‘On the third day he arose! Undoubtedly!’

Theological fashions are like other intellectual fads, they come and go; here today, gone tomorrow. They should not overly occupy our minds or trouble our hearts. One of today’s theological fads, so it seems to me, is doubt. Christian leaders who “out their doubt” are frequently lauded for their courage in being so apparently modest as to say they just don’t know anything for certain anymore.

Some years ago I received a review copy of a translated book by a notorious Dutch Reformed theologian with the screaming title I Have My Doubts. The English title was at least an improvement over the Dutch title, which mocked the way Dutch Christians confess the Apostle’s Creed: Het Algemeen Betwijfeld Christelijk Geloof (The Universally Doubted Christian Faith). I could not finish reading it and I never wrote the review.

When we talk about Christians doubting it is very important to distinguish intellectual doubt from what we may call existential doubt. Existential questioning of the faith comes from painful and tragic experiences of life, illness, death of a loved one or the general woes of the world. These experiences give rise to lament and the Psalms not only give us permission to lament but guide us in the how. Of course, intellectual doubt – getting worried about whether or not the Christian faith is reasonable – can also be very existentially troubling, especially for university students who confront secularist and atheist challenges for the first time.

As the worldwide Christian church celebrated Easter this month, we do well to face some of these doubts head-on. From a human point of view, the resurrection is indeed unbelievable. When people die, they are dead and dead people don’t get up, walk around and have conversations with their friends. Ever since the Enlightenment, that phenomenon of the modern age that subjects everything for judgment by autonomous human reason, all biblical miracles and especially the resurrection, have been questioned and denied by many. It is claimed that modern people who trust science and know the laws of physics and biology cannot accept the two key teachings of the church about Jesus Christ, namely his incarnation and resurrection. Modern biblical scholars who accept this worldview but do not want to forsake their tie to the Christian faith have tried to rescue both by reinterpreting them. The incarnation is taken to be the idea that God is with us and the resurrection understood as the power of Jesus living on in the memory of his disciples.

Historical skepticism
My own perspective on all this has been helped by recalling the days when I was a Calvin Theological Seminary student in the 1970s. At the time the German Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) was the most famous and acclaimed New Testament scholar in the world. We seminary students were asked to read an important Bultmann essay on kerygma [Greek for proclamation] and myth in the New Testament and try to understand his program of demythologizing the NT. Bultmann was convinced that modern people simply could not accept the biblical worldview and that the only way to rescue its gospel message (the kerygma) was to state it in non-mythical terms. Here is how he himself put it: “It is impossible to repristinate a past world picture by sheer resolve, especially a mythical world picture, now that all of our thinking is irrevocably formed by science. A blind acceptance of New Testament mythology would be simply arbitrariness; to make such acceptance a demand of faith would be to reduce faith to a work.”

I am not going to explain what the final result of demythologizing the NT looked like. For us today, as the church celebrates Easter, it is more important for me to provide some perspective on the problem it was supposed to solve.

Take comfort: He is risen!
First, modernist theologians, along with other intellectual doubters today, keep saying that we have a hard time with the resurrection (or miracles, or the Fall) because we know so much more science today that just makes our faith so much more of a problem. In response, let’s not forget that the intellectuals and philosophers of Paul’s day – the Athenians to whom the Apostle Paul preached, recorded in Acts 17 – also found the bodily resurrection of our Lord impossible to believe. It isn’t modern science that makes the resurrection unbelievable; the resurrection is unbelievable except for one thing that is so deceptively simple it surprises many skeptics: people actually saw Jesus! (See 1 Cor.15). We need to be skeptical about the sceptics who arrogantly seem to think that mere chronology makes us so much smarter than intelligent people of long ago. 

Second, take comfort in this. Forty years later I now teach at Calvin Seminary and not only do today’s students not read Bultmann’s essay, “Kerygma and Myth,” I wonder if many of them even know much about him. His big project no longer commands the same attention, in large measure because Bultmann’s historical skepticism about the Gospels has been discredited by scholars who are his equals. This part of Bultmann’s work is now simply irrelevant.

So celebrate our Lord’s resurrection this year with joy and confidence. HE IS RISEN! HE IS RISEN, INDEED! Undoubtedly!

  • John is the Jean and Kenneth Baker Professor of Systematic Theology, Emeritus, of Calvin Theological Seminary.

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