How Would a Spiritual Resurrection Play in Athens?

Critics of orthodox Christianity sometimes argue that the apostle Paul (perhaps with many other early Christians) didn’t believe in a physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus, but held instead to a “spiritual” resurrection. (Richard Carrier and Antony Flew would be two prominent examples of such critics.) This “spiritual” resurrection would have been understood not as a disembodied persistence of Jesus’ immaterial soul, but rather as the post-crucifixion Jesus receiving a brand new, ethereal, super-powered body that transcended physical limitations. Whatever this view involves, at a minimum it has to be compatible with the suggestion that Jesus’ corpse remained buried and eventually decomposed. The cash-value of such a claim is obvious enough: if one of the most significant figures in the early Church didn’t believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave, then modern believers in a physical resurrection are barking up the wrong tree entirely. Furthermore, one of the central planks in the traditional evidentialist case for orthodox Christianity is undermined.

Debates over Paul’s view of Christ’s resurrection typically focus on what is meant by the phrase “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15:44. I’m not going to revisit that ground here. Rather, I want to suggest that Paul’s preaching in Athens, as recorded in Acts 17, provides two independent reasons why the “spiritual resurrection” view is highly implausible.

Over the last couple of months I’ve listened to two sermons on Acts 17:22-34. On both occasions it struck me that (1) the conclusion of Paul’s message and (2) the response to the message are hard to reconcile with the idea that he held to a non-physical resurrection of Jesus.

Consider first his closing sentence (vv. 30-31):

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Some Christian apologists have given the impression that Paul is here arguing for the resurrection of Jesus, with a view to persuading his audience of Jesus’ divinity. In fact, the reverse is true: Paul is arguing from the resurrection of Jesus. The raising of Jesus is a premise in Paul’s apologetic argument rather than a conclusion. The conclusion is that God has appointed Jesus to judge the world at some future date, and Paul takes the resurrection to provide “assurance to all” of that fact. Jesus’ resurrection — however Paul conceives it — is meant to be taken as public evidence for some other theological truth.

But then the question is: How could a spiritual resurrection (as defined by the critics) function as public evidence for Jesus’ divine appointment as judge? For that matter, how could it function as public evidence for anything, given that a spiritual resurrection is either unobservable or only subjectively perceived (e.g., through visionary experiences)? One might take issue with whether Paul is right about whether the fact of a physical resurrection supports his theological conclusion, but it ought to be clear enough that only a physical resurrection could have anything like the evidential force that his argument requires.

So that’s one reason why Acts 17 causes problems for the “spiritual resurrection” view. A second reason is given by Luke’s report of the reaction to Paul’s sermon (verse 32):

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.

Paul was preaching mainly to philosophically sophisticated Greeks, none of whom would have been the least bit sympathetic to the idea of physical resurrection. Paul’s hearers would have believed either that the soul doesn’t survive the death of the body (Epicureans and some Stoics) or that the soul is ‘liberated’ from the body at death (Platonists and other Stoics). The one commonality among all pagan Greek views was that no matter what happened to you after death, your corpse stayed in the ground! A physical resurrection would thus have been considered either impossible or highly undesirable by Paul’s audience. In neither case would it have been regarded as something to boast about!

It’s perfectly understandable therefore that claims about Jesus’ resurrection would have been ridiculed, if Paul had been speaking of a physical resurrection. A non-physical resurrection, on the other hand, could have been accommodated far more easily by popular Greek views of the afterlife. It wouldn’t have invited mockery nearly so readily.

I suppose the critics might object that Acts was authored by Luke, not Paul, and that I’ve taken for granted that Luke has accurately represented Paul’s preaching rather than inventing or tailoring it to fit his own view of Jesus’ resurrection (cf. Luke 24). Certainly I’ve made that assumption, but it’s a perfectly reasonable one to make unless we have good evidence to the contrary. The burden of proof falls firmly on the critics’ shoulders in that case. All I’ll add here is that Luke’s account of Paul’s farewell message to the Ephesian elders only a few chapters later (Acts 20:17-35) is strikingly consistent with Paul’s epistles in terms of its tone, themes, and vocabulary.

Historical apologetics is not my forte, and it may well be that these observations from Acts 17 are commonplace. Still, they’re interesting to me — and surely that’s justification enough for any blogger!

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