“…the resurrection says, ‘God so loved the world that he didn’t throw it in the trash can. He is recreating it.’”
N.T. Wright is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and theologians. He has written over 50 books on the Christian faith. And he knows how to make a mean cup of tea.
In 2022, our founding and senior pastor, Brian Tome, sat down with Wright to discuss the importance of the resurrection of Jesus (and all the questions we think about every April).
How do we know the resurrection happened? Can we know for sure? And if it’s true, what does it mean for us today?
We cut out just a few minutes of the transcript from their dialogue, but if you’d like to hear the whole discussion, you can do so on Brian’s podcast, “The Aggressive Life,” right here.
Let’s get going.
All the Hoopla About Easter
Brian: Well, I’ll just give you a nice, big softball. Tell us, what does Easter mean? What is the big deal about Easter bunnies and spring?
N.T. Wright: Well, Easter bunnies and spring. We think of Easter as the world coming to life again; it just happens that way. But Easter is about God’s new creation being born. It’s not about that one day there’ll be pie in the sky when you die; it’s not about a vague happy ending after Jesus’ sad death or any such thing. I mean, of course, it is a happy ending, but it’s actually a happy new beginning.
If you look at the stories of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, though those stories occur at the end of the books in which we find them, the whole feel of the stories is something new is happening here, something radically new and unexpected, a new world is being born in the middle of the old one.
If you study the history, the world has been transformed; it is still rumbling on with so much evil, and suffering, and sin, and death. But there are all sorts of new things which are happening, which were not thought of as possible in the 1st Century. And so we track that back, and we say Easter is the turning point of history. This is the point when the God who made the world said, “Now you will see what all those promises about me rescuing and renewing the world were going to be about.”
So, Easter is the beginning of God’s new creation.
Are We Sure This Wasn’t One Big Prank?
Brian: Why are you confident it’s true?
N.T. Wright: I’m confident it’s true because of the convergence of many, many things. There is no one line of thought which says, “Therefore, it must be true.” But when I, as a historian, and ancient history was part of my first degree here in Oxford 50 years ago, as a historian I look at the rise of early Christianity, I look at the Jewish world out of which early Christianity emerged; I look at the world of Greece and Rome, into which early Christianity went. I study, as you know because you’ve read the book, I study the beliefs about life after death that people in those different worlds had, and they’re quite clear and quite articulate. And then you say, “Hang on, all the early Christians, starting with Paul, who was our earliest writer, but the gospels, and the Hebrews, and Revelations, and so on, they all have this view of what happens after death which is significantly different, certainly from the Greeks and the Romans, for whom resurrection was a complete non-starter.
Nobody in the Greek or Roman world believed in actual bodily resurrection. They knew what the word meant, and they kind of laughed at it, “Fancy thinking that that would happen, we know perfectly well it doesn’t.” It wasn’t modern liberalism who said, “We have discovered that dead people don’t rise.” Homer knew that. Socrates knew that. But then the Jews, some of whom, the Pharisees at least, believed that God would raise all the dead at the end. They never thought that God would raise one person in the middle of history, nor did they have this view that if somebody was raised, if the dead were raised, they would be simultaneously at home in earth and heaven.
And that they would have what I’ve called a kind of a trans-physical body, that is a body which is certainly physical but seems to be more than physical. When I look at the rise of early Christianity and what they believed about death, and life after death, and then life after, when you look at those beliefs, I cannot explain how those beliefs came about unless you say, “They all really did believe that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead into this new form of physicality.” And when we look at the reasons why they believe that, they are extraordinarily powerful. That is undoubtedly what they believed. I very much hear what you say about the liberal context because I grew up in a kind of a middle-of-the-road, typical Anglican church in the 1950s and ’60s.
And I don’t remember ever being taught about the resurrection specifically. It was just, “OK, on the third day, He was raised, and he went to heaven, so when we die, we’ll go to heaven.” And, of course, that is a total travesty; that’s not what the New Testament is about at all. It’s not about the resurrection equals going to heaven; Jesus is ascended so that now He is the lord of heaven and earth. I never heard sermons about that when I was growing up. The reason I’ve come to this is that I’ve had the good fortune for the last 50 years to study the New Testament in its world quite intensively and to have the excitement and the joy of not only seeing it make historical sense but seeing it make personal and pastoral sense to so many people who are amazed by it, as you clearly were when you finally tumbled to it in your 20s.
Passing the Mic to the Eye-Witnesses
Brian: For the cynics or skeptics amongst us, what’s another reason or two to at least be open to, we’re talking about history that Jesus lived again?
N.T. Wright: Well, take the question of who are the first witnesses. Now, one of the things which we don’t really like to think about, but it is the case, is that in the ancient world, the ancient Jewish world, the ancient Greco-Roman world, women were not usually regarded as reliable witnesses in a court of law. People said, “Oh, they’ll just be doing this either to please their husbands or to spite their husbands. One way or another, you can’t trust a word they say.” Now, of course, as though men in court don’t have any ulterior motives, but that’s how they thought, and we’ve got that in black and white from, for instance, the Jewish historian Josephus, who says quite clearly, “We do not allow the testimony of women.”
You know, there may be the odd exception, but that’s the general rule. So if you were inventing stories about the person that you’d followed being raised from the dead, if you were making that up ten years, 50 years later, which people say, one thing you certainly wouldn’t have done would be have the women front and center in the story. But there they are, and the women go and tell the men, and the men say, “Oh, you’re just making it up; you’re all hysterical,” they don’t believe them. And the women persist, and the men discover that it’s true. So that’s a remarkable phenomenon because in all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it’s the women who are the primary witnesses, and then the men come trundling along later when they’ve come out of hiding, and so on.
