Archive for the ‘Biblical Issues’ Category
This is a very brief summary of the talk given by Peri Forester on the subject of Hel at the Reasonable Faith meeting held on the 18th July 2013. See Hell Transcript for a full transcript of the talk.
In our RF group we talked about Christian understandings of hell. We identified three main streams of understanding about the nature of hell:
1. Unending torment;
People are immortal or are universally given immortality in the resurrection and then those separated from God in the judgment exist without him forever: which is hell.
2. Torment ending in non-existence;
People are mortal, though all are resurrected for the judgment. Those separated from God in that judgment then die the second death (hell) which is painful in proportion to their actions and attitudes, but which comes to an absolute end as nothing can survive without God.
3. Universal salvation.
Hell is a warning or a temporary punishment only and ultimately all people will be saved and live in relationship with God.
More attention was given the debate between position one and two based on the Scriptures and on key words related to hell in the scriptures (hell, sheol, hades, death, perish, destroy). The fact that the notion of hell is not a particularly Christian one was highlighted and ‘hell’ motifs from other ancient and medieval mythologies were considered, especially to examine where they have been ‘canonized’ in the thinking of some Christian traditions even where the Scriptures are not in support of those motifs.
The talk was pretty long and detailed and you can read the whole thing if you are interested.
At the end of the talk those present put a sticker on a three way continuum graph to represent the views of the group. Most in the group tended to agree with the tradition of unending torment though there were quite a few stickers placed along the line towards a conditional immortality opinion and a few in that corner. There was also one sticker off the chart in that direction indicating an atheist view in which absolutely everyone is mortal and there was one sticker in the Universalist corner.
If you were there, where would you have put your sticker? Why? Have you thought about it?
This is the transcript of the presentation given by Peri Forester on the subject of Hell at the Reasonable Faith meeting held on the 18th of July 2013. See the corresponding Power Point slides – Talk about Hell.
Why talk about it in a ‘reasonable’ way?
Because in the absence of thought-through discussion, unexamined images dominate, which can lead to a misrepresentation of Hell and the God who warns us about it – or even a total denial (cf Dickson, 2007:86). In my case since I can’t deny that Jesus talked about hell – I have felt compelled to think the issues through.
Of course I am just one Christian believer limited in all sorts of ways and so I share what I have found over the last few months which overlays my reading of Scripture over the years since I became a Christian with the appropriate acknowledgment of my limitations.
The two objectives of tonight’s talk are to:
Outline the three main traditions of understanding concerning Hell within ‘Bible believing’ Christianity and their plausibility structures through their respective interpretations of Scripture. (In many of our discussions here at Reasonable Faith we do not refer much to the Christian Scriptures, and nor do we assume them as necessary for the arguments we make – our epistemology is often that of the so called Enlightenment reason and empiricism rather than authority or special revelation. However, in this topic what we are looking at is what it is reasonable for a Christian to believe about Hell – we are not trying to arrive at truth about hell from human reasoning apart from the Bible and therefore we use hermeneutics/biblical interpretation rather than some other kind of science or logic is our means).
Touch on the ways that imagery, which often side steps the normal expectations about truth telling, have the power to suppress truth and even debase communication about emotive topics such as salvation and its opposite if we don’t learn a kind of critical literacy of images and multimedia. I don’t think this second objective is fully met in what I have prepared, but we make a start.
As per usual for our RF meetings, after I present my talk we will have tea or coffee and snacks followed by a forum for open discussion on the topic. Hopefully it will be warm but not too fiery.
- Briefly review the three main paradigms
- Discuss the meanings of key words used in the bible
- Read some Scriptures highlighted in the debate and review how they are interpreted
- Very briefly review the history of the idea of hell
- Review a critique of the recently released video as an example of how multimedia can be used to side step truth telling standards and communicate deceptions powerfully.
I also need to say that I am not here trying to justify what I assume God will do with the unsaved – though that comes up and we can talk about it more after the break – rather I am trying to tune my 21st c. ear to what God is saying through the 2 or more thousand year old Scriptures, which, as is often noted, were not written in systematic text book ways.
SLIDE FIVE – Summary of the three paradigms
The three understandings about hell – that is the judgement and final state of those who reject God in this life (‘the unsaved’ without also in this talk entering into debate about who is included in that group) are the:
- Traditional Augustinian or Calvinistic view of the unending conscious torment of the unsaved
- The annihilationist or conditional immortality view in which the unsaved cease at some point to exist, and
- The Universalist view that ultimately all are saved.
I found a useful diagrammatic representation of these views on the internet at a site called “Rethinking Hell”:
SLIDE SIX – Traditional
The traditional view as it is called on our triangle is the view that the unrighteous will suffer forever and ever. The traditional view is that they will suffer physically by the active infliction of corporal punishment from God, as said Augustine (Crocket, 1996:46), and the modified view (since Calvin for eg Crocket1996:44) , and to me much more plausible one that they will suffer mental, or psychological suffering that is intrinsic to their separation from God. Billy Graham said of hellfire “I have often wondered if hell is a terrible burning within our hearts for God, to fellowship with God, a fire we can never quench”. Proponents of the literal view, though, such as Jonathon Edwards and Charles Spurgeon were still found after the Reformation (ibid).
This traditional view almost always assumes the immortality of the human soul.
Sometimes the ethical charge is raised that if God allows suffering for ever and ever, he is immoral because no finite sins committed in time warrant everlasting conscious torture.
One answer to this charge is that sinners go on sinning in hell, and are being punished for ever for new sins. Carson suggest this response: “perhaps we can think of hell as a place where people continue to rebel… so he [God] continues to punish them” (Carson, 1990:91).
Another view is that Hell’s door is locked from the inside such that it is the sinners themselves who perpetuate hell (as CS Lewis says), and
Another that we just don’t see yet how punishment-worthy sin really is.
None of these answers fully satisfy me, I must admit, but as I have said, at this point, I am simply looking to understand what Scripture says.
SLIDE SEVEN – Conditionalism
Conditionalism or annihilationism is the view that, like the animals, people are mortal, not immortal, and so apart from God they naturally die in the sense that they cease to exist. Biblical conditionalists will acknowledge that there is a general resurrection – that this is a special act of God, but that while those in Christ go to life, those judged against in the eschatological judgment do not survive the second death; that is without Christ their being cannot be perpetuated and they are annihilated in the lake of fire.
The question for the conditionalist to deal with is what to do with biblical texts that talk about everlasting punishment. Their answers do satisfy me except for two texts – one from Genesis and one from Revelation. In those texts I can accept the answers provisionally, but only because everything else works in that paradigm as I see it.
SLIDE EIGHT – Universalism
Universalism is the belief that ultimately all are saved. Universalism treats ‘hell’ as purgatorial – that is reformative. Suffering is disciplinary. Either that, or it is a warning only.
