Ligonier Conference (IX)

Sproul began the conference’s final session by describing what may well be the oldest question of theology. It is the one asked by Job: “If a man dies, shall he live again?”

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He turned to Emmanuel Kant an explained why he was one of the most important figures of the 18th century. Specifically, he turned to Kant’s critique of the classical arguments for the existence of God in The Critique of Pure Reason. Kant set the bar for centuries to follow for religious agnosticism. As a scientist he argues that we cannot rightly and logically move from the visible to the invisible world, from the physical to the metaphysical, from the phenomenal to the pneumenal world. This critique was a watershed moment in Western history because thereafter was the seemingly unbreachable rift between science and theology. Though Kant is known for ushering God out of the front of the house, he ran around and opened the back door and tried to let God in there. He did this not by metaphysical pursuit but by reason of practical thinking. He was very concerned about morality and ethics. He saw that in the heart of every human being was this sense of duty or “oughtness” for which he is famous as identifying as the categorical imperative. It was his version of the Golden Rule. But then he asked, What would the necessary conditions be to make this sense of oughtness or duty which provokes the pangs of conscience in human beings, what would be necessary for this sense of duty to be meaningful? What would have to be for ethics to be meaningful? He was concerned for the survival of civilization and knew that without some sense of ethics civilization cannot survive for long. As he pondered this, he said the first thing is that there would have to be justice because if there is no justice the person who acts according to this sense of duty would be involved in a fool’s errand. He saw that in the phenomenal world justice does not always prevail. For justice to be true, we must survive the grave and not only that, but there must be something beyond the grave to ensure justice a judge who would mete out and dispense pure justice. What would be the necessary condition for this judge? He would have to be perfectly righteous and above reproach because if the judge on the other side were unjust, we’d have no guarantee of the victory of justice. That judge would also have to be omniscient because for a judge to execute perfect justice he needs to be free from being misinformed. And even then, he would still need to be omnipotent so he could carry out the sentence. And so, on the basis of practical considerations for a meaningful ethic we must assume the existence of God since otherwise life is meaingless. And so we must live as if there were a God. This was the dyke that held back the torrents of skepticism for a few years at the end of the enlightenment. There were cracks in the dyke that soon gave way and a metaphysical and ethical “Katrina” happened.

Sproul then suggested that there is some parallel thinking between Kant and the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:12 and the following verses. What follows Paul’s initial question is a particular form of debate common to ancient philosophers and one that was used regularly by Paul as an apologist. It is called the ad hominem form of argumentation and must not be confused as the ad hominem abusive fallacy. There is another form of ad hominem reasoning that is sound and that has been in use by philosophers since time immemorial. This is simply “arguing from the man” or stepping into the shoes of the opponent. It says “I will grant you your premise but let’s see where this premise goes out of logical necessity. I will take the argument to its logical conclusion showing that his conclusion will be absurd.” This is know as reductio ad absurdum.

And this is exactly what Paul does with these folks in Corinth who are denying the resurrection. They say that it is universally true that there is no resurrection. If this is true, then using the laws of necessary inference they must also conclude that Jesus has not been raised, for if there is a universal negative there cannot be as much as a single positive.

What Paul says is this: If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. You’ve invested your trust and hope and faith in a man whose bones have just been dug up! Not only that, but we are found to be misrepresenting God because we have testified that it is God who has raised Jesus. If the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised and if He has not been raised, your faith is futile. And if this is all true, you are still in your sins. You’re still contained and enmeshed in sin. Our justification does not end with the cross, but rather Jesus was raised for our justification. The resurrection is God’s apologia certifying to the world that He accepted the atonement that Jesus made on the cross.

Sproul paused briefly here to comment on the anger unbelievers feel towards Christians. If you don’t like what Christians preach, do not hate us, but pity us, he said. If we’ve been wrong, we’ve forfeited much of the fun of this world and have done so simply to perish without hope. Without Christ we are without hope.

