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Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 4

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May 9, 2013 Tags: Christ & New Creation
Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 4
Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection (1467-68), Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This is the final excerpt from the chapter, “Motivated Belief,” from Theology in the Context of Science, by John Polkinghorne. The topic is the plausibility of the Resurrection narratives in the Bible: do we have sufficient reasons to believe that God raised the crucified, dead Jesus bodily from the grave? He also explores the significance of the Resurrection for theodicy and Christology. The chapter concludes with a short section about religious pluralism that takes us far afield from the main topic and is left for readers to explore on their own. Thus, our presentation of this chapter may seem to end abruptly.

My editorial policy for these excerpts is explained at the bottom of this post.

Motivated Belief (part 4)

So what evidence [for the bodily resurrection] could there be? I have already argued that something must have happened to continue the story of Jesus, and it seems to me that after that devastating arrest and execution, it must have been something much more than simply a return of nerve on the part of the disciples, coupled with a resolve to try to continue to recall the life and words of their Master. The New Testament sets out two lines of evidence in support of its much stronger claim. One of these is the sequence of stories relating to encounters with the risen Christ taking place after his death. The earliest such account available to us is the list of witnesses, most of them then still living, given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11. The letter itself was probably written some twenty to twenty-five years after the crucifixion, but its reference to what Paul himself “had received” (v. 3) seems naturally to imply that he is repeating what he had been taught following his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, which would take the quoted testimony back to within two or three years of the events themselves.

To get some feel of what these encounters with the risen Christ might have been like, one has to turn to the gospels. The appearance stories there related vary in their detail and location, but there is a common theme, differently expressed in the different stories but persistently present, namely that initially it was difficult to recognize who it was who had been encountered. Mary Magdalene at first supposes the risen Jesus to be the gardener (John 20:15); the couple on the road to Emmaus are unaware who their companion is until the final moment of parting (Luke 24:16); Matthew (28:17) even frankly admits that on a Galilean hillside some of the crowd doubted it was him; and so on. Most of the stories focus on a disclosure moment when it suddenly becomes apparent, against all expectation, that it is Jesus who is there. This seems a most unlikely feature to recur if the stories were just a bunch of tales, variously made up by various people in various places and for various purposes.

I believe that this difficulty of recognition is a genuine historical reminiscence of what those encounters were actually like, and I take their evidence correspondingly seriously. Because the context of science lays emphasis on human embodiment, I believe that the true humanity of the risen Christ implies that these appearances would not have been some form of shared visionary experience, but they involved a corporeal presence, though necessarily of a transformed kind, as Christ’s power of sudden appearance and disappearance makes clear.

Giambattista Cima da Conegliano, The Incredulity of St Thomas (c. 1505),
detail, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

The second line of evidence presented relates to the discovery of the empty tomb. Here there is a good deal of similarity between the accounts in all the four gospels, even if there are minor discrepancies about such details as the exact time of early morning when the discovery was made and what were the exact names of the women involved. Such variations are not surprising in an account which had an oral history before attaining its various written forms. It is striking that the first reaction reported of the women is fear. The empty tomb is not treated as being self-explanatory, an instant knockdown proof of resurrection. It needs interpretation. Here, as in the appearance stories, there is a notable absence of any facile triumphalism. Rather, there is a sense of awe and mystery at an unanticipated great act of God.

But was there actually a tomb? We know that the bodies of executed felons were frequently cast by the Romans into a common and anonymous grave, or even left to be eaten by wild animals. Yet it is also known from archaeological evidence that this was not an invariable practice, and the first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that his religion’s burial customs required proper interment on the day of death even for executed malefactors. The association of Jesus’s burial with the action of the otherwise unknown Joseph of Arimathea strengthens the case for belief in an identifiable tomb, since there seems to be no obvious reason to assign Joseph this honorable role unless he actually performed it. In subsequent controversies between Jews and Christians, which can be traced back into the first century, there is a common acceptance that there was a tomb, with the disagreement being whether it was empty because Jesus had risen or because the disciples had stolen the body in an act of deceit. Even more strongly one can say that there would have seemed to be no reason at all to associate the story of this astonishing discovery with women, considered unreliable witnesses in the ancient world, unless in fact they were the ones who were actually involved in making it.