There is a kind of universalism which is also pluralistic in the sense that it denies the uniqueness of Christ’s atonement and says all religions are straining equally for the same thing – that is heaven/God (however they are imagined to be), but there is also a ‘Christian’ version of universalism which does acknowledge the unique atonement of Christ but argues in various ways that by him all will be saved. This is, in a sense a Calvinistic stance, where the elect is simply everyone.
So what of all the warnings about hell – well these are just warnings. I guess this is a bit like the parent who says if you don’t stop making that noise I am going to kill you (even though they won’t).
For example Karl Rahner says: “What scripture says about hell, in conformity with the eschatological discourses, is not to be read as an anticipatory report on something that will happen sometime, but as unveiling the situation in which the man who is addressed truly finds himself now” (in Blotcher 1992:p290).
I can’t believe it myself; though to be honest because of that I have not given the arguments as much of a fair hearing as I have the other two.
Definitely I want to give universalism more attention in the future, especially as I want to understand the winds of teaching at the more popular level on the internet – where universalism is growing in acceptance and influence – wrongly I think.
Now at this point in my path of seeking after truth, as I said, I have come to discount Universalism as a possible Bible based Christian option, (though I’d be happy to find in glory that I was wrong on that, (though if Pol Pot is there I hope he has had more than one moment of tormented remorse getting in)) and so my research has led me more into the debate between conditionalism/ annihilationism and the traditional understanding of hell. If we look at the triangular diagram again and think of it as a continuum, at this point my opinion would be about here: (place sticker on chart). Just before we go to our break I am going to ask each of you to place a sticker on here as well and we will thus graph the beliefs of the group here tonight. So you can be thinking about where you will put your sticker as I talk.
Let’s take a CLOSER LOOK AT KEY TERMS which will help us evaluate the arguments.
There are a number of words where the interpretation is important to the discussion and debate about hell including:
- Perish and
Core to interpretation, as it may readily be pointed out, are grammatical relationships and textual contexts (Osborne 2006:82). However, looking at the words, and the meanings they are said to hold is a good start – especially words that come up again and again and form a theme in Scripture.
SLIDE ELEVEN – Hell
Looking again at the triangular diagram of the three paradigms, notice that the subtitle for the title “hell” here is “three views of final punishment” and, of course, in common contemporary usage the word hell is used as a shorthand way of saying just that. But the history of the word is very relevant to the discussion as it is closely related to the development of the understanding people had about final judgement and punishment and helps us to know what was in Jesus’ mind when he used the word.
Many of you will know that the word hell comes from Gehenna, which is itself the Aramaic translation of a Hebrew place name: Hinnom. The place is a valley near Jerusalem, south of the city of David, which by Jesus’ day(s) had long had an association with evil and death. This place was where straying Israelites, influenced by Canaanite practices (which as an aside evidences that both a remnant of the Canaanite people and their religion survived the clearly incomplete genocide of Joshua), had sacrificed their children to the god Molech during apostate periods of their history (2 Chron. 28:3, 33:6; Jer 7:31; 19:2-6). (READ JER 7:30-33).
As an image therefore, Gehenna (hell) elicited horrific if ill-defined Anti-Yahweh associations (Witherington, 2010:35). Further to those associations there is archaeological evidence that during the time of Jesus that valley, Gehenna – Hell – was a literal garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. Into Hell was thrown refuge both wet and dry and including the bodies of those not granted a dignified burial – such as executed criminals (this seems in keeping with Jeremiah’s prophesy of judgement that I read before). Hell, the dump, would have been continually, or at least often enough to be thought of as continually burning because incineration was the common method of disposing of rubbish in the ancient near east. No doubt in other places where vegetation, corpses and other wet rubbish was rotting maggots would have been present (Witherington 2010:35).
This was the kind of hell that Jesus said sinners were in danger of being thrown into by the one who had power to destroy both body and soul (Matthew 10:28). (Notice, as an aside that Jesus says body and soul – he distinguishes between them; in Hebrews 4:12 it also says the word of God is able divide soul and spirit.) But when Jesus said they would be destroyed in hell,
- did he mean that such a place of fire and maggots would be the residence of the dammed forever and he used the metaphor of Hell, as in Gehenna simply as a picture of the ultimate undesirable residential location, or,
- did he mean that God would dispose of the unrepentant forever as irreclaimably, unredeemably as a person who threw an unwanted possession into such a foul rotting burning unclean rubbish dump, or
- was he saying only that God could do such a thing, not that he actually would (hell as warning in the present not as history of an actual future) or
- Was he saying that a temporary stay in such a place may bring people to a better mind as some universalists think?
Answering these questions about what Jesus and his followers meant literally when they allegorically referred to the valley and fires of Gehenna usually involves discussion and controversy about the usage of the Greek word aionios often translated into the English as everlasting or eternal (Fudge1994:11). For example Matthew 25:46 “and these [who gave no water to the thirsty etc] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life [in the separating of the sheep and goats]”. Traditionalists will argue that everlasting means for ever and they seem in the example just used to have plain sense on their side, especially when there is a parallelism between the punishment and life. Conditionalists will agree that the punishment lasts forever but say that while the judgement is final and the contempt for the ‘goats’ here referred to ‘lives’ on eternally as a fact of history, the second death ensures that these who are thrown away into a rubbish dump won’t be conscious forever. Death may be the opposite of life but it is not its equal opposite, and this seems just as plausible.
Aionios is used of many temporary things in Scripture, for example mountains are said to be everlasting, but actually they only exist for a very long time, the ordinances of OT law were everlasting, but actually they came to an end, as did Solomon’s everlasting temple (Fudge, 1994:12,13). Like a lifetime guarantee, the specifics of how long forever is are moderated by the inherent capacity of the thing referred to. Universalists may say the punishment lasts only as long as it does though the people last forever, Conditionalists that the punishment lasts forever but the people last only as long as they can under such God-forsaken conditions.
Jesus was not the first to use Gehenna (Hell) as a picture of condemnation. The association developed during the Inter-Testamental (IT) period and so how it was used then is relevant to the scholarly debate as a place of punishment for eg in 1 Enoch 27:2 it says “This accursed valley is for those who are cursed forever; here will be gathered together all who speak with their mouths against the Lord… and here will be their place of Judgement” (cited in Toon1986:31)
Where we read of “hell” in the Old Testament we are reading translators association of the IT and NT period’s Gehenna with the OT period’s Sheol. But the two are not fully identical; they are connected only in that they both refer to the place of the dead. Sheol, however, is a place of diminished sensorial perception, not like the heightened experience of burning in either a literal or metaphorical sense. At a basic level Sheol was just where the dead are and often the word in the OT, where it is not translated as hell, is translated simply as the grave.
