The Christian Faith in the Modern World

Topic: Revelation Type: Book Author: J. Gresham Machen 

Chapter 16


The subject of this address was similarly, but somewhat more fully, treated in a lecture on "The Resurrection," published in Winona Echoes for 1924 and in The Bible To-day for April and May, 1925.

In the last of these talks, I was speaking to you about the miracles of Christ. But a treatment of the miracles would be incomplete unless we singled out for special examination the central or crowning miracle, which is the miracle of the resurrection.

In treating the resurrection, I suggest that we may begin with things about which everybody is agreed, in order that we may go on from them to speak of things with regard to which Christian people differ from those who are not Christians.

Nineteen hundred years ago there lived in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire one who would have seemed to a superficial observer to be a remarkable man. He engaged in a career of religious teaching accompanied by a ministry of healing. At first He had the favor of the crowd, but since He would not be the kind of leader the people demanded He soon fell victim to the jealousy of the rulers of His people and to the cowardice of the Roman governor. He died the death of criminals of that day, on the cross.

At His death, His followers were discouraged. They had evidently been far inferior to Him in discernment and in courage, and now what little courage they may have had was gone. His death meant the destruction of all their hopes. Never, one might have said, was a movement more completely dead than the movement which had been begun by Jesus of Nazareth.

Then, however, the surprising thing happened. It is a fact of history, which no real historian denies, that those same weak discouraged men, the followers of Jesus, began, within a very short time after the shameful death of their leader, in Jerusalem, the scene of their cowardly flight, the most remarkable religious movement that the world has ever known, the movement commonly called the Christian Church.

At first, that movement was obscure. But it spread like wildfire. In a few decades at the most it was firmly planted in the chief cities of the civilized world and in Rome itself. After a lapse of less than three centuries it conquered the Roman Empire. Incalculable has been its influence upon the whole history of the world.

What caused that remarkable change in those followers of Jesus? What caused those weak and cowardly men suddenly to become the spiritual conquerors of the world?

At that point the difference of opinion arises. Yet even with regard to that point there is a certain measure of agreement. It is now admitted by historians both Christian and non-Christian that those followers of Jesus became the founders of what is commonly known as the Christian Church because they became honestly convinced that Jesus was risen from the dead.

But what in turn produced that conviction? What produced the belief of the first disciples in the resurrection of Christ? There is where the difference of opinion comes in.

The New Testament, of course, has a perfectly clear answer to the question. The belief of the disciples in the resurrection, according to the New Testament, was due simply to the fact of the resurrection. Those disciples came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead for the simple reason that Jesus had risen from the dead. He had risen from the dead; and they had not only seen His tomb empty but had seen Him Himself alive after His death on the cross.

If that explanation of the belief of the first disciples in the resurrection be rejected, what shall be put in its place? The answer to that question which is given today by all or practically all unbelievers is that those first disciples of Jesus became convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead because they experienced certain hallucinations, certain pathological experiences in which they thought they saw Jesus before their eyes when in reality there was nothing there. In a hallucination, the optic nerve is really affected; but it is affected not by light rays coming from an external object, but by some pathological condition of the bodily organism of the subject himself. This is the so-called "vision theory" regarding the origin of the Christian Church. It has held the field among unbelievers inside of the Church and outside of the Church since the days of Strauss about one hundred years ago.

I think we ought to understand just exactly what that vision theory means. It means that the Christian Church is founded upon a pathological experience of certain persons in the first century of our era. It means that if there had been a good neurologist for Peter and the others to consult there never would have been a Christian Church.

I am perfectly well aware of the fact that advocates of the vision hypothesis refuse to look at the matter just exactly in that way. The really important thing, they say, was not the pathological experience which those men had, but it was the impression left upon them by Jesus’ character. They never would have experienced those hallucinations, they say, unless their minds and hearts had been filled with the thought of the radiant personality of Jesus. It was because they were so much impressed with Him that they came to have those hallucinations. Thus the hallucinations, say the advocates of the vision hypothesis, were merely the temporary form which was necessary in that day and among men of that kind of education in order that the influence of Jesus could continue to make itself felt. We, they say, can get rid of that form. We no longer need to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the eyes of His disciples. But we can still let the influence of Jesus be felt in our lives. In the changed lives of men who have been influenced by Him Jesus has His truest resurrection.

So the thing is represented by the advocates of what is misleadingly called a "spiritual resurrection." This representation altogether ignores the real character of the first disciples’ faith. What those men had from the appearances of the risen Christ was not merely the conviction that Jesus was still alive. NO, what they had was the conviction that He had risen. It was not merely the state of Jesus resultant upon the resurrection which was valuable for them, but the act of the resurrection. At the heart of their faith was the conviction that Jesus had done something for them by His death and resurrection. The Christian religion in other words is rooted in an event.

If that supposed event really took place, as the Bible says it did, then the Christian religion is true. If it did not take place, as the dominant vision theory holds, then the Christian religion is false, and a Church that professes it is merely an empty shell.

