Did God Resurrect Jesus Singlehandedly?

October 10th, 2020 / 21 Comments

In books and articles, I’ve argued authentic miracles never involve God’s action alone. Miracles require God and creation.

But is this true of Jesus’ resurrection?

Many Christians think Jesus’ resurrection the most important miracle of all. The biblical writers say “God raised Jesus from the dead” (Acts 4:10; 5:30; 1 Cor. 6:14; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pt. 1:21; Rm. 8:11).

Jesus didn’t self-raise. He didn’t singlehandedly decide to come back to life. God resurrected him.

But did God alone raise Jesus back to life?

Does the Bible Say God Alone Raised Jesus?

Many Christians think God had to control Jesus to bring him back to life. It must have been resurrection by fiat.

Does the Bible say this? Do biblical texts explicitly say God singlehandedly resurrected Jesus?

No, they do not.

Most Christians assume God can control anyone or anything. They employ this assumption when they consider Jesus’ resurrection.

By contrast, I believe God can’t control anyone or anything. So God’s resurrection of Jesus wasn’t unilateral.

Other Factors, Actors, and Forces

If God didn’t raise Jesus singlehandedly, other factors, actors, and forces must have played a causal role. But what were these cooperative elements? We find hints in the biblical record.

There is no “play-by-play” of Jesus’ resurrection. We don’t have direct access to what occurred as God resurrected Jesus.

While there were witnesses after Jesus’ resurrection, no one was present during the decisive resurrecting activity. So we must speculate.

An adequate explanation of Jesus’ resurrection will involve a primary role for God’s action: “God raises Jesus.” Jesus didn’t self-raise; but God didn’t resurrect Jesus singlehandedly.

What other causes, forces, factors, and actors were involved?

Jesus Cooperated With God

The God Can’t explanation of God raising Jesus says Jesus’ mind/spirit/soul (depending on which word you prefer) and bodily members played a role in his resurrection. Jesus cooperated… mind and body.

It’s not hard to imagine Jesus’ mind/spirit/soul cooperating with God’s desire to resurrect. Those who affirm continued subjective experiences beyond bodily death — what most call “life after death” — will think Jesus continued having subjective experiences after his body died.

Someone so in tune with God — “I and my father are one” (Jn. 10:30) — would naturally cooperate with God