If the resurrection of Jesus Christ wasn’t a literal, historical, bodily reality the Christian faith would be beyond worthless. Paul is clear in 1st Corinthians 15 that to deny the resurrection is to deny the Gospel. There is no proverbial fence to sit on, either you hold to the truth of the resurrection or you don’t; either Christianity is right about the resurrection and we’re eternal beneficiaries of Christ’s work, or it’s false and we’re most of all to be pitied. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ isn’t raised, and if Christ isn’t raised, we’re in serious trouble.
Historically, there have been numerous ways people have denied the resurrection of Christ. The first recorded disavowment came from the Jewish leaders who spread the falsehood that Apostles stole Christ’s body (Matthew 28 13-15). Docetism taught that Jesus only appeared human but was really a spirit, and therefore didn’t actually die on the cross, and therefore didn’t need to be physically raised from the dead. Muslims teach that Jesus didn’t go to the cross but was replaced by someone who looked like him (some say Judas Iscariot) and died a natural death later. Modern liberal theologians spread a few different heresies; one popular claim is that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead but that His life and death were simply an example as to what true humanity could become through social reforms (ala Albert Schweitzer). Atheists simply claim that since there is no God there are no miracles, and therefore, resurrection from the dead is impossible.
Modern arguments against the resurrection may take on a different form than the heresies of the past, but ultimately there is no difference between theistic, philosophical, or atheistic objections to the resurrection. Sinful man has corrupted presuppositions which result in inaccurate conclusions about God and the work of Christ.
For today’s Church Father Friday, we will study the first organized apologetic regarding the resurrection of the dead. This was written by Athenagoras of Athens who lived in the second century (c. 133 – c. 190). We know that he had some form of philosophical background considering the nature of his arguments and that he introduces himself as a philosopher and Christian. In this text he takes to task what appear to be common objections to the resurrection that he has encountered, namely he refutes the objection that the resurrection of the dead is impossible because some people are eaten by animals and their physical essence is then assumed by the animals (Chapters 4-6).
He offers multiple arguments for the resurrection which are sound and are still used in some capacity today, albeit with further nuances and historical developments. I recommend that you read this entire document, but for the sake of time and space, we will specifically examine Chapters 12 and 13. The main thrust of his argument in chapter 12 is an appeal to God’s character as creator and our place as a creature. He argues,
“…God can neither have made man in vain, for He is wise, and no work of wisdom is in vain; nor for His own use, for He is in want of nothing. But to a Being absolutely in need of nothing, no one of His works can contribute anything to His own use.”
He moves from this position to state that if God made us exist for His glory as Creator it would be inconsistent for our existence to cease. It would undermine God’s creative purposes as well as our designed functions if we were not raised from the dead. He continues the argument in Chapter 13 focusing on the hope found in the resurrection and the eternal restoration of who we were created to be.
There are 3 important takeaways from this text. First, Athenagoras highlights the physical body and doesn’t treat it as a flesh-bag containing the soul. Gnostic heresies demonized the body, pagan philosophers focused on the soul as the seat of the true self. But in defending our full human nature Athenagoras honors God’s creative work. We must never downplay the physical, it was declared good by God at creation! Second, his argument honors humanity as the height of God’s creation. We live in an age where people consider dogs to be the same as children, we must fight for the doctrine of the Imago Dei. We were created differently than any other creature, our responsibilities flow from that truth. Third, it’s totally applicable today. Athenagoras of Athens may have dealt with different false teachings on the resurrection of the dead than we do, but he wrote against the same spirit of deceit that Christians have refuted since the time of the Apostles. When we engage in defending the doctrine of the resurrection we join in a 2000-year battle for truth. Praise God that the outcome of this battle is already decided and the resurrection Savior is sitting on the Throne.
