(how to tell the biblical story
in a way that makes a difference)

The resurrection of Jesus and the theological fiction of “redemptive history”

Zondervan Academic has just put out a blog post on the resurrection adapted from some online teaching material from Scott Oliphint. Oliphint is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. I want to consider the piece, first, because it’s Easter, and secondly, because it provides an opportunity to highlight the divergence between two hermeneutical methods: on the one hand, the theological ransacking of scripture in defence of dogma; on the other, the reconstruction of a compelling and sufficient prophetic narrative about the historical experience of the people of God.

Oliphint makes the point, first, that the resurrection of Jesus has to be regarded as historical fact, which is correct, but then asserts: “The reason that Christians believe in the resurrection is because, since sin came into the world, the fact of Christ’s resurrection, together with its meaning, comprises the center of God’s entire plan for the world.” That is, he ties Jesus’ resurrection to the problem of universal sin, and then makes that linkage the centre of a “plan for the world”.

To show why I think that this statement is at odds with the prophetic narrative, I will examine his “three aspects to the resurrection that make it central to Christianity”.

1. The resurrection is at the centre of redemptive history

To start with, I don’t think there is any such thing as “redemptive history”. It’s a theological fiction. There is redemption and there is history, but phrases such as this suggest that it is the salvation of humanity that determines the shape and purpose of the biblical metanarrative. That assumption is at best misleading, at least as far as scripture is concerned.

The Bible is not a massively overwritten prospectus for God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. It is a set of documents that bears complex, chaotic, and sometimes controversial witness to the experience and hopes of a historical community, climaxing in the belief that sooner or later Israel’s Messiah, appointed Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead, would come to rule over the nations.

Because the Law could not solve the problem of Israel’s persistent rebelliousness, the death of God’s obedient servant was put forward as a “propitiation” for the sins of his people (cf. Rom. 3:21-25); and because it was no longer the Law but belief in the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection that qualified people for participation in the life of the age to come, Gentiles who believed were also justified.

Honestly, I think it is a great shame that people with no respect for history are allowed to tell us what the Bible means or what to believe.

But in the frame of the biblical narrative, this “salvation” was simply a necessary stage on the way to the chief (not final) end in view, which was the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations. This is clear from the passages which Oliphint cites as evidence that the Old Testament supports his argument about the resurrection and redemptive history.

  • When Jesus tells the disciples after the resurrection that everything written about him in the Law, Prophets and Psalms had to be fulfilled, the only explicit connection he makes to the scriptures is the saying about the Christ being raised from the dead “on the third day” (Lk. 24:46). This is an allusion to Hosea’s prophecy of the restoration of Israel following punishment, and I think we have to assume that Jesus meant to locate his death and resurrection in just this sort of narrative: “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hos. 6:1–2).
  • Jesus’ retort to the Pharisees when they ask for a sign directs them to the story of the Son of Man, who will be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:39-40). If there is a “Son of Man” figure in the Jewish scriptures who suffers, dies and is raised, it is Daniel’s symbolic representation of those righteous Jews who would be persecuted and killed by Antiochus Epiphanes but who would awake to everlasting life, to “shine like the brightness of the sky above…, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3; cf. Matt. 13:43). Jesus is not proof-texting some quite different point: he appeals to this story about Israel in order to tell a story about Israel.
  • In his address in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia Paul affirms that God raised Jesus from the dead and quotes Psalm 16:10: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” The psalmist meant, of course, that he would be delivered from the immediate crisis and not see death—for now. Paul understood it differently. But the point to make here is that Paul is telling a narrow story about the salvation of Israel when faced with a devastating judgment of God (Acts 13:16-41). He is speaking to Jews and to Gentile sympathisers who had an interest in the fate of Israel. God has brought a saviour to Israel, through whom forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to Jews who otherwise were condemned by the Law of Moses to the sort of destruction described in Habakkuk 1:5-11. The resurrection of Jesus was a critical moment in this story.

What the resurrection of Jesus demonstrated, above and beyond anything else, was that the crucified Jesus had been appointed by Israel’s God as the Son who would judge and rule over not only Israel but also the nations. To ground it in a putative, planetary redemptive history is entirely to miss the point of the New Testament witness.

Being a professor of apologetics and systematic theology Oliphint has no appreciation for history—at least on the evidence of this post. It’s never factored into the theological calculations. Honestly, I think it is a great shame that people with no respect for history are allowed to tell us what the Bible means or what to believe.

