Does Belief in the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Make one a Christian?

So you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Do you believe it was a miracle of miracles that really happened in time and space, an actual historical event, not just a metaphor? If yes, great! But does that alone, belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus a Christian make? Maybe not!

I do believe it is necessary to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian, but I don’t believe everyone who believes in it is. I know the reality that many Christian theologians and pastors for philosophical reasons do not accept the bodily resurrection as a historical fact. Because of their naturalist presuppositions they rule out the possibility of supernatural miracles a priori. In this case not only the resurrection is ruled out, but other miracles recorded in the Bible as well.

Since I’ve been a pastor in the United Methodist Church, I’ve had more than a few lay people tell me, to their dismay, that they’ve had preachers who tried to explain away miracle stories in naturalistic terms. The most common story explained this way, apparently, is the one of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes. Rather than actually miraculously multiplying a meager five loaves and a couple of fish (the modern American country boy in me likes to envision this as a few saltines and a couple of sardines) to feed thousands with plenty of leftovers, the naturalist explanation is that Jesus just inspired individuals to share what they really already had with them. Of course, one who would preach this as a mere metaphor for inspired generosity, might be a bit more reluctant to preach the resurrection stories as mere metaphors too even though that is what he or she really believes. Yet, evidently, not everyone is as timid in that regard. I know of churches who have also been alarmed by their pastors denial of the bodily resurrection too. One lay person said a pastor he had in a Episcopal church said he didn’t believe in life after death at all. He taught that eternal life was a metaphor for the good life of peace and justice here in this world as it is and nothing more.

But what if a person really does believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Does that mean she or he is authentically Christian? Well, not necessarily. There is another important question. What does the bodily resurrection of Jesus mean to you?

In his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), N.T. Wright gets to this question in his conclusion. There he tells of a Jewish scholar who believes that Jesus was truly bodily raised from the dead; yet he does not believe Jesus was the Jewish messiah or the divine Son of God.

The Jewish writer Pinchas Lapide has declared that he believes Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. Indeed, he believes this far more solidly than many would-be Christian theologians. But this belief does not make him a Christian. For him, the resurrection does not ‘mean’ that Jesus is in any sense, whether messianic or divine, the ‘son of god’. Rather, it means that he was and is a great prophet to whom Israel should have paid attention at the time. ~ N.T. Wright p. 721

So you believe in the resurrection. But what does that mean to you? What do you believe it means about Jesus of Nazareth?

Jesus meant for his miracles to be more than just displays of power; they were signs with symbolic import. They served to draw attention to his identity as the messiah and king of Israel. They also served to reveal his identity as the divine Son of God. As I shared in a previous post when Jesus calmed the storm on the sea, his disciples asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41 ESV). The answer based on the allusions to the Old Testament present in the story, startling as it may have been, is this man, Jesus, is the embodiment of Israel’s God!

If a person believes that Jesus really was raised bodily from the dead, but that he was only a manifestation of one of many valid gods in a pantheon of myriads of different gods who also may be helpful to connect with an impersonal “ground of being”, are they Christian? If a person believes that Jesus was only one of many ways to be saved are they really Christian? If people believe Jesus was really raised from the dead, but was only a man who achieved divinity as myriads of men before him, or that he was the first man to reach the threshold for optimum God consciousness, does that make them Christian? What of someone who believes Jesus being raised from the dead vindicated him as the greatest moral teacher, maybe even the greatest prophet, but not the divine Son of God in a unique sense? How about someone who sees the resurrection as an indication that Jesus may be their best bet to bring them good luck for success and fortune in this world?

John, who also records Jesus declaring,  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), says he wrote his Gospel, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). 

The apostle Paul declares:

.. if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. ~ Romans 10:9-10

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus is a requirement for salvation, but not the only one; Confession that Jesus is Lord is as well. Context determines meaning. The God here referred to is no impersonal ground of being which is legitimately manifested through myriads of gods or natural forces. This is the God of Israel who claims to be the one and only true God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who gladly intervenes and acts in history. And this is the personal God, who became incarnate (John 1) in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, who also gladly shares the divine title “Lord” with his Son (see also 1 Cor 8:5-6).

Resurrection_(24)
Icon of the Resurrection – Wikimedia Commons

In the ancient world miracles served an authenticating purpose (see Craig Keener, Miracles, (Chapter 1; Baker Academic, 2011). The resurrection of Jesus from the dead vindicated him in his claims and what he taught and revealed about God and eternal life, including salvation and damnation. The resurrection also vindicated the historical claim of the God of Israel to be the one true God and the world’s rightful Sovereign.

N.T. Wright puts it this way:

The resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the ‘son of god’ who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. He is the start of the creator’s new world; its pilot project, indeed its pilot. ~ The Resurrection of the Son of God p. 731

You believe Jesus was raised from the dead? Great! Have you confessed Jesus as Lord in the sense above? Even better!

 

 

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