The resurrection still matters, even in this present scientific age. That was the takeaway from Dr. Thomas A. Miller’s lecture at the Presbyterian Scholar’s Conference recently held in Wheaton, IL.
The real evidence of the power of Jesus’ resurrection is the tangible transformation in a human life today. But those operating from a scientific, naturalistic worldview are not convinced by personal testimony. They need to be shown the evidence of Jesus’ actual resurrection from the dead, 2000 years ago, in order to begin entertaining the idea that the universe is not closed, miracles are possible, and death is not the end of all life.
Dr. Miller is in a unique position to help equip Christians for conversations with those operating from philosophical naturalism that grows out of the methodological naturalism of modern science. He reminds us that, “within its own sphere – medical breakthroughs in particular – methodological naturalism is important. It’s the ramifications philosophically that are the issue.”
Current surveys reveal that 60-80% of scientists identify as atheists or agnostics, including 2 of 3 biology professors on our colleges. And the next generation of thinking leaders are being educated to believe that matter is all that matters, miracles are not possible and God is not real.
Miller explains that “Philosophical naturalism says that any concept of God is absurd; there is no meaning and no purpose; everything hinges on nature and materialism.”
In “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins demolishes the Christian worldview. It has sold 10 million copies and Miller says, “it is required reading in most university biology classes.”
In his comments on the philosophical basis of modern science, Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin said, “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world,” Miller says, “but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Science and the Resurrection
Miller said, “a resurrection is an impossibility from the standpoint of science.” Then he laid out the questions that would have to be answered in order for a person operating out of philosophical naturalism to begin considering the possibility. “If it did occur, it had to be bodily otherwise it is meaningless. A spiritual resurrection is no resurrection at all.” Challenging the view of some PCUSA pastors and academicians, Miller continued, “Science has no challenge to the idea that Jesus rose spiritually from the dead. But the Bible does challenge that. Read again II Corinthians 15:17-28.”
Miller contends that the place to start a conversation is by examining the evidence at the time of Jesus’ purported death and resurrection. “What did the disciples and early Christians believe?” Miller asks.
The answer, Miller says, is fivefold:
- “Jewish belief in the first century concerning a resurrection always viewed it as a dead body coming back to life. There was no question that Jesus was dead. He was dead dead and he was put in the tomb as a corpse. If there was going to be anything called a resurrection, this dead corpse had to come back to life.
- “The need for an empty tomb. This was public knowledge. There was a Roman guard. They came in shifts. They took this very seriously. If the tomb had been broken into the penalty for the guards would have been death. Yet the stone was rolled away and the body was gone.
- “The necessity of the appearance of a resurrected body that could be confirmed to be the self-same Jesus. There were witnesses. Many of them. Twelve separate appearances to hundreds of different people. He walked, he spoke, he ate – all things that you expect a real person in a real body would do.
- “Proof that Jesus appeared in bodily form as and we not spirit. Jesus invited Thomas to observe and touch the holes in his hands and the spear wound in his side. In Luke, when Jesus stood among them – and invited them to touch him to confirm that he was not merely spirit, “for spirit does not have flesh and bones.”
- “The disciples preached the reality of the resurrection to others – even at risk of their own lives. Peter’s first sermon after Jesus’ ascension made it clear that Jesus was bodily raised.
Miller says that “the earliest Christians believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this conviction that sustained Christianity for 2000 years. If you trace the lives of these disciples, all but John were martyred for their belief in this. They were so convinced that they were willing to give their lives as a validating testimony of Jesus’ resurrection.”
Miller then offered several implications of the resurrection that directly impact modern scientific thinking. He presented these in the form of series of challenges. How does a resurrection happen in a closed system? How does a dead body come back to life? If miracles are a figment of the imagination, then how did this one miracle happen? How does resurrection happen if death is irreversible?
Miller then demonstrated the conversational apologetic approach to each challenge.
