Is your universe closed or open?
In a closed universe nothing gets in, nothing gets out. The theory that there could be some force (personal or impersonal) that could act with total freedom to intrude into the locked system called the “Laws of Nature” is ipso facto ruled out. Closed-universe people comfort themselves with the fact that many scientists assume a closed universe” To them, even the thought of a cosmic designer is creepy. Their world-view takes a closed system as axiomatic.
On the other hand, the biblical world-view that has influenced Western civilization and is still assumed by many in other parts of the world takes an open universe as axiomatic. To their thinking, God may (and sometimes does), act in total freedom to affect the course of nature. They point to the creation. The fact that there is “something” rather than “nothing” assumes causation, and causation by definition implies a Causer acting in freedom.
Whichever view of the world a person assumes affects how he responds to news that a Galilean man 2,000 years ago actually rose from the dead, reversing the order of nature — and that he lives today victorious over death. But what is the evidence for such a claim?
A movie that raises questions
My mind was drawn to reflect on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ because I just saw the newly released movie Risen, distributed by Columbia Pictures in association with Affirm Films. I watched it at the Cinebarre Theater on Houston Northcutt in Mt. Pleasant.
On one level Risen is just another sword-and-sandals biblical epic, one that stars noted actor Joseph Fiennes (younger brother of Ralph) playing a tribune named Clavius who engages in bloody battles against Jewish zealots and witnesses gruesome crucifixions, including that of Jesus. The film is set against a backdrop of the Judean wilderness (actually Spain), contrasted with first-century Roman kitsch (lots of columns and lighted braziers).
I was glad to see that the movie takes the biblical narrative very seriously and weaves in the tribune’s mission to get to the bottom of the early Christians’ claim that Jesus actually rose from the dead with sensitivity and good cinematic tension. Clavius eventually encounters the risen Christ himself and engages in a moving dialogue under the stars in which he lays out his doubts and takes tentative steps in faith.
“What it is that frightens you?” asks Jesus. “What frightens me is that I cannot reconcile [your resurrection] with the world that I know,” Clavius replies. “What do you really want?” Jesus then asks him. “I want peace. I want a day without death.” Clavius predictably ends up a believer saying: “I believe. I can never be the same.”
Of course the movie has a certain logic — if you are already a believer. But what about those whose world-view is closed? Does the film make a case for true biblical faith? I’m not sure. So, let me try here to do just that — for your sake, whether you choose to watch the film or not.
Four facts to ponder
I am struck by four facts regarding Jesus’ resurrection. They amount to a cumulative evidence that it really did happen.
First, there was the disappearance of the body. Much of the movie deals with this undeniable fact. The Romans and the Jewish Sanhedrin simply could not produce Jesus’ body. A trumped up charge that the disciples stole the body is finally dismissed in the movie — just as it is in the Bible.
There was simply no reason for the disciples of Jesus to steal his body from the sealed tomb — even if they could have somehow gotten past the Roman guards. As Joseph Klausner, a modern Jewish writer puts it: “The nineteen hundred years’ faith of millions is not founded on deception.” He argues in his book Jesus of Nazareth that the only way the whole story holds water psychologically is if the tomb was really empty.
Second, there was the reappearance of the Lord. I use the word “Lord” because the only ones to have claimed to see him alive were followers. However, Paul claims that among those who saw the risen Christ there were more than 500 “brethren” who saw him at one time (I Corinthians 15:6).
Even if you could argue that a few excited women may have had hallucinations, it’s hard to discount the witness of hard-bitten fishermen and tax collectors (who were part of the Twelve). Nor would these men have gone to their deaths as they did — most in violent ways — for something they knew to be a lie. They had to be convinced because they, too, had not expected a resurrection, or even thought it possible.
Third, there is the emergence of the church. Although this may not seem by itself to be “evidence,” something has to account that, in the mid-first century, an explosive movement hit the Roman world proclaiming that Jesus was alive; that was the central theme of the early Apostles’ teaching and led to a series of dramatic changes.
A revolutionary message
For example, the early Christians (all Jews to begin with) changed their worship day from the very sacred Saturday (Sabbath) to Sunday because this was the day of resurrection. They changed their initiation rite from circumcision to baptism because baptism symbolized dying and rising with Christ. They initiated a feast called Holy Communion that was not just a memorial meal, but a “feasting on” the living Christ. They buried their dead “in certain hope that death had been conquered.” The Resurrection, in other words, became the leitmotif of all that they did.
And we mustn’t forget that many of them went to an early martyrdom claiming, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in the 20th century, that dying was not the end, but rather “the beginning of life.”
Fourth, there is the incongruity of a dead Messiah. This point may not readily come to mind until you remember that Jesus not only predicted his own resurrection (Matthew 16:21), but considering his ministry and his whole life the idea that he would be simply abandoned by the God whom he called Father and his body left to rot in a Jewish grave is ridiculous.
Most people who have given Jesus a second thought have agreed that his moral teachings, his manner of life, his relationships with people, his character all put him way at the top of any list of great men. What, then, does it say of our cosmos if such a man is ignominiously dispatched under the cruelest of circumstances, rejected by his own people and his corpse dumped on an ash heap? It says that in the end goodness loses. Death ultimately has the last word.
Can death be the end?
Such a conclusion was unthinkable to the men who spent three years with him, watching him, observing his powers and trusting his words. One of them would later proclaim in Jerusalem: “It was not possible that he should be held by death.” (Acts 2:24) Not possible when you consider the totality of his life!
Clearly, the early Christians believed that Jesus Christ had broken the bonds of death. God had vindicated his self-sacrifice on the cross. As a result, they proclaimed that anyone who believed in Jesus could know, as they did, a pardon from all guilt and an inner cleansing of the conscience that opened the door to a free and loving relationship with God. They also claimed that Christ was within to empower them, beside to comfort them, beneath to support them, above to correct them and ahead to call them to witness that in every area of life he is Lord.
It’s evidence like these four facts that continues to convince, even natural skeptics like Francis S. Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health and the founder of the Human Genome Project. In an interview in 2006, Collins said these words:
“I’m a scientist. When someone says that event was a miracle, it’s natural for me to be skeptical … But I do accept that in special moments God, who is supernatural, chooses to invade the natural world and to us that appears as a miraculous event and that includes especially the most important miracle for my faith, which is the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
Peter C. Moore is the director of the Anglican Leadership Institute and a scholar-in-residence at St. Michael’s Church. He and his wife live in Mt. Pleasant.