The Uniqueness of Jesus and the Resurrection

The Archbishop of Canterbury on Sharia

On 5 February 2008 The Times newspaper's "Law" supplement had as its main feature article, "Does Islam fit with our law?" It began as follows:

"Is a clash looming between the laws of the West and Islam? In the wake of 9/11, commentators such as Samuel Huntington have spoken of a conflict between an economically powerful but increasingly amoral West, and a resurgent and moralistic Islam. There is much at stake. Can a state such as Turkey, overwhelmingly Muslim, join the EU and become party to international human rights provisions? Given that Islamic councils have been established in England, should they be recognized by English family law?"

It then reported that two bodies, the Temple Church (in the heart of legal London) and CIMEL (the Centre of Islamic and Middle East Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London) were about to sponsor a series of lecture-discussions on Islam in English law. The series was to be launched by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on 7 February 2008, with a lecture he entitled "Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England". When, on the day, he then argued that we ought to supplement our legal system by Sharia law, and appeared to be wanting to privilege Islam alongside Christianity in Britain (which still has a Christian Constitution), many were shocked. He was seen to be conceding the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ, which at law an Anglican clergyman is duty bound to uphold (see Article XVIII of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England). Having studied carefully both his BBC Radio 4 interview and his lecture, I strongly disagree with the Archbishop. However, the issues he raised on the nature of the state, the role of law and the place of religion in society were very important. But the question regarding the uniqueness and finality of Jesus needs to be discussed first. (In what follows I draw on some material from my book Church and State in the New Millennium.)

Only one way or multi-faithism?

Is it reasonable to talk about the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ? Some will say that such belief is due to ignorance or arrogance. But ignorance is a two-way argument. Many orthodox Christians have considerable experience of other religions, often more than those who oppose them. With regard to arrogance it must be stressed that truth has nothing to do with questions of arrogance, pride or humility. Rather it has all to do with matters of fact. The claim to the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ is a truth claim and, therefore, a question of fact. That is why all claims cannot be right. Peter Cotterell, an English missiologist, puts it like this:

"Islam says Jesus wasn't crucified. We say he was. Only one of us can be right. Judaism says Jesus was not the Messiah. We say he was. Only one of us can be right. Hinduism says that God has often been incarnate. We say only once. And we can't both be right. Buddhism says that the world's miseries will end when we do what's right. We say, you can't do what's right: the world's miseries will end when we believe what is right. The fact is that the world's religions may agree about the peripheral matters but they disagree precisely about the most important matters of all. Any intelligent person could decide that all religions are wrong. Any intelligent person could decide that one is right and the rest wrong. But no intelligent person can seriously believe that all religions are essentially the same."

Nor is this western triumphalism. To say that Christ is unique is not to say that other cultures are therefore automatically inferior and all is well with the West; nor is it to say even that Christian activities are unique. The uniqueness simply lies in whom Christians believe. It is Christ who is unique, it is claimed, not the West, or the followers who worship him. Multi-faithism, however, is felt to be, for many people, the best way forward of living together in modern Europe. But multi-faithism is not, of course, simply living peacefully together with people of different views. It is a belief in itself - a 'view' - that no one religion can claim to the truth and so be privileged. All must have prizes. That is the drift of so much life in the West today. And multi-faithism is motored by three pressures, one, an awareness of the cultural limitations of knowledge; two, religious experience; and, three, issues of justice.

The cultural limitations of knowledge

This first "pressure" relates to the sociology of knowledge, with its concept that the social environment powerfully conditions beliefs. Most of this is common-sense. It is clear that apart from a few areas of direct personal experience human beings require social support for their beliefs about reality. For example, an individual does not need someone else to prove they have toothache. But they do need social support for a wide range of religious and moral beliefs. Peter Berger puts it like this:

"physical pain imposes its own plausibility without any social mediations, while morality [or religion] requires particular social circumstances in order to become and remain plausible to the individual."

These social circumstances form in modern societies a range of "plausibility structures." Take the armed forces and public schools, as examples. So long as people are in such institutions certain values will be plausible in an unquestioned way. But once they move out and "migrate" to other social contexts these values may be questioned. This is, surely, obvious. There also seems to be a direct relationship between the cohesion of institutions and common beliefs, values and world-views. When a school is strong and effective, its pupils will most likely have the same value system in regard to discipline, manners and hard work. Similarly when institutions break up, there will be a break up of plausibility structures and a weakening of every belief and value that depend on social support. So a weak school will have pupils who are likely to be disorderly, disobedient and lazy.