Challenge one: how does this happen in a closed system?
“Naturalism,” Miller reminds us, “functions on the premise that nature is all there is.” He says, “science says there is nothing beyond the material universe.” And then asks, “But how does a resurrection happen in a closed system?” Good conversation starter.
Challenge two: how does a dead body come back to life?
As a professor of surgery, Miller enters here into comfort zone. He said, “The human body has at least a trillion cells. Maybe 100 trillion. Each cell has at least 1000 chemical reactions going on every second. Maybe 5000. Take 100 trillion cells with 5000 chemical reactions every second and you’ve got a busy body.”
Continuing, he said, “We would be snobs if we thought the first century understanding of the body to be any different than our own. So, how in the world do you get all of those cells to come back to life? Once a cell is dead, even for 15 minutes, it is almost impossible to bring them back to life. After three days, in a tomb? Scientifically it’s impossible. There would have to have been a cosmic power involved. The person or force or energy had to be powerful and had to have a knowledge of each and every one of those chemical reactions in order to get them kick-started again to get them functioning. So, whoever was behind all this had to know all this information in the first century. We are nowhere near understanding in the 21st century what we would need to know to do it today, but it happened 2000 years ago.” Something, Miller says, that every scientifically minded person would have to admit is impossible in a closed system.
Miller then argues, “There would also have had to have been the authority to do it. Authority to extract the body, out of the grave clothes, out of the tomb, to a place where this process of reanimation could be performed. Only a sovereign authority could have done this.” And then Miller reminds us that the sovereign authority of the day, Rome, was guarding the tomb and grew quite distressed when it was discovered that the stone was rolled away, the body missing and people began claiming that they had seen him, alive.
Challenge three: the resurrection challenges the idea that miracles are a figment of the imagination.
Miller acknowledges that “if this miracle is possible, any miracle is possible.” He then admitted that if you get to this point in the conversation with a person who has been raised to believe that the universe is closed and nature is all there is, they may begin to wonder about many things. Patience and gentleness are essential here. There may well be memories, griefs and regrets that arise as the person considers the times and places where God was working or creating an opening that they denied, neglected or missed. But, Miller assures, “the good news lies ahead, so press on.”
Challenge four: the resurrection says that death is not irreversible.
Science says that when we die we cease to exist. The resurrection of Jesus says otherwise. Miller reminds us that “there is the possibility of life after death and Jesus is proof that it occurred. If God raised Jesus from the dead, He can raise us as well. That opens up eternity – something science cannot even imagine.”
With joyful anticipation of how God might choose to work through Christians who are willing to have these kinds of conversations with their colleagues and friends, Miller offers four responses that he has experienced when presenting this evidence for the resurrection to people in his spheres of influence.
“I’ve seen four responses,” Miller shares:
- “The evidence is not believable no matter how passionate you may be about it. Dead people don’t rise from the dead.
- “If a resurrection occurred, just give us time and science will figure out the mechanisms.
- “Blowing it off and saying accidental events, anomalies, not uncommonly occur and nothing special should be made of it. Don’t build a worldview around it.
- “The evidence is compelling and it appears that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and that changes everything.
Concluding, Miller encourages, “there’s no way to know at the beginning of a conversation or relationship with a scientist which one of those four responses a scientist will have.” He then shared a testimony of sharing with a colleague down the hall from his Virginia Commonwealth office. Miller invited him to read a book that he knew would be of interest. Then he added, “would you read my book as well?” Once his colleague agreed, the conversation was started.
“That’s a conversation that takes years. And it starts with you. All God is asking you and me to be are vessels to communicate what has happened to us, by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. God will have to take the evidence and move the non-believer. Your life is a persuasive means, but in what direction?” Miller’s challenges in conclusion.
Dr. Thomas A. Miller, is a Professor of Surgery, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine; the author of “Did Jesus really rise from the Dead” – Crossway; serves on the board of Theology Matters and attends Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Va.