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Easter 2018: If He Rose At All, It Was As His Body


Dale Allison is a New Testament scholar regarded by some as an orthodox Christian, despite some rather odd aspects of his scholarship. For example, William Lane Craig says of Allison’s book Resurrecting Jesus, “I have never seen a more persuasive case for scepticism about the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection than Allison’s presentation of the arguments.” (From an exchange between Allison and several Christian philosophers in Philosophia Christi, vol. 10, no. 2, 2008, p. 293.) Craig takes it that Allison does conclude that the resurrection occurred despite Allison’s skepticism, and Craig takes this to be a testimony to the strength of the case (p. 294), but others are free to disagree with this characterization. For one thing, Allison has very strong doubts about the concept of bodily resurrection and hence refuses to commit himself to a belief that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead (exchange, pp. 316-319). The most he will say is that, in some appearances or other, which he does not think we are justified in claiming were much like those recounted in the Gospels, “[T]he disciples saw Jesus and...he saw them.” (Exchange, p. 334).

And even granting that much objective factuality to the resurrection, according to Allison, depends heavily on one’s prior worldview, which he thinks can be justified only by the work of theologians and philosophers, if such a thing is possible at all. (Resurrecting Jesus, p. 351)

What Allison is probably best known for is his widespread use of the concept of grief hallucinations and accounts of alleged paranormal appearances of the dead. He thinks that such accounts bear suggestive similarities to whatever is left of the Gospel resurrection narratives when higher criticism is done with them--a shredding process with which he seems quite willing to cooperate.

In short, Allison appears to believe in, at most, some version of what is known as the “objective vision theory” of Jesus’ resurrection rather than the bodily resurrection and to be somewhat hesitant about whether even that much can be justified in a rational fashion. I myself would not be inclined to refer to someone with that position as one who has been convinced that Jesus rose from the dead on the basis of historical argument.

Readers may wonder why I begin an Easter post with such a long survey of the views of a particular New Testament scholar. The summary is to serve as an introduction to quite a strange quotation from a different book by Allison, Constructing Jesus. The quotation represents precisely the wrong conclusion about history and Christianity.

In the pages preceding this quote, Allison has been talking about the quest for the historical Jesus. He characterizes his own historical research as having chiefly negative effects. It awakened him from his “dogmatic slumbers”--that is, it taught him to believe that much that is in the Bible about Jesus and that he believed previously is probably not true. At the same time this process still allows him to think that there is a factual basis for some very attenuated statements, such as that “Jesus had an exalted self-conception.” Allison wraps up thus:

While it may be an “emotional necessity to exalt the problem to which one wants to devote a lifetime,” and while I am proudly an historian, I must confess that history is not what matters most. If my deathbed finds me alert and not overly racked with pain, I will then be preoccupied with how I have witnessed and embodied faith, hope and charity. I will not be fretting over the historicity of this or that part of the Bible. (Constructing Jesus, p. 462)

Lofty sentiments, these, which could be echoed by a noble unbeliever.

Christianity is first and foremost an historical religion. According to Christianity, certain events in history are indeed what matter most. “If Christ is not raised,” says St. Paul, “We are of all men most miserable.” (I Corinthians 15:14)

Contrast the far more orthodox view represented by John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that--pierced--died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Does the historicity of “this or that part of the Bible” matter? Indeed it does. But if one is convinced of the robust, physical historicity of the events central to Christianity, and if one is convinced by strong evidence, so that one’s reason is integrated with one’s emotion, then one’s deathbed can find one not fretting but rather rejoicing.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A joyous Easter to our readers!

Comments (8)

Hi Lydia,

I hope you had a happy Easter. This is just to let you know that I've finally finished transcribing your talk on Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars (and how to avoid them). It can be found here:


As you can see, there are a couple of very short phrases where I wasn't sure of what you said, but I don't think they'll make a material difference. Anyway, I hope you can find some use for the transcription. Cheers.

Beautiful poem. Thank you for sharing it, with your thoughts, today.

I believe that at some point in the past Allison was looking at Eastern Orthodoxy as a potential convert. Needless to say, any doubt about the bodily resurrection would have been a deal-breaker, as we in the EOC take the Resurrection very seriously. This is readily apparent, for instance, in the fact that every Easter in every Orthodox church in the world, the priest forgoes his homily and instead reads the Paschal Sermon of Chrysostom, with its ringing, unabashed celebration of Christ's triumphant defeat of sin, death, and hell.

For the record, I love his little book The Luminous Dusk and have appreciated some of his patristic scholarship. I met him once and briefly talked to him after a lecture -- he struck me as a lovely man, and quite humble and self-effacing, but perhaps a bit too non-confrontational to take dogma seriously (I'm sure you know the type).

perhaps a bit too non-confrontational to take dogma seriously (I'm sure you know the type)

That may well be true, and I do know the type, but I think it's a little more than that. His sentiments are distinctly neo-Orthodox in tone, and that sort of neo-Barthianism has become all too acceptable in NT circles. There is a strong dichotomy (which of course one sees in the quotation I give from Allison) between history, on the one hand, and theology, on the other. What the late Francis Schaeffer called a two-story view of truth. The very fact that the phrase "historical Jesus scholarship" has come to mean *skeptical* scholarship is telling, and Allison clearly views his professional role as historian as being distinctly in tension with any *robust* declaration of dogma.

The really sad thing is that evangelicals used to recognize *precisely* that sort of opposition and oppose it loudly and explicitly. Now, not nearly as much, though there were good responses to Allison in the symposium I mentioned in the main post. But the foundations are not sufficiently solid among evangelical NT scholars generally, and even in that symposium Allison mentioned rather pointedly the alleged difficulties in defending the authenticity of the resurrection narratives. Perhaps if there had been more time for exchange, more would have been said to him in response on that, but I'm not sanguine given that that isn't the usual direction that defenses of the resurrection go.