Especially in the earlier OT times the rewards of godliness were understood in this-worldly terms – the godly were rewarded with a long and full life in this world; there was some sense that those who die join their ancestors in Sheol, but speculation about what that meant was minimal – though, as time went by, the sprinkling of hints at life after death became more defined and by the end of the OT period we have Daniel speaking of the resurrection (Johnston, 2002:225).
The faith of the psalmists that surely God would not just let them stay in the grave resonates deeply with the beginning of my faith, the background of my openness to a Christian conversion.
Anyway the development of hints throughout OT history is as John Blanchard points out in keeping with the progressive revelation of God. (1993:35).
Hades was the god of the underworld in Greek mythology, and later the underworld was also called Hades (Fudge 1994:127).
SLIDE THIRTEEN – Aionios (everlasting or eternal)
Aionios is a Greek word which has a qualitative and a quantitative sense – that is, it refers to quality and quantity. It is closely related to aeon, which means ‘age’ as in the current age and the age to come. As we saw before the Greek word aionios, which translates as eternal or everlasting, has as its modifier the capacity of the noun it describes. We don’t need to read this from Conditionalists, traditionalists like John Blanchard (READ 1993; PP240 – 241 OR 242). 241,242
SLIDE FOURTEEN – Death, Perish & destroy
Fudge argues that death means what it seems to mean in a usual sense – cessation and extinction – “It is deliberately said both that the soul dies (judges 16:30; …) that it is destroyed or consumed (Ez. 22, 23, 270, and that it is extinguished (Job 11, 20). The conditionalist understanding of what death means fits most of the literary contexts of Scripture beautifully, except the Genesis fall narrative. (READ BLANCHARD 1993: 55). So is it that biblical death means separation? Fudge, a conditionalist seems to agree but nuances/ spins it differently (READ FUDGE. 1994:42,43).
“[From in conditionalist faith] says the OT uses 50 different Hebrew verbs to describe the final state of the wicked and notes that they all signify different aspects of destruction”… never that of immortal life in endless suffering (Fudge,1994: 47)
I found it interesting that about natural life and death Ecc 9:5 says “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten”
What of the second death? In conditionalist thinking this is extinction, in traditional thinking the final and full separation from God, however, somehow with sustained existence from God. We will look at this when we look at Revelation 20.
SLIDE FIFTEEN – Key Scriptures
Of course we have already referred to the scriptures in looking at key terms but now we will do the reverse, having examined what the words mean, we will look at a few of the Scriptures that are important to the debate. There are others, and after our break we can talk about any you like.
SLIDE SISTEEN – Genesis 6-9 (flood – example of judgement)
Gen 6:5-8 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.
21-24 And all flesh died… Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing.
“Sometimes words such as perish, destroy or die may be metaphorical or figurative [in the case of the flood, however] there is no doubt of their meaning. In this example of the end of the world, these terms clearly mean literal death” (Fudge 1994:54)
Jesus (Matt 24:38; Luke 17:26, 2 Peter 2:5,9; 3:3-7) used the flood as an example of judgements in time and as a picture of end times judgement (Fudge, 1994: 53,54).
Fudge used this event as an example of how to interpret words like perish p54
Genesis 19:24:29 (burning of Sodom – example of judgement)
Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulphur and fire from the Lord out of heaven… So it was … God destroyed the cities of the valley.
This is where fire and sulphur becomes associated with judgement. The fire God destroys Sodom with is eternal fire (Fudge, 1994: 121, Jude 7)
When Isaiah foretold the judgement and everlasting ruin of Babylon, Sodom was the example (Is 13:19-22; Jer 50:49). Jude 7 uses it as example of end time punishment, as did 2 Peter 2:6. This is where the idea of a stick snatched from the fires of judgement came from (Amos 4:11; Jude 23)
Isaiah 66: 24 (worm not die – torment, quoted by Jesus Mark 9:48)
24 And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh”
The unquenchable fire and undying worm are two of the main images of everlasting (aionios) torment. These can easily be understood as referring to an un-consolable condemning conscience. (Blotcher, 1992:306). Henri Blotcher, a traditionalist, talks about remorse in agreement with God; he argues that sin cannot continue in eternity (the age to come) and the everlasting torment of those condemned will be their agreement, too late, with the judgements of God. This makes it impossible to justify everlasting torment for finite sins by saying that sinners go on sinning in eternity (as D. Carson suggests 2006: 91); but it does make it easy to see how the judgement will be absolutely fair, as the more evil a person’s actions and attitudes were in life, and the more opportunities they had to repent, the more they will agonise over their realization too late when they finally see it God’s way. The pain that God now feels for the world in sin, will belong then fully and only to the sinner.
This resonates deeply for me – it seems very plausible that this is qualitatively just how it is, but I do wonder if in the absence of God the person so thrown to hell will not cease to exist. It seems if we are taking this text metaphorically as a psychological fire and worm (quality), we cannot switch to literalism on the point of how long forever is under such circumstances (quantity); even more especially given the way the word aonious is modified by its semantic context can we not make that switch.
In my youth I suffered panic attacks and other such things – I can assure you that although they clearly ended, whilst having one, the moment could be said by a passionate expressive person, not concerned with systematic theology, to be forever.
Fudge the conditionalist, it may seem strange, interprets this text more literally than the modern proponents of everlasting metaphorical fire, such as Blotcher, assuming that Isaiah had a literal referent in time that God had impressed him with as a picture of final judgement (Fudge, 1994: 62-63).
Daniel 12:2 (everlasting shame and contempt)
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
That both the saved and the lost are resurrected is confirmed here.
There is also no need to doubt that unrepentant sinners feel shame at the judgement, but that they are held in contempt for ever by the saved does not necessitate their never ending existence, only the eternal legacy.
Luke 16 :19-31 (the rich man and lazarus – torment)
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried; 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame’. 25 But Abraham said ‘child remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus bad things; but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us’. 27 And he said ‘then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house – 28 for I have five brothers – so that he may warm them, lest they also come into this place of torment’. 29 But Abraham said, ‘they have Moses and the Prophets; let them here them’. 30 And he said, no father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent’. 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
If this must have as its point that hell is everlasting torment, then it perhaps also needs to be the traditional view of corporal sensorial pains – such that a literal finger dipped in water might help.
We have here a division in Hades – such as was conceived of during the IT time. Notice that it is Hades and not Hell that Jesus refers to. The story was not a Jesus original, but a retelling of a popular story going around in both Palestine and Greek Egypt – “The basic plot was well-known folklore” a (Fudge, 1994: 127). Jesus was, and still is allowed to borrow such common stories to make his point, and when he does his point rather than the stage set of the story is what would have come into view for his original audience.
