Why Jesus being raised from the dead matters ethically
All through my decades as a pastor, I have heard some of my dearest friends say “Whether the story of God raising Jesus from the dead is true or not, I would still be a believer.” This is usually followed either (1) by a statement concerning how much God’s presence means in giving meaning and power to daily living, (2) by a statement about how much God has changed the life of the believer, (3) about how much the support and ministries of the believing community mean to one’s life, or (4) all of the above.
I am always hesitant to enter into that discussion. One reason I am hesitant is that I am delighted that God and God’s community mean so much to my sisters and brothers, and I have good reason to believe that God is even more delighted. So, I whisper to myself, “Don’t mess with this wonderful gift.” It is obvious to me that God is at work in the lives of these sisters and brothers, and I have every reason to think that God is extremely gracious with our honest doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, just as the New Testament writers tell us God was merciful and gracious with the doubts concerning the resurrection that surfaced in the 1st century followers of Jesus (Matthew 28:16ff; John 20; 1 Corinthians 15; etc.). So, to be clear, this article is not a questioning of the authentic relationship with God that sisters and brothers have who do not think like I do.
The other reason I am hesitant is the incredulous looks I get from people I love and respect so much when I do respond honestly. So, what is my honest response? When I say what is really true about my relationship with God through Jesus, I have to say, “For me personally, if I did not at bottom believe—in spite of my very real times of doubts and questions—that God raised Jesus from the dead as the same Jesus of Nazareth who was, because of his deep love and trust in God, unjustly executed, I would not be a Christian. And, I would never involve myself in any church community again.”
In part 3 of this blog series, I will enumerate some of the theological/philosophical reasons why this is true for me, and in part 2, I will share some of the historical reasons why this is true for me. But in this post, I want to cover some of the ethical/moral reasons this is true for me.
1st – It is unethical to ask people to risk their lives based on something you know to be a fabrication. Yet, this is exactly what the early followers of Jesus were doing if they knew that God did not raise him from the dead, and they nevertheless challenged people to risk their lives by publicly calling Jesus Lord because God would raise them from the dead too. How cynical did the early leaders have to be to allow people like Stephen and the other believers of Acts 8 to go to their deaths because they believed what these leaders knew to be a lie? At least as cynical as the politicians who lied to the American people and to the American soldiers about Vietnam and why they were being sent there to die. At least as cynical as the political operatives who recruit 12 year old boys to strap on explosives and blow themselves up because they are guaranteed heaven and 70 virgins if they will. We should face squarely that would be the personal ethics of the early followers of Jesus, too, if they were fabricating God’s act in raising Jesus from the dead.
2nd – I think Rabbi Pinchas Lapide is correct in his book “The Resurrection of Jesus” when he maintained that the early followers of Jesus were ethical people, and that it would have been totally unethical in their belief system for them to fabricate such a historical act of God. Most scholars—all but the most cynical—agree that the apostles and early believers were not philosophers, but rather pretty common people who became turned on to God in new ways by a man named Jesus. Do we really believe that they based all of their challenges to be more risky with life, more generous, more faithful to God, etc. on what they knew to be a fabrication and a myth? On what evidence do we suggest that this would have been considered ethical by a community of observant Jewish believers in the 1st century?
3rd – Faithful Jewish believers would have been unethical and immoral, based on their own belief system, to have included Gentiles as equals—unless they believed God had raised Jesus from the dead and enthroned Jesus over history as the next step in the promises to Abraham. Nothing short of such a powerful act of God could have made it morally acceptable to risk 2000 years of Jewish faith and culture. Only an act of God that initiated the beginning of “the age to come” could have absolved these early Jewish followers of Jesus from gross ethical violation when they relativized most of the key boundary markers of their faith such as Sabbath, circumcision, promised land, and temple worship. As a faithful Jewish believer, there could have been no other ethical reason for moving beyond all that made Jewish “Jewish.”
4th – As a person who seems to have grown up without much, if any, “natural” moral inclination, I have become a pretty ethical person solely based in my relationship with the risen Jesus. I would have little interest in God apart from what God has done in Jesus, and I would pretty much be a pragmatic philosophical nihilist. If I thought Jesus’ resurrection was a lie and a hoax, I cannot think of one good reason for spending my adult life the way I have spent it. I am thrilled that many of my dearly loved friends have a moral compass that has been operative since birth, but my moral compass is the living Jesus.