These matters demand much more detailed discussion than it has been appropriate to lay out here. [Polkinghorne says more himself elsewhere, but perhaps the best treatment of the details is found in N. T. Wright’s book, cited below.] The New Testament testimony is certainly complex in its character. As is often the case with important historical issues, the available evidence is not such as must inevitably lead to a single conclusion with which all can be expected to concur without any question of dissent. In the particular case of the resurrection, all I have tried to do is briefly to indicate that there is important evidence to which the Christian believer can point in giving a positive answer to the question “What makes you think that the resurrection of Jesus is, in fact, the case?” I believe that all truth-seeking people should be willing to consider this evidence seriously.

I do not pretend that in the end all will turn out to weigh that evidence in the same way that I do. There are many less focused considerations that will influence judgment about so significant and counterintuitive a matter. Those with an unrevisable commitment to the sufficiency of a reductionist naturalism [i.e., the view that nothing ever happens apart from “natural” causes] will follow David Hume and simply refuse to countenance the possibility of the miraculous, whatever the alleged evidence. Those of us who are Christians will be influenced in our conclusions by what we affirm to be our contemporary experience of the hidden but real presence of the risen Christ, encountered in sacramental worship.

​Biblical scholar and theologian N. T. Wright (Source)

What I do claim is that Christian theology can be open and willing to accept the challenge to offer motivations for its beliefs, in the spirit that is so natural when that theology is being done in the context of science. In that context, detailed historical analysis of the kind that N. T. Wright gives in The Resurrection of the Son of God is much to be welcomed. [This is indeed a superb scholarly treatment for which no single chapter or blog post can possibly substitute. Readers with limited time to devote to this lengthy book might wish to begin with the chapter on “Easter and History,” pp. 685-718, but by all means delve into other parts of the book as time permits. Wright summarized some of his ideas here. He and Polkinghorne have very similar views on both resurrection and eschatology.] Some theologians seem more concerned with the conceptual motifs that they detect in the stories than with questions of historicity. In fact, both types of consideration are surely necessary. There has to be a metanarrative, a myth expressing theological significance, but if the doctrine of the incarnation truly fuses the power of a symbolic story with the power of a historically true story, then both these dimensions of significance have to be treated with integrity and respect. The Christian myth is claimed to be an enacted myth, and there is evidence to motivate that claim.

I believe that when the truth of Christianity is under consideration in the context of science, it is with these issues relating to the resurrection that the discussion needs to begin. Only when a case has been made for the belief that God was present in Jesus of Nazareth in a unique way does it then become possible adequately to attempt to enquire into the significance of his crucifixion. The doctrine of the incarnation implies that in the spectacle of that deserted figure hanging on the cross, God is seen to be more than just a compassionate spectator of the travail of creation, looking down upon it in pity from the invulnerability of heaven. If the incarnation is true, then God in Christ has truly been a fellow-participant in the suffering of the world, knowing it from the inside. The Christian God is the crucified God. [For more on this, see here and here.] In this profound insight, Christian faith meets the challenge of theodicy at the deep level that it demands.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning (ca. 1460), Philadelphia Museum of Art

A second Christian insight into the significance of Christ’s crucifixion has focused [on] the conviction that “he died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1Corinthans 15:3). The reconciliation of estranged humanity to God across the bridge of the incarnation joining the created to the divine, which brought about that experience of new life to which the New Testament writers testify, was a costly transaction involving the death of the Son of God. This has been the Church’s conviction from the earliest times, but no single and universally agreed upon theological theory, accounting for the full significance of what was going on in that great act of atonement, has come to be accepted in the Christian community. In a situation not without its parallels in science (for example in parts of nuclear physics and condensed matter physics), there have been many models of atonement (as various as the propitiation of an affronted God, a mythic victory over the Powers of darkness, and the exemplary force of sacrificial love, to mention only a few), but no comprehensive theory. Neither in science nor theology is failure to attain a fully articulated explanatory understanding a reason for denying the truth of the experience itself.