The point is the five brothers – Jesus is saying that if they will not repent of their selfish greed when they have the OT “in their hands” and the poor man at their gate, then they won’t repent ever. “Hades” is just the theatre set. The crisis point is whether the Pharisees Jesus was addressing “who were lovers of money [and] heard all” [the things Jesus had been saying about not being able to serve two masters] Luke 16:10-18, were any better. (cf Fudge, 1994: 128).
SLIDE TWENTY ONE
Mathew 25:31-46 (the sheep and the goats – exclusion)
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’. Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink, or see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and cloth you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not cloth me, in prison and you did not visit me’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you? 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
What stands out? (Fudge p125).
SLIDE TWENTY TWO
Revelation 14:9-11 (no rest day and night – torment)
“And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “if anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night”
Now this sure sounds like conscious everlasting torment. There are some conditionalist explanations I have read but none were compelling.
SLIDE TWENTY THREE
Revelation 20:10, 14-15 (lake of fire = second death)
“And the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they were tormented day and night forever and ever…
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Blanchard (1993) argues that the lake of fire means the “awesome, holy, avenging presence of God (P228), but then he also argues that it is the final separation from God. Not that I want to discount a view simply because of a linguistic contradiction – but it does seem intuitive to me that separation from God cuts off the blood flow, as it were, and nothing can exist long without blood – that is the sustaining of God.
The lake of fire is the Gehenna hell, (not the hades) of the NT – traditionalists and Conditionalists agree.
SLIDE TWENTY FOUR
In one sense I am not satisfied with what I have been able to do in this presentation tonight because, while I have been able to dig in far enough to be able to share with you the lay of the land in the contemporary debate based on the Scriptures – particularly between conditionalism and the traditional view of everlasting torment, I have not been able to share with you as much of the contemporary debate at the more popular level as it is fought out on YouTube, and the like, or of the discussion about hell as it has run through and beyond church history. Also in what we have discussed I have given more attention to Scriptural interpretation issues than to more overarching philosophical questions such as the extent that Greek thought influenced the development of Christian understandings or whether Roman politics did. Given time limits I thought that the first thing was to look at the discussion as it is gathered around the Scriptures.
I would like to touch on those other two areas by reading a short passage from a book; and by reading sections of a critique of the newly released Hellbound video which joins the great wave of media out there in support of Universalism currently. If you are willing to hear me again I would like to come and talk again, next time getting more into those popular discussions building on the Biblical background we have talked about tonight.
Consider origins of belief in hell in Klassen, 2001: 62. We can note here that retribution fits our inbuilt sense of justice – I noticed on the news recently that one of the three victims released from captivity at the hands of a rapist (among other things he was a rapist) after ten years of abuse said on TV that she could let go and move on knowing that God would judge the man that did that to her. This makes sense, it is intuitive and I think is reflected in the common theme of judgement running through the religions. So we don’t need to pretend that vengeance is not part of the Gospel: that the man who abused you, or the economic system that oppressed you, or the ruling powers that destroyed your village will not get away with it but be judged with the fury and wrath of God is part of the Gospel. So long as it is proportionate, this seems only right. That there is an amnesty for the repentant because of Jesus; well that is amazing saving grace. When the punishment is disproportionate though, it seems to me to pervert the Gospel and some understandings of hell do seem disproportionate no matter how you look at it.
SLIDE TWENTY FIVE
OK lastly I want to very briefly talk about a video that has just come out: “Hellbound”. We will first watch a trailer.
Stirring isn’t it. This stuff is our apocalyptic genre – it is emotive, visual and makes you think you have seen and heard things you have not. What do I mean?: well the video, which it is reported promotes a universalist doctrine satirises the beliefs in the Augustinian tradition of understanding about hell by juxtaposing talk about the difficulties of challenging unexamined beliefs with a preacher who is strongly rebuking a congregation. These images and the way they are arranged are saying something – they are saying something in very strong terms, namely that traditionalists are unreasonable and become aggressive if very reasonable questions are asked – but, if the critique I’ve read is right they lie because the passionate preacher is not rebuking his audience for questioning the preacher’s assumed traditional view about hell at all – he is rebuking them for mistreating their wives.
This is not to say it is only Universalists who do this – it is just to say we need to be wary of this kind of sleight of hand, most especially to avoid doing it ourselves, and of course to avoid being deceived by those who do. Now to avoid unfair comment myself I should point out I was not able to get a hold of a full copy of the video and so I report this only from an online review.
OK, now before we go to the break please come and put a sticker on the triangle to indicate where you currently stand on “hell”; that is your opinion. As I said before we are leaving out all these nuances of devils but not people burning forever and the like and so where you place your sticker back from the corner of the position you hold indicates how sure or unsure you are about it, not some technical mid point opinion.
As the kids say at the end of their talks – thanks for listening.
Blanchard, J. (1993), “Whatever Happened to Hell?” Evangelical Press: Durham.
Blotcher, H. (1992), ‘Everlasting punishment and the problem of evil’, in Cameron, N. (ed.) “Universalism and the doctrine of hell”, Paternoster Press: Carlisle.
Carson, D. (2006), “How long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed.” IVP: Nottingham
Dickson, J. & Clarke, G. (2007), “666 and all that, The truth about the future”, Aquila Press: Sydney.
Fudge, E.W. (1994), “The Fire that Consumes, The Biblical case for conditional immortality”, Paternoster: Bletchley.
Klassen, R. (2001), “What does the Bible really say about Hell? Wrestling with the traditional view”, Pandora Press: Telford.
Johnston, P.S. (2002), “Shades of Sheol, Death and the Afterlife in the Old Testament”, IVP: Downers Grove.
Osborne, G. R, (2006), “The Hermeneutical Spiral, A comprehensive Introduction to Biblical interpretation”, IVP: Downers Grove.
Toon, P. (1986), “Heaven and Hell, A Biblical and Theological overview”, Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville.
Witherington III, B. (2010), Revelation and the End times. Unraveling God’s message of hope”, Abingdon Press: Nashville.
Did Jesus Rise from the dead?
The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is the most critical of all Christian truth claims. As Paul states, if Christ is not raised then your faith is futile. In other words, Christianity stands or falls on the basis of the reality and truth of a physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This article is a summary of William Lane Craig’s argument for the resurrection, based on chapter 9 of his book, On Guard, Defending your faith with Reason and Precision.
The argument is presented in 2 phases:
- What is the evidence, and
- What is the best explanation of the evidence?
This argument is mainly based on the writings of the New Testament, in particular the 4 gospels, Acts and those letters of Paul that are universally recognized as genuinely from the hand of Paul. This includes Galatians, 1&2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Colossians. The argument does not assume that the NT texts are the divinely inspired Word of God. It treats them as historical resources that are the works of men. They are a set of fairly independent books that were eventually formed into a collection, which we now call the New Testament.
