If the resurrection didn’t happen

Recently over at Nine Moons, there was some discussion of what a person might do if he found out Joseph Smith was a fraud. I think a similar question for a person from a traditional Christian faith is, what would you do if the resurrection never happened? What if a crucified body were found which could be almost positively identified as the body of Christ? Obviously this question would have serious ramifications for Mormonism as well.

The question was discussed a bit in a thread at Mormon Matters last week. The subject also formed the plot of a 2001 movie starring Antonio Banderas (whom I love) and Olivia Williams (whom I also love) called The Body. While the movie was generally panned by critics, I actually kind of enjoyed it, and not in a “this is so terrible it’s good” way. I thought it was a decent attempt at treating a thought-provoking topic—up until a bunch of terrorists got involved and Antonio Banderas inevitably became embroiled in gun fights and explosions. Guess it would be kind of a waste to put Antonio Banderas in your cast and not have some gun fights and explosions.

The dialogue in the movie makes the point that even if Christians were presented with fairly sound proof that the resurrection didn’t happen, they would find other ways of believing. For example, here’s a dialogue between two politicians:

MOSHE: A faint heart never won a battle, Avi, or a seat in the cabinet.

AVI: Even if it means destroying a religion?

MOSHE: Oh come on, don’t be an idiot Avi, this isn’t going to be the end of Christianity or the Catholic Church.

AVI: How can you know that?

MOSHE: Look, religion is not based on a rational system of proofs. It survives because of human need. We offer proof that Christ has not risen, those who believe are not gonna believe us. Some may fall away, but you know what? I think Christianity’s gonna survive.

The scene cuts to two Catholic officials who are discussing the situation:

MONSIGNOR: The body. Do you really believe it is He in that tomb?

CARDINAL PESCI: I don’t concern myself with that very much. My concerns are for the Church and her real problems.

As more and more evidence is amassed pointing to an identification of the body as the actual bones of Christ, the only Christians who seem truly concerned that the resurrection might not be real are Father Matt Gutierrez (Banderas) and an archaeologist who is also a priest named Father Lavelle (Derek Jacobi). [SPOILER] Gutierrez begins frantically looking for anything he can use to dismiss the body as Christ’s, including claiming that it can’t be so because the height of the body (5’5″) doesn’t match the height of the image of Christ on the Shroud of Turn (5’10″). He’s desperate by that point and it’s obvious. Lavelle eventually slips into catatonia, ranting that the body is that of the false Christ spoken of in Mark 13:21-22, then commits suicide.

Off-topic, but the best line in the entire movie by far comes after Gutierrez tells Sharon Goldban (Williams) that her insistence that her discovery has nothing to do with religion is “bullshit.” “‘Bullshit’ is the language of the new ecumenical church, is it?” she snarks back.

In any case, I don’t think I could ever buy an alternative explanation for the resurrection if reasonable evidence could be presented that it did not happen. The Gospels make it fairly clear that (1) the resurrection was a physical one, and (2) the tomb was empty. No body was there. Paul says in Corinthians that if the resurrection did not happen, then our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:14).

I could really only see three possibilities for myself if belief in a resurrected, deific Jesus Christ was out of the picture:

Judaism ~ I don’t doubt that it would be hard for me to consider Judaism since the Jewish concept of God is quite drastically different from the Christian one. However, another part of me cries that it is logically inconsistent for me to believe in things like the parting of the Red Sea and the plagues on Egypt as a Christian and then abandon those beliefs if Christianity is proven false. If the God of the תַּנַ”ךְ‎ (Tanakh) is real, is it really His fault that Christians came along and distorted His person and message? I think I would have to go with Reform or Conservative Judaism though; Orthodox Judaism with its restrictive gender rules would be out. The fact that I already know Hebrew is definitely a plus.

Liberal Protestantism ~ We’re talking John Shelby Spong liberal. It would allow me to affirm some of the good tenets of Christianity that I love free from a disproven resurrection. This would probably mean joining a fairly liberal or mainline denomination such as the Episcopalian Church (USA).

Unitarian Universalism ~ A religious community focused on humanitarian service free from specific creeds, attending a UU church would allow me to pursue an eclectic approach to my theism and embrace different parts of the religions and philosophies I love and admire: Christianity, Judaism, feminist Confucianism, humanism, and even Mormonism. I’m also a wannabe vegan; while I don’t care for the welfare of the little fuzzy animals, I do believe in the health benefits of veganism and would like to make the switch someday, when I have the money and discipline for a special vegan diet. The UU is also the first major religious movement to obtain a majority of female clergy, and interfaith couples often feel it is a good home due to its inclusivism.

Sadly, atheism would be out—sorry Andrew and Zack. I do feel pretty certain that God does exist.

Anyways, that’s where I think I would wind up if my faith system were proven untrue. What about you?


If the resurrection didn’t happen — 9 Comments

  1. For this thought exercise…

    If we’re saying that JUST Mormonism gets disproven, (meaning not Christianity as a whole), I’d stick around Christianity for sure. Something that is more egalitarian from a gender perspective, something that has Rock Out with Jesus sessions, and something that teaches grace.