There is a strong dichotomy (which of course one sees in the quotation I give from Allison) between history, on the one hand, and theology, on the other. What the late Francis Schaeffer called a two-story view of truth.

That's just what I was going to note about his comment. He seems to have a kind of faith that is (as he understands it) faith-filled and inspired of God precisely to the extent he can believe in despite of his reason telling him that those things he believes are incompatible with history and reason. I.E. that his "job" as an historian is to go about shredding belief in the Gospels, and his "job" as a Christian is to have faith, hope, and charity, and that the latter is to be the final winner over the former. While I am happy for him that he chooses God before above else, the implicit notion that the God he has chosen to hitch his wagon to could be in opposition to reason is a distorted sense of the God who is God of all that is, and the cause of all that has being, including all of the causes that explain science and history and reason. Wouldn't his faith be a larger, better kind of faith if it extended far enough to encompass the idea that history and science ACTUALLY DO conform to the truth God has revealed, because they are, each side, FROM the same God and ABOUT the same God?

Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door.

That's a great verse. I love it. The notion that God could use a metaphor, an analogy, a "painted sign" of Jesus eating fish precisely to convince the apostles of the REALITY of his risen body, is indeed a mockery of God. The notion that the gospel writer could have used a fictional story of Jesus eating fish in order to convey the "solidity" of the capital T Truth that Jesus "is alive in God" is just ridiculous, nonsense on stilts. The attestation we need for miracles - and in this case, the Miracle of miracles, the reversal of our permanent condemnation, the victory over death - is with concrete proofs that constituted satisfactory reason to admit the miracle in spite of its being outside what normally can occur. You can't attest to THAT with metaphors and imagery and story: neither is God-filled reason made that way, nor is human-nature-satisfying thinking built that way, and it is belittling to attribute it to the gospel writers and to the early Christians.

And even granting that much objective factuality to the resurrection, according to Allison, depends heavily on one’s prior worldview, which he thinks can be justified only by the work of theologians and philosophers, if such a thing is possible at all. (Resurrecting Jesus, p. 351)

I see this as the typical narrow-mindedness of modern, post-"enlightenment" scholarly thinking. Modern philosophy, starting roughly with Descartes, has spent some 400 years trying to EXPLAIN AWAY either reality itself, or that we have true apprehension of that reality, and then trying to circle around and re-explain reason and experience and thinking as "valid" and trustworthy IN SPITE OF these self-constructed impossible problems. And because the early modern philosophers were at least as good at constructing their self-imposed knots as the later philosophers were at unknotting them, the later philosophers are convinced that only someone who has studied deeply of both the knots and the unknotting can worthily rely on his thinking as being "true".

But this is twisted thinking. The farmer who has spent 40 years watching weather come and go has valid reason to think "it's probably going to rain in the next 2 days" based on his experience, even though he doesn't have a degree in meteorology. It isn't that those who have not studied the insane and soul-destroying dissection into dead bits of thought by the early moderns are relying on reason inappropriately, it is more that those who have been befuddled with that dissection have a warped view of what constitutes an appropriate reliance on reason, and only overcome the warped view partially with modern philosophy. The ordinary non-philosopher who has never been warped by reading deeply in the twisted thinking of Hume and Kant don't have a handicap to overcome in order to think well. (And, by and large, most science is sound precisely because most scientists don't worry their heads over Locke's or Berkeley's philosophical problems over how thought works, rightly dismissing them as irrelevant.
The modernist philosopher would have to repudiate nearly all science if he honestly thought that such science was not worthily accepted unless the scientist who performed it could explain his way out of Kant's antinomies.) Hopefully, sometime soon (after the nihilistic post-modernism of today), we will turn full circle in philosophy and will accept both reality and that we can normally apprehend reality pretty much the way we go about ordinary living, as being a fair and supportable position philosophically speaking.

(And, just to note: the proper term is not "enlightenment" but "endarkenment", for precisely the reason given.)

"That may well be true, and I do know the type, but I think it's a little more than that."

Yes, I'm sure it is too. It was simply an observation based on my experience with other theological "liberals." What was Robert Frost's comment about liberals being unable to take their own side in an argument? But as you and Tony both say, that has as much to do with understandings of truth as it does personality.

Can somebody please explain to me what they think they GAIN by denying that the resurrection was with Jesus' own, physical body? The ones, that is, who put all sorts of spiritual, metaphorical, or mystical senses on the apostolic claims of the Resurrection. What do they think it solves to accept a resurrection of sorts, but to deny that it was physical? What do they think it achieves to admit God has done something amazing, but deny that it was the amazing thing of not only restoring a dead person to life, but to instill in him a divinized life? How do they think it somehow better that they allow "something" happened which justified the Apostles giving over their whole lives and suffer torture and death for it, but NOT allow that it be Christ's own body risen?

Two things that it "gains":

First, it is far more readily compatible with "dissing" the Gospel accounts, which they want to do in order to be in line with mainstream NT scholarship. It's much harder to deny the physical resurrection while agreeing that it seemed to the gospels that they were eating and chatting with Jesus repeatedly for six weeks. "Spiritual" appearances may seem to work if we really have very little idea what the apostles experienced.

Second, in their minds it makes religion less epistemically vulnerable. If you don't base your religion on empirical facts, your religion allegedly can't be harmed by physical, empirical discoveries. (I leave it for an exercise to the reader to compare the even more widespread acceptance of "macho" theistic evolution among many intellectual Christians that practically declares that God "wouldn't" have engaged in creation in any detectable fashion.)

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