2 The Evidence
The 3 lines of evidence are:
- The empty tomb,
- Jesus’ appearances alive after his death, and
- The origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
2.1 The Empty Tomb
The 5 lines of evidence for the empty tomb are:
- The evidence for Jesus’ burial
- There are multiple independent reports of the empty tomb
- The simplicity of Mark’s account
- The role of women in the discovery of the empty tomb, and
- The earliest Jewish response to the resurrection claim
Why is the burial relevant to the argument for the empty tomb? If the burial story is accurate then the location of the tomb was known. The tomb must have been empty when the disciples commenced preaching, otherwise the disciples wouldn’t have believed their own message, nobody else would have believed them, and the Jewish authorities would have suppressed the new movement by exhuming the body.
The evidence for the historicity of the burial is that
- We have multiple independent sources supporting the burial and also
- The particular role of Joseph of Arimathea.
188.8.131.52 Independent Sources
There are at least 5 independent sources that support or provide information about the burial:
- Mark’s passion source,
- Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8,
- Matthew and Luke’s source,
- Early sermons in Acts, and
Mark’s passion source is believed to be derived from an earlier source as it differs in style from the rest of Mark. It is one long continuous narrative, whereas the rest of Mark tends to consist of short pericopes with abrupt joining statements. Mark describes the burial by Joseph of Arimathea and that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses witnessed where Jesus was buried. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul explicitly states that Jesus died, was buried and was then raised on the 3rd day. Matthew and Luke deviate from Mark in a common way, indicating that they were using a common source independent of Mark, usually assumed to be Q, which is an early source. John’s source is also independent. Acts contains records of early sermons that mention the burial, as “he was not abandoned to the grave” (Acts 2:31).
184.108.40.206 Joseph of Arimathea
All 4 gospels state that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in his family tomb. Joseph was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. There was tension and hostility between the Sanhedrin and Jesus, as well as with his disciples. However, the gospels speak favorably about Joseph. Thus this is unlikely to be a Christian invention. The gospels also state that women were the witnesses to his burial, which is also unlikely to be a Christian invention.
2.1.2 Independent Reports of the empty Tomb
The independent sources that directly attest the empty tomb on Sunday morning include those sources that attested the burial. Matthew also reports that the first Jewish counterclaim to the resurrection was that the disciples had stolen the body. However, this claim would only have been raised if the tomb was actually empty. Luke and John also mention that 2 of the disciples visited the tomb to verify the women’s report that the tomb was empty. These constitute additional independent sources that attest the empty tomb.
2.1.3 Simplicity of Mark’s Account
Mark’s account of the empty tomb is simple and lacks legendary development that is typical of later legends. The actual resurrection is neither witnessed nor described. The narrative is told simply without theological reflections or Old Testament quotations. This is in contrast to the gospel of Peter, which is typical of late legendary developments.
2.1.4 Role of Women
All 4 gospels attest that it was women who discovered the empty tomb. This likely to be genuine as it is something that would not be invented. This is due to the low status of women within Jewish and Greek culture at that time. Women were not regarded as credible witnesses. For example, in Antiquities of the Jews IV.8.15, Josephus states, “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex”. Other quotations that indicate the low status of women at that time are, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Sotah 19a) or “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a Gentile, a slave or a woman” (Berachos 16b).
2.1.5 Earliest Jewish Response
The earliest response to the resurrection was that the disciples had stolen the body (Matt 28:11-15) and Matthew states that “The story has been spread among Jews to this day”. This presupposes that the body was missing.
2.1.6 Conclusion on Empty Tomb
The historical evidence for the empty tomb is quite strong and is now widely supported by Biblical scholars and historians. Jacob Kremer (a New Testament critic) states that “By far most scholars hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb”. Gary Habermas has conducted a study and claims that 75% of scholars accept the empty tomb (Habermas). This includes eminent Jewish scholars, such as Geza Vermes and Pinchas Lapide.
2.2 The Appearances
I will now discuss the evidence for the appearances of Christ after his death. Three lines of evidence will be presented:
- Paul’s list of eyewitnesses
- Independent gospel accounts, and
- The bodily nature of the appearances.
2.2.1 Paul’s List
In 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8, Paul provides a list of people to whom Christ appeared after his death:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
This quotation is from one of Paul’s indisputably authentic letters. From Galatians, we know that Paul was acquainted with the first disciples and it is strongly believed that this account was obtained from Peter and James while he stayed with Peter for 15 days, three years after his conversion. His list includes the following people:
- Five hundred brethren
- All the apostles
- Saul of Tarsus (Paul)
The specific appearance to Peter is not described in any of the gospel accounts. However, we have good evidence that it did occur for 2 reasons:
- Paul knew Peter personally (Galatians 1:18) and so he received this information first hand, and
- Although Luke does not describe the appearance, he still mentions that it occurred, as he reports “The Lord has risen indeed and he has appeared to Simon [another name for Peter]” (Luke 24:23).
Thus we have 2 independent reports that Jesus appeared to Peter.
“The Twelve” is a generic term that refers to the original 12 disciples minus Judas. The appearance to this group of disciples is also independently described in Luke 24:36-42 and John 20:19-20. In both accounts Jesus greets the disciples with “Peace be with you” and then he shows them his wounds before eating in their presence. This appearance emphasises the bodily, physical nature of the appearance and also verifies that it was the same person as who was crucified.
220.127.116.11 Five hundred brethren
Paul then states that Jesus appeared to more than 500 brethren on a single occasion. This event seems quite outstanding, but it is not mentioned explicitly in any of the gospels. This has made many suspicious. However, in its favour, Paul states that some of these have since died but the rest are still alive. It seems apparent that Paul had personal contact with many of these people and that witnesses were still available at that time and could be questioned. Why is this event not described in the gospels? Perhaps it is because most of the gospel appearances took place in Jerusalem. The appearance to the 500 could have taken place in Galilee and may even correspond to the event described Matthew 28:16-18 (the great commission).
James was one of Jesus’ brothers. During his ministry, his brothers did not believe in him and there was obviously tension within Jesus’ family. This is reported independently in Mark 3:21, Mark 3:31-35 and John 7:3-5 and also meets the criteria of embarrassment. However, after the crucifixion, his brothers had changed their attitude. They were present with the disciples in the upper room (Acts 1:14), James became the leader of the Jerusalem church, Paul met with James during his 15-day stay with Peter and Paul refers to James as one of the 3 pillars of the church at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). In addition, all of Jesus’ brothers became Christian preachers and even Josephus describes the martyrdom of James the brother of Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews (20:200). This turnaround in the attitude of James and his brothers affirms Paul’s claim that Jesus appeared to James.
18.104.22.168 All the apostles
“All the Apostles” refers to a wider group than the original 12 disciples. It is evident that such a group existed as Luke reports, “Choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22). Thus Luke independently attests that there was a wider group of men who had witnessed appearances.