Another thing which I was very struck by when I was researching this for that big book is the use of scripture in those stories. Now, we have to remind ourselves that in Paul’s letters, he says, “The Messiah died for our sins and was raised in accordance with the scriptures.” So you might have expected that if they’re telling the story of Jesus being raised, they would be constantly saying, “As it says in Isaiah or Genesis, or Samuel, or somewhere.” But actually, it doesn’t, which is the more interesting bit. Because in the crucifixion narratives, in, say, Matthew 27, or Mark 15, or the other ones, they constantly are referring to and echoing the Old Testament. Because those stories have been mulled over, people have thought about Jesus’ death as fulfillment of scripture.
But the resurrection stories are very quick, very vivid, with hardly any scriptural echoes and delusions at all. Why is that? The answer is this is how oral tradition works when something dramatic and remarkable happens, the people who witness it tell it to people several times over. “What I just saw,” they haven’t had time to figure out scriptural interpretation yet. They are just saying, “This is what happened. And then So-And-So came, and he said this, and such and such.” And here’s the thing about oral tradition, once somebody has told that story three, or four, or five times it’s fixed, and it doesn’t change; people have studied this as a phenomenon of oral tradition.
So that, had these stories been made up 20, 30, 40, 50 years later, they would certainly have woven in all sorts of bits of the Old Testament because they knew how to interpret the resurrection scripture, and Paul does it say in 1 Corinthians 15. But in those four original stories, it looks as though what we have is kind of close up and personal, this is how So-And-So told it because they were there on that first morning. So the stories, even though they may have been edited by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to fit with their gospels a bit later on down the track, this is how the stories were told from day one, and they have the ring of eyewitness testimony.
Dying for a Lie?
Brian: I think another good one is all of these disciples who saw Jesus; they say they saw Jesus rose from the dead, 11 or 12 of them. Well, one of them killed himself, Judas, ahead of time. But 10 of the 11 of them all died of execution and unnatural causes, no one dies for a lie when you know you’re dying for something that isn’t true, right?
N.T. Wright: Yes. I mean, of course, people have seen that, and skeptics have seen that argument coming and have regularly said, “Well, they were all so psychologically kind of brainwashed by this corporate phenomenon of new enthusiasm, or whatever it is, that they went off to try to convince themselves by trying to convince other people.” I find that a very unconvincing argument, as indeed I explain in the book. But yes, it is broadly the case that they would be highly unlikely, as you say, to go off and die for a lie. We don’t actually know the circumstances of how they all died, but the ones of whom we have any evidence certainly they are going off and being martyred. And Paul himself, of course, who was the last one to see the risen Jesus, as he says in 1 Corinthians.
He, of course, as far as we know, died as a martyr in Rome. So yeah, I mean, that’s a basic argument. As I say, one of the things about arguing about the resurrection is you need all these things together. That’s one of the reasons that book is so long because I found when I was researching it that at several points, people had missed the point, commentators, other people had twisted the evidence or whatever. So I had to go right around the circle, and it’s when you put the whole circle together the convergence is huge, it’s massive, so that,, of course, it’s demanding.
My philosophy tutor when I was an undergraduate, who is a lifelong atheist, and he’s still alive, he’s here in Oxford, and I see him from time to time. When he read that book, which he kindly did, he said, “You made a very good case.” He said, “It’s very coherent. But because I simply am not prepared to believe that there is a God who would raise the dead, I simply choose to believe that there must have been some other explanation for why Christianity happened, even though, at the moment, I have no idea what that explanation might be.” I said, “That’s fine; that’s as far as I can push you.” But it’s an admission because most skeptics will say, “We can prove that the resurrection didn’t happen.” And he was a very honest, very clear-thinking man. He was prepared to say, “You’ve made an excellent case.”
And the answer is, so it all comes down to the fact of, are you prepared to say, “Maybe this is the revelation of a God who loved the world so much that he decided to rescue it and renew it, starting with his own personal bodily presence?”
Because as soon as you open the door to that, then it all makes sense. And here’s the thing, the resurrection is not simply a weird event within the old creation. It is the foundational and paradigmatic event within the new creation, and that is so scary to people who have bought heavily into the old creation for whatever reason that they resist it. And actually, the whole project of the Enlightenment was a way of saying this is the 18th century Enlightenment, was a way of saying that “We are the climax of world history, the French Revolution, the American Revolution.” What have you got on your dollar bills, Novus ordo seclorum (“a new order of the ages”)? This is a way of saying, “This is where world history has reached its climax, and it’s us; look at us.”
Christianity says, “No, world history reached its climax when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning.” Now, history cannot have two climaxes, so there are cultural reasons built into the Western world why people don’t want it to be true. We just have to go on saying, living, praying, praising, celebrating Easter because, actually, that’s God’s way of opening people’s eyes and letting their hearts be open to that message of love and new creation. I could go on about this all day, as you detect.
Because the resurrection says, “God so loved the world that he didn’t throw it in the trash can. He is recreating it.” And so the message of the resurrection is a message of God’s love, to which Christian faith is the answering love.
The Most Important Question of All
Brian: My last question for you. The key to a great cup of tea?
N.T. Wright: The water must be boiling when you pour it on the tea. I know that no American understands this, I have had many un-great cups of tea in America because the water was only tepid. It’s got to be boiling.