The approach that we have been following in seeking an evidence-motivated understanding of the significance of Jesus Christ is what the theologians call “Christology from below.” Not only is it the natural route to follow in the context of science, but it is also one that can be seen a posteriori to be theologically appropriate in the light of the doctrine of the incarnation. If God indeed acted to make known the divine nature most clearly and accessibly through the human life of the incarnate Son of God, then the historical study of that life must be a matter of the greatest importance. Of course, there has been endless argument concerning how accessible the historical Jesus can actually be to modern study. Some think that the New Testament records are so shaped and influenced by the ideas and experiences of the earliest Christians that one can hardly penetrate beyond them to gain access to the one of whom they claim to speak. According to this view, it is only the “Christ of faith,” preached in the initial Christian communities, who can be known to us today. I resist so sharp a separation between the life of Jesus and the preached faith that life inspired.

Of course there has been continual and developing reflection upon Jesus from the first generation of his followers until today, and knowledge of the resurrection must have shed new and clearer light on matters that had been obscure before. The believer can see this process as having been guided by the Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost. Yet nothing comes of nothing, and the origin of the astonishing character of the writings of the New Testament and the testimonies of the early Church must surely lie, where the witnesses allege it to lie, in the unique character of Jesus of Nazareth himself. The idea that he was but a shadowy figure and that all the vibrant quality of the New Testament writings originates in his followers seems to me frankly unbelievable. I think that careful and scrupulous study of the New Testament enables one to discern the shape of a striking and original character, in whose words and deeds lie the origin of the Christian phenomenon, and who eludes classification in simply conventional religious categories, such as prophet, teacher, or healer. There has undoubtedly been development of Christological doctrine, but I do not think that there has been free invention of doctrine. This is not the place to attempt to go into a detailed defense of that judgment, but I believe that it can be done. [Polkinghorne cites this, this, and this.]

In addition to a Christology from below, theologians can pursue also a Christology from above. Its method is not abduction from the deposits of history, but conceptual exploration of what it might mean to believe that “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). Recourse to this kind of thinking grew over the centuries as the Church struggled to find the most philosophically satisfactory understanding and exposition of its core beliefs. In the process, the technical vocabulary of Greek thought was called upon, and partly transformed to make it as fit as possible for the purpose in hand. Terms such as hypostasis (individual reality) and ousia (generic substance) were pressed into theological service. In fact the distinction in meaning between these two Greek words was a fruit of these theological struggles, for they had previously been treated as synonyms. Some of this sometimes precarious discourse may have been overbold in its estimate of the extent to which finite human thought can articulate infinite mystery, but it seemed that the attempt had to be made. If theological argument from above is to find a cousinly parallel in the context of science, it lies in those creative leaps of intellectual imagination of the kind that enabled Newton to conceive of universal gravity or Einstein to write down the equations of general relativity. Even the most bold of theological speculations scarcely exceed in daring the conjectures of the string theorists.

Looking Ahead

When I return in a couple of weeks, we will launch into excerpts from the title chapter in Polkinghorne’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science. In the meantime we have plenty to discuss. Those acquainted with N. T. Wright’s book are especially encouraged to bring his ideas more fully into this conversation about motivated belief.

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.

Editorial Policy

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.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Ted Davis - #80388

May 21st 2013

As I’ve indicated above, this particular column appeared simultaneously with other activities that have prevented me from taking an active role in the comments for most of the past week, activities that continue through this week. The exchanges in which (especially) Lou Jost and Eddie have been involved are ones I would normally have participated in, but unfortunately it hasn’t been possible except for the isolated comment or two written in a rare free moment.

