25 February 2014

Religious Instruction and the Resurrection of Jesus

by Dr Philip Church

Recently it was reported that the St Heliers School Board had decided that RI (Bible in Schools) would no longer be offered in the school. There is nothing newsworthy about this, of course. For a number of years it has been the prerogative of school boards throughout the country to decide on this matter. I am not up with the details on this one but apparently a group of parents decided that it was a human rights issue, and were able to convince the Board that their children had the right not to be subjected to religious instruction.

Of course, under the Nelson System, where schools are officially closed for 30 minutes once a week to facilitate RI, these parents had the right to withdraw their children. I know about that, since with my Exclusive Brethren upbringing I wasn’t allowed to stay in class. I used to wander the playground with the Jewish boy from up the street, although, as I recall it, I was not quite sure why. I stayed in a few times, one year in particular, when the teacher was a certain Robert A. Laidlaw. But that is another story.

The NZ Herald got hold of this story and published a few opinion pieces on it, both for and against. One of those by Sam Clements, published on p. A32 on 19 February, caught my eye. Clements begins his piece relatively benignly with the usual platitudinous stuff about the Bible’s value as good literature, and then pointed out that, since Christians were now in a minority (as of course followers of Jesus would expect – following Jesus never was for the masses), in our richly multi-cultural society Christians ought not expect to have this privileged position. Of course he is right. But having got this out of the way he then proceeded to rehearse some outrageous hearsay evidence about kids coming home and telling their parents that they were on the way to hell, and that while RI teachers had strict guidelines about not evangelising, of course they were there to evangelise. He concluded, interestingly, with a prayer to nobody in particular, “May this antiquated programme be removed from our state schools once and for all.” But what really caught my eye was the suggestion that RI in schools is a hangover from the time when “bodily resurrections, virgin births and life eternal were rarely openly questioned.” I don’t expect Clements will read this, but I thought I should issue him a challenge to investigate the resurrection of Jesus and see how it stands up to examination.

The earliest record comes from, 1 Cor 15:3-9, written within 18-20 years after it happened.

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.

Of course one could suggest that this was written by a follower of Jesus, whose evidence we cannot trust since he had a vested interest in getting the story out – as if vested interests ever rendered testimony invalid – everyone has a vested interest in the stories they tell. One could respond, of course, that this follower of Jesus was formerly an enemy of the gospel whose life was transformed when he encountered the risen Christ. One could also respond that if it were not true, at least one of the 500 people mentioned could have come forward and said so. It was just too close to the events, with too many of the witnesses still around to be a complete fabrication. On the contrary, it seems well-attested that Jesus was executed by the Roman occupiers of Palestine, and was seen alive a few days later. And there are only four options for dealing with that.

  1. He died and remained dead and the story was fabricated
  2. He died and remained dead and those who later saw him alive were mistaken
  3. He didn’t die at all, perhaps recovering in the tomb
  4. He died and rose again as the NT says he did.

There is little space here to discuss the options, and it has been done many times, Tom Wright’s, The Resurrection of the Son of God, perhaps being the most comprehensive recent treatment. Suffice it to say, that (1) Roman soldiers knew how to execute people; (2) recovering in the cool of the tomb is a possibility that has often been proposed, but after the ordeal of scourging, being nailed to a cross, and being pierced with a spear, he would need a long period of recuperation that the NT is silent about; (3) if he remained dead it would be a simple matter for someone to produce the body and stop the resurrection rumours once and for all; (4) it might be possible for one or two individuals to hallucinate and think they had seen him alive, but it would be unlikely for mass hallucinations of 500 people to take place, and indeed hallucinations like this would only arise if people were expecting him to rise from the dead, and the NT is clear that this was the last thing they were expecting; and (5) if you were making up a story, it would be very odd in that culture to have a group of women tell it. It just seems to me that any other explanation takes more faith than to accept the evidence.

Finally, as Inspector Columbo used to say, “One more thing.” My belief in the resurrection is immeasurably strengthened when I encounter individuals whose lives have been transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ. Paul, who wrote the quote above, was one of these, and history has seen countless others. A powerful example of one such story can be found here on the Laidlaw College website, the story of theology student Vernon Downes

So should RI be excluded from schools? I am ambivalent because we live in a post-Christendom society, although while the option is there we ought to take it up. On the other hand, it is scarcely a human rights issue. Can anyone object on human rights grounds to letting anyone hear the story of one who called his followers to love others, even their enemies, as he loved them, and then stretched out his arms and died that they might live? There are thousands of children in schools in this country who, apart from the privilege we have of providing RI in our schools, might never hear this story. And it is just not valid to dismiss it on the grounds that we have come of age and it is no longer possible to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

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