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Tom Wright Debates The Resurrection

Category Articles
Date June 23, 2005

“Enormous forces in our culture are determined to deny that Jesus was raised from the dead,” N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop, said. “Over and over again, they use arguments that can be shown to be invalid and propose alternative scenarios which can be shown to be impossible.” Wright and John Dominic Crossan, a member of the Jesus Seminar, voiced divergent views of the resurrection during the inaugural Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary March 11. Tom Wright defended the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus as the only tenable view, while Crossan, a professor emeritus at DePaul University, set forth a metaphorical interpretation of the resurrection.

TOM WRIGHT

To begin the forum, each speaker was given 20 minutes to explain his beliefs. During the following dialogue, both Crossan and Wright questioned each other and clarified their positions. Wright began by examining some of the common attempts to explain away the resurrection. He said one argument proposes that ancient people did not understand the laws of nature and were, therefore, more inclined to accept unsophisticated answers. “That is simply absurd,” Wright said. “The ancients knew perfectly well that dead people didn’t rise. We didn’t need modern science to tell us that.” Others have pointed to Hellenistic and pagan stories featuring empty graves and visions of the dead as the reason the early church began to believe in the resurrection. But Wright said these stories are completely different from the biblical resurrection accounts. The presence of resurrection beliefs in Judaism cannot account for the focus on Jesus’ resurrection in the early church either, Wright said, noting that resurrection was peripheral in Judaism, or not a foundational part of the Jewish beliefs. In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus is central. “I’ve shown conclusively that [the Apostle] Paul really did believe in the bodily resurrection despite generations of critics going back as far as the second century trying to make out that he didn’t,” Wright said. The empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances caused the early church to believe in His bodily resurrection, Wright said, noting that the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances taken together constitute a sufficient condition for belief in the resurrection. “Having examined as many of the alternative explanations I could find and having shown them all to be completely inadequate, the one we are left with, however unlikely, must press itself upon us as being true,” Wright said. “It is only with the bodily resurrection of Jesus, demonstrating that His death dealt a decisive blow to evil, that we could find the proper grounds for calling the kingdoms of earth to submit to the Kingdom of God.”

JOHN CROSSAN

Crossan, on the other hand, said he believes the mode of the resurrection is secondary to the meaning of the resurrection. Though taking a metaphorical approach to the resurrection, Crossan maintained that, whether one believes in a literal or metaphorical resurrection, the implications of the resurrection should make a difference in the world today. “We are talking about cosmic transformation from a world of injustice, impurity and violence into a world of justice and peace and purity and holiness,” he said. Crossan denied that the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus served as a sufficient cause for the rise of resurrection belief in the early church. “That would get you to the exaltation,” Crossan said. “It would get you to the conclusion that Jesus has been exalted, maybe even to the right hand of God. . . . Something else is absolutely needed to make that leap of faith [to belief in a literal, bodily resurrection]. Crossan said Jesus’ words about launching the Kingdom of God caused the early church to believe in the resurrection. “If you want to debate what has to be taken literally and what has to be taken metaphorically, it is a perfectly valid debate,” Crossan said. “But there is something else – the question of meaning.” Crossan said he would like to hear someone who takes the resurrection literally share the implications of that belief, asking how that belief could change the world. “Tell me that from your literal reading,” he said. “I will try, as one who takes it metaphorically, to spell out the implications from a metaphorical reading.” Those who disagree over the mode of the resurrection, whether literal or metaphorical, will find common ground in the area of meaning, Crossan said.

THE DIALOGUE

During the dialogue time, Wright pressed Crossan on the use of “literal and metaphorical.” Wright argued for the use of the terms “concrete and abstract.” “Often we use the terms literal and metaphorical when, actually, we mean concrete and abstract,” Wright said. “I do think it makes an enormous difference if you say that what happened on Easter day was not a concrete event.” Wright also challenged Crossan to explain the changes that occurred as believers in Christ moved from Judaism and other cultures to Christianity. “Something happened which caused all those Christians from very different backgrounds to transform the beliefs their cultures had given them into this remarkable new shape,” Wright said. Crossan, however, spoke again of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. “I think for me it’s extraordinarily important that the historical Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, has already made an announcement,” he said. “It is not that the Kingdom is beginning. It is that the Kingdom has begun. When He sends people out, I think these people experienced part of the Kingdom.” Crossan said he believes the early believers saw apparitions rather than the literal risen Jesus. The apparitions along with their experience with the Kingdom, Crossan said, caused the dramatic shift in their beliefs. Wright responded, “I agree with you that Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom and their awareness of the power of God through the preaching of Jesus is one of the preconditions for the eventual interpretation at which they arrived.” But, he said, “I don’t think those by themselves would have been sufficient to generate anyone saying, ‘He has been raised from the dead.'”

THE RESPONSEThe dialogue was attended by about 1,000 people in Leavell Chapel, New Orleans Baptist Seminary. President Chuck Kelley said, “See how we can dialogue with the world and get the Gospel out there without sacrificing our convictions; a great model for how to take a strongly held belief like we have in the resurrection and then share and defend that belief with those who don’t accept it.” The forum continued on March 12 with a number of scholars responding to Crossan and Wright. Responses from Wright and Crossan followed each speaker. Numerous other evangelical scholars were present because the Southwest regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Evangelical Missiological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society met that weekend on the New Orleans Baptist Seminary campus.

The Friday night dialogue, along with the papers presented Saturday and a few additional articles, will be published by Fortress Press in North America and by SPCK in Europe in the spring of 2006. The 2006 Point Counterpoint Forum is scheduled for February 10-11, 2006, on “Debating Design” – whether the universe was created by intelligent design or by evolution. The dialogue will be between one of intelligent design’s leading thinkers, William Dembski, the newly named director of the Center for Science and Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and evolutionist Michael Ruse, a professor at Florida State University.

Gary D. Myers, Baptist Press

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