Ted Davis
John Polkinghorne
 on March 28, 2013

John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection

No one can avoid some degree of intellectual precariousness, and there is a consequent need for a degree of cautious daring in the quest for truth.


In this article we will present edited excerpts from a chapter (“Motivated Belief”) of John Polkinghorne’s book, Theology in the Context of Science. Most of the editing involves breaking longer paragraphs into multiple parts, altering the spelling and punctuation from British to American, removing the odd sentence or two—which I will 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 will usually find another way to include that information if it’s particularly important for our readers. The next words you read will be his. – Ted Davis

As we noted earlier [in this book], scientists are not inclined to subscribe to an a priori [i.e., knowledge that is not dependent on experience or empirical evidence] concept of what is reasonable. They have found the physical world to be too surprising, too resistant to prior expectation, for a simple trust in human powers of rational prevision [i.e., foresight] to be at all persuasive. Instead, the actual character of our encounter with reality has to be allowed to shape our knowledge and thought about the object of our enquiry. Different levels of reality may be expected to have their idiosyncratic characters, and there will not be a single epistemic [knowledge-based] rule for all. A physicist, aware of the counterintuitive natures of the quantum world and of cosmic curved spacetime, is not tempted to make commonsense the sole measure of rational expectation. Because of this, we have seen that the instinctive question for the scientist to ask is not “Is it reasonable?”, as if one knew beforehand the shape that rationality had to take, but “What makes you think that might be the case?” Radical revision of expectation cannot be ruled out, but it will only be accepted if evidence is presented in support of the new point of view that is being proposed. Science trades in motivated belief.

One of the difficulties that face a scientist wanting to speak to his colleagues about the Christian faith is to get across the fact that theology also trades in motivated belief. Many scientists are both wistful and wary in their attitude towards religion. They can see that science’s story is not sufficient by itself to give a satisfying account of the many-layered reality of the world. Those who acknowledge this are open to a search for wider and deeper understanding. Hence the wistful desire for something beyond science. Religion offers such a prospect, but many scientists fear that it does so on unacceptable terms. Their wariness arises from the mistaken idea that religious faith demands that those who embrace it should be willing to believe simply on the basis of submission to some unquestionable authority—the claimed utterances of a divine being, the unchallengeable assertions of a sacred book, the authoritative decrees of a controlling community, whatever it may be—simply declared to be unproblematic deliverances of infallible truth. [This describes the attitude that Polkinghorne likes to call “top-down thinking,” vis-à-vis “bottom-up thinking,” which is mentioned at the end of this excerpt.]

The picture that many scientists have of religious revelation is that it is a collection of non-negotiable propositions, presented to be accepted without further argument or attempt at justification. According to this view, faith is simply a matter of signing on the dotted line without taking too much care about the small print. These scientists fear that religious belief would demand of them an act of intellectual suicide. I believe this to be a quite disastrous misconception. If an uncritical fideism [reliance on faith alone] is what religious belief requires, then I would have the greatest difficulty in being a religious person.

What I am always trying to do in conversation with my not-yet-believing friends is to show them that I have motivations for my religious beliefs, just as I have motivations for scientific beliefs. They may not share my view of the adequacy of these motivations, but at least they should recognize that they are there on offer as matters for rational consideration and assessment. Theology conducted in the context of science must be prepared to be candid about the evidence for its beliefs. This task is one of great importance, since the difficulty of getting a hearing for Christian faith in contemporary society often seems to stem from the fact that many people have never given adequate adult consideration to the possibility of its being true, thinking that they “know” already that there can be no truth in claims so apparently at odds with notions of everyday secular expectation.

While science and religion share a common concern for motivated belief, the character of the motivating evidence is, of course, different in the two cases. [SNIP]  Theology lacks recourse to repeatable experimental confirmation (“Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Deuteronomy 6:16), as in fact do most other non-scientific explorations of reality. Judgments such as that of the quality of a painting, or the beauty of a piece of music, or the character of a friend, depend upon powers of sympathetic discernment, rather than being open to empirical demonstration. Moreover, I have already said that I believe that no form of human truth-seeking enquiry can attain absolute certainty about its conclusions. The realistic aspiration is that of attaining the best explanation of complex phenomena, a goal to be achieved by searching for an understanding sufficiently comprehensive and well-motivated as to afford the basis for rational commitment.

