation, his story continued beyond his death.
Amid the variety of its component writings, there are certain common themes that recur in the New Testament. Three of the most important themes are:
(1) All the [biblical] writers believe that the story of Jesus continued because God raised him from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. We shall have to pay further attention to this extraordinary claim, but the existence of the New Testament, and the character of its contents, are unintelligible without the recognition that this is what its writers are affirming.
(2) In wrestling with what they believe to be their experience of the risen Christ, the writers are driven, in their different ways, to speak of Jesus in a quite extraordinary manner. They know that he was a man living in Palestine in their own times, yet in the accounts they give they often seem driven to employ not only obvious human categories, but also to use language that is only appropriate to deity. The Pauline epistles are probably of the earliest Christian writings known to us, certainly antedating the gospels. Already Jesus of Nazareth is being referred to in remarkable terms. Paul begins almost all his letters with some such phrase as “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; and so on). Not only is Jesus being bracketed with God in a manner that would, for example, have been inappropriate for a pious Jew to use in relation to Moses, the servant of God, but he is also accorded the title “Lord.” While this word (kyrios) had a widespread secular usage amounting to no more than politeness of address, its Hebrew counterpart, adonai, also had a special Jewish religious usage as an acceptable circumlocution in place of the unutterable divine name, YHWH, a particular significance which the religious context of Paul’s greeting could scarcely fail to invoke. The gospel of John portrays Jesus as claiming unity with God (John 10:30, words uttered in a situation where the hostile crowd are shown as having no difficulty in detecting what they see as the blasphemous implication), and it assigns to Jesus the use of images (the bread of life, the true vine, and so on) which carry implications of more than human status. The Writer to the Hebrews proclaims that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things and through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:2). Examples could easily be multiplied.
It is clear that when it comes to Jesus, the New Testament writers cannot rest content with the standard Jewish repertoire for speaking of people with special gifts from God—the categories of prophet, teacher, healer—but, against all their instincts as monotheistic Jews, they are driven to use divine-sounding language about him. Remember that they are referring to a near contemporary, and not to some shadowy figure of a legendary past. The New Testament very seldom out and out calls Jesus God (the confession of Thomas in John 20:28 is perhaps the clearest example), but its pages manifest a continual tension between the use of human and divine manners of speaking about him. The problem thus posed is unresolved in the New Testament itself, but succeeding Christian generations had to address it and eventually the Church was led to the distinctive and extraordinary doctrinal concept of the incarnation, the affirmation of the presence of deity in the life of this first-century Jew, who truly was the Son of God.
(3) Coupled with this recourse to divine language, and fuelling its fire, was a firm conviction among those first-generation Christians that the risen Christ had brought into their lives a new and transforming experience of saving power. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I believe that an adequate Christology (a true understanding of the nature of Jesus) must satisfy the criterion of affording an adequate soteriology (a true understanding of the power of Christ in human lives, to which the Church has continued to give its testimony down through the centuries). The doctrine of the incarnation implies that in the Word made flesh a unique bridge was established between the created life of humanity and the uncreated life of God, and in this meeting of divine power and human nature there lies a way of understanding the fulfillment of the soteriological criterion.
These three lines of testimony need to be presented for consideration by anyone seeking to understand the significance that Jesus of Nazareth holds for Christian belief. In the context of science the discussion of the persuasiveness of that belief cannot be conducted satisfactorily without a detailed engagement with these claims. The task is indispensable to honest enquiry and it is made all the more important today by the fact that many people seem to have so little knowledge of what the New Testament actually says.
The pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn is clearly the resurrection. If in fact he was raised from the dead to a new and unending life of glory, then it is indeed credible that he has an altogether unique status and role in salvation history. If, sadly, his life ended in failure and his body was left to molder in the grave, then he seems at best little different from many other prophetic figures who have suffered martyrdom for holding fast to the integrity of their beliefs. The quest for motivated Christian faith has to begin by focusing on the question of the resurrection. I believe that it would be a serious apologetic mistake if Christian theology thought that operating in the context of science should somehow discourage it from laying proper emphasis on the essential centrality of Christ’s resurrection, however counterintuitive that belief may seem in the light of mundane expectation.
