“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
I want to begin by reviewing the main points that we have looked at since Good Friday and in particular to revisit the point that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. I want to help you understand why it is reasonable. I said sometime back that I want to show you why it is reasonable, and why it is intellectually and morally responsible to believe the historic accounts in the New Testament texts that report, describe, and narrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I pointed out then that there are four facts reported in the New Testament texts that are undisputed by the majority of biblical scholars who ply their trade in the best universities of Europe and America. I don’t mean for a moment that the Christian Church is dependent upon the modern university to tell her what is true, but what I do mean is that the very best tenured biblical scholars today, though they would not all agree on how to interpret them, would all agree that these four facts, reported in the New Testament’s texts, really occurred in history.
What are the four facts? First, that Jesus suffered a horrific death by crucifixion and he was buried. Secondly, only a few days after his burial, his body went missing and the tomb was empty. The third historic fact is that on different occasions and under various circumstances individual persons and groups of people experienced what they believed to be appearances of Jesus very much alive from the dead. The fourth historic fact is that his disciples suddenly, practically over night, and quite sincerely came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead physically, even though they were predisposed not to believe any such thing.
So there you have it: The overwhelming number of people whose life-work is given to the study of the documents of the New Testament all assert that there are four bedrock historical events recorded in the New Testament: Jesus died and was buried in a tomb; that tomb turned up empty a few days later; immediately after they discovered that the tomb was empty, individuals and groups of his followers believed that he appeared to them; and finally those individuals and groups believed he appeared to them because God physically raised him from the dead. Now I am not saying that most academics will agree with the disciples’ own interpretation of those four events, because some do not, but I will say that far more of the scholars do accept the disciples’ interpretation than is popularly reported.
What do I mean that more academics actually believe that the earliest disciples’ got it right than is popularly reported? What do I mean by popular report? I mean that our culture is permeated by a mood, an uncriticized set of pop beliefs that are biased against Christianity therefore it goes without saying that really smart people don’t believe in supernatural foolishness like Christianity. For example, this past week the BBC ran an editorial entitled: “When did people stop thinking God lives on a cloud?” Well according to that opinion piece, it happened 50 years ago in 1963 when John A.T. Robinson, a Church of England bishop, wrote a book entitled Honest to God in which he schooled the general public that contemporary, scientific cosmology doesn’t square with an out-of-date biblical cosmology. And that, Robinson told us back in 1963, is why the parish churches in England were empty – modern people can’t believe in old-fashioned, obsolete worldviews. God doesn’t live on cushy clouds. Here is the point that I want to make: What Robinson and the BBC say is not true for several reasons. First, cloud dwelling does not enter into a biblical worldview in any shape, fashion or form. Secondly, the BBC piece is little more than un-self-critical, naive, Enlightenment propaganda: science destroys the Bible. Its use of cartoon-like thinking may even be an unconscious form of hate-speech meant to ridicule Christians. But the other thing I want you to see is how this sort of distortion and misrepresentation works to reinforces a secular, Enlightenment horizon at the expense of the facts. What is amazing to me is how well this banality works today. But 50 years ago it wasn’t quite the case. If you actually went back and counted you would find that the parish churches of England were not empty like John Robinson assumed. Furthermore, the year that Honest to God was published, CS Lewis died. Now I doubt that many of you had even heard of the book John A.T. Robinson wrote before today, but you all know who C.S. Lewis is. It is also a matter of fact that in 1954 close to 2,000,000 people attended Billy Graham’s 12-week long London crusade. All those Brits and Americans must have missed the memo that Billy Graham’s and C. S. Lewis’ worldview had been demolished by science. Why am I telling you this? I am telling you this because I want to widen your horizon. There is an element of this world that is entirely focused on what is here below, what is here and now, what has utility, what I may own and possess, what I may measure and weigh, what the law protects and what medical science can keep alive. This world order masquerades as the elite intelligentsia, but in fact it is unimaginative and prosaic. C.S. Lewis gives us a far more realistic portrait of the worldly wise, sophisticated secularist in his fantasy The Pilgrim’s Regress. On being asked to explain how he had intelligently arrived at the conclusion that there is no God, the character named “Mr. Enlightenment” puffs up his chests and declares, “Oh well! Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!” Well there you have it – so much for the big honesty!