22.214.171.124 Saul of Tarsus (Paul)
The appearance to Paul is explicitly described once in Acts, and then recounted by Paul twice in the same book. Paul also explicitly confirms this appearance in 1 Corinthians 9:1and 15:8. Saul was previously a Pharisee, a persecutor of Christians and even responsible for the execution of some Christians. This is described in Acts and is also confirmed in his letters. However, he suddenly gave up his former way of life to follow Jesus, for which he suffered greatly and was eventually martyred. This radical change was solely based on his belief that Jesus had appeared to him.
2.2.2 Independent Gospel Accounts
The gospels and Paul’s list provide multiple independent accounts of appearances:
- The appearance to Peter is mentioned by Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (24:34)
- The appearance to the 12 is mentioned by Paul (1 Cor 15:5), Luke (24:36-53) and John (20:19-31)
- The appearance to the women is reported by Matthew (28:9-10) and John (20:11-17) and also meets the criterion of embarrassment
- The appearance to the disciples in Galilee is reported by Matthew (28:16-20), Mark (16) & John (21)
According to sceptical scholar Gert Ludemann, it is historically certain that disciples experienced appearances.
2.2.3 Bodily Nature of the Appearances
However, were the appearances physical and bodily or were they simply visions that were internal to peoples’ minds? On this the New Testament is clear for the following reasons:
- Paul implies that the appearances were physical,
- The NT distinguishes between appearances and visions, and
- The gospel accounts emphasis that the appearances were physical.
126.96.36.199 Paul on the Resurrection Body
Paul taught not only the immortality of the soul, but even more emphatically taught the resurrection of the body. In 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 Paul compares the earthly body with the resurrection body as shown in the following table:
Some have suggested that the natural/spiritual comparison is synonymous with physical/immaterial. However, this is not the case. Paul makes it clear that he is referring to orientation. The natural man seeks to please the desires of the flesh whereas the spiritual man seeks to please God.
188.8.131.52 Appearance/Vision Distinction
The New Testament clearly distinguishes between an appearance and a vision. An appearance is external and physical whereas a vision only occurs within an individual’s mind. The appearances occurred over a period of 40 days. Thereafter, individuals experienced visions, such as Stephen’s vision of Jesus at the right hand of God while he was being stoned (Acts 7). The exception was Saul, who experienced an appearance much later. There was a flash of light, he fell to the ground, he was temporarily blinded by the experience and his acquaintances heard a sound but did not understand the voice. Also Paul explicitly describes this event as an appearance.
184.108.40.206 Gospel Accounts Emphasize Physical Appearances
All of the gospel accounts emphasize the physical nature of all of the appearances. There is no trace or evidence on non-physical appearances. These accounts also meet the criterion of dissimilarity. The Greeks only believed in the immortality of the soul and considered the physical body inherently evil. The Jews believed in the universal resurrection of the righteous at the end of the world but had no belief in the resurrection of an individual prior to this time, let alone that the Messiah would be resurrected.
2.3 Disciples’ Belief
So far we have covered evidence for the empty tomb and the post crucifixion appearances. The 3rd line of evidence is the origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. The Christian Church exploded into life during the 1st century. What caused this movement to begin? The crucifixion was a disaster for the common expectation of the Messiah. The origin of the Christian Church was based on their belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead and that the resurrection was the validation of Jesus’ claim to be Messiah.
3 The Best Explanation
The evidence strongly suggests that Jesus died and was buried, but on the following Sunday morning his tomb was empty. This was then followed by what witnesses believed to be physical appearances of the risen Jesus. It was this belief in the physical resurrection that was the basis for the origin of the Christian church. This is the evidence that is widely accepted by Biblical critics. However, how is this evidence best explained? This section will describe some of the criteria that historians use to formally compare hypotheses in the light of the evidence and will then apply these criteria to compare the following hypotheses:
- The Conspiracy Theory,
- The Apparent death Theory,
- The displaced body theory,
- The hallucination Theory, and
- The Resurrection hypothesis.
3.1 Criteria for Comparing Hypotheses
Historians use various criteria for comparing hypotheses. These include the following:
- Explanatory scope: How well does the hypothesis explain the evidence?
- Explanatory power: Does this hypothesis make the evidence more probable?
- Plausibility: How well does this hypothesis fit with background beliefs?
- Less contrived: Is there less need for additional unsupported beliefs?
- Disconfirmed by fewer expected beliefs: Does this hypotheses not conflict with fewer accepted beliefs?
- Meets conditions 1-5 better than other hypotheses
3.2 Hypotheses Comparison
3.2.1 Conspiracy Hypothesis
The conspiracy hypothesis is that the disciples stole the body and then lied about his appearances.
This theory has good explanatory scope as it explains all of the evidence. The tomb was empty since the disciples stole the body. It explains the appearances, as the disciples lied. It also explains the origin of the disciples’ belief as that was also a lie. However, this hypothesis does not have good explanatory power. Why invent a story where the empty tomb is discovered by women? Why is the story not filled with proof texts and fulfilled prophecies? Why isn’t the resurrection witnessed and described? There are no dazzling and glorious appearances. Matthew’s story about the guard would not suit a conspiracy. The body could already have been stolen before the guard was set. However the biggest objection is that, “Why would the disciples die for something they know isn’t true?”
The conspiracy theory is also implausible. Conspiracies are difficult to maintain and usually unravel. It also doesn’t tally with the disciples’ psychological state. They would have been devastated that their hoped for Messiah had been humiliated by crucifixion. Why would they bother with constructing a conspiracy?
In the early 20th century it was fashionable for scholars to suggest that Christian beliefs about the resurrection were contrived by copying pagan resurrection stories. Scholars collected supposed parallel stories from pagan religions. However the movement collapsed when the parallels were studied more deeply. The reasons were that the parallels were shown to be false and there was no connection with the disciples’ resurrection belief.
The ancient world was a fruit basket of beliefs and so it was easy to find instances that were similar. However, the parallels were of a different order. Some were assumptions into heaven (Hercules or Romulus), some were disappearances (Apollonius and Empedocles), some were seasonal symbols (Tammuz, Osiris and Adonis) and some were emperor worship (Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar). However, none of them were a close match to the resurrection and were simply the wrong interpretive framework for 1st century Jews. In addition, paganism was abhorrent to Jews and so it is highly unlikely that the disciples would have derived the resurrection from pagan beliefs.
As an alternative some have suggested that the resurrection was derived from Jewish influences. However, the Jews expected the resurrection of all the righteous at the end of the world. They did not expect the resurrection of an individual Messiah prior to the end. This has been confirmed from other messianic movements. No other Messianic movement ever proposed that their Messiah was resurrected.
