In my series of posts (Parts 1, 2, 3) on the question of the resurrection of Jesus I have looked at its impact on Peter, the other disciples, and on James the brother of Jesus, all through the eyes of a prominent denier of the resurrection – Bishop John Shelby Spong. Because he denies the resurrection he has to develop alternative scenarios for the changes we know from history that took place in these men. Now we turn to consider Paul. What would make Saul, chief persecutor of the followers of Jesus, change into Paul, the chief apologist and evangelist of Jesus in the first century – if there had been no resurrection? Spong tells us:
“There is no sense at all in Paul of a physical resurrection of Jesus back into the life of this world. God did not, for this apostle, raise Jesus from the grave back to life on this earth. Rather, for Paul, God raised Jesus from death into God’s presence, from the grave to God’s right hand… For Paul there were no empty tombs, no disappearance from the grave of the physical body, no physical resurrection, no physical appearance of a Christ who would eat fish, offer his wounds for inspection, or rise physically into the sky after an appropriate length of time. None of these ideas can be found in reading Paul.” (Resurrection: Myth or Reality pg 50-51)
Spong’s previous scenarios for Peter, the disciples and for James have been ludicrous at best. But in this statement concerning Paul, Spong sinks to outright error and deception. Which Paul has Spong been reading? If anything, it is obvious that Paul himself believed and emphasized the resurrection. Why he is the very one writing about the physical resurrection appearances of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, assessing the issue as of ‘first importance’, that we looked at in Part 3. I quote it again so you can see for yourself whether Paul taught ‘no physical appearance of a Christ’ as Spong wishes us to believe:
“For what I received I passed onto 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” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)
Paul, as you can see, certainly believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. What many of us do not realize is that the message that the disciples, and especially Paul, preached was not ‘love’ so much as it was the resurrection of Jesus. And from their own words everything stood or fell on the resurrection of Jesus. Notice how Paul continues:
“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that we are found to be false witnesses about God for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead … If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile…But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead… If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men….Why do we endanger ourselves every day – I mean that brothers – …If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised – ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’…” (1 Corinthians 15:14-34)
Spong, unsurprisingly, skips over this part of Paul’s writing because it flatly contradicts him. In trying to make his case that Paul did not believe in the empty tomb, he maintains that Paul taught a spiritual resurrection of Jesus’ spirit straight to God. He believes that this is because Paul did not hold a distinction between the resurrection of Jesus from the grave to life on earth and the ascension of Jesus to God, since he never mentions the ascension separately from the resurrection. But Luke does; Luke clearly separates the two because he places the resurrection appearances in The Gospel of Luke and then places the ascension in his 2nd volume – Acts of the Apostles. Luke and Paul were ministry and travelling companions. In their respective writings both of them write as being with the other as part of a travelling team. In fact, it is because of Luke’s association with Paul that his two books, Luke and Acts, were accepted as authoritative. So it would have been impossible for Luke to have a different view of the resurrection/ascension of Jesus than Paul had. Spong just ignores this, disregards Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians, and then deceptively fabricates an imaginary Paul to fit his theory. I can only conclude that Spong is deliberately misleading his readers in what he writes about Paul.
One reason Spong feels he can do so is because he thinks that the evidence in support of the resurrection is solely in the accounts of his appearances at the end of the gospels. And since (in his mind) they are written late they do not carry much weight. I built the broad outline of the case for the resurrection in the videos in Session 7. You, I and Spong should all take note that the case there and in subsequent posts was developed without any recourse to any of the Gospel statements of Jesus’ resurrection. In Session 7 I used some of the Gospel accounts to obtain details of his death and then I used some passages in Acts to help us understand the extent of the opposition that this new movement faced in Jerusalem. That was it! After that I used only extra-biblical sources to show that it is precisely the broad outlines of the verifiable facts outside of the Biblical testimony that argues so strongly for the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul viewed the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as distinct and real events. In the same way he viewed the resurrection of Jesus as an event distinct from, but also as a prefiguring for our eventual resurrection. Here is how he puts it:
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54)
The resurrection of Jesus is not only news pregnant with Hope, a potent simplicity, but is also news so firmly anchored in the verifiable facts of history that open-minded faith as small as a mustard seed could live and grow if but placed in the rich soil of its rationale.