Neither science nor religion can entertain the hope of establishing logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny. No one can avoid some degree of intellectual precariousness, and there is a consequent need for a degree of cautious daring in the quest for truth. Experience and interpretation intertwine in an inescapable circularity. Even science cannot wholly escape this dilemma (theory interprets experiments; experiments confirm or disconfirm theories). We have seen [in another chapter] how considerations of this kind led Michael Polanyi to acknowledge the presence of a tacit dimension in scientific practice, depending on the exercise of skills of judgment, and to speak of science as necessarily being personal knowledge, not absolutely certain but still capable of eliciting justified belief. Recall that he said that he wrote Personal Knowledge to explain how he might commit himself to what he believed (scientifically) to be true, while knowing that it might be false. This stance recognizes what I believe to be the unavoidable epistemic condition of humanity.

When we turn to religious belief, it too cannot lay claim to certainty beyond a peradventure [uncertainty or doubt]—for believers live by faith and not by sight. Yet faith is by no means the irrational acceptance of unquestionable propositions. I believe my religious faith to be well motivated and that is why, for me, Christianity is worthy of acceptance and commitment. Religious people are content to bet their lives that this is so. If theology is to prove persuasive to enquirers in the context of science, it will have to set out the motivations for the assertions that it makes, expressed in as honest and careful a fashion as possible. I believe that the argument will need to have the character of bottom-up thinking, making appeal to specific forms of evidence.

The previous section presented the opening section of the chapter, “Motivated Belief,” from Theology in the Context of Science, by John Polkinghorne. That excerpt introduced the concept of motivated belief, itself. In this second excerpt, Polkinghorne brings his pursuit of motivated belief to the Bible. – Ted Davis

There are two broad kinds of motivation for religious belief. One looks to certain general aspects of the human encounter with reality, while the other approach focuses on particularities of personal experience, including what are understood to have been specific acts of divine disclosure expressed through uniquely significant events and persons. The first kind of motivation includes the concerns of natural theology, presented as a ground for general theistic belief. We have already given some attention to this topic [in an earlier chapter]. By itself, natural theology can lead only to a rather abstract concept of deity, as consistent with the spectatorial god of deism [i.e., a god who merely stands apart and watches] as it is with the active God of theism. The considerations presented in the last chapter went beyond this aspect in order to seek enriched theological insight, of a kind capable of including the concepts of unfolding continuous creation and divine providential interaction with history. However, only obliquely, through the recognition of relationality, did the argument of that chapter make contact with the defining specificities of Christian faith. For that purpose one has to have recourse to the second kind of motivation for religious beliefs.

This latter approach is the concern of revealed theology, presented as the ground for the beliefs of a particular faith tradition. In this chapter I want to give concise consideration to how one might formulate such an approach to Christian belief. An adequate treatment would require extensive discussion and, in a modest way, that is a task that I have attempted elsewhere. [In a footnote, Polkinghorne stresses that the subtitle of the cited book is “Theological Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker,” one of the themes this series of columns develops.] Here my purpose is simply to sketch enough of the argument to illustrate and support the claim that theology does indeed trade in motivated belief and that it can present its insights in a manner fitting for consideration in the context of science.

Addressing this task will serve to indicate how Christian believers may best commend their faith in an intellectual setting in which thinking is much influenced by the successes of science. Recent high-profile attacks on religious belief by some scientists have made much play of depicting believers as if they were simple-minded fideists [those who rely on faith alone] of an anti-intellectual mindset. The demolition of such strawmen is an unworthy polemical strategy. Christian theology’s pursuit of motivated belief demonstrates the misleading character of this kind of antireligious argument.

In earlier chapters we looked in some detail at the arguments that natural theology can deploy. The deep and wonderful order of the world was pointed to as being suggestive of a divine Mind expressed in creation. The anthropic fine-tuning that enabled an initial ball of energy to develop into the home of saints and scientists was interpreted as being suggestive of a divine Purpose at work in cosmic history. Other arguments of natural theology suggested that the existence of value, both moral and aesthetic, is best explained in terms of human intuitions of God’s good and perfect will and of human participation in the Creator’s joy in creation.