Even if I had been able to be more involved, however, the most basic problem would still be with us: Wright presents his analysis of the biblical texts bearing on The Resurrection of the Son of God in 738 pages. Often several paragraphs are devoted to a single sentence in the Bible, in some cases to just a single word whose meaning must be understood fully before his argument can proceed. In sort, while I can present an excerpt from Polkinghorne fairly in one column—which his publisher kindly allows us to do in his own words—no one could ever present many parts of Wright’s tightly formulated argument fairly in an equivalent amount of space, even if we had permission (we don’t) to quote 1500-2000 words at a time. There simply is no substitute for reading large parts of the book for oneself. Even if several readers were to take this suggestion today, it would still take a few weeks to digest it and to come back with summaries of his arguments that would actually do justice to his thoughts. Nor could this be done without giving many of the details—the sorts of things that Lou, Eddie, and others are discussing without having his book at hand, to see for themselves at length and in depth just how Wright treats the topics they have explored here. I ask only that readers not assume that my silence (for all of the reasons given here) means either that Wright has no replies to many (perhaps most) of the objections stated in these comments, or that Wright is some lightweight whose work can simply be ignored as inconsequential. Far from it, but readers will have to see for themselves. With my next column on a very different topic set to appear soon, I will have to leave things as they are, in an unsatisfactory jumble, except for one final comment (below) in which I will try once again to explain why the main idea of Wright’s book—which (again) just cannot be reduced to a good summary without omitting so many of the supporting details that the summary can only appear shallow and unconvincing, making it ipso facto a poor summary. Those who actually read the book (at least large parts of it) might perhaps understand, when I say that his powerful argument shortcuts the kinds of objections raised against it in many of the comments here, concerning the “spiritualization” of what Paul and the other New Testament authors all regarded as a physical event, namely the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a great miracle that cannot be explained away by reducing it to “visions.” I don’t think it’s possible fully to understand his claim without reading the book itself; nothing I say here is likely to change this.

Ted Davis - #80389

May 21st 2013

Now, then, for my last effort to state Wright’s overall approach. I begin with something from the preface: “it has become accepted within much New Testament scholarship that the earliest Christians did not think of Jesus as having been bodily raised from the dead; Paul is regularly cited as the chief witness for what people routinely call a more ‘spiritual’ point of view.” This is indeed the approach Lou has taken, and (as Wright indicates) there is much support for it in the literature. The whole point of Wright’s book is to turn that argument on its head, just as Darwin turned Paley on his head. Just as it took Darwin hundreds of pages to do that, likewise for Wright. Just as it doesn’t refute Darwin to keep going back to Paley, it doesn’t refute Wright to keep going back to those old arguments about a “spiritual” resurrection. As Wright says right after the previous quotation, “This [the ‘spiritual’ view] is so misleading (scholars do not like to say that their colleagues are plain wrong, but ‘misleading’ is of course our code for the same thing) and yet so widespread that it has taken quite a lot of digging to uproot the weed, and quite a lot of careful sowing to plan the seeds of what, I hope is the historically grounded alternative.”

 <big SNIP>

“My main concern here has been to lay out the large-scale argument which seems to me in urgent need of clear statement…. The shape of the argument is hardly novel, but the particular point of entry, namely the study of the way in which ‘resurrection,’ denied by pagans but affirmed by a good many Jews, was both reaffirmed and redefined by the early Christians, has not, I think, been followed like this before.”