Another problem with the BBC article and with the so-called honest-to-God thinking is that they portray Christians as a group of people who believe that the space-time continuum will come to a fiery end. That is not true. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see that bodily resurrection and cloud dwelling are incompatible. They are not demythologizing the antique myths of the Church; they are re-mythologizing and with myths of their own making. To make my point let’s look once again at the fourth historical fact – the first disciples believed that God had raised Jesus bodily from the dead.
What made them believe that? The situation of the disciples was that their leader had been horribly put to death by crucifixion. They had such great hope in Jesus, but their hope had been shattered. On top of that, Jewish belief had no concept of resurrection prior to the general resurrection at the end of the world and even that is vague. As far as his disciples were concerned Jesus had been defeated and now they would be lucky to get out of Jerusalem alive. Nevertheless, his original band of disciples suddenly came to believe that the man they loved who died such a horrible death on the cross was now alive. Not only was he alive. God raised him from the dead and they were suddenly so sure of its truthfulness that they were quite willing to die for that belief. Of course, the big question is, what on earth caused them to believe in such a non-Jewish, bizarre, fantastic, far-fetched thing? What is the best explanation? As one scholar said “Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.” And according to N.T. Wright, one of the most astute New Testament scholars living today, “as an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity, unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.” Let’s talk about being honest to God – how honest or dishonest do you think these first disciples were? When they were facing death by stoning or crucifixion, when their loved ones rejected them or when their loved ones were stoned or beheaded before them do you really believe that they deliberately continued in an outlandish falsehood? I don’t believe that. That is unreasonable and it doesn’t square with the facts. Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and for forty days his disciples spent time with him, eating, drinking, and being instructed. And after that Jesus returned to his Father and 10 days after that the Father sent the Holy Spirit to give birth to the Church and to empower her to preach the Gospel of the Risen Jesus Christ to the whole world. And it is that sending of the Holy Spirit to the Church that we commemorate today.
Here is another point: if one is going to criticize the doctrines of the Church, why not go for what we really believe rather than a secular make-over? The reason Jesus’ disciples were willing to face a tortuous death is because they believed that Jesus would take care of them. They believed that what happened to Jesus, the fact of his bodily resurrection, was exactly what would happen to them at the Second Coming of Christ. They were not looking forward to living on clouds as disembodied spirits. Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and so those who believe in Jesus will be raised bodily from the dead as well. Jesus said that we would all be together, and we would all be with him bodily at his second coming, and that is what they expected. And that is what Paul was attempting to teach his troubled children in Corinth.
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.”
Far from expecting a life in the clouds, St. Paul has an entirely different hope in mind. Paul refers to our body as “the tent that is our earthly home.” Our home is not in the clouds; our home is in this space/time continuum in bodies of flesh, bodies that will be transformed by the power of God when Jesus returns. The importance of our bodies is magnified by the hint of distress in Paul’s words. On the one hand Paul longs to put on the heavenly dwelling, the resurrected body, at the Second Coming. Where is the distress coming from in Paul’s voice? His distress is over the expectation that he may die before the Second Coming of Christ and end up in a disembodied state, as he puts it, being “found naked.” He goes on to say in other places that to depart this world, this space/time continuum is good – “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” To be with Christ, even in a temporary disembodied state, is good, but it isn’t the best and it isn’t our Christian hope. Our Christian hope, and by that I mean our expectation, is to be with our Lord and clothed with our resurrected bodies. Well, that’s as far as we can get today, but I do intend over the next few weeks to focus on the state of being of our loved ones who are absent from the body and present with the Lord, and further I want to focus on exactly what the apostolic vision of eternal life is, which, I can assure you, has nothing to do with cloud dwelling.