These are not knock-down arguments—there are no such arguments, either for theism or for atheism—but they offer insightful and satisfying ways to gain an enhanced understanding of the richness of human experience. However, even if they are granted maximal persuasiveness, these general kinds of consideration can only lead to a generic concept of God, conceived in such terms as deity thought of as Cosmic Mind or the Ground of Value. They can serve to put the question of the existence of God onto the agenda of enquiry, but they necessarily leave unanswered many questions concerning what the nature of that God might actually be. For example, does God really care for individual human beings? Any attempt to answer that question has to look to something more specific than general experience.

My own religious belief is in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I want to outline the motivations that I believe support my Christian faith, living and thinking as I do in the context of modern science, so different in many ways to the context in which Christianity began two millennia ago. It would not be enough for me to rest content with the God of natural theology, who is too distant a kind of deity, corresponding in nature to the rather abstract arguments concerning order and value invoked in support of this kind of belief. Einstein possessed a kind of cosmic religiosity, inspired by the wonderful order of the universe, but he was emphatic that he did not believe in a personal God.

To find such a God he would have had to be willing to look elsewhere, beyond the austere insights of fundamental physics. Belief in a deity who is properly to be spoken of in personal terms, however stretched the meaning of those terms must necessarily be, has to be motivated differently, by reference to particular events and persons, understood as affording revelatory disclosures of unique and unrepeatable significance. It is precisely this specificity of divine action and communication that makes the personal language of Father appropriate in Christian discourse, rather than the impersonal language of Force, which would carry the implication of an unchanging mode of divine expression, unrelated to any particularities of person or situation, just like the unyielding law of gravity. We shall return to this matter when discussing the issue of miracle [in a subsequent excerpt from this chapter].

These considerations underline how essential it is to have a right understanding of the nature of revelation. What is involved is not the mysterious deposit of infallible information, conveyed in an incomprehensible and unchallengeable fashion, but rather it is the record of those particularly transparent occasions that have been open to an exceptional degree to the discernment of the divine will and presence. Christian theology accords a normative status to the Bible precisely because it contains an irreplaceable account of God’s dealing with God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and the uniquely significant history of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. One might say that scripture functions as the “laboratory notebook” containing the record of these “critical observations” of divine self-disclosure. Its role is not that of the authoritative textbook in which one can conveniently look up all the ready-made answers. Scripture is something more subtle and more powerful than that.

There are many different modes in which the Bible can be read, and one of the most important of these is simply as providing motivating evidence for Christian belief. This is a theme on which I have written a number of times, most extensively in my Gifford Lectures. In this chapter I want to sketch an outline of how the careful and scrupulous study of the New Testament can provide the reasons why I believe that Christian belief does indeed correspond to what is the case. I shall seek to offer the argument in the evidence-based manner that seems consistent with taking seriously the context of science within which Christian belief has to be expressed and defended today.

The writings of the New Testament originated in a particular part of the ancient world and they were written over a specific period of some forty years or so. They are very diverse in their character. Three of the major authors involved, Paul, John, and the unknown Writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, display a depth of theological originality and understanding that secures for them a permanent place of creative influence in the history of Christian thought. Much of the writing in the New Testament has the occasional character associated with letters, but other parts are more systematic in construction, including four examples of what was then a novel kind of literature, gospels, whose accounts of Jesus of Nazareth are shaped by the authors’ desire to proclaim the good news of God’s salvific purposes, which they believe have been made known and accomplished in him. It is important to recognize that the gospels are not modern biographies written in the detached manner of scientific historiography. They are interpreted accounts of a remarkable man, and they are intent on making clear the meaning of what the authors believe was happening in what had been going on in his life, death, and its aftermath. No scientist could deny the importance of proper interpretation if true significance is to be discerned. Raw data (readings in counters, marks on photographic plates) are insufficient by themselves to tell a story of evident interest.

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 (in the following section), with a brief consideration of what he calls “the theological problem of miracle”. 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. – Ted Davis


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).

Giotto di Bondone, The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas) (ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

Giotto di Bondone, The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas) (ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

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.

Giotto di Bondone, Resurrection (Do not Touch Me) (ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

Giotto di Bondone, Resurrection (Do not Touch Me) (ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

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.

Editor’s Note: 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.]

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. – Ted Davis

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

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.

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] 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

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.

About the authors

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is 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.
John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne was an English physicist and Anglican priest who is known for being an early champion for the reconciliation of science and religion. He wrote many books on the relationship between science and religion, and was the 2002 Templeton Prize Laureate.