But is the message upon which the Christian Church is founded really true? Did Christ rise from the dead?

I want to say just a few words to you about that subject now.

Two things are to be noted about the account of the appearances which the New Testament contains.

The first thing concerns the manner of the appearances. The appearances, according to the New Testament, were of a plain bodily kind. Jesus did not, it is true, simply resume the conditions of His life before the crucifixion. There was something mysterious about His coming and going. Yet He is plainly represented as being with His disciples in body. They could touch Him. He partook of food in their presence. He held extended conversations with them.

The second feature of the appearances, as they are described in the New Testament, concerns the place of the appearances. The appearances, according to the New Testament, were both at Jerusalem and in Galilee; and the first appearances were at Jerusalem.

Both these features of the New Testament account of the appearances are rejected by advocates of the vision hypothesis. The former feature is always rejected by them, the latter usually.

The advocates of the vision hypothesis hold, with regard to the manner of the appearances, that, contrary to the New Testament, the appearances were only of a momentary kind. The disciples who experienced the appearances did not experience any extended intercourse with Jesus. They not only did not really have any extended intercourse with Him, but they did not even think they had any extended intercourse with Him. All they even thought they had was a momentary sight of Him in glory or perhaps the sound of a word or two of His ringing in their ears. The New Testament is quite wrong in saying they even thought they saw or heard any more than that.

The second point at which the advocates of the vision hypothesis, or most of them, reject the New Testament account of the appearances concerns the place of the appearances. Most of the advocates of the vision hypothesis hold that the first of the "appearances"—which they of course regard as hallucinations—took place a considerable time, perhaps weeks, after the crucifixion, in Galilee; the New Testament says that the first of the appearances took place at Jerusalem on the third day after the death of Jesus.

At first sight it might look as though this were a mere difference in detail. But that is not so. As a matter of fact it is a difference of a very important kind.

If the first appearances, the first of these supposed hallucinations in which the disciples thought they saw Jesus alive after His death, took place at Jerusalem and on the third day after the death, then the question arises why the tomb of Jesus was not investigated to see whether the story of the resurrection was really true—why it was not investigated by foes as well as by friends. If the resurrection was not a fact, then the investigation of the tomb of Jesus would refute the story, and the beginning of the Christian Church would have been prevented.

If, on the other hand, the first appearances took place in Galilee weeks after the death of Jesus, then, it might be said, when the disciples finally did return to Jerusalem it would be too late for the tomb to be investigated. Thus the so-called Galilean hypothesis as to the place of the first appearances might be thought to remove the difficulty which a consideration of the tomb of Jesus has always placed in the way of a denial of the fact of the resurrection.

What shall be said about that? Two things are to be said about it.

In the first place, even the Galilean hypothesis does not really remove the difficulty, since it does seem strange even on the Galilean hypothesis that the tomb of Jesus was not investigated, and, in the second place the Galilean hypothesis is not true.

Where shall we turn to test the hypothesis of unbelievers not only on this point regarding the place of the appearances but also on the point regarding the manner of the appearances?

Well, we can of course turn to the Gospels. We can show that the low view which unbelievers hold regarding the Gospels is not justified and that these documents are really trustworthy accounts of what the first disciples of Jesus said with regard to the founding of the Church.

But obviously it would be a good thing also if we could find some source of information which is admitted to be good not only by believers but also by unbelievers. Can we find such a source of information? Can we find a source of information with regard to which there is some common meeting ground between ourselves and our opponents in this debate?

The answer is, Yes. We can find such a source of information in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. It is generally admitted by foes of our view as well as by friends that that Epistle was really written by the Apostle Paul and that it was written at about AD 55, approximately twenty-five years after the death of Jesus. It is also generally admitted that when Paul says in this Epistle that he had "received" the information that he gives in the fifteenth chapter regarding the resurrection and appearances of Jesus he means that he had received it from the early Jerusalem Church—particularly, perhaps, from Peter, with whom he tells us in another of his Epistles that he spent fifteen days only three years after his conversion. What we have here, then, in the fifteenth chapter of this Epistle, in verse eight and the following verses, is a precious bit of what modern historians call "primitive tradition." It is usually admitted by friends and foes of our view that we have here a summary of what the very earliest Jerusalem Church said about the events that lay at the beginning of its life.

Well, then, is this account by the primitive Jerusalem Church of the resurrection and related events favorable to the contention of unbelievers—the contention that at the beginning the appearances were regarded as independent of what had become of the body of Jesus? Volumes have been written about this question. But the answer, if we may put it plainly and briefly, is most emphatically, No. This passage is not favorable to the contention of unbelievers at all.

What does Paul say exactly when he summarizes that precious tradition of the earliest Jerusalem Church? Here is what he says:

For I delivered unto first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures [1CO 15:3, 4].