As a preliminary one must first face the general issue of miracle. It was as clear in the first century as it is today, that it is wholly contrary to any reasonable natural expectation that a man should be resurrected within history. While there were parties in first-century Judaism which expected a general resurrection at the end of history [for example, the Pharisees], none expected the resurrection of a specific person to take place within history, even if there was some hope that a prophetic figure, such as Elijah, might have been stored up in heaven in order to be returned for a further spell of earthly life at some critical juncture in Jewish history. It is important here to recognize the distinction between resuscitation and resurrection. The former applies to someone like Lazarus, who is portrayed in John’s gospel as being called out of the tomb after an apparent death (John 11), but who was undoubtedly expected by all to die again in due course. Resuscitation is only a temporary reprieve from mortality. Resurrection, on the other hand, implies a transition from this mortal life to a new form of glorified life, lived without end in the presence of God. Resurrection is a permanent victory over mortality. The possibility of resurrection lies wholly outside the context of scientific explanation. If the resurrection of Jesus happened, it could only have been through a special exercise of divine power. In short, resurrection is, in the strict sense of the word, a miracle.
The real problem of belief in miracle is properly a theological issue, not a scientific one, since claims of unique historical occurrences lie outside science’s competence to adjudicate. All it can do is reinforce the commonsense recognition that something like a resurrection does not usually happen. The real challenge to belief in miracle lies elsewhere. It is theologically inconceivable that God should act capriciously as a kind of celestial conjurer, doing a turn today that God did not think of doing yesterday and won’t be bothered to do tomorrow. The theological problem of miracle is that of discerning divine consistency in the face of a claim of radically novel action. How that consistency is understood depends upon a proper understanding of what is involved in speaking of God in personal terms. I have already said that divine action is not to be assimilated to a kind of impersonal and unchanging process, similar to that which characterizes the law of gravity. If personal language is to mean anything when used about God, it must imply a divine freedom to respond in particular and different ways to particular and different situations, including even the rational possibility of unprecedented action in unprecedented circumstances.
Once again we encounter the unavoidable necessity of hermeneutic circularity. Of course, persons are not normally resurrected in history, but if there is something truly unique about Jesus (the Son of God), then his story could conceivably have included unique events. Equally, if he was resurrected, this was surely a sign that he indeed did have an altogether unique status. However, if he was just another prophet, then the story of his resurrection is likely to be no more than a touching legend. Both possibilities have to be considered. To believe in the resurrection rightly requires significant motivating evidence, a question to which we shall turn shortly, but its possibility should not be ruled out absolutely from the beginning, before even considering what evidence there might be for this counterintuitive belief. Moreover, it is important to note that the Christian understanding of Christ’s resurrection is that it occurred within history as the unique seed event from which a resurrected destiny for all people will come about beyond history (“for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”; 1 Corinthians 15:22). In this sense, what Christian theology sees as unique about the resurrection is its timing, rather than its occurrence. Further consideration will be given to this point in the succeeding chapter.
[The succeeding chapter, which will not be part of this series, deals with eschatology. Polkinghorne’s reference in the penultimate sentence to the unique timing of the resurrection can be fleshed out by quoting from the chapter on eschatology: “The eschatological destinies of human beings and of the whole universe lie together in the world of God’s new creation. <SNIP> In Christian thinking, the seed event from which this new creation has already begun to grow is the resurrection of Christ. His tomb was empty because the matter of his corpse had been transmuted into the ‘matter’ of the new creation, to become his risen and glorified body in which he appeared to the first witnesses.” In other words, the resurrected Jesus is “the first fruits of them that sleep,” in the glorious words of 1 Corinthians 15:20.]
In about two weeks, we will see how Polkinghorne brings his search for “motivated belief” to bear on the biblical narratives about the Resurrection.
References and Credits
Excerpts from John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009), copyright Yale University Press, are reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.
Most of the editing for these excerpts involves breaking longer paragraphs into multiple parts, altering the spelling and punctuation from British to American, removing the odd sentence or two—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] at the appropriate point(s)—and sometimes inserting annotations where warranted [also enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information. Polkinghorne uses footnotes a bit sparingly, and I usually find another way to include that information if it’s important for our readers.