Must I Believe in the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus?

Posted: January 17, 2012 in General

Dr. Craig Blomberg joined the faculty of Denver Seminary in 1986. He is currently a distinguished professor of New Testament. He completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. He received an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Augustana College.

This article is posted with permission from the author. Read below…

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (Rom. 10:9-10, updated NIV).

I’ve always tried to keep a very short list of things I insist people have to believe to be saved.  I joke that I’m a panmillennialist (it will all pan out in the end), though I certainly have my views.  I became a Baptist by choice as an adult, being immersed for the first time as a believer at age 25, ten years after my conversion, but I don’t agree with baptismal regeneration.  I believe that Jesus is the only way to God, but I don’t believe you have to believe even that to be saved, so long as you do accept Jesus yourself as Lord and Savior.  (It’s like the used car dealer who might claim all the cars in his lot run when only one does, but as long as you get in that one you will get to where you want to go.)

So I was caught a little aback a number of years ago when some seekers at a Bible study, quite interested in many facets of Christianity, asked me point blank if they had to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be saved.  After all, everyone knows corpses don’t come back to life, they insisted.  I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I so wanted this not to be the deal-breaker.  I waffled and finally said something like “well, I am convinced that Christ had to be bodily raised from the dead if any one is to be saved, but that might be a separate issue from whether everyone who follows him has to consciously believe it.

By the time I got home that same night I was already haunted by remembering Romans 10:9-10.  We regularly refer to that verse to insist that “Jesus is Lord” is the earliest Christian confession and to stress that you can’t separate having Christ as Savior from having Christ as Lord.  But notice how it continues:  “and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.”

This week I was debating a well-known liberal Christian scholar and author.  Like many others before him, he finds many of the biblical narratives that the church traditionally has taken as historical to be “metaphors.”  Other eras have at times preferred terms like “myths” or “legends.”  Does Job have to have been a historical character for the book bearing his name to teach profound theology about suffering?  Probably not.  What about Jonah?  After all, the Gospels attribute to Jesus a comparison between Jonah’s time in the great fish to Jesus’ time in the heart of the earth.  Yet if I referred to a well-known character in Christian fiction and declared, “Just as Aslan came to the rescue of the human children in Narnia, so Christ died to save us from our sins,” no one familiar with the novels of C. S. Lewis would ever think I was claiming The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe really happened.  So while I personally suspect the events in the book of Jonah really happened, I refuse to get bent out of shape when others don’t.

Why can’t we take the same approach to the resurrection narrative itself?  The disciples had a genuine, profound, mystical experience of some kind with the “Risen Lord” which need not have involved an empty tomb, was the argument of my partner in debate.  Of course, I had heard this approach many times before.  It was what I was taught in the liberal Lutheran college that I attended in the mid-1970s.  This time I was ready.  I replied by turning to Romans 10:9-10.  And I added, “cut and paste Tom Wright’s 800 pages of The Resurrection of the Son of God here.  No Jew, like Saul of Tarsus, ever meant anything but bodily resurrection by this kind of language.”

For my debate partner, the resurrection meant two things—that Jesus’ cause lives on, and that God vindicated Jesus’ life and ministry so that it is a supremely good thing that his cause lives on.  But his body probably rotted in its coffin in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.  It would be nice to be able to say to such people, “OK, well I believe more than that, but that’s good enough, if that’s all you can believe.”  But that’s not what Paul says.  Without a supernatural, bodily resurrection we are still dead in our sins and of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:12-19).  Without Christ’s bodily resurrection we have no bodily resurrection to look forward to.  Death ends everything and we might as well “eat, drink and be merry” (in moderation of course, so as not to get sick) and not bother with any of the sacrifice and self-denial that even just following Christ’s cause requires.

But it’s not just the liberals that don’t get it.  Going back to the 1970s again, I remember a well known Christian rock/gospel band that had a hit tune, the recurring refrain of which asked the question, “If heaven never were promised to me, would I still serve my Lord?”  All of the stanzas talked about all of the warm fuzzies that Christ can give us now in this life, so that the obviously implied answer to the question that the song repeatedly asked was, “Of course, even if there were no afterlife, it’s worth it just for the difference it makes in this life, to be a Christian.”

I can only try to imagine Paul’s shock and horror and vehemence in opposing such a notion.  Read his repeated catalogues of suffering, especially in the Corinthian epistles.  If there is no life after death, indeed if there is no embodied life after death as in the new heavens and new earth (not just a disembodied “heaven”) then we are idiots to be Christians and should give it up immediately.  If there is, on the other hand, then being a Christian makes all the difference in the world—and in the next!

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