Can we doubt the resurrection?

Ask a Pastor

Can we doubt the resurrection 


“If someone doesn’t believe that the resurrection physically happened, but does believe in Christ and his teachings, can they still call themselves a Christian? -- Beth C., an ELCA Facebook follower

David: People can call themselves whatever they wish. I find that an important part of conversation with people with whom I disagree is to let them self-identify their faith. Different people are at different places in their faith life, as St. Paul recognized, teaching to those who were “infants” in the faith. It is important to allow room for people to enter into the faith at whatever point they are at, and to help them to grow.

That said, the resurrection of Jesus is the central element of our faith. As a church, we confess our faith in Jesus’ resurrection every Sunday. It is the central aspect of our preaching and worship. If I were in conversation with a person who invited my opinion, I would ask them to think about what it meant to believe everything about Jesus in the Gospels except this essential element.

1 Corinthians 15:14 says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is our faith.” If I didn’t believe in a God who has conquered death and injustice through the resurrection of Christ, I wouldn’t know how to keep hope in the face of the world’s problems today. I think it is easier to be a Christian not believing in the virgin birth of Jesus (Paul never said anything about it) than not believing in the resurrection. But, having said that, being a “Christian” is a lifelong process that only God understands, and faith is a gift only God can give. So, although the resurrection is an important theological foundation of the Christian faith, any of us may wrestle with aspects of our faith that at times may not make sense, while still hoping to figure it out as we walk with Jesus, the living Word of God.

It’s pretty common for people, even — and especially — people who claim the title “Christian,” to have trouble believing in the resurrection. Paul writes about it a lot in his letters, so we know that early Christians really struggled with the idea. (See 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, for example.) That struggle makes sense because the resurrection itself doesn’t make sense. Everything we know about death and life and the way the world works suggests that resurrection can’t happen. In his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Martin Luther writes that none of us can actually come to believe in any of this on our own: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” Belief in the resurrection is not something we come to by our own reason; it’s a gift from the Holy Spirit.

If you or someone in your life is struggling with the concept of the resurrection, you or they are in good company. Belief in the resurrection is central to the Christian faith; as Paul writes, our faith wouldn’t be worth much without it. But questioning and doubt are central to our faith, too. If everyone who ever doubted was prevented from calling themselves “Christian,” there would be very few Christians indeed.

I would encourage someone who doesn’t believe in the resurrection but does believe in Christ to not be complacent and satisfied with that answer. Keep praying, keep reading, and keep in conversation with other Christians who have different ways of understanding it. I would give the same advice to someone who does believe in the resurrection. When we decide we have all the answers, stop wrestling, or don’t need help from God or anyone else anymore, that’s when we should start questioning whether we can really be called Christian.

A very interesting and important question. One time, many years ago, the wife of a colleague, who practiced Christian love, worshiped regularly and prayed in the name of Jesus, looked straight into my eyes and said with all seriousness, “No one rises from the dead.” I couldn’t dispute the fact that I personally did not know of anyone who had risen from the dead, but she wasn’t talking about just any person, she was referring to the resurrection of Jesus. For her, it was more than just improbable that Christ was resurrected from the dead, it was impossible. While she firmly believed this, I had to admit that I thought she was definitely confused about one of the most important claims of Scripture and one of the basic tenets of faith. 

Any Christian would have to say that Christ did not stay dead; something happened on Easter morning with the empty tomb, and Scripture tells us in a variety of ways and places the story of Christ’s bodily resurrection. Christ’s resurrection from the dead reminds us of at least two things:  1) death does not have the final and last word over us, and 2) as Christ was raised bodily from the dead to inaugurate a new creation, we, too will be raised from the dead, given new bodies in God’s renewed creation at the last. The resurrection of Christ from the dead is a central truth of Scripture and of our faith. It is this truth that gives us hope to live into a new future with Christ even as we now live in a broken world. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is not an optional tenet of faith, it’s the real deal!

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