What the resurrection proves is more important than proving the resurrection.
R. A. Torrey (1856-1928), at the height of his fame as world-traveling evangelist, published a book called The Bible and its Christ. Of the book’s ten chapters, the first four provided reasons for believing the Bible to be God’s word, the next four were about the resurrection of Christ, and the final two were about “Infidelity: Its Causes, Consequences, and Cure.”
Of the four chapters on the resurrection, the first three argue that it is reasonable to believe that Christ rose from the dead, and that an impartial handling of the evidence will drive an honest inquirer to admit that, historically speaking, there are better reasons for affirming the resurrection than denying it. Torrey advances numerous lines of argument about the nature of historical judgements, the state of the documents, and so on, and he peppers the presentation with his characteristic declamations:
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is in many respects the most important fact in history. It is the Gibraltar of Christian evidences, the Waterloo of infidelity. If it can be proven to be a historic certainty that Jesus rose from the dead, then Christianity rests upon an impregnable foundation.
All of this has become standard apologetic fare, partly due to the labors of Torrey and the other founders of the fundamentalist coalition. Some of Torrey’s arguments don’t exactly hold up, or don’t prove as much as he hopes, but a great deal of his argument is solid. The current conversation on this subject is much more sophisticated, and anybody who wants to cull the evidence would be better served to check out something by apologist Gary Habermas or, rather definitively and with golly-gee acumen, N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. (If you haven’t read Wright before, prepare to read most of it barefoot… because he’ll knock your socks off in the opening chapters).
But what particularly drew my interest in Torrey’s book was that fourth chapter (Chapter VIII) on the resurrection: “What the resurrection of Jesus from the dead proves.”
Torrey opens the chapter with a recap of the previous arguments, and then asks,
But suppose He did rise from the dead, what of it? What does His resurrection prove? It proves everything that most needs to be proved. It proves everything that is essential in Christianity.
There follow six points:
1. The resurrection of Christ from the dead proves that there is a God, and that the God of the Bible is the true God.
2. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead proves that Jesus is a teacher sent from God, who received His messae from God, that He was absolutely inerrant, that He spoke the very words of God.
3. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead proves that He is the Son of God.
4. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead proves that there is a judgment day coming.
5. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead proves that every believer in Christ is justified from all things.
6. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead proves that all who are united to Christ by a living faith shall live again.
The apologetic project of “proving the resurrection” is important, especially to demonstrate that the Christian faith is not a leap into the irrational or a retreat to personal commitment. But on its own, it’s a fairly tiresome business. Unless, that is, you keep the theological context in view: Christ as the revelation of God the Father, as the one judge whose claim on all humanity has been vindicated in a mighty act of divine self-demonstration, as the one whose sacrifice is salvation, and whose rising from the dead catches humanity up in its momentum.
Torrey (and the solid evangelical tradition he spoke from) knew that the two projects had to be held together, and that the apologetic project must serve the theological. Both proofs have their place, but what the resurrection proves is more important than proving the resurrection.