The Myths of Christianity - 5
The Myth of the Resurrection
At first sight it seems to be an either/or issue: he either rose from the
dead or he didn't, so make your choice. However, if the approach I have
been adopting has any integrity to it, there is likely to be more to the
issue than either persuading ourselves to install an old piece of mental
furniture in our minds or rejecting it out of hand without a moment's
further thought . We might be persuaded of the physical fact of the
resurrection without it making the slightest difference to our actual
Theologians can be quite subtle in talking about the resurrection
A parallel with the puzzle presented by the existence of the universe
might help here. If the Big Bang theory is a hypothetical way of
accounting for the origin of the universe, we could say that we have no
direct access to whatever it was, but only to its effects in a universe
that still appears to be expanding. In other words, we read back from the
present to the past and offer our best guess as to what got the universe
By analogy, we could say that some kind of decisive event got the
Christian movement going. Something happened to the disciples of Jesus to
change them from the demoralised followers of a fallen leader into people
of courage who now proclaimed the message of the one they had earlier
The earliest account we have of the resurrection is from Paul, in the
First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I
proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,
through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the
message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had
received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the
scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third
day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers
and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have
died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I
am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I
persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked
harder than any of them - though it was not I, but the grace of God that
is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you
have come to believe.
In many ways, verse eight is the most significant part of Paul's
statement: 'Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to
In a previous lecture in this series I spent some time thinking about
the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. He was riding
along when a light from outside blinded him and a voice commanded him to
cease his persecution of the followers of Jesus.
We read in the following verses that a follower of Jesus named Ananias
came to him and ministered to him, restoring his sight. Saul, now to be
called Paul, becomes a Christian apostle. There is no doubt that something
happened to Saul of Tarsus that turned him into the formative genius
behind the early theological understanding of Jesus.
We can accept all that, we can even accept the apparently miraculous
blindness that afflicted him, but we approach the event from within a
different interpretative framework. Saul's passionate vehemence against
the followers of Jesus would suggest that his attention had already been
arrested by the movement he was persecuting. This is a common phenomenon.
We know enough about bigotry to understand something of its causality and
that one of its roots is fear or anxiety.
The classic way to deal with this kind of discomfort is to externalise
or project it onto someone you can punish for the distress you feel about
your own un-admitted longings. The blindness was psychogenic, a somatic
expression of the turmoil in his soul, as he refused to acknowledge,
refused to see, what his own heart was telling him: that Jesus of
Nazareth had captured him for himself and would, if surrendered to, take
over his entire life.
Thus the story of Paul's conversion can be accounted for without
recourse to supernatural agency; it was a struggle that was resolved
within his own heart. That change was the real miracle we call the
resurrection and Paul's account is the closest we can get to the
Later writers, the more restrained of whom got into the official New
Testament, set out to satisfy human curiosity with more detailed
descriptions of the event. One, called the Gospel of Peter, actually
describes the event, the stone rolling away by itself and three men
emerging from the tomb, two of them helping the other, and the cross
These attempts to describe the event of the resurrection are, for their
day, not unlike the attempts by scientists to picture the moment before
the Big Bang. They are attempts to explain the originating event that is
hidden from them by reading backwards from the reality that is before them
and positing an explanation.
This retrospective method is also true in theology and it is already
fairly clear in the way the gospels were written. The resurrection moment
was the time when the penny finally dropped for the disciples and they
discovered who Jesus was.
Though the gospels appear to follow a chronological sequence, from
birth to death, they are packed with coded as well as with overt claims
about the significance of Jesus from the very beginning. In his narrative
Mark signals the identity of Jesus at his baptism; Matthew and Luke from
his birth; and John goes back to eternity in his prologue. We have to ask
ourselves today, therefore: if that is how they expressed the significance
of Jesus for them in their words, how might we do it today in ours?
I have found an approach proposed by a previous Gresham Professor of
Divinity to be very helpful. It was difficult to get my head round it at
first, but when I did, I saw that it had real power of application in many
situations. It comes from the seventh century in a dispute between Jains
and Buddhists. In both of these traditions, there is an ultimate truth
called nirvana that is essentially one, even though it may be
referred to by various names.
This led Haribhadra, a Jain, to what has been called "the logic of
nirvana" and it goes like this:
If nirvana turns out to be nirvana, it is nirvana
that nirvana turns out to be, even though you and I may have been
thinking about it in approximate and opposing ways. If the Earth turns
out to be spherical, it is spherical that the Earth turns out to be,
even though you hold that it is round and I hold that it is flat. We are
both wrong, but at least we are approximately wrong about something.