It was probably because of this institutional factor that there was such an uproar over the Archbishop of Canterbury's suggestion that we should explore the possibility of England adopting some Sharia law. Apart from the worries over particular examples of Sharia law in practice, it, too, was seen as an act of institutional deconstruction - in this case of our British legal system that is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This legal tradition is perceived as a social support for many fundamental common beliefs and values.

We need not develop this further. All that we need note is the following: the cultural limitation of knowledge and religious beliefs cannot be a reason for accepting a pluralistic theology of religions. Truth questions will still remain.

The sociology of knowledge in no way removes questions of truth. It can show why modern man finds it easier to believe in electricity than demons. But the question of the existence of demons still remains. The sociology of knowledge can show why modern Christians feel reluctant to say that Jesus Christ is God's unique and final revelation to man. But the question of whether he was, or whether he was not, also still remains.

Religious experience

The second factor that persuades some of multi-faithism is religious experience. Since Schleiermacher, the German theologian at the beginning of the 19th century, there has been the belief in a reservoir of "world spirituality". All the religions tap into it and we can all draw from it. Add to that the effect of the "History of Religions School" at the beginning of the 20th century; this school not only mapped out but tried to synthesize the religions of the world, and so reinforced a concern for experience. Add to that various pronouncements of the WCC (the World Council of Churches) in the second half of the 20th century on inter-faith matters. Then add the Roman Catholic post-Vatican II stress that God's grace is given not only through non-Christian religions but even through Atheism! And finally add the Roman Catholic Karl Rahner's talk about "anonymous Christians". Do not then be surprised when you have both a growing belief in the value of any religious experience and new "plausibility structures".

With regard to religious experience, however, traditional Christian theology has always been cautious. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

"Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers!'" (Matthew 7.22).

Furthermore the interest in religious experience is reinforced by the "concentric circle" way of looking at other religions. This may have spread originally from Roman Catholic teaching such as you have in an old Papal Encyclical Suam Ecclesiam. The model is of the Roman Catholic church forming the centre circle; then a little further out are other Christian churches; beyond that is a circle of other theists; beyond that a circle of various animistic and non-theistic religions; then on the far edge are the secularists with no religion at all.

But are the other religions to be measured by their nearness to or distance from Christianity? As Lesslie Newbigin said:

"The other religions are not to be understood and measured by their proximity to or remoteness from Christianity. They are not beginnings which are completed in the gospel. They face in different directions, ask fundamentally different questions and look for other kinds of fulfilment than that which is given in the gospel. They turn, as Otto said, on different axes."

In Jesus' parable (Luke 18.9-14), was the Pharisee or the tax-collector nearer to Jesus? The Pharisee, no doubt could claim a range of religious experiences. He was committed to "fasting" - a tried and tested adjunct of religious experience. But it was the tax-collector who went down to his house "justified".


Then, thirdly, a concern for justice is behind much multi-faithism. There is the assumption that to assert the truth of the Christian faith over against other religions and world-views is essentially a denial of justice. Justice demands toleration.

However, there is so much confusion over "toleration". It has been argued that if you are truly tolerant of others, you will not critically evaluate their beliefs. But this is to equate tolerance with indifferentism. There is a commonly held but mistaken view that tolerating a religion is primarily a matter of not making a judgment about it. But that is not the case. Tolerance involves acceptance of something about which you have a negative opinion or negative judgment. You tolerate what you disagree with or dislike. This is so important.

Let me give you a humanist, non-Christian, writer on this very point - Professor Bernard Crick:

"Reacting against the religious disputes of the seventeenth century, toleration both as a state policy and an educated attitude began to spread in Britain in the eighteenth century. But let us remember one essential thing about tolerance. It arises because people do differ on fundamental and important things, but wish to limit the practical effect of their differences. Tolerance is not complete acceptance, still less permissiveness; it is modified disapproval."

He is clearly right.

The claim to the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ is a truth claim and, therefore, a question of fact. That is why all claims cannot be right. When it comes to the Christian faith we are talking about a "gospel" or "good news" about what God has done in history. We are not talking about "good ideas". So the question is, "did God do certain things or did he not?" The key question has to be, "did God raise Jesus from the dead?"

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

The Resurrection - the New Testament doctrine of the Resurrection, not a post-modern reconstruction of it - lies at the heart of the Christian faith. "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10.9).

But was this not just a "spiritual" resurrection of Jesus rather than a "physical" resurrection?

Now, of course, the resurrection of Jesus was not a crude resuscitation of a corpse; it was a glorious transformation. In that sense his old "flesh and blood" (to use Paul's phrase) did not inherit the new order of "the kingdom of God"
(1 Corinthians 15.50). But what Paul implies and the New Testament elsewhere makes quite clear is that on the first Easter morning Jesus' tomb was found empty; and it was found empty because Jesus had risen. To suggest that it does not matter if the bones of Jesus are still in the soil of Palestine is clearly contrary to the plain meaning of the texts.

