The central claim of the orthodox Christian faith is that Jesus Christ was crucified and three days later was resurrected.
The Christian scholar N.T. Wright argues from a careful study of Jewish and Christian sources that the early Christian apostles claimed very specifically that Jesus underwent a bodily resurrection.
From a Jewish context, this is surprising because according to Jewish tradition when the Resurrection happens it is going to happen to all saved souls, not just a singular man aka Jesus.
But Wright also argues from a careful study of the ancient world that, other than the Jewish belief in a future and universal bodily resurrection, it was generally thought that death was final. Once dead, there is no bodily resurrection. In the Pagan world, it was thought that Death cannot be defeated.
Granted, the Platonists believed that after death the immortal soul was joined into a union with the Divine. But that is distinctly different from the Jewish and Christian concept of a bodily resurrection.
Wright argues that from the available New Testament sources it is clear the earliest Christians believed that Christ underwent a bodily resurrection and not just some kind of “spiritual” or “ghostly” resurrection.
Furthermore, it is clear that this early Christian belief in Christ’s defeat of bodily death is what fueled the growth of Christianity.
The Skeptical Response
Enter the skeptic and naturalist, who says: so what? People believe all kinds of crazy things. Mass hallucinations can happen. Just look at the “Miracle” of Fatima where 50,000 people all claimed to see the Sun literally fall out of the Sun. What is more probable, that the Sun actually fell out of the sky or that 50,000 people all suffered a kind of mass, shared hallucination?
Accordingly, says the skeptic, the best explanation for the rapid and unparalleled growth of Christianity is that it was founded on some kind of mass hallucination. In other words, the skeptic will agree that the Christian movement was founded on the belief that Christ had risen from the dead but that this belief was most certainly false, because (1) miracles don’t happen (2) bodily resurrection does not comport with our best scientific understanding of what is or is not possible.
Wright’s position, however, is that the best, convergent, historical explanation of the rapid growth of Christianity is that the early Christian’s belief in the bodily Resurrection was in fact true. Their belief in Christ’s bodily Resurrection fueled the growth of Christianity precisely because it was true: the tomb really was empty and hundreds of people really did experience a Jesus in the flesh post-death.
The weight of Wright’s argument is quite impressive, and I cannot possibly do it justice in this blog post.
However, It is important that many scholars of the New Testament make a distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith.
According to this tradition, the most we can say from a historical perspective is that (1) Jesus was crucified and (2) his followers believed that he rose from the dead. But, crucially, the claim of his Resurrection cannot be a historical fact.
This is the line that atheist scholar of the New Testament Bart Ehrman takes. He says that historians necessarily deal with what is probable. And because the Resurrection is by definition a miracle, and because miracles are by definition highly improbable, then the Resurrection cannot be considered a conclusion of the modern post-Enlightenment historian.
Wright argues in contrast that the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith is a false dichotomy, and that history and faith in fact intersect, and that Jesus’ Resurrection can, in fact, be a conclusion of the historian without any special methodological trouble based on converging inferences to the best explanation.
However, Wright concedes that a naturalist skeptic is not irrational or stupid to disbelieve in the Resurrection as a historical fact because although convergent evidence can bring you right up to the fact ultimately you must cross a threshold and enter into worldview issues.
And this is where I get interested because I used to have a totally natural and materialistic worldview of what I considered to be the “scientific worldview” or “scientific paradigm” which basically says all that exists is just physical stuff and there is nothing transcendent or supra-physical. Just physical stuff all the way down obeying the laws of physics or behaving according to a super complicated process of efficient, mechanical causation.
But now I don’t believe that anymore. Granted, I was an agnostic atheist when I did hold that worldview. But now I am agnostic in the opposite sense.
Like Wright, I do not think one can prove in the court of public opinion that the physicalist’s worldview is incomplete. Like Wright, I do not think there is any truly “neutral” or non-biased “view from nowhere” from which to analyze the truth of physicalism vs Christianity.
The Christian scholar is going to have a different worldview than the physicalist and these worldviews are going to shape their assumptions about what is possible as an explanation of the belief of early Christians in the Resurrection of Christ.
For the naturalist, they assume that the best scientific picture of the world tells us that someone bodily rising from the dead three days after a brutal crucifixion does not comport with any known physical laws or modern-day empirical and repeatable observations, and thus we can rule it out a priori as a plausible explanation of why the early Christians believed so fervently in Christ’s Resurrection.
In contrast, the Christian, insofar as they believe in a Creator God who is not only transcendent to the physical world but also completely immanent and incarnated in the world, it is not outside the realm of possibility that “miracles” could happen, where “miracle” is just understood as something rare and inexplicable according to a natural, everyday understanding of how things work.
Are Miracles Possible?
But are Christians really being “unscientific” in adopting a worldview that allows for the possibility of miracles in reality?
After all, the skeptic might say it is certainly convenient that this age of miracles happened 2,000 years ago before the invention of video cameras.
But from the perspective of the Christian, one might not necessarily agree that we are no longer in an age of miracles.
Just go back to the Miracle of Fatima. 50,000 people witnessed a completely strange and inexplicable event. These weren’t all drunkards or unreliable witnesses. Believers and nonbelievers alike witnessed it. Journalists experienced it. Newspapers around the area reported it. It completely boggles the mind to suppose that 50,000 people were all simultaneously hallucinating and/or lying about what they were witnessing. It is one of the strangest and most well-attested events to ever occur on a mass scale.
Many people believe it was not a religious miracle at all but a UFO event of some unspecified kind.