In its preoccupation with personal salvation modern Reformed-Evangelical theology has thrown out not only the baby but the dirty water and the bath with it. Only the bath sponge has been kept.

The baby is the historical community. The dirty bath water is the messy reality of ancient history. The bath is the interpretive narrative of scripture. The sponge is Jesus’ redemptive death for the sins of his people, which has been kept and used by the theologians for a different purpose, under different hermeneutical conditions—perhaps for good practical reasons, but we are left struggling to understood the story.

2. The resurrection shows that only the living can save the dead

Paul states categorically that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). The Zondervan post makes this part of the argument about salvation: sin has to be overcome by someone who is not himself subject to sin and death. But this is not Paul’s concern here.

Paul tells the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). But this is not a general argument about sinful humanity’s need for salvation. We have to keep in mind that Paul is a Jewish apostle somewhat reluctantly summoning Gentiles to participate in the reformation of God’s people for the sake of the coming rule of Christ in the place of the old gods (cf. Acts 18:5-17). The power of sin is the Law (1 Cor. 15:56), which condemns rebellious Israel to destruction, but the resurrection of Jesus is an assurance that death will have no power over that community of believers through whose faithful witness YHWH will establish his kingdom over the nations.

In the apocalyptic narrative of the New Testament, which is more narrowly focused than the standard salvation-history storyline, the resurrection of Jesus foreshadows the life and victory over death of the persecuted churches during the period of eschatological turmoil—the wrath of God—that would culminate in the conversion of the nations of Greek-Roman world.

3. The resurrection points to life after death

According to the standard model the resurrection of Jesus as “firstfruits” anticipates the resurrection of all who are in Christ on the last day, but because believers are in Christ, they experience something of that resurrection life in the present age. “Our resurrection reaches its climax,” Oliphint says, “when we receive those bodies, but our new bodies are the completion of what began when we were, by faith, raised in and by Christ himself.”

The biblical model, however, is more complex, for the simple reason that history is more complex. In the first place, resurrection is what happens to God’s people when they are “dead”—because of sin and rebellion, because of war and devastation—and are brought back to life. For the most part, in the Old Testament this resurrection is metaphorical. Oppressed Israel is told: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” (Is. 26:19). The dry bones of the house of Israel are restored to life: “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel” (Ezek. 37:12). Israel has been struck down by God but will be raised up on the third day (Hos. 6:1-2).

But when we get to Daniel’s vision of the climax to the crisis provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes’ assault on Judaism, it is probable that a realistic resurrection of some of Israel’s dead is in view: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).

It is this resurrection of Israel’s dead at a time of eschatological crisis that is presupposed in the New Testament. In effect, this is the “first resurrection” of the martyrs in Revelation 20:4-6, following judgment on Rome and the establishment of Jesus’ rule over the nations.

Oliphint gets this badly wrong. He appears to think that the “first resurrection” is Jesus’ resurrection and that those who “share in the first resurrection” are ordinary believers, sharing in the life and power of Jesus’ resurrection:

The ones who “share in the first resurrection” are the ones who are included in the “firstfruits” of Christ’s resurrection. They are the ones who have life. They have life because of the life of Christ in his resurrection.

This constitutes a flagrant disregard for context. It ignores the straightforward distinction that John makes between “the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God” and the “rest of the dead”. It is only the martyrs, who had not worshipped the “beast” of idolatrous Roman imperialism, who come to life in this “first resurrection” and reign with Christ for a thousand years.

It is this limited resurrection of the persecuted and martyred righteous that was unexpectedly anticipated in the resurrection of Jesus. This keeps us firmly in touch with the idea found in Daniel that some Jews would be raised when the political-religious crisis confronting Israel was finally resolved and kingdom was given to the people of the saints of the Most High. The idea is also found in the Wisdom of Solomon 3:2-8. The souls of the persecuted righteous are in the hand of God, having been “punished” by unjust rulers, but God has accepted them “as a sacrificial whole burnt offering”, and they will “judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will be king over them for ever” (Wis. 3:8).

Jesus was the firstfruits of this resurrection.

The second resurrection comes after the thousand years. This is a comprehensive resurrection of all the dead for a final judgment and belongs, I think, to a further development of the prophetic logic: the God who in this way has shown himself to be sovereign in the immediate political arena will finally show himself to be sovereign over creation by settling the score with sin, death and Hades and making all things new.