The conspiracy theory is also contrived. It postulates motives to the disciples for which there is no evidence. It suggests that the moral character of the disciples was defective. Hypotheses have to be multiplied to account for the evidence. How does the conspiracy hypothesis account for the 500 witnesses and the women discovering the empty tomb?
The conspiracy theory is also disconfirmed by expected beliefs. Conspiracies tend to unravel. The disciples also seem sincere and the story does not match messianic expectations. For these reasons the conspiracy theory is not taken seriously by any scholar today.
3.2.2 Apparent Death Hypothesis
This theory suggests that Jesus was not dead when he was taken down from the cross. He later revived and escaped from the tomb, and then convinced the disciples that he had risen. This theory was popular at beginning of 19th century. This theory would explain the empty tomb, the appearances and the origin of the disciples’ belief. Some versions of this theory suggest that the disciples and Jesus conspired to fake Jesus’ death. However this version suffers from the same weaknesses as the conspiracy theory. The other version of this theory is that Jesus just happened to survive. However there are some obvious problems with this version. Jesus underwent severe torture prior to the crucifixion making it highly unlikely that he could survive crucifixion. The guards thought that Jesus was dead and they should have been competent in their assessment. Roman soldiers knew when their victims were dead and could ensure death by a spear thrust. Surely Jesus was at least severely weakened. How could he then move the stone, impress his disciples or support numerous appearances? The theory is also contrived. There have been suggestions that Jesus took special potions to fake death or that the centurion’s lance thrust was just a superficial poke. The theory is also disconfirmed by medical knowledge regarding the effects of scourging and crucifixion. Also, the appearances only continued for 40 days but Jesus did not continue with the disciples thereafter. Hence the displaced body hypothesis now has little scholarly support.
3.2.3 Displaced Body Hypothesis
This theory suggests that Joseph of Arimathea only placed the body in his tomb temporarily and then later moved the body into the criminal graveyard. Hence the disciples discovered the empty tomb and then inferred the resurrection.
This theory explains the empty tomb but not the appearances. It also has little explanatory power. Why didn’t Joseph correct the mistake? Perhaps he died before he got the chance. Some have suggested that the body was unidentifiable. However, Jewish ossuary practices militate against this. After one year the bones were transferred into an ossuary box and so Jews knew how to identify the correct body. Besides this, the criminals’ graveyard was close by. There would have been no need to use the family tomb. In addition, the Jewish law did not permit the body to be moved so soon after death. The theory is also contrived by suggesting Joseph’s sudden death or ascribing motives to him for which we have no evidence. Thus no historian currently supports this theory.
3.2.4 Hallucination Hypothesis
David Strauss proposed the hallucination theory in his book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835). The most prominent defender of this view today is Gerd Ludemann. This theory suggests that the appearances were hallucinations. This theory explains the appearances but does not explain the empty tomb and does not actually explain the disciples’ belief in the resurrection.
One of the claims is that the recorded appearances are similar to modern experiences of visions of the departed. Even if this is so, this would not lead to a resurrection belief. Visions of the departed may encourage belief in an afterlife but do not cause belief in a current physical resurrection. Visions of the departed are not taken as evidence that someone is alive, but that they are dead. Visions or hallucinations would more likely lead to a belief that Jesus was assumed into heaven in a manner like Enoch or Elijah.
It has been suggested that Peter and Paul could have had guilt induced visions but this theory relies on disputed theories proposed by Jung and Freud. Besides this, Paul does not fit. He was a successful and happy Jew who was fulfilled in his former manner of life. Paul’s experience is also recorded as being specifically an external appearance. His heard a voice, he was knocked to the ground and he became temporarily blind. The diversity of the appearances also “bursts the bounds of psychological casebooks.” Jesus appeared to many people at many times in many locations and under many circumstances. How could all these appearances lead to a uniform view of a physical resurrection? Some have suggested that there was a chain reaction and copy cat behavior amongst the disciples, but Paul and James also experienced appearances and they were not members of that group.
The hallucination theory is also highly contrived. It assumes that Peter was so obsessed with his guilt that he projected a hallucination. It also requires that the other disciples were prone to hallucinate or that Paul had a secret attraction to Christianity. The theory is also disconfirmed by the empty tomb, Paul’s satisfaction with his former life and the clear distinction that the New Testament makes between an appearance and a vision.
Nevertheless, the hallucination hypothesis is still considered a live option today and is superior to the other naturalistic options, but how does it compare with the resurrection hypothesis?
3.2.5 Actual Resurrection Hypothesis
The resurrection hypothesis is that Jesus actually physically rose from the dead leaving behind an empty tomb. This theory explains all 3 facts of the empty tomb, the appearances and the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. It also has great explanatory power since if Jesus rose from the dead we would expect the empty tomb, the appearances and the disciples’ belief. It is also more plausible considering Jesus’ life, his claims about his identity and the evidence for God’s existence. The resurrection claim is more plausible for Jesus than for Elvis. The main supposition that is required is that God exists. Once this is admitted as a genuine possibility then a supernatural explanation fits into the historical context. The main disconfirming belief is that “dead men do not rise”. It is indeed true that dead men do not rise naturally. However, the claim is that God raised Jesus from the dead. Hence if the prejudice against miracles is rejected, then there is no better rival to the resurrection hypothesis.
There is good evidence for the empty tomb, the appearances and that the disciples believed in the resurrection. The most straightforward explanation is that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead as claimed. The main obstacle to accepting this as true is the prejudice against the supernatural and against miracles. If God does not exist then the resurrection is impossible. However, if God is the creator and designer of the universe then, “the odd resurrection here and there is chicken feed”.
Argument for the Resurrection from Paul
Most arguments for the resurrection are based on the gospel accounts. For example, William Lane Craig bases his argument on:
- The empty tomb,
- The appearances, and
- The disciples’ beliefs in the resurrection.
I totally agree with his approach. However, this article is an argument that is personally convincing to me. It is based almost entirely on Paul’s writings (mainly Galatians and 1 Corinthians).
There is a lot of debate about the authorship and dating of the four gospels. However, these factors are far less controversial for most of Paul’s letters. Paul wrote 13 letters out of the 27 books in the NT, just less than 30% of the whole New Testament, and in each of his letters Paul identifies himself as the author in his initial greeting. Virtually all historical and biblical scholars accept that the majority of Paul’s letters were indeed written by Paul. His style is strongly personal, spontaneous and even controversial. There is no way that his letters were constructed or contrived by a committee. Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon are virtually undisputed by scholars of all persuasions as being originated by Paul.
We can also be very confident that we have a good record of what he wrote. Many copies of Paul’s letters were disseminated widely, diverging into multiple branches like leaves on a tree. Scholars can compare multiple copies and derive a very reliable text. Thus, there is scholarly agreement that we know what Paul wrote.
