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Why seek the living among the dead?
on November 24, 2000
Wedderburn raises some questions few Christians dare raise, that Christians need to raise. Can the physical resurrection of Jesus be historically verified? If it were to be historically verified, would it be meaningful and important to our Christian faith? If resurrection is not a part of our theology, what can we believe in? The author states his purpose as "to move beyond 'resurrection' and a faith bewitched by that concept to a faith that is thoroughly this-worldly." I think he did a marvelous job raising the issues, but his attempt to move one toward anything new was weak.
Part 1 examined the historical evidence for a physical resurrection. There is circumstantial evidence, and the author concludes that something definitely occurred that first Easter morning in Jerusalem. However, we do not know what that something was, so we are compelled to either believe it was physical resurrection because of our "need to believe" it, or take a non-committal, agnostic position. Actually, I was impressed with how much circumstantial evidence there is. Wedderburn concludes that belief based on our "need to believe" is not justified, that in fact we do not need to believe it, and the lack of knowing what took place calls for the agnostic position. I am skeptical of the importance Wedderburn assigns to the possibility of "knowing what happened." Suppose we did have enough evidence that we knew, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jesus physically rose that morning. Could we then say we "knew what happened?" We would know that once there was a dead body, then there was no body but a live human, who was the same human who once lived in the dead body. But Christian tradition says that through this event, God acted to reconcile sinful mankind back to himself and make it possible to live in eternity with Him. If we knew that there was a resurrection, would that mean we "knew what happened?" I think not.
Part 2 was on coming to terms with the demythologizing of the gospel, growing a faith that is not dependent on the physical resurrection of Jesus. Wedderburn makes a very good start at this. He made me think very seriously about my own religious faith, especially about whether it is essential to believe in individual survival after death. I believe the author raises some very good questions, but he leaves little room for the Christian to claim there is anything unique or advantageous about his religion. There is still the opportunity to focus on Jesus' death, that he suffered and died for us, for our sins. Wedderburn touches on this, the belief that while God is not omnipotent in the way we might like him to be, he suffers with us. However, this is not developed in this work. I am not convinced that a theology of Jesus' suffering for us (without a resurrection) adds anything that the "suffering servant" writings in the Old Testament don't give us already. In short, I could find everything I need for a strong religious faith in Judaism, and still hold to traditions and myths that are already familiar and meaningful to me. Wedderburn seems to want to lead me to a resurrection-less faith within Christianity, but even if he had convinced me to abandon my belief in the resurrection, I would not follow. Why would I want to be an odd Christian, when I could be a good Jew?
Nevertheless, this work is very valuable and should be the subject of good discussion among open-minded Christians. Unfortunately, it is not accessible to Christians who do not have some familiarity with scholarly biblical criticism. It is written for theologians, and Wedderburn offers little help to the theologians who have congregations, who might want to evoke some discussion among their flock about these issues. Most of what Christians hear second- or third-hand about this book will be negative, and that is unfortunate. Most of us could use the close self-examination of our faith that Wedderburn challenges us to make.