By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, December 17, 2009)
Believing Christmas because of Easter
Christmas is the time of year to reflect on the birth of Jesus. The heart of the Christmas story is that Jesus is God (God the Son) come to earth as a human being. Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us.
It’s an interesting story. But why believe it?
This, it seems to me, is where publicly-accessible knowledge of the historical reality of Jesus’ subsequent death (30-something years later) and resurrection (a few days later yet) becomes crucially important.
If Easter is true, that is, if Jesus really resurrected after His death, then this event would constitute a miraculous sign, i.e., an extraordinary supernaturally-caused, empirically-observable event that provides grounds (1) for believing Jesus is who He claimed to be (God in the flesh) and (2) for placing our faith in Him (as Lord and Saviour).
Significantly, careful New Testament scholarship provides excellent historical reasons for believing that, in actual fact, Jesus was killed and subsequently resurrected bodily (physically).
Some contemporary critics, however, inspired by philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), object as follows: Even if Jesus’ resurrection occurred, isn’t it likely that the alleged miracle will someday be better explained naturalistically, i.e., as produced by hitherto unknown laws of nature, without recourse to the supernatural?
In reply, I think that a reasonable answer to this objection is No. Here are some reasons for thinking that Jesus’ resurrection is supernaturally caused.
Concerning death, we have excellent knowledge of what relevant natural causes can and cannot do. Our universal experience (with the exception of Jesus' case) over thousands of years is that dead people, when left to themselves, do not resurrect or transform themselves into living bodies made with rejuvenated flesh and new powers. (Reminder: we are talking here about resurrection, not mere resuscitation). Also, our knowledge of cell necrosis (cell death) tells us that dead bodies not only stay dead, if no intervention occurs, but also begin, irreversibly, to decay. Bodily decomposition starts within minutes after death and, after a day or more without refrigeration, renders resuscitation, let alone a resurrection (on naturalistic assumptions), physically impossible.
In terms of naturalistic causes, then, a resurrection is, as philosopher Francis Beckwith points out, "more than presently inexplicable.” In fact, the more we learn about nature, the more we know that naturalistic hypotheses are not even remotely possible as plausible accounts of a resurrection.
Of course, to think that there are some previously unknown natural laws waiting to be discovered may be reasonable in some not well understood fields of investigation (say, a healing of cancer as an apparent answer to prayer); and so in those fields one must explain why one thinks one is not being rash in saying those laws cannot be found (perhaps our bodies have built-in, non-miraculous healing powers which become activated when we exercise an attitude of faith).
The fact remains, however, that it is not reasonable to think this way in the well understood realm of human death. As philosopher C. Stephen Evans observes, “we surely know enough about the natural order to know that it is most unlikely that there could be any natural explanation for a person who has been dead for three days being restored to life."
What is worse (for naturalistic explanations), in the case of Jesus’ resurrection we also have the resurrectee claiming to be God, thereby further pointing to supernatural causation.
Thus, and contrary to what some critics would have us think, if Jesus’ resurrection were to occur, as the historical evidence strongly suggests, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ resurrection would be a supernaturally caused sign—a miracle.
In view of the publicly accessible historicity of Easter, Christmas clearly is not just another religious story. Easter gives us good reason to think that the heart of the Christmas story—the story of the supernatural God becoming a human being—is true.
Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us. This, it seems to me, is life-changing information.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)