Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 4

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection (1467-68), Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy

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 thisthis, 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 & 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.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.