Regardless, it seems completely undeniable that something happened. And even if it was was a mass, spontaneous, shared hallucination among 50,000 people, that in itself seems to be a miraculous psychological event. The naturalist worldview strains for a psychological model whereby 50,000 separate brains of normal, sane people could have all witnessed a hallucinatory vision of unprecedented scale.
But to the skeptic and naturalist, even though they cannot provide a reasonable psychological model for how such a mass delusion is possible, they say it must be psychological because we know for sure that the laws of physics say it’s impossible that the Sun could have fallen and zig-zagged in the sky.
A Jungian Perspective
I want to bring the great psychologist C.G. Jung into the picture because I think his model of the collective unconscious is useful to cut through this gordian knot of miracles and mass psychology, both in the early Christian case and the Fatima case.
The most critical concept in Jung’s psychology is the idea of the Psyche or Soul having both a personal or subjective perspective relative to the individual ego and an objective component independent of the ego-perspective.
That is to say, the psychological realm can be objective in the same way earthquakes are objective, that is to say, independent of what any particular individual happens to believe at the subjective level.
In other words, Jung proposes that we cannot truly understand the reality of synchronicities and anomalous experiences unless we posit that at its core ontological level reality is simultaneously objective and psychic.
This can be applied to the Miracle of Fatima. The phenomenon is on one level psychical i.e. dealing with the Mind or Soul. On another level, the phenomenon is objective and independent of personal subjectivity, hence explaining why 50,000 people experienced it and all reported the same thing.
The concept of “mass hallucination” is therefore not appropriate for Jung’s model, because the concept of hallucination implies a lack of correspondence to ultimate reality, whereas Jung’s model of ultimate reality is both psychical and objective.
Jung’s model of the cosmos allows for the possibility that Fatima was “all in their head” albeit with the critical clarification that what it means to by “in the head” does not literally end at the individual skull but, rather, extends into a collective and universal Soul-field that is independent of any particular person’s brain.
This is what he called the collective unconscious.
He also called it the Unus Mundus or One World, which is the ancient idea that everything, mental and physical, is unified and connected into a single shared reality called The One.
This is very close to not only the ancient Neoplatonic systems of thought but also great Christian Mystics such as Meister Eckhart, who believed that God, and thus Christ, are fundamentally unitive in nature, connecting everything into themselves.
So going back to Jesus and the Resurrection, what can we say about the “problem of worldviews”?
For the naturalist, the world is not “strange” or “spooky.” It only appears that way but ultimately there is a mechanical or efficient causal explanation for everything, even if we can never know what that is.
For the Christian however, it is not so much that there is a “natural world” operating according to physical laws and a “supernatural world” “out there” that sometimes intervenes to cause miracles.
Rather, for the Christian, the natural world is itself super because, as John says, the Word Has Become Flesh. This is what Jeffrey Kripal calls a “super natural” view as opposed to a “supernatural” view.
Which is not to deny the complete transcendence of God. It’s just that, as Christ is completely incarnated into this world, it is this world that contains the potential to be strange, for there to be bodily resurrection, miracles of healing, and all kinds of other strange or anomalous events, not just in ancient times but throughout history including the present moment.
It is just that as post-Enlightenment moderners this perspective seems foreign. We have completely disenchanted our cosmos such that it is cold, dead, lacking in transcendence, ultimate purpose, or any sense of intrinsic meaning or possibility of “High Strangeness.”
Poetically, we might say that the naturalist believes there are atoms and the void, and nothing else. Consciousness itself just becomes a mere by-product of the brain, which itself operates just like any causal force; consciousness is either identical to the physical brain itself, or is just identical to the functioning of the brain, or is just an epiphenomenon of the functioning of the brain.
But for the Christian, we accept that we live in a strange universe. It is not merely taken on blind faith, believed because we are taught to believe. Survey after survey has shown that many ordinary people have strange and anomalous experiences of ultimate concern that are completely inexplicable on the assumption that all that exists is physical stuff.
Indeed, much of the recent revival of the occult is due to people having anomalous experiences that do not fit into the de facto “scientific” explanation that they are just delusional or hallucinating, coupled with a deep longing to find meaning in a cold and disenchanted universe.
But the Christian has been living in a deeply enchanted cosmos for over 2,000 years, starting with the completely inexplicable phenomenon of Christ’s Resurrection.
What I Believe
So what do I think? Am I a true believer? Honestly, I’m not sure. My natural instincts for methodological naturalism and agnosticism prevent me from jumping whole-heartedly into an unwavering certainty that Christ did indeed conquer death.
But isn’t that part of what it means to have faith? If it was simply a matter of collecting objective facts and gathering them into a neat and tidy problem 100% solvable by human reason, it would completely remove the mystery which is at the heart of the phenomenon of Christ.
I have a natural revulsion to completely rationalist approaches to faith where people try to argue that you’re irrational and stupid for not believing in the clear-cut evidence and logic of the Christian faith.
For me, that is arrogant and prideful. It says “my human mind has completely captured the full extent of the mystery that is the divinity of Christ into an airtight logical argument and if you don’t believe what I believe then you must be of poor intellectual character.”
That is not the sort of Christianity I am interested in. I am not interested in settling my doubts. I am not interested in trying to fit God and Christ into the finite confines of my brain.
I completely admire N.T. Wright’s scholarship and believe he has made a solid and convincing case that all the converging evidence seems to point to the reality of the empty tomb. However, converging historical evidence can take me right up to the very edge of the cliff but ultimately I must take a leap of faith into this worldview, forever falling through a dense cloud of unknowing.