Is it possibile to deny the historicity of Jesus and advocate the preaching of the gospel? Can someone who denies the physical resurrection of Jesus, for example, even believe in the gospel?
While the consensus for evangelicals for the past 2000+ years has been to not only affirm, but to gladly affirm the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ based on the authority of Scripture, including its historical significance, there has been opposition to this doctrine at different points in history. Lutheran theologian, Rudolph Bultmann presented an anti-existential understanding of the resurrection that is mind-boggling and in my opinion contrary to logic. Bultmann was a German Lutheran biblical scholar, who was famous for his approach of demythologization. Starting with the Bible as myth, Bultmann advocated peeling back its mythological surface so as to uncover its essential meaning, which he viewed in terms of existentialist philosophy.
Bultmann denied the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus by claiming that “a historical fact that involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable.” Since there is no eyewitness account of the resurrection, Bultmann takes issue with the belief in its existential importance. Therefore, Bultmann claims that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a “mythological conception” that needs to be abandoned since the historical Jesus is “relatively unimportant.” However, Bultmann affirmed that the preaching of Christ as crucified and risen is essential to the faith and the components of the faith, but reliance on their historicity is not what is important to the faith. His theory applied to the United States of America could be seen in affirming the “idea” of independence from Great Britain without necessarily believing in the historicity of the American Revolution. Bultmann’s theory would argue that belief in a historical war of independence from Great Britain is unimportant.
It is both logically dishonest and foolish to teach the idea of something if one does not believe there is any historicity in it. The apostle Paul would agree. The essential aspects of Paul’s gospel are all rooted not in “mythological conceptions,” but in historical realities (1 Cor. 15:1-8). The highlighted focus of this passage is the historical importance of the resurrection of Christ. Paul writes,
“…that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:4-8).
Paul gives multiple references to people who had seen Jesus as a bodily risen Savior. He basically declares to the Christians at Corinth that if they do not believe his testimony, they can go to one of the many of the five hundred who saw Jesus who are still alive (v. 6). The historicity of the resurrection of Jesus was of upmost importance to Paul’s gospel. This is because the “idea” of a risen Savior evidenced with a buried body gives no substance to the faith. Faith in a risen Savior who has not risen is utterly futile.
I am echoing Paul when he declared, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:14, 17, 19). This is the crux of Christianity. If Christ has not actually risen from the dead, then we have no hope in this life or in the life to come. We are still in our sins. Paul grounds our future bodily resurrection in Christ’s actual bodily resurrection. If he was proclaiming a mythological conception that entails a deeper meaning that needs to be dug out, he has a strange way of doing it.
Preaching Christ is futile, foolish, and in vain if Christ has not risen bodily from the dead. The message we have to preach is predicated on the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Therefore, if Bultmann is consistent in his thinking, he should most certainly not preach Christ nor even believe in him. So, to answer the question at hand, Bultmann was most certainly not right to call Christians to preach the message of Christ because he would be encouraging the preaching of a message that is either contrary to Christ or contrary to his own theory. The gospel of the Bible is directly contrary to Bultmann’s theory due to its emphasis on the bodily resurrection of Christ. Likewise, a “gospel” message absent of an actual and historical resurrection of Christ is directly antithetical to Christ and his message. Frankly, any message of Christ that does not include Christ as historically and actually risen from the dead is no gospel at all. The work of Christ is null and void if we find his remains in a tomb.
The church has always and must continue to faithfully assert the biblical truth that the actual and historical resurrection of Christ is “God’s seal of approval on the death of Christ as complete payment for humanity’s sin and as a promise of the final bodily resurrection of all believers” (Gregg Allison, Historical Theology, 411).
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.