Defending JesusNovember 5, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
A visitor named “Joe” (from theboldchristian.com) has replied to my post on Biblical inerrancy, and specifically about my comments on Jesus’ peculiar argument for the resurrection, as found in Matthew 22.
You have a misunderstanding of what death really is. Death is the separation of the body from the mind and spirit. Being made in God’s image consists of three parts. The Mind (God the Father), the body (Jesus) and the spirit (Holy Spirit). These three parts make One whole person. The resurrection is the rejoining of the body to the mind and spirit. Therefore, when Jesus says that God is the God of the living, he is telling the truth, because the mind and spirit are not dead, only the body is.
I can’t help but feel just a twinge of nostalgia, reading Joe’s defense of Jesus, because I had very much the same interpretation when I was a believer. Looking back on this rather simplistic interpretation, though, I can’t help but notice that it not only fails to effectively address the problems with Jesus’ argument, but also does a fair job of demonstrating why a smart god would never make a mere book the ultimate authority for his believers’ faith and practice.
Let’s have a quick review of Jesus’ allegedly Scripture-based argument for a future, bodily resurrection, which the Pharisees believed and the Sadducees rejected. Here it is in its entirety:
But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Like Joe, I used to think that Jesus was making the point that the soul continues to live, in a spiritual state, after death. As we’ll see in a moment, that’s probably not true, for a number of reasons. But before we get to the problems with this interpretation, let’s think for a minute about what this means for Biblical inerrancy. This is one of the more obscure verses in Scripture, meaning that Jesus does not come right out and say what it is that he’s referring to. He starts off saying that he’s talking “about the resurrection of the dead,” but he ends up with a declaration that says nothing at all about resurrection. There’s a considerable gap there, and it’s left up to the reader to try and fill it in.
The danger for the believer is that there’s no answer key in the back of the book. You can read that passage, and puzzle over it, and try and think of some way the beginning of the verse connects to the end. If you think of something that sounds plausible to you, and you can’t think of anything else that fits what you know about it, you’re probably going to conclude that your best guess about the meaning must be the intended meaning, by a process of elimination. Nothing else seems to fit, therefore your interpretation must be the correct one, and therefore anyone who has a different interpretation must be wrong.
We see this in the very first words of Joe’s comment: “You have a misunderstanding of what death really is.” My interpretation is different than his, therefore mine must be based on error. But (as I hope to demonstrate) Joe himself is neither inerrant nor infallible. Even though he thinks his interpretation must be right and mine must be wrong, he could have misunderstood what Jesus was trying to say. The Bible, like any other book, has an inherent limit: it contains only those words which are written in it, and if you make a mistake in how you read those words, then you’re going to draw the wrong conclusions, even if you start from an infallible and inerrant source.
Joe, for example, is overlooking the fact that the Sadducees already believed that the soul survived after death. [Edit: on further research, I’m not sure I want to use the phrase “overlooking the fact” here. I think it’s likely true, but there are conflicting accounts, and it’s possible that my original understanding might be in error.] In fact, virtually all the significant religions in that era had a similar notion. To try and prove that there was a resurrection by pointing to the idea of life after death would be like trying to prove the validity of the Papacy by pointing to the fact that Jesus had disciples. This would not have been an astonishing teaching, and in fact would have left the crowds wondering when he was going to get to the point. Well of course there’s life after death, they would have said. Everybody knows that. But not everyone believes in a future bodily resurrection as a result!
The Sadducees, as you may recall, held to a pre-Captivity form of Judaism, such as the Judaism of David and Solomon. We see this in the story of the first son born of David’s adulterous (and murderous) relationship with Bathsheba. According to the story, when God saw that David had arranged Uriah’s death in order to obtain Bathsheba, He punished their first son for David’s sin by striking him with a fatal disease. But notice David’s reaction to the baby’s death:
David noticed that his servants were whispering among themselves and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.” Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.
His servants asked him, “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!” He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
A classic example of Sadducean (pre-Exilic) Jewish belief. “I will go to him” (i.e. I will die and go to Sheol where my son is), “but he will not return to me” (i.e. he will not rise from the dead). David believed that the dead went to Sheol after being separated from their bodies, but this did not mean he believed that his son would rise from the dead again. Solomon expressed similar thoughts in the book of Ecclesiastes.
I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
just as light is better than darkness.The wise man has eyes in his head,
while the fool walks in the darkness;
but I came to realize
that the same fate overtakes them both.
Then I thought in my heart,
“The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said in my heart,
“This too is meaningless.”
For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
in days to come both will be forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise man too must die!
…A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man-even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?
Modern Christians, of course, follow in the traditions of the Pharisees, as Jesus did, so you’ll never hear them complain that life is meaningless because everyone dies and goes to the same place. In fact, they’re gladly tell you that their belief in the eternal blessings of heaven is what gives their life meaning. But that’s because they’re not Sadducees! Like David and Solomon, the Sadducees believed in the idea that the dead continued to exist as disembodied spirits, just as Joe does. If Jesus’ only point was to argue that ghosts are real, he really had no point at all, since nobody at the time would have disagreed with that concept.
Even if the Sadducees had disagreed, however, and even if they had not already believed in an afterlife, Jesus’ argument still would not have come close to proving that there was a future bodily resurrection. As I mentioned before, belief in an afterlife was part of virtually all ancient religions, very few of which included any kind of doctrine of future resurrection and judgment. The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, all had the idea that after you died, your soul/spirit went to a “realm of the dead,” and that was where you stayed. You might face a judgment of some sort, but there was no resurrection first, and the outcome determined only where your spirit went, not where your resurrected physical body ended up.
There are other problems with the common Christian interpretation of Matthew 22 as well. For instance, Jesus’ argument emphasizes the difference between the dead and the living: the whole point that astonished the Sadducees and the crowds was the idea that God was the God of the living and NOT of the dead. Kinda spoils the point if the dead ARE the living, as Joe’s interpretation would have it. And of course, there are all the problems we’ve mentioned before, like the bizarre and unchristian idea that God is not the God of the dead, and the fact that Abraham and sons can’t be raised from the dead if they’re not dead!
This is a fair sample of the kind of problem an authoritative Bible has that an authoritative God would not have, if He were willing and able to show up in real life to interact with us in person, outside of our feelings and imaginations. Since He does not, however, the Christians have to make do as best they can, and they do so by hyping the authority and reliability of some ancient, man-made documents, ignoring the difficulties and their own internal disagreements about how to correctly understand it. In God’s absence, they are inevitably guided by their own biases, preferences, and prejudices, and end up concluding that the Bible must be teaching whatever seems right in their own eyes.