    If we’re saying Jesus’ resurrection gets disproven…I’d still stick around Christianity and opt for a denomination with egalitarian gender roles, Rock Out with Jesus sessions, and an emphasis on grace. ;) In this instance, I would abandon a literal interpretation of scripture and instead opt for some sort of New Age mumbo jumbo that says all spiritual paths lead to God (whoever God is)–and I’d still choose to call him/her/it Jesus. I just can’t think of a better God to worship than Jesus.

  2. Oh Jack…don’t you already know that UUism is religion for atheists in denial?

    I find it interesting that there is a kind of hierarchy of religious credibility. so, I hear some Mormons say, if Mormonism wasn’t true, then perhaps there was no apostasy and catholicism is correct. Or if not, then Judaism. Or…or…or…

    I imagine at some point, the classifications of God becomes less and less ambitious…until you get some kind of deist clockmaker who doesn’t deal with ourt affairs anymore. Believers will believe, I suppose…

  3. Katie, your answer makes me happy.

    God becomes less and less ambitious…until you get some kind of deist clockmaker who doesn’t deal with ourt affairs anymore.

    Actually, I know some Christians who essentially believe this, my father included.

  4. If science “proved” the resurrection didn’t happen – I’d probably take a “Pascal’s wager” approach and assume that somehow science got it wrong. As a scientist, I’m too keenly aware of instances where the entire scientific community believed something, only to find out later they were wrong. (I suppose the Holy Spirit could tell me that science was right, but if there were really no divine Jesus, then is there a Holy Spirit? I mean, the OT doesn’t talk about the Spirit, as far as I can recall)

    If somehow it were indisputable, to the point that Christianity was a total farce, I’d totally go with Judaism, because I would still be bound by my belief in the truth of the Old Testament. Not sure which branch of Judaism I’d choose – none of them seem to be “true” Judaism to me, but I’m an amateur when it comes to Judaism.

    Of course this all reveals my LDS bias, i.e. “God must have one true Church.” :)

  5. Psalms 51:11; Isaiah 63:10; Nehemiah 9:20. Maybe there is a Holy Spirit even if one relies only on the OT? Hm. Hard to say.

  6. jack,

    my comment over at Mormon Matters on this subject was what I’ll say here too. The question there was phrased slightly differently. It didn’t ask what if the resurrection didn’t happen, but rather, what if Christ’s bones were found. It’s a fundamental difference, because one discounts the resurrection while the other leaves open the possibility of resurrection albeit in a different body than the one Christ inhabited whilst on earth.

    Much, if not all, of what we believe of the world we see is crafted, molded by our conceptions and preconceptions. For instance because we haven’t been able to find life on any other planet, for generations on end, even the smartest people believed as fact that the Earth was the center of the Universe. After all, God created us, we are his children, therefore we are a priority over all else, the thinking goes. When something becomes an established belief, it becomes hardened perceptively as factual truth, and those who speak differently are considered heretics, until overwhelming evidence proves the heretic correct, such as Galileo.

    The established belief, hardened perceptively as factual truth, is that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and resurrected. The funny thing is that Christians believe this even though they don’t know a single thing about the details. How exactly did life come back into Jesus’ body? Yet, each and every single Christian believes some mechanism facilitated the reentry of Jesus’ soul into his dead body. The problem when you don’t know the details is that when details start coming forth, each individual, and each group tends to get defensive, as if the discovery of a detail is a threat to their established belief. And here is the fork in the road. Either the details will show that the established belief is fatally wrong, or it will show a more complex view of what is already believed.

    I believe that Jesus resurrected. The details? No clue. And I’m not even gonna bother speculating. I leave it open to whatever shows up as the real mechanism for that event happening. Did he leave his earthly body behind? Maybe. Did it somehow get life back in it? Sure, maybe. Am I gonna be bothered if it eventually gets proven that Jesus did not resurrect? Nah. His teachings are good enough for me, and his teachings have made me a better man than what I would have been without.

  7. Going at it from how Dan presented it elsewhere, I do have to point out that the lack of body that is recorded in the scriptures is there for a reason. Now, I won’t pretend to say I know how resurrection works. I don’t know how much of the original body, if any of it, are needed.

    Now, disproving Mormonism or Christianity would take a LOT of doing for me. I’m not sure what I’d become in either case. As it was, the prophecies of the Old Testament were obscure at times about Jesus Christ.

    Tom is right, there has been numerous times where something scientific was believed to be accurate, then disproved with further research. That’s one of the reasons I take a dim view of those who say that genetics disproves the Book of Mormon.

  8. Mike,

    That’s not the only reason to take a dim view of genetics with respect to the Book of Mormon.

    Quite simply, the control experiments DON’T WORK (not to mention identifying a convincing control experiment is difficult in the first place). If any scientist tried to make claims about their results when the control experiments weren’t even working, they’d get laughed off by any journal review committee.

    Yet somehow a different standard is applied to DNA and the Book of Mormon….

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