We may argue, as Haribhadra did, and try to convince each other; and,
in the end, one position may be more approximately right than the other.
But it will still be about a spherical Earth that flat Earthers and
round Earthers happen to be arguing.
On the basis of this 'logic of Nirvana', Haribhadra concluded that
"It is impossible for thoughtful people to quarrel over the way in which
one expresses one's loyalty to this truth." It follows also, in his
view, that anyone who points the way (however approximately) to what is
truly the case must be honoured...
In other words, thoughtful people should not quarrel over the different
ways in which they express their loyalty to truth, because, if they are
being honest, their disagreements are at least about something real and
all genuine attempts to struggle for truth must be honoured.
This sounds like a different version of Kuhn's paradigm theory.
Aristotle was not bad Newton, but a different approximation to an
understanding of the reality that was in front of them both. Applying the
logic of nirvana to the resurrection means that, whatever it is, it
cannot be threatened or damaged by what we make of it. Whatever the
originating event was and however we interpret it, all that we see is its
consequence in the lives of those who encountered it.
As I have already suggested, the resurrection is like the Big Bang
which scientists hypothesise as the originating event in the life of the
universe. It is not available to us except by guess work and theory. Just
as scientists engage in backwards interpretation, by reading the effect
that is the universe back to the unimaginable moment of its beginning, so
theologians have read back from the transformation of the disciples to a
hypothesis as to what caused it.
We could say, therefore, that there are two resurrections, but only one
is available to us. The first is the originating event, the mythic
resurrection, the big bang that ignited the Christian movement. The second
is the effectual resurrection, which is the continuing impact of Jesus
The interesting thing about the Resurrection is not what was claimed,
but who made the claim. The people who had deserted Jesus in fear and fled
from his dying, somewhere found the courage to proclaim the meaning of his
life. That transformation, that turnaround, is what we mean by
Resurrection. I would say that the Resurrection of Jesus is best
understood, best used, as a symbol or sign of the human possibility of
Albert Camus wrote that
In the midst of winter I finally learned that
there was in me an invincible summer.
That is the resurrection voice, calling us from despair and all its
defeats to the possibility of transformation. The logic of resurrection
can be experienced at both the personal and the social level; and one can
lead to another.
I could suggest many examples of the transformative resurrection at
work, including the long struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. But
the example I want to offer is from the Civil Rights movement in the
United States, because in its origins it is a fascinating combination of
personal change leading to social and political action.
The campaign to give Afro-Americans full civil and human rights began
as an act of personal transformation in the black community itself. It all
began when one tired black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks,
refused to go to the back of the bus. She was sitting on the front seat of
the black section and was asked to give that seat up to a white man who
got on at a later stop. She refused, a policeman was called and she was
The day after Rosa Park's arrest, Martin Luther King called a meeting.
A leaflet was sent out to 50,000 black people. It said:
Don't ride the bus to work, to town, to school, or any place
Monday, December 5. A Negro woman has been arrested and put in jail
because she refused to give up her bus seat. Come to a mass meeting
Monday at 7pm at the Holt Street Baptist Church for further
This was the beginning of the famous bus boycott that changed American
history. It was as simple as that. They knew they would have to pay for
their refusal to submit any longer to their own daily humiliation; they
knew they would have to face hatred and persecution. But something dropped
away from them, some burden of fear or timidity or resignation. To adapt
the resurrection metaphor, a whole people walked out of the tomb of
segregation, because a woman had the courage to refuse to go to the back
of the bus.
Resurrection is the refusal to be imprisoned any longer by history and
its long hatreds; it is the determination to take the first step out of
the tomb. Resurrection is a refusal to be gripped for ever by the fingers
of winter, whatever our winter may be. It may be a personal circumstance
that immobilises us, or a social evil that confronts us. Whatever it is,
we simply refuse any longer to accept it, because the logic of
resurrection calls us to action.
It follows, therefore, that if we say we believe in the resurrection,
it only has meaning if we are people who believe in the possibility of
transformed lives, transformed attitudes and transformed societies. The
action is the proof of the belief.
So I end with what may appear to be a paradox: I can say I believe in
that resurrection then, the Jesus resurrection, because I see
resurrections now, see stones rolled away and new possibilities rising
from old attitudes. My belief in resurrection means that I have to commit
myself to the possibility of transformation, and, however feeble I feel,
take the first faltering step towards change.
That means continuing to struggle with the intractability of my own
nature. More importantly, it means joining with others in action to bring
new life to human communities that are still held in the grip of winter,
and there are lots of frozen churches and deep-frozen human institutions
that need thawing out with resurrection fire.
� Richard Holloway: This publication may not be
reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the