Within his letters Paul refers incidentally to dateable events. Thus the contextual information that is contained in these letters enable some of them to be dated quite accurately. Paul’s letters were also written very close to Jesus’ ministry. His earliest letter may be within 15 years of the crucifixion. All of his letters were completed prior to Paul’s death in about 65AD. There are 2 theories for the destination for the Galatian letter (the South and North Galatian theories), which result in authorship dates of 49 AD or 55 AD respectively. 1 Corinthians was written in approximately 53 AD.
In summary, for most of Paul’s letters, we know who wrote them, what he wrote and when he wrote them. We also know they were written within a generation of Jesus’ crucifixion.
2 Biographical Information
We can also learn a great deal about Paul from his letters that is consistent with the account written about him in Acts several years later.
Firstly, in 1 Corinthians 15:9 and Galatians 1:13&23 Paul admits that he formerly persecuted the Church and tried to destroy it, as confirmed in Acts. However, on his way to Damascus, Paul claims he had an encounter with the risen Christ. This is described 3 times in the book of Acts. According to Acts a bright light appeared from heaven, Paul fell to the ground and he heard the voice of Jesus. This appearance was more than a vision that occurred in his brain. His companions saw the light and heard a sound, but they could not understand the voice. So something physical happened. Paul was temporarily blinded by the light. So Paul was also physically affected.
Paul later confirms this event in his letters. In Galatians 1:11-12, 1 Corinthians 9:1 & 15:8 Paul claims that he has seen the risen Christ and that the risen Christ appeared to him. This event was sufficiently convincing to Paul to completely reverse his former position and commence his Christian ministry without any reference to the established apostles (Galatians 1:15-24).
In Galatians 1:18&19 Paul records that, 3 years after his conversion, he visited Jerusalem and stayed with the apostle Peter for 15 days. During this time he also met with James, the brother of Jesus. He returned to Jerusalem again 14 years later and met with Peter, James and John (Galatians 2:1-9). Paul does not say a great deal about what they discussed during these visits, but we can safely assume that they did not spend the time drinking cups of tea and talking about the weather. Paul was also familiar with Jesus’ other brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5). Thus Paul had access to Jesus’ family members and also to witnesses of his ministry.
Paul’s main record relating to the death and resurrection of Christ is contained in 1 Corinthians 15:1-26 as follows:
1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.
2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.
16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.
25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months from the beginning of 50 AD to about July 51 AD. He probably wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus in about 53 AD in response to news from Corinth. In verse 1 he refers to their reception of the gospel from him. In particular, in verse 3 he states, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that…” The following text from verse 3 to 7 is a creed. Paul said that he had previously received it and then passed it on to the Corinthians (in 50 AD). Most scholars believe that Paul received this pre-existing creed from Peter and James during his first visit to Jerusalem 3 years after his conversion, which must have been within 5 years of the crucifixion. Paul then mentions Christ’s death, burial, resurrection and appearances to Peter, the Twelve, 500, James and all the apostles. After the creed he adds that Christ appeared to himself in an unusual way. It is significant that he mentions both Peter and James, as he met with them during his first visit. The appearance to James is not mentioned in the gospels. However, James was not a believer in Christ prior to the crucifixion but became the leader of the church in Jerusalem afterwards. Neither is the appearance to the 500 mentioned in the gospels. However, he states that most of them are still alive. The implication is, “Go and ask them if you don’t believe me.”
Paul is fully aware of the implications if Christ was not raised. His preaching is useless, so is their faith, he and the apostles are false witnesses, they are still in their sins, the dead in Christ are lost and Christians are to be pitied above all men. There is not much going for a dead Christ. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, Paul lists some of the things that he suffered for the gospel. He went on to suffer much more and was eventually executed during the Neronian persecution.
Paul knew what was at stake. If Christ was not raised then he and all the other witnesses were liars, his preaching was useless and futile, as is our faith. If Christ was not raised then all the apostles were of all men most to be pitied. What is the point? Why bother? Why travel all over Europe and suffer all these persecutions if the gospel message is not true? Why not rather eat drink and be merry? For tomorrow we die.
Eventually Paul was arrested and put in prison. The NT does not record his death. However, there is strong testimony from other sources that Paul was eventually beheaded just outside of Rome during the Neronian persecutions in about 65 AD.
Paul was willing to pay with his life for his belief in the resurrection. Now, dying for your beliefs doesn’t make it true. News reports of suicide bombers dying for their belief in Islam is almost a daily occurrence. But there is a key difference for the apostles. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the events and knew if their claims were true. Likewise, Paul was in an excellent position to know if the resurrection claim was untrue. Why die for a cause if you know it is not true? For this reason, even sceptical scholars that do not believe in the resurrection will still admit that the apostles really did believe that they had seen the risen Christ.
Is Paul Reliable?
Paul testifies to us that Christ is raised from the dead, but is he a reliable witness? If he is not a reliable witness, what are the possible causes of his error? Was he a liar? This is highly unlikely. As I described before, why suffer and die for something that you know is not true. Besides, Paul’s teaching about truth and integrity militates against it. Was he hallucinating? Was he sincerely mistaken? This is actually the most common explanation provided by sceptics. If it was just Paul, then that would be a possible explanation. However, there are at least 3 reasons why it is highly unlikely.
- Firstly, Paul was in the wrong frame of mind to hallucinate in such a way. The vision was in direct opposition to his intent and desires.
- Secondly, there were many witnesses to the resurrection. What are the chances of them all experiencing a hallucination, let alone the same one?
- Thirdly, a vision of the departed would not lead Paul or the other disciples to believe in a bodily resurrection. Visions of the departed may lead people to believe that a person lives on after death, but do not prompt them to believe in a bodily resurrection. Visions of the departed are not evidence that a person is alive, but that they are dead.
Was Paul crazy? This was Festus’ response. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” However, notice Paul’s reply: “I am not insane, most excellent Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26: 24-25).
Was Paul stupid? Anyone who reads his letters will realise that this is not possible. For example, Antony Flew is a former atheist who is one of the leading philosophers in the world. Yet, he says, “Paul is an intelligent man and has the mind of a first class philosopher”.
So it seems that alternate explanations for Paul’s testimony are highly unlikely.
Summary of Paul’s Testimony
In summary, I believe that Paul provides a solid testimony to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ and the truth of the gospel for the following reasons:
- Paul had access to eye witnesses to the risen Christ within 5 years of the event.
- Paul had his own experience where he claims that he had seen the risen Christ.
- Paul’s conversion was completely unexpected as he was a former persecutor of the church.
- Paul had no motive to give a false testimony.
- Paul was willing to endure suffering and death for what he believed. Why do that if you know it is not true?
 See discussion between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew at http://www.illustramedia.com/IDArticles/flew-interview.pdf