Below are two chapters from the work that contain the essence of his argument for the resurrection:
Athenagoras of Athens on The Resurrection Chapters 12 & 13
Chapter 12. The argument for the Resurrection/from the Purpose Contemplated in Man’s Creation
The argument from the cause will appear, if we consider whether man was made at random and in vain, or for some purpose; and if for some purpose, whether simply that he might live and continue in the natural condition in which he was created, or for the use of another; and if with a view to use, whether for that of the Creator Himself, or of someone of the beings who belong to Him, and are by Him deemed worthy of greater care. Now, if we consider this in the most general way, we find that a person of sound mind, and who is moved by a rational judgment to do anything, does nothing in vain which he does intentionally, but either for his own use, or for the use of some other person for whom he cares, or for the sake of the work itself, being moved by some natural inclination and affection towards its production. For instance (to make use of an illustration, that our meaning may be clear), a man makes a house for his own use, but for cattle and camels and other animals of which he has need he makes the shelter suitable for each of them; not for his own use, if we regard the appearance only, though for that, if we look at the end he has in view, but as regards the immediate object, from concern for those for whom he cares. He has children, too, not for his own use, nor for the sake of anything else belonging to him, but that those who spring from him may exist and continue as long as possible, thus by the succession of children and grandchildren comforting himself respecting the close of his own life, and hoping in this way to immortalize the mortal. Such is the procedure of men. But God can neither have made man in vain, for He is wise, and no work of wisdom is in vain; nor for His own use, for He is in want of nothing. But to a Being absolutely in need of nothing, no one of His works can contribute anything to His own use. Neither, again, did He make man for the sake of any of the other works which He has made. For nothing that is endowed with reason and judgment has been created, or is created, for the use of another, whether greater or less than itself, but for the sake of the life and continuance of the being itself so created. For reason cannot discover any use which might be deemed a cause for the creation of men, since immortals are free from want, and in need of no help from men in order to their existence; and irrational beings are by nature in a state of subjection, and perform those services for men for which each of them was intended, but are not intended in their turn to make use of men: for it neither was nor is right to lower that which rules and takes the lead to the use of the inferior, or to subject the rational to the irrational, which is not suited to rule. Therefore, if man has been created neither without cause and in vain (for none of God’s works is in vain, so far at least as the purpose of their Maker is concerned), nor for the use of the Maker Himself, or of any of the works which have proceeded from Him, it is quite clear that although, according to the first and more general view of the subject, God made man for Himself, and in pursuance of the goodness and wisdom which are conspicuous throughout the creation, yet, according to the view which more nearly touches the beings created, He made him for the sake of the life of those created, which is not kindled for a little while and then extinguished. For to creeping things, I suppose, and birds, and fishes, or, to speak more generally, all irrational creatures, God has assigned such a life as that; but to those who bear upon them the image of the Creator Himself, and are endowed with understanding, and blessed with a rational judgment, the Creator has assigned perpetual duration, in order that, recognizing their own Maker, and His power and skill, and obeying law and justice, they may pass their whole existence free from suffering, in the possession of those qualities with which they have bravely borne their preceding life, although they lived in corruptible and earthly bodies. For whatever has been created for the sake of something else, when that has ceased to be for the sake of which it was created, will itself also fitly cease to be, and will not continue to exist in vain, since, among the works of God, that which is useless can have no place; but that which was created for the very purpose of existing and living a life naturally suited to it, since the cause itself is bound up with its nature, and is recognized only in connection with existence itself, can never admit of any cause which shall utterly annihilate its existence. But since this cause is seen to lie in perpetual existence, the being so created must be preserved forever, doing and experiencing what is suitable to its nature, each of the two parts of which it consists of contributing what belongs to it, so that the soul may exist and remain without change in the nature in which it was made, and discharge its appropriate functions (such as presiding over the impulses of the body, and judging of and measuring that which occurs from time to time by the proper standards and measures), and the body be moved according to its nature towards its appropriate objects, and undergo the changes allotted to it, and, among the rest (relating to age, or appearance, or size), the resurrection. For the resurrection is a species of change, and the last of all, and a change for the better of what still remains in existence at that time.
Chapter 13. Continuation of the Argument
Confident of these things, no less than of those which have already come to pass, and reflecting on our own nature, we are content with a life associated with neediness and corruption, as suited to our present state of existence, and we steadfastly hope for a continuance of being in immortality; and this we do not take without foundation from the inventions of men, feeding ourselves on false hopes, but our belief rests on a most infallible guarantee — the purpose of Him who fashioned us, according to which He made man of an immortal soul and a body, and furnished him with understanding and an innate law for the preservation and safeguard of the things given by Him as suitable to an intelligent existence and a rational life: for we know well that He would not have fashioned such a being, and furnished him with everything belonging to perpetuity, had He not intended that what was so created should continue in perpetuity. If, therefore, the Maker of this universe made man with a view to his partaking of an intelligent life, and that, having become a spectator of His grandeur, and of the wisdom which is manifest in all things, he might continue always in the contemplation of these; then, according to the purpose of his Author, and the nature which he has received, the cause of his creation is a pledge of his continuance for ever, and this continuance is a pledge of the resurrection, without which man could not continue. So that, from what has been said, it is quite clear that the resurrection is plainly proved by the cause of man’s creation, and the purpose of Him who made him. Such being the nature of the cause for which man has been brought into this world, the next thing will be to consider that which immediately follows, naturally or in the order proposed; and in our investigation the cause of their creation is followed by the nature of the men so created, and the nature of those created by the just judgment of their Maker upon them, and all these by the end of their existence. Having investigated therefore the point placed first in order, we must now go on to consider the nature of men.