Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 2

In my previous post I had started us thinking about the resurrection from the point-of-view of one of its prominent deniers – Bishop John Shelby Spong.  In his book Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, he had given a vivid description of how Jesus would have impacted his disciples during his lifetime. He then painted a thorough picture of how the disciples would have interpreted the meaning of a non-resurrected, dead, Jesus. Spong focused on the turmoil that would have gone on in Simon Peter’s mind and Spong portrays Peter’s conclusion as:

…Jesus had to have been guilty of blasphemy. He was dead, and they had to begin to accept the fact that they had been misled, duped, and therefore they also were guilty (p.251)

Bishop Spong on the turn-around of Simon Peter

Spong has perfectly captured the implications that would indeed have haunted the minds of the disciples with a non-resurrected Jesus. But what was the catalyst that would have turned these peasant fishermen around to take on the world? Spong continues by surmising how it would have turned around for Simon Peter after a night of fishing and now warming himself by the fire.

Suddenly it all came together for Simon. The crucifixion was not punitive, it was intentional. The cross was Jesus’ ultimate parable, acted out on the stage of history to open the eyes of those whose eyes could be opened in no other way to the meaning of Jesus as the sign of God’s love. God’s love was unconditional, a love not earned by the rigorous keeping of the law… Jesus’ death was the final episode in the story of his life. It demonstrated as nothing else could or would that it is in giving life away that we find life, it is in giving love away that we find love… It was a love that allowed us to stop pretending and simply to be. Simon saw the meaning of the crucifixion that morning as he had never before seen it … this was the dawn of Easter in human history … the clouds of his grief, confusion, and depression vanished from his mind, and in that moment he know that Jesus was part of the very essence of God, and at that moment Simon saw Jesus alive. (p.255)

So what caused this ‘coming together’ for Simon? Well after the night of fishing, by the fire, he ‘broke bread’ and said grace and in doing so remembered Jesus. That’s it! That changed the defeated and confused Simon into valiant Peter that no one could silence. Read Spong’s explanation again in detail, and you will see it just raises far more questions than it answers. How could the crucifixion not be ‘punitive’? It is the worst form of humiliation and torture that man has invented. In what way is Jesus being ‘intentional’ and ‘acting’ out a ‘parable’ that leads to his grisly end? How can a man tortured on a cross, without a resurrection, be a “sign of God’s love”? And is not anyone’s ‘death the final episode of their life’? That is true for everyone. That is just a circular statement to mean nothing. How does Jesus giving his life ‘away’ in crucifixion ‘demonstrate as nothing else could’ that ‘we find life’ (assuming no resurrection)? That is bogus; it just demonstrates the reverse. How does Simon in that moment ‘know’ that Jesus was part of the ‘very essence of God’ when as we saw in the first quote that the non-resurrected death of Jesus would very logically been understand as proof of his ‘blasphemy’? What could be going on in Simon’s mind to get this sudden ‘realization’? Spong tells us.

It was as if scales fell from his eyes and Simon saw a realm that is around us at every moment … a realm of God from within which Jesus appeared to Simon. Was it real? Yes, I am convinced it was real. Was it objective? No, I do not think it was objective. Can it be real if not objective? Yes I think it can. (p.256)

We have a word for this kind of thing, where something appears ‘real’ to the beholder, but is nonetheless not objective (i.e. it is not true). We call it delusion. There would be no other way to describe what would have happened to Peter at this moment if Spong’s scenario is true. In a real sense, Spong has Peter becoming a lunatic regarding the person of Jesus.

Spong on the turn-around of the other apostles

But perhaps we should cut Spong some slack. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and concede that it is conceivable that in the stress Peter went through that he snapped and had this delusional ‘realization’. But that still does not explain anything. Peter needs to get a movement going (which we know from history did indeed take off). He needs to get all the other ‘apostles’ on board. And he has to do so in a way that will sustain them for a long, long time in a difficult, difficult task. Consider, given the opposition that the disciples would face in the coming years, what kind of pressure they would be under. Dr Simon Greenleaf, a professor of Law at Harvard whose specialty it was to train students how to cross-examine witnesses had this to say of the disciples coming career:

The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unflinching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted [1]

French Philosopher Blaise Pascal had this to say about the disciples.

The hypothesis that the disciples were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end, and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost. [2]

So how is delusional Peter going to develop men of adequate calibre to face this task? Spong tells us:

The gospel of Easter and Jesus as the exalted one, living with God, dawned, I believe in Galilee with Peter at its heart. Peter then opened the eyes of the other Galilean disciples to see what he saw. They took this faith to Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles some six months after the crucifixion. That was the real triumphal journey. That was the original Palm Sunday. In Jerusalem they made known their faith in the risen, living Christ; and in time the Jerusalem setting for the resurrection became the primary one…The Jerusalem Easter legends are not to be dismissed as untrue. They are meant to be probed for clues, as I trust I have done adequately. (p.282)

So Peter just ‘opened the eyes’ of the other disciples to see his delusion!!? Then they marched down to Jerusalem, and in a public display, in the teeth of the authorities of the day they proclaimed the ‘risen’, ‘living’ Christ! So now Lunatic Peter has made Liars of the rest of the disciples since what they were saying would have been a lie.  Jesus was not risen; he was not living (in Spong’s unfolding scenario).

In attempting to avoid a supernatural explanation for the events of history that we know, Spong has made his natural explanation supremely bizarre and infinitely less rational. His scenario takes a naive faith to believe because it flies in the face of facts that we know. But somehow he thinks he has ‘adequately’ explained things.   There is nothing ‘adequate’ about his explanation – but it is naturalistic, and this provides a glimpse into a foundational assumption in our society.  Spong, like so many of us, equates naturalism with ‘rational’ and ‘adequate’.  Like an iceberg submerged just below the water surface, invisible but certainly there, this unwritten doctrine squeezes so much of our thinking that, without realizing it, we confuse ‘adequate rationality’ with ‘naturalistic folly’.  That is why Spong thinks his scenario is reasonable.  But he is not even close to accounting for all the facts of history as we know them. How does he explain the turnaround of Jesus’ brothers and Saul of Tarsus? We will see how he does this in our next post.

[1] Greenleaf, An examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of
Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice
. 1874 p. 29

[2] Blaise Pascal Pensees 322,310