A short while back, philosopher Stanley Fish observed that religion was “transgressing the boundary between private and public and demanding to be heard.” That’s a dangerous thing, as Mr. Fish sees it, because religion is based on claims that are excluded from tests of “deliberative reason.”
Take the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the linchpin of Christianity. According to Mr. Fish, “The assertion that Christ is risen is not one for which evidence pro and con is adduced in a judicial setting.” Mr. Fish worries that the growing influence of such non-critical beliefs is threatening liberalism.
There’s more than a little irony here. Stanley Fish, along with the other architects of postmodernism, ousted objective truth and reason in favor of subjective truth and personal experience decades ago.
Among trenchant critics — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, being the most trenchant — people who believe in the resurrection are under the spell of an authority directing them to sacrifice intellectual freedom on the altar of superstitious tradition. That makes religious faith coercive, if not dangerous.
Princeton religion professor Elaine Pagels picks up on that point in her book, The Gnostic Gospels. Ms. Pagels asks, “Why did orthodox tradition adopt the literal view of resurrection?” Pagels suggests that it was a strategic move by an imperialistic church to silence free thinkers throughout the ages, who understood Christian doctrines for their figurative value. From Valentinus to Nietzsche, those who relied on personal experience over apostolic revelation found themselves shoved into the heretical ghetto by the church patriarchs.
Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, goes even farther. The book’s premise is that Christ’s literal resurrection, and other events supporting his deity, was one of many “just so” stories foisted on hapless masses by a fourth century church-state. Why? To expand its power base by suppressing the “true” followers of Christ; namely, those who understood the symbolic (versus literal) significance of Jesus and his life.
If Christ’s resurrection is true, it is the most important event in all of history. But if it is symbolic, the name Jesus Christ has no more significance than Clark Kent. As the apostle Paul himself asserts, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” On the other hand, if Christ is raised, we are left with one and only one conclusion: that He is the Lord and Savior that he claimed to be. And that makes all the difference. So which is it?
Let’s apply a little of Stanley Fish’s “deliberative reason.”
A Resurrection Ruse?
The most credible arguments against the traditional account involve some sort of conspiracy theory or “Passover plot.” Critics allege that after Christ’s death, the disciples hatched a plan to steal his body and fabricate a “risen Savior” for political or financial gain.
Among the many implausible features about such theories is that they depend on men like Peter, who just hours before had denied his leader three times, to rise to a level of heroism unsurpassed by New York City firemen. Not only did this cowering band of misfits have to sneak past a Roman guard and remove a one-ton stone, they had to psyche up enough courage to sneak past them again—this time with a body that highly disciplined soldiers were stationed to secure at penalty of death.
But even if such a conspiracy scheme was possible, it collapses under the weight of historical evidence, as acknowledged by some not-so-sympathetic authorities. For instance, historian Michael Grant admits, “Their testimonies cannot prove them to have been right in supposing that Jesus had risen from the dead. However, these accounts do prove that certain people were utterly convinced that that is what he had done.”