I want you to notice the mention of the burial of Christ in this passage. What does it mean? I will tell you, and then I just want you to read the passage for yourselves to see whether you do not agree with me. When Paul mentions the burial, he means that the resurrection of Christ about which he is speaking is a bodily resurrection. The thing that was laid in the tomb in the burial was the body; and the thing that was laid in the tomb was the thing that came out of the tomb in the resurrection. "He died, He was buried, He rose." We follow here, as we read, what happened to the body of Jesus. If a man will just read the words without prejudice he will see that they are at this point as plain as day.

It is quite clear that Paul does not mean, and the Jerusalem Church as quoted by him did not mean, that the body of Jesus remained in the tomb. The bodily resurrection is the only resurrection that the New Testament knows.

In fact, when we come to think about it, a resurrection that is not a bodily resurrection is a contradiction in terms. Did those first disciples, when they began the work of the Christian Church, merely believe in the continued personal existence of Jesus? Was that what gave them their strange new confidence and power? Such a view is really quite absurd. They had that conviction even in the sad hours immediately after the crucifixion. They were not Sadducees. They believed in the personal survival of all men after death; and so they believed, even just after the crucifixion, in the personal survival of Jesus. But that conviction left them in despair. What changed their despair into joy was the substitution, in their minds, for a belief in the continued personal existence of Jesus, of a belief in His resurrection. It is quite absurd, then, to say that the two things, in their view, were the same. Our sources of information about the beginnings of the Christian Church know nothing whatever of a resurrection that is not a bodily resurrection.

The second thing that I want you to notice in the report by Paul of the tradition of the Jerusalem Church is the mention of the third day. And that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, he says. There are few words in the whole Bible that are more uncomfortable to modern unbelief than those words the third day in the primitive Jerusalem tradition recorded here by Paul.

Those words demolish the whole edifice of the Galilean hypothesis as to the place of the appearances. They show by the testimony of the very first disciples, that the first appearance did not take place in Galilee weeks after the crucifixion but on the third day and at Jerusalem. I know that attempts are made to evade the plain implications of these words. The first appearances, it is said, took place only weeks afterwards, but when they did take place the disciples who experienced them hit upon the notion that Jesus had risen long before and merely had not chosen to appear to them until then. But why in the world did they hit upon just the third day as the day of the resurrection if nothing in particular happened to them on that day? Various answers have been given to that question, but they are vain. No, the mention of the third day in the primitive Jerusalem tradition interposes a mighty barrier against the whole attempt to explain the appearances of the risen Christ as hallucinations experienced at a time when it would be too late to investigate the tomb of Jesus to see whether the resurrection had really happened or not.

The truth is that the origin of the Church in Jerusalem is explicable if Jesus really rose from the dead, and it is not explicable if He did not so rise. The very existence of the Christian Church is a mighty testimony to the resurrection of our Lord.

But, it will be objected, that is all very well, but the trouble is that the thing we are asked to believe is really unbelievable. We are asked to believe that a dead man rose from the dead, and we have never seen a man who did that.

What is our answer to this objection? It is very simple. You say, my friend, that you have never seen a man who rose from the dead after he had been laid really dead in the tomb? Quite right. Neither have I. You and I have never seen a man who rose from the dead. That is true. But what of it? You and I have never seen a man who rose from the dead; but then you and I have never seen a man like Jesus.

Do you not see, my friends? What we are trying to establish is not the resurrection of any ordinary man, not the resurrection of a man who is to us a mere x or y not the resurrection of a man about whom we know nothing, but the resurrection of Jesus. There is a tremendous presumption against the resurrection of any ordinary man, but when you come really to know Jesus as He is pictured to us in the Gospels you will say that whereas it is unlikely that any ordinary man should rise from the dead, in His case the presumption is exactly reversed. It is unlikely that any ordinary man should rise; but it is unlikely that this man should not rise; it may be said of this man that it was impossible that He should be held of death.

The point is that this thing hangs together. We have in the Gospels an account of a Person who was entirely unique. He was totally different from other men in His moral purity and strength. Yet He made the most stupendous claims—claims that place Him beyond the bounds of sanity unless the claims were true. The claims are true if the resurrection really happened; they are a hopeless puzzle if the resurrection did not happen.

Do you see what I am driving at, my friends? The evidence of the truth of Christianity must be taken as a whole. The direct evidence for the resurrection must be taken together with the total picture of Jesus in the Gospels, and then that must be taken in connection with the evidence for the existence of God and the tremendous need of man which is caused by sin. If you take the Bible as a whole you have a grand consistent account of God, of the world and of human life. If you reject the Bible, and particularly if you reject the fact of the resurrection, you have a jumble of meaningless and detached bits of information that dance before your imagination in a wild and riotous rout.

Oh, that God would open men’s eyes that they might see, that they might detect the grand sweep and power of His testimony to Himself in His Word! Oh, that He would take away the terrible blindness of men’s minds! Has He taken away the blindness of your minds, my friends? Do you know the risen Christ today as your Savior and your Lord? If you do not yet know Him, will you not bow before Him at this hour and say, "My Lord and my God!"

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This Page Last Updated: 12/07/98 A. Allison Lewis