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The Resurrection: History? Legend? Whatever

By Rowan Forster - posted Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Peter Sellick's article, "Resurrection: the vindication of the Christ", gives rise to the question of the ages, namely, what is truth? Where lies the line between factual account and mere myth? Between history and legend? Between fact and fabrication? Between the literal and the figurative? Between factual account and creative invention? Between objective reality and subjective imagining?

Mr. Sellick's answer to these questions, at least as far as the resurrection is concerned, is that we don't know, and we'll probably never know. Speaking of events leading up to, and following, the crucifixion, he says this: "History? Legend? Who knows? Whatever, the point is made" (the point being that Jesus is brother to all who die alone). The use of the word "whatever" in this context can only mean "Who cares? What's the big deal? It doesn't matter either way."

In other words, it's of no consequence whether the resurrection actually happened or not. And he is able to hold this seemingly untenable position by asserting that a non-historical non-event can nonetheless be true.


He says it's unlikely that the resurrection and the empty tomb have a historical basis. But he adds: "This does not mean they are untrue and hence the stuff of fairy tales. Rather, they are essential stories that outline the character of God." His use of the word "stories" in this context can only mean non-historical, non-factual inventions.

One can only wonder, in what ways the character of God is "outlined" by fictitious stories which are reported and described as if they had happened, but which in fact never happened at all. If the Word of God contains numerous ostensibly factual passages which are merely masquerading as fact, then in what way(s) would this "outline the character of God"?

Mr.Sellick quotes a passage from Acts (chapter two, verses 22-24) in which St.Peter is addressing a large crowd. St.Peter tells His listeners they had crucified and killed Jesus, but God raised Him up, liberating Him from the pangs of death, because He could no longer be held or controlled by the power of death.

To say that death could no longer contain Him, only makes sense if death had contained Him, if only for a matter of days -- namely from the time of His death and burial, until He rose triumphant from the grave.

It is difficult to imagine any interpretation of this passage in Acts, other than that Jesus was physically crucified, physically died, and was physically raised from death by the power of God. If we're looking for something that would "outline the character of God", then surely this divine conquest of death would tell us far more than some non-historical non-event.

Mr.Sellick also asserts that the Gospel narratives "take the form of legend that served a theological purpose," as distinct from being historical fact.


So let's for a moment imagine he's right, and the resurrection "legend" has no historical basis. This can only mean it did not happen historically, factually, or actually. Rather, the resurrection narrative is a non-factual legend, presumably comparable with the legend of King Arthur, or perhaps the story of Robin Hood. And if the resurrection narrative is not "the stuff of fairy tales", then how does it differ from Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, or Jack and the Beanstalk?

So how do we make sense of Mr.Sellick's assertion that the non-factuality of the resurrection "does not mean (it is) untrue", given that truth and factuality are almost universally regarded as synonymous? The Oxford Dictionary, for instance, begins its definition of "true" with the words "In accordance with fact".

Yet Mr.Sellick insists "we must rid ourselves of the notion that truth only resides in fact". So where else does truth reside, apart from fact? In fable? In fairytale? In fabrication? In fraudulent falsehood? Furthermore, he says we must also rid ourselves of "the pernicious conclusion that unless the resurrection can be taken as an historical event of the flesh, then the Church must fall."

This "pernicious conclusion" is to be found time and time again in many passages in the New Testament. For instance, 1st Corinthians chapter 15 asserts that Christ rose from the dead according to the Scriptures (verse 4); that after His resurrection He was seen by all the apostles and by a crowd of about 500 (verses 5-7); and, of particular relevance, that if Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is in vain, and we are still in a state of unforgiven sin (verses 17-18).

Given that belief in this historically factual resurrection is the fundamental and pivotal foundation stone of the edifice of the Christian faith, then indeed "the Church must fall" if it were found not to be true. This is the theme of Paul L. Maier's book "A Skeleton in God's Closet", which is highly recommended.

In summary, the book describes how an unscrupulous archaeologist connived to discover what he claimed were bone fragments of Jesus' skeleton, in or near the place where He was believed to have been buried. Therefore Jesus could not have risen from His tomb. When news of the shocking discovery hit the headlines, the Christian church around the world was plunged into a major crisis, with worshippers departing from the faith in their tens of thousands...

...That is, until the alleged "bones of Christ" were proved to be a fraudulent hoax, whereupon the church was able to reclaim its belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus -- the event which is the foundational and indispensable cornerstone of the Christian faith, and hence of the Christian church.

Mr.Selleck's assertion that the resurrection should not be taken as "an historical event of the flesh", gives rise to the question, what exactly would a resurrection that was not of the flesh, look like? It would certainly not look like the risen Jesus who had to show Thomas His crucifixion wounds before Thomas would believe He had risen (see John 20:19-29).

And for those who regard John's Gospel as less historically reliable than the three synoptic Gospels, try Luke 24:36-48. In this passage, the risen Jesus comes to the disciples, who are terrified because they think He's a ghost. And Jesus says, "Don't be alarmed, it is I! Look at the wounds in my hands and feet, and touch me. A ghost doesn't have flesh and bones, as you can see that I have." And to put the issue beyond any lingering doubt, He asks for some food and eats it in their presence, proving that He not only has flesh and bones, but also has a digestive system. And this is in the synoptic Gospel of Luke.

Finally, if Mr.Selleck is right, the supposedly infallible Word of God, the Bible, is riddled with fabrications, falsehoods, and figments of some lively imaginations. It is full of descriptions of "events" that never historically happened. It is full of fictitious fairy tales, such as the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection, the post-resurrection appearances, the ascension, and more besides.

All of which gives rise to arguably the greatest mystery in human history. How on earth did a religious movement based on such a collection of falsehoods, fables, fabrications and figments of the imagination -- how did it survive in the face of such intense persecution, over such a testing span of 20 centuries, and continue growing and thriving to the point where it is numerically, by a significant margin, the largest religious faith in the world today?

And furthermore, how did it inspire and embolden countless thousands of servants of God to make such outstanding and lasting contributions to human welfare, from David Livingstone to Albert Schweitzer, from William Wilberforce to William and Catherine Booth, from George Muller to Thomas Barnardo, from Florence Nightingale to Mother Teresa, from Helen Keller to Jean Vanier, from Desmond Tutu to Martin Luther King, from Rev.John Flynn to missionary-martyr Graham Staines, and countless others besides.

The evidence is overwhelming that such heroes of the faith were inspired, not by a fraudulent falsehood, a fictitious invention or a fabricated fairy tale, but rather by a Person whose life, death and bodily resurrection -- and nothing less -- has changed, and continues to change, the course of human history, in so many redemptive, renewing and restorative ways.

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About the Author

Rowan Forster is a Melbourne journalist.

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