At this point Paul has drawn for us a ghastly picture of the consequences of no resurrection, no life after death. He is saying that if there is no resurrection then life itself is meaningless. As Kant understood, your ethic or sense of duty is meaningless. Without ethics, society and civilization cannot last and you are doomed to barbarianism (which our nation now is rushing towards with such velocity that we wonder if anything but God’s direct intervention can stop it). As Kant understood, if there is no God, all things are permitted. All that is left are our personal preferences which can only be exercised by power. Might becomes right for there is no other recourse. Kant was saying that since the alternative to life after death would make ethics impossible and since life without ethics is meaningless, we must live as if there is a God. Talk about a justification for using religion as a crutch against facing meaningless!

Paul does not argue for the resurrection on the basis of the hopelessness of life without it. He agrees that without it life is hopeless. But that is not the foundation for his assertion that Christ is risen. He goes on to talk about the analogy that exists in nature with animals and plants and grasses and human beings, that you put a seed in the ground and before the life comes out of the grond there is a sense in which that seed must, at least metaphorically, die. In like manner when our bones go in the ground they await the final metamorphosis when we are raised in incorruption. This closely resembles the argument Plato had used centuries before. Paul does not rest his case on metaphors.

Why does he assert the reality of the resurrection? Early in the chapter he reminds his readers of the gospel. Paul appeals to the Scriptures (for Christ died in accordance with the Scriptures). Paul’s first line of apologetics is an appeal to sacred Scripture. He believes in the resurrection because the Word of God proclaims it. The Apostles declared their empirical experience with Jesus, having actually seen and touched Him after His resurrection. It was not the empty tomb that fueled the faith of the early church but the appearance of Christ. Paul challenged the Corinthian believers to ask people to verify the resurrection by simply asking those who had seen Him.

The reason people today believe the resurrection is a myth is that judging by our 21st century understanding of biology, if there is anything that we know is that when people die they stay dead. It is impossible for the dead to rise. Given this, it is obvious that the New Testament story of Jesus’ resurrection has to be a myth. It could even be an outright lie. But only if it is impossible for the dead to rise. What a different view of reality and life we find in the New Testament where the impossibility according to the New Testament writers was for Him not to rise. The impossibility was death’s ability to hold Him. When people die they stay dead, but there is something more universal and that is that it is sinful people who die and stay dead. What happens to the premise when a person dies who is not sinful? In the Bible, death is inseparably tied to sin. Sinners die. If there was no sin in Christ, we would anyone expect Him to stay dead. What is hard to explain is that He died at all and He could only do this because He took upon Himself humanity and our sin. Apart from this He would never have died. Having paid that price and having finished that work, the Father raised Him for our justification. This was God’s proof of the person of Jesus.

Why is there life at all in this universe when we understand the necessary conditions for life cannot be found in us? You did not create your own life. There was a time when you were not. The only one with the power of life in Himself is the eternal self-existent God who is the author of life and death and who has the keys of life and death in His hand. As the one who created life, He can call life out of death. What is so hard to believe? It is the opposite that is impossible.

As we just learned, people believe the resurrection is a myth and know this because of their understanding of biology. They think those poor people in the first century had no problem with the resurrection because they saw resurrections all the time. The truth is, that this was as foreign to the experience of those people as it is today. This is why Thomas doubted. He and those around him no more expected or accepted the resurrection than we do.

“God commands all people everywhere to repent because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed and of this He has given assurance of all by raising Him from the dead.” No other sign will be given and you need to believe this. God has already set a day to judge the world and He will not wait. He commands (not invites) all men to come to Jesus because He has proven that Jesus is the one through whom He will judge the world. He has proven this by raising Him from the dead. We believe the resurrection because of the biblical testimony of its reality in time and space.

And this was the end of the ’07 Ligonier Conference. This isn’t quite true. A throng of attendees moved to the front of the room and closed with a great rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” It is such a beautiful piece of music and was a great way to end what was a wonderful, enjoyable conference. I’ve got little doubt that the teaching and fellowship of this conference will be one of this year’s highlights for me and for many others.