People who still want to use the language of "resurrection" while denying the Empty Tomb have to say that the Empty Tomb is a myth. That is to say, they hold it is a story concocted to illustrate the meaning of "resurrection". But that is not what the Bible teaches. The Empty Tomb in the text is clearly not merely illustrative of the meaning of the Resurrection; it is the evidence for the Resurrection itself.

But how can we be sure that the tomb was empty? Is not the evidence of the texts weak? No!

The main textual evidence for the Empty Tomb is there in the Gospel narratives - the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But the argument then sometimes put forward is that the Resurrection accounts are all so different. So they cannot be reliable. What do we say?

First, it is true that the Resurrection narratives are different in the four Gospels. But the basic difference lies in the accounts of the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, not in the accounts of how women (and others) found the tomb of Jesus empty. And it is not at all strange that the Gospel writers have different accounts of the appearances of Jesus to his disciples. Different Apostles most probably reported different appearances on different occasions. But it is, indeed, quite remarkable how similar the accounts of the Empty Tomb are in the four Gospels. There is an amazing unanimity.

The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all agree on three things: one, that some women, including Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus on the first day of the week and found the stone rolled away from the tomb's entrance; two, that a young man (or some angelic presence) explained what had happened: "He is risen, he is not here"; and, three, that the women were frightened and left the tomb. Then when we look at John 20.1-2 we find that, too, fits in with this outline. The only difference there is that the angelic interpreter has not been mentioned. But two angels are mentioned in verses 11-13 when Mary is back at the tomb.

It is quite clear that the Gospel writers were drawing on different sources and different accounts of the Resurrection, but these sources all agree over the Empty Tomb. And, remember, Mark's Gospel is generally reckoned to be written in the sixties of the first century. But the information he (and the others) drew on was preached, remembered and probably recorded much earlier. As late as AD 56 when Paul was writing 1 Corinthians he tells us that many of the disciples who had seen Jesus after the Resurrection "are still alive" (1 Corinthians 15.6). It is unthinkable that any eye-witnesses would have allowed an Empty Tomb tradition to develop so uniformly if it was fiction.

St Paul

But Paul, someone else says, does not mention the Empty Tomb. True, but he implies it. In 1 Corinthians 15.3-8 he speaks about the basic core of the Gospel: " ... that Christ died ... that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day ... and that he appeared (to various disciples)."

This shows us that this early "creed" focused on the burial in addition to the death of Christ. As Professor F.F.Bruce says: "Burial emphasizes the reality of the resurrection which followed, as a divine act which reversed the act of men." It points to the Empty Tomb. We have to say that what was raised was what was buried - the body of Jesus. And, note, the Resurrection was on the "third day". But what could give rise to this date? Had there been no Empty Tomb but only visionary experiences, why have such an emphasis on the "third day"?

More importantly this "basic core" or "creed" of belief made it clear that Christians believed and must believe both "that he was raised on the third day" and "that he appeared". The appearances by themselves are not gospel or good news. Some of the early disciples thought they were just having a psychical experience (Luke 24.37). But together with the Empty Tomb - a resurrection that reversed the burial - the appearances pointed to the nature of the Resurrection: it was a "bodily" resurrection. Certainly Paul presupposes "bodily change" in 1 Corinthians 15.51, "We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed." He may not explicitly have mentioned the Empty Tomb. He took it for granted, as any Jew would have done in talk of "Resurrection".

Finally, there are two questions we must ask over the Empty Tomb. First, there is a very simple question: "Why did not the Jewish authorities ever produce the remains of Christ to silence the Christian movement once and for all, if in fact Christ's body was still in the tomb or it had been removed?" The only explanation that has maintained its credibility over the centuries is that of the Resurrection.

Secondly, if the Resurrection does not encompass the transformation of the physical body, in the final analysis what do we say about this material universe? What ultimately happens to this universe of space and time? Is it all just some great mistake that God tries to forget? That was the Gnostic heresy - to say "matter is bad or mistaken". John Polkinghorne, formerly Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, then ordained and then President of Queens' College, Cambridge, says, "No! It is not a mistake." And the key is the Empty Tomb. "The Empty Tomb," he writes, "says to me that matter has a destiny, a transformed and transmuted destiny, no doubt, but a destiny nevertheless. The material creation is not a transient, even mistaken episode." That was Paul's view. He saw Christ's Resurrection as the "first fruits". Ultimately, he said, the creative power of God will transform the whole material universe: "The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Romans 8.21).

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