Jumping to his introductory chapter, about 30 pages long and thus impossible to digest for readers, we find this: “I intend to challenge this dominant paradigm in each of its main constituent parts. In general terms, this view holds the following: (1) that the Jewish context provides only a fuzzy setting, in which ‘resurrection’ could mean a variety of different things; (2) that the earliest Christian writer, Paul, did not believe in bodily resurrection, but held a ‘more spiritual’ view; (3) that the earliest Christians believed, not in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, but in his exaltation/ascension/glorification, in his ‘going to heaven’ in some kind of special capacity, and that they came to use ‘resurrection’ language initially to denote that belief and only subsequently to speak of an empty tomb or of ‘seeing’ the risen Jesus; (4) that the resurrection stories in the gospels are late inventions designed to bolster up this second-stage belief; (5) that such ‘seeings’ of Jesus as may have taken place are best understood in terms of Paul’s conversion experience, which itself is to be explained as a ‘religious’ experience, internal to the subject rather than involving the seeing of any external reality, and that the early Christians underwent some kind of fantasy or hallucination; (6) that whatever happened to Jesus’ body (opinions differ as to whether it was even buried in the first place), it was not ‘resuscitated,’ and it was certainly not ‘raised from the dead’ in the sense that the gospel stories, read at face value, seem to require. … The negative burden of the present book is that there are excellent, well-founded and secure historical arguments against each of these positions.”

Obviously, none of this means that other scholars will not reply to Wright with further arguments of their own; on a topic as important as this one, there is no last word on the subject. However, Wright’s word is a powerful one, and it should now be clear why no one can reduce it adequately to a few paragraphs on a blog somewhere. The internet is a mixed blessing (perhaps, dear reader, you may already have concluded this). Those who believe or pretend that books are obsolete do not fool me and only delude themselves. I have yet to meet the person who is willing to read 700-plus pages of detailed argumentation on a lighted screen. The culture of blogging in the context of culture wars (and we can’t get past the fact that science is used as a weapon in those wars) is highly unsatisfactory, contributing crucially to the fact that Truth is often one of the first casualties in those battles. Many readers in the electronic world are almost psychologically conditioned to expect instant replies to challenges; they demand that someone “put up or shut up,” either responding fully to their points with links to electronic sources to back up those replies or to give it up and go quietly into the night. (Just for the record, dear reader: I am not writing about Lou or anyone else here; I’m writing to alert others who might stumble upon this thread and read it with inappropriate expectations.) Those too immersed in the electronic world of instant and easy gratification are unlikely to credit what I have said here about the ongoing importance of print sources, but for the discerning the passages from Wright that I have quoted in defense of Polkinghorne should be sufficient to motivate a visit to a print library or bookstore in the near future. In short, when P talks about the actual historical reality of the empty tomb and the various post-crucifixion appearances in the gospels (some of which cannot reduced to subjective visions), he isn’t just blowin’ smoke. Those who want the details are invited to read Wright for themselves.

beaglelady - #80395

May 22nd 2013

Why not list this book, along with the books by Polkinghorne, on a “resources” page?  The current resources page has only a “resource finder.”     

Lou Jost - #80440

May 24th 2013

Ted, thanks for coming back to this and encouraging us to look further. I agree with you that books are not obsolete, and I (like nearly every scientist I know) have a love-hate relationship with the internet.

It is nevertheless difficult for a busy researcher to find the time to read a 700 page book. It is natural to judge the quality of a book by picking a few arguments (preferably those that experts like yourself have highlighted as important) and seeing whether the reasoning is valid. If so, then the book might be worth reading.

For me, a red flag was earned by P and Wright when they argued that no made-up or elaborated story of the resurrection would have used women as the discoverers of the empty tomb. They take this highly improbable detail as indicating the story must be true.

Remember, the hypothesis being tested is whether the gospels are later elaborations of a non-physical, vision-based resurrection experience. On this hypothesis, there are in fact several very good reasons for the gospel writers or their sources to add or invent women discoverers, and neither P nor W addresses these, at least in the excerpts I have seen. This is a fatal mark against their scholarly objectivity.

For example, if a group of male disciples had been the first to go to the tomb, and came back and reported that they found the tomb was empty, the first thing that would occur to any normal person was that the disciples themselves stole the body. This charge would be somewhat thwarted (though not completely) by having women discover the empty tomb.

Another possible reason for Mark to give women the honor of discovering the empty is to illustrate Jesus’ teaching that the last shall be first. In this view, the actual life of Jesus is elaborated with the aim of clarifying his teachings and pegging his life to precedents in scripture.

