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The Resurrection: History? Legend? Whatever

By Rowan Forster - posted Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Peter Sellick's article, "Resurrection: the vindication of the Christ", gives rise to the question of the ages, namely, what is truth? Where lies the line between factual account and mere myth? Between history and legend? Between fact and fabrication? Between the literal and the figurative? Between factual account and creative invention? Between objective reality and subjective imagining?

Mr. Sellick's answer to these questions, at least as far as the resurrection is concerned, is that we don't know, and we'll probably never know. Speaking of events leading up to, and following, the crucifixion, he says this: "History? Legend? Who knows? Whatever, the point is made" (the point being that Jesus is brother to all who die alone). The use of the word "whatever" in this context can only mean "Who cares? What's the big deal? It doesn't matter either way."

In other words, it's of no consequence whether the resurrection actually happened or not. And he is able to hold this seemingly untenable position by asserting that a non-historical non-event can nonetheless be true.


He says it's unlikely that the resurrection and the empty tomb have a historical basis. But he adds: "This does not mean they are untrue and hence the stuff of fairy tales. Rather, they are essential stories that outline the character of God." His use of the word "stories" in this context can only mean non-historical, non-factual inventions.

One can only wonder, in what ways the character of God is "outlined" by fictitious stories which are reported and described as if they had happened, but which in fact never happened at all. If the Word of God contains numerous ostensibly factual passages which are merely masquerading as fact, then in what way(s) would this "outline the character of God"?

Mr.Sellick quotes a passage from Acts (chapter two, verses 22-24) in which St.Peter is addressing a large crowd. St.Peter tells His listeners they had crucified and killed Jesus, but God raised Him up, liberating Him from the pangs of death, because He could no longer be held or controlled by the power of death.

To say that death could no longer contain Him, only makes sense if death had contained Him, if only for a matter of days -- namely from the time of His death and burial, until He rose triumphant from the grave.

It is difficult to imagine any interpretation of this passage in Acts, other than that Jesus was physically crucified, physically died, and was physically raised from death by the power of God. If we're looking for something that would "outline the character of God", then surely this divine conquest of death would tell us far more than some non-historical non-event.

Mr.Sellick also asserts that the Gospel narratives "take the form of legend that served a theological purpose," as distinct from being historical fact.


So let's for a moment imagine he's right, and the resurrection "legend" has no historical basis. This can only mean it did not happen historically, factually, or actually. Rather, the resurrection narrative is a non-factual legend, presumably comparable with the legend of King Arthur, or perhaps the story of Robin Hood. And if the resurrection narrative is not "the stuff of fairy tales", then how does it differ from Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, or Jack and the Beanstalk?

So how do we make sense of Mr.Sellick's assertion that the non-factuality of the resurrection "does not mean (it is) untrue", given that truth and factuality are almost universally regarded as synonymous? The Oxford Dictionary, for instance, begins its definition of "true" with the words "In accordance with fact".

Yet Mr.Sellick insists "we must rid ourselves of the notion that truth only resides in fact". So where else does truth reside, apart from fact? In fable? In fairytale? In fabrication? In fraudulent falsehood? Furthermore, he says we must also rid ourselves of "the pernicious conclusion that unless the resurrection can be taken as an historical event of the flesh, then the Church must fall."

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About the Author

Rowan Forster is a Melbourne journalist.

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