The resurrection worldview
Do you know what a worldview is? Even if you don’t, let me assure you that you have one! ‘Worldview’ is a word, borrowed from German, describing the way we look at the world. It includes all the beliefs and assumptions which govern the way we interpret and interact with the world around us.
It is very revealing to consider the worldviews of those who lived 2,000 years ago, when the Christian church emerged. It is often said that the people who lived then were much more likely to believe reports of a resurrection than sophisticated moderns like ourselves. Those who are sceptical of Christian accounts of the resurrection of Christ often argue that the ancients were susceptible to believing nonsense, and so the resurrection is nonsense. People, it is said, were much more superstitious and credulous two millennia ago. They would be much more likely to believe in a resurrection than we would.
In fact, this could not be more wrong.
C.S. Lewis has pointed out that this way of thinking is chronological snobbery; the presumption that because we live later we are somehow more enlightened and more clever. It is the kind of outlook which, if applied consistently, would lead to the claim, ‘Albert Einstein is less clever than me because I was born after him.’ Point made!
In fact, this way of dismissing belief in the resurrection is wrong because the ancients had a worldview that was intensely hostile to such a belief. Scholars have studied ancient culture for a very long time and it is clear that the ancients were not only aware of the fact that dead people usually stay dead, but they were very unlikely to welcome the idea of the resurrection. There would have been huge resistance to resurrection claims in the ancient world, even more so than there would be today.
To the Greeks and Romans there was a prevailing view that the soul, or the spirit, was ‘good’, whilst the physical and material world was weak and corrupt and defiling. For them, the physical was subject to decay and so they thought of salvation as a liberation from the body. To those brought up on that worldview, bodily resurrection was not only impossible, it was entirely undesirable. Why would any soul, having been liberated from the body, ever want to return? The great aspiration and hope for the ancients was to get free of the body, certainly not to prolong imprisonment within it. So to Greek thought, bodily resurrection was an unthinkable prospect. It ran completely counter to their worldview.
Although the Jews had a distinctive worldview, they would also have struggled with the idea of Jesus being raised from the dead, albeit for different reasons. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Jews saw the material world and the physical world as good things. Death was not a liberation to them, but a tragedy. Many Jews had come to hope that there would one day be a bodily resurrection of all the righteous, but only when God renewed the entire world. The resurrection was, for them, just one part of the complete renewal of the whole world. The idea of one individual being resurrected in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued to be burdened by sickness and death, was inconceivable.
Yet, into that same world, where resurrection claims were readily dismissed, there emerged a group of people who came to the cast-iron conviction that Jesus had, indeed, been raised from the dead. Something must have happened to bring about a huge and sudden shift in the way people looked at things and what they believed. That something was the empty tomb, and the resurrection appearances of Christ! These people changed their beliefs because of what they saw. It is very hard to explain how they came to believe what they came to believe without the reality of the resurrection.
Christians are often made to feel that they should explain and justify belief in the resurrection. In fact, it seems me, that the burden of proof should be placed on non-believers to explain how it is that the Christian church emerged with this resurrection worldview so firmly fixed in their minds, when all around them such belief was ridiculed and unwelcome.
The scholar N.T. Wright (to whom I am indebted for his account of ancient beliefs in his tome ‘The resurrection of the Son of God’) has written:
“The early Christians did not invent the empty tomb and the meetings or sightings of the risen Jesus … Nobody was expecting this kind of thing; no kind of conversion experience would have invented it, no matter how guilty (or how forgiven) they felt, no matter how many hours they pored over the scriptures. To suggest otherwise is to stop doing history and enter into a fantasy world of our own
In Easter hope