Ted Davis
 on March 28, 2018

Why Do Some Modern Christians Doubt the Resurrection?

Modern theologians who have denied the Resurrection have often done so because of a post-Enlightenment bias against the possibility of miracles.


“Gassed by the Germans.” See below for image source, as well as some notes about its context.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of a series entitled “Resurrection: Answering the Skeptics”, which includes a number of scientists and scholars responding to common questions about science, biblical faith, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When my father graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1945 and accepted a call to a Presbyterian Church in New Hampshire, he didn’t believe in the Resurrection—a fact he kept from the congregation. Only many years later did he change his mind, after reading German theologian Karl Barth. To be sure, Barth’s position was not always expressed clearly, and certainly not in language that would satisfy most Evangelicals today. The surprising fact remains that Barth helped my father accept the fundamental Christian affirmation that God actually raised Jesus from the dead. From there he slid quickly out of the “modernist,” Bible-debunking theology he had been spoon-fed at Yale and into the evangelical, Bible-affirming theology that he held for the rest of his life.  

My father’s experience notwithstanding, I have found the groundbreaking scholarly work of N. T. Wright far more helpful for defending the bodily Resurrection than many Christians have found Barth. As he realizes, the most fundamental barrier to believing the stories of the empty tomb and the post-crucifixion appearances are metaphysical, not scientific.

That’s why the apex of his book The Resurrection of the Son of God is a chapter on “Easter and History.” As an historian of ancient beliefs, Wright realizes that an unexamined, unchallenged post-Enlightenment bias has led far too easily to dismissing the Resurrection as nothing more than wishful thinking.

Like my father’s teachers at Yale, many modern theologians and biblical scholars have too readily assumed that all “supernatural” elements in the Bible must be “demythologized.” Wright’s signal contribution is to challenge that bias, using his unexcelled mastery of a vast body of literature from the Greco-Roman world.

Why am I so enthusiastic about this tour de force? Partly, because of the magnitude of Wright’s conclusion. He demonstrates that “the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus (not a mere resuscitation, but a transforming revivification) clearly provides a sufficient condition of the tomb being empty and the [post-crucifixion] ‘meetings’ taking place.” He also shows that “the bodily resurrection of Jesus provides a necessary condition for these things; in other words, that no other explanation could or would do. All the efforts to find alternative explanations fail, and they were bound to do so” (p. 717).

With admirable frankness, Wright also admits that his conclusion does not actually constitute “a ‘proof’ of the resurrection in terms of some neutral standpoint.” Here “we are faced with worldview-level issues,” and we find “no neutral ground, no island in the middle of the epistemological ocean, as yet uncolonized by any of the warring continents.” Regardless of where one is coming from, one can’t achieve complete objectivity, because belief in the Resurrection necessarily entails a “commitment to work out the implications,” which can be profoundly unsettling (p. 717).

As I said before, the fundamental barrier to believing in the Resurrection is not scientific. Numerous world-class Christian scientists believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave, including Nobel laureates like William Phillips and friends of BioLogos such as Francis Collins, Ian Hutchinson, John Polkinghorne, and Ard Louis. When my father went to seminary, however, such scientists were virtually invisible, and most liberal religious scholars just took it for granted that science makes miracles incredible.

In fact, modern science was created mainly by Christians who believed in an active Creator. They saw their scientific work as highly consistent with a Creator whose thoughts are not always identical to ours and whose actions are not always limited by the very natural laws he created himself. Such a God can—and did—raise Jesus from the grave. With hundreds of millions of fellow Christians all over the world, this Easter I “look for the resurrection of the dead.”

About the author

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.