Recently, I’ve been visiting a variety of apologetics-focused blogs and forums (super exiting, right? :)).  During my readings and interactions with the bloggers associated with these sites, I’ve started asking some hard questions about the usefulness of apologetics within the life of faith and mission or the Church.

Given my background (B.S., Pastoral Ministries, M.A. Theological Studies), I’m definitely no stranger to the “logic” of apologetics.  Based on the famous Petrine passage, the ultimate purpose of apologetics, as a discipline, is to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (I Peter 3:15).  From 2nd century Justin Martyr’s Apologies, to McDowell’s famous Evidence That Demands A Verdict, to Strobel’s Case for Christ, there is a long, varied, and rich tradition of apologetics within Christian theology.  While motivations and level of expertise have varied in the execution, the ultimate goal of each work has been, I think, to show the Christian faith as something “reasonable,” to defend the faith on intellectual grounds.

While this is in itself a noble goal, I think something that is far too often overlooked is the interplay of philosophy, theology and biblical interpretation that happens between the apologist and doctrines they attempt to defend.  That is, the doctrines defended in apologetics are never espoused in a vacuum; to the the contrary, the apologist brings a particular (or several, perhaps) philosophical orientation to bear upon not only the fundamental assumptions which drive the apology, but also upon the interpretations drawn from Scripture and the final form of articulation of the doctrine.  From Justin Martyr’s Middle-Platonism to McDowell’s Evangelicalism, the content of the apologies are not philosophically neutral; rather, each and every apologist utilizes particular philosophical assumptions to support and articulate what they understand to the be the “reasonableness” of their position.

This, of course, begs an important question: if the field of apologetics is necessarily beholden–at least in part–to the philosophical orientation of the apologists, how does one go about separating the theological doctrine being defended from the philosophical assumptions upon which it is based?  And is it possible.that there are particular philosophical assumptions that can, in fact, create artificial apologies apart from which one would be hard-pressed to otherwise defend a doctrine?

An Example: The Resurrection

In popularized apologetics, you’ll find literally millions of arguments about the “truth” of the resurrection.  What almost all of these have in common, however, is that they focus primarily on the phenomenology of the resurrection, or more accurately, on the death of Christ, the emptiness of his tomb, and the historicity of the apostle’s claims about the same.  In all honesty, I think if you look at these arguments with a more-or-less open mind (yeah, define that!), it’s pretty easy to conclude that it is “reasonable” to assert that there are good reasons to believe that Jesus’ tomb was empty following his crucifixion.

Ah! But wait. Most of the popular apologetics surrounding the resurrection of Christ seem to have very little to do with the articulation of the doctrine of resurrection, and have most everything to do with providing an historically reasonable basis for believing that Jesus was crucified, that his tomb was empty, and that his disciples believed that the reason for the emptiness of the tomb could be resolved in the idea of “resurrection.”

In these apologies, then, the veracity of the resurrection is subordinated to the relative salience of the phenomenological, historical, and psychological arguments.  That is, it is proposed, or perhaps tacitly assumed, that the establishment of these de facto proves the reasonableness of the resurrection (which is actually still undefined within the apology).  So what’s the problem with this?  To get at the answer, let’s first take a peek at some of the underlying assumptions driving popular apologetic arguments for the resurrection.

Taking their cue from the emergence of modern objectivism, the methodologies of popular apologetics attempt to establish the reasonableness of particular theological doctrines on the basis of verifiability and proof.  In other words, the working assumption of these approaches is that if tangible evidence (an empty tomb, for example) can be found and shown to align with a particular theological doctrine (the resurrection), then on an inductive and methodological level, the truth of the assertion (e.g., “Jesus was raised from the dead”) has been “proven” and “demonstrated.”

And even if the historical events in question cannot be immediately accessed, the argument is cast in such a way as to create a virtual laboratory in which the phenomenology and historicity of the ideas can be tested (and, ostensibly, “proven”).  So in the case of the resurrection, even though the tangible proof of the resurrection (an empty tomb) cannot be presently demonstrated, other corroborating evidences are brought to bear upon the question.  Although we don’t know where Jesus’ tomb actually was in order to verify that it is empty, other “proofs” such as the testimony of other historical witnesses about Christ’s death; the psychological orientation of the disciples; and their persecution as a result of assertions about Christ’s resurrection are cited as a round-about way of inductively establishing the proof of the assertion of Christ’s resurrection.  The numbers are crunched, the test cases are run, and the result is a spit out the other end–we now have what is assumed to be an “objective” estimate of the relative probability of “X” having happened.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that such a methodology is bullet-proof..  Considerations of methodological propriety aside, what have we proven to have a high probability of actuality?

  1. That Christ was crucified?   Yes.
  2. That Christ’ tomb was empty?  Sure.
  3. That the disciples believe Christ was “raised from the dead”?  Ok.
  4. That Christ was resurrected?  No.

But wait a minute.  If we’ve proven with a high degree of probability that 1-3 “happened,” why not 4?  Why can we not equally assert the “reasonableness” of the resurrection on the basis of the establishment of these other points?

The reason is simple.  We haven’t even defined the resurrection.

“But hold on,” you might say, “we have defined the resurrection: Christ’ tomb was empty.”

Is that really the definition of resurrection?

“Ok,” you might add, “it’s about the empty tomb and Jesus being raised to life.  That’s what the disciples preached, after all.”

This is perhaps getting closer.   However, if we continue to flesh out our theological understanding of resurrection, we find that we quickly move away from the phenomenological/historical/psychological criteria that we employed earlier.  When we begin speaking of Christ’s resurrection, we rapidly run out of categories to define it.

The Problem of Methodology and Definition

And we see as much in the Scriptures.  As you read the accounts of Christ’s resurrection and the experiences of people who encountered Christ after this spectacular event, you can feel the Gospel writers grasping for words to describe this new, un-real reality which is unfolding before them.  We find descriptions of Christ veiling himself from his closest friends,  appearing through walls, even “ascending” to heaven. This is not simply the “comfortable” language of “spirit”, but a boundary-limited vocabulary that is struggling to apprehend the profundity of the intersection of something completely super-natural with the mundane, the participation of creation in the fullness of very God.

So if this is our actual understanding of resurrection (the reality-altering intersection of Godself in the recreation of God’s creation), what are we doing with our apologetics?  Why is so much emphasis placed on the historicity of the crucifixion and the psychology of the disciples?

Maybe a Different Way to Think about This

In thinking on this topic, I wonder if apologetics might not be more productive if we let off with trying so hard to “establish” particular “facts” (e..g, empty tomb, young universe, whatever) and spent our energies trying to better articulate the most meaningful parts of what we believe.  After all, the resurrection is not ultimately meaningful in Christian theology simply because Jesus’ tomb is empty.  Rather, it is meaningful because it expresses an explicit and profoundly theological understanding of the relationship between God and creation, and within itself encapsulates the unique Christian hope for the restoration of all things in God as we are brought to partake in the newness of eternal life–the con-mingling of the divine nature and creation–that God has granted to Christ in resurrection.

And the bottom line is this: no matter how “compelling” our historical/phenomenological/psychological arguments may be, the doctrine of the resurrection can NEVER be established absolutely on the basis of these analyses.  This is not, of course, because it “didn’t happen,” but rather because what “happened” is entirely beyond the categories of any philosophical methodology that we would seek–consciously or otherwise–to bring to bear upon it; there simply exists no means of measurement for establishing whether or not it “happened”, much less what it fully means.

This, ultimately, is the crux of the issue.  Certain apologetic methodologies may believe themselves capable of providing compelling, indeductive arguments for theological realities on the basis of material proofs.  And to some, this may be sufficient to declare a particular belief to be “reasonable.” But ultimately, such epistemological causality cannot be forced.  Thousands of people acknowledge that Christ was crucified and that the disciples believed him to have been resurrected (the empty tomb).  Yet these same cannot, or rather, will not embrace the truth of the resurrection.  Is it because there is not sufficient “proof” for Christ’s resurrection, the empty tomb, or the disciple’s belief?  Would these same antagonists be convinced if there was simply “better” evidence?  I don’t think so.  Rather, the doctrine is rejected by many because the doctrine of resurrection inevitably calls each person to an existential crisis of faith, the committing of their entire person to the mystery of the divine purposes within creation and eternity.  This “leap” is not something that can be softened or diminished by any amount of “evidence,” regardless of how compelling it may seem to be.

So what of apologetics?  What is the goal of making the truths of faith “reasonable” to a world that is entirely alien to an understanding of faith?  I think that it is less about trying to amass “evidence” for historical events and should be more about articulating the place which particular theological doctrines have within the domain of faith.  The notion of “resurrection” will NEVER be reasonable to human epistemology, for it is something which smashes all the categories by which we understand ourselves and our place within the universe.  But I think it is possible to nevertheless articulate the peculiar, and inextricable place which resurrection has in the life of faith.  After all, the truth and beauty of resurrection lie not simply in the historical phenomenon of Jesus’ empty tomb, but in the reality of the newness of  life which Christ was granted by the Father.  The doctrine of resurrection is crucial to Christian theology, for it challenges that death is not the final chapter in our story, but that we, like Christ, can partake of the divine life of the Father in a renewed way of being that will never end.  We hope in resurrection not because Jesus was simply resuscitated to continue on in the same manner of life that he had before the cross, but precisely because Christ’s glorification in resurrection-life images our own hoped-for recreation; the same power of God which raised Christ to the newness of life is working within us.

While such thinking is obviously not “reasonable” on the basis of Western epistemological methodologies, its “reasonableness” can, I think, be easily expressed in the symbiotic relationship of belief and lived-life.  As we articulate the hope of resurrection as a theological concept (not simply as an “historical” event), people will be able to see the natural place that it assumes within how Christians view life, reality, and the meaning.  They will see that our hope is not simply in the historicity of the resuscitation of a dead person, but rather in the consummation of God’s loving, eternal purposes within creation.