Some Christians reading this may find these possible explanations far-fetched. Non-Christians (2/3 of the world) will point out that the story in its literal Christian form is much more far-fetched than either of these explanations. Again, we know now that much of the back-story to the resurrection (Adam and Eve, the Fall, the universal flood, etc) is false in its literal form, and the need for a blood sacrifice by the creator of the universe is not sensible even if the elements of the back-story are interpreted as figurative. It would take really good evidence to convince an objective scientist that the resurrection/ascension happened as reported, and the existing evidence just does not have the quality required for the load it must pull.

Lou Jost - #80442

May 24th 2013

I should hasten to add that I still want to read more of Wright so I can understand how he explains the gospel anomalies and the silence of Paul. But that red flag will be waving while I read…

Ted Davis - #80465

May 25th 2013

As I’ve said several times, Lou, the emphasis in all gospel narratives on women as the source of the first reports about the empty tomb is—to my historical mind—very powerful evidence of their authenticity, though it is not the only part of the traditions that I evaluate as such. You and I come at this (obviously) from different world views, which shape our evaluations of this particular piece of evidence (and other pieces). I am open to the transcendent in history and in nature, and you are almost entirely closed to it. You say (and I do not doubt your honesty) that you have not absolutely ruled out the possiblity that a miracle might actually happen or have happened, but I say that Hume has made it all but impossible for you ever to conclude that it has. Unless you see such a thing yourself, I do not think you will ever accept it. From where I sit, I believe I am  more sceptical about miracle stories in general than you are sceptical of your own Humean scepticism—that is, some might say that I am too open-minded, while others might say that I am more open-minded than you. These are things on which we will obviously have to shake hands and part ways. I do wish you well, and I look forward to further conversation on other threads.

Lou Jost - #80474

May 25th 2013

I understand your frustration with me, and I thank you for your exceptional patience.You are wrong about my closure to miracles, but no use arguing about that.

But it is worth arguing about this other point. I honestly don’t understand how you can continue to say that the presence of women is very powerful evidence of authenticity, even though there are at least two very good reasons why women would be introduced if the stories were not authentic. I don’t think this particular question depends on conflicting worldviews; it is straightforward reasoning. It is simply false to say, as P and W do, that a writer inventing or elaborating the story would not have had a good reason to make women the discoverers of the empty tomb. I gave you two. There may be more.

And the four gospels are not independent; if Mark or his sources contained this detail, this would explain its presence in the later gospels.

This is not worldview stuff. It is just ordinary logic. We don’t need to include larger issues in this. P’s claim is false; on the hypothesis that the gospels or their source traditions are not authentic, there are good reasons to use women as the discoverers of the empty tomb. That doesn’t prove the gospels are not factual on this detail, it only takes away that one argument for their authenticity. But it does show a certain sloppiness of reasoning on the part of P and perhaps W, who both dearly want this story to be true.

Lou Jost - #80446

May 24th 2013

Here is a “yellow flag” for Wright’s key claim that a bodily resurrection of an individual before the world ended was inconceivable for first century Jews, and so claims to that effect must be based on a real event.

The counter-evidence comes from the Bible itself, showing that at least some minority-sect Jews did believe this was possible:

“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus,
And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.” Mat 14:1-2

“And king Herod heard [of him]; (for his name was spread abroad) and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.
Others said, That it is Elias. And others said, That it is a prophet, or as one of the prophets. But when Herod heard [thereof], he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead Mar 6:1-16

Apparently bodily resurrections were not unthinkable in Judea. I am sure Wright must have dealt with this, but I haven’t seen what he said about it. I may have to retract this yellow flag if he has a good response. I suppose he will say that Herod was not a true Jew. But the fact that Herod the king of Judea and his court were, according to the Gospel writers, capable of entertaining these thoughts shows that the idea of bodily resurrection was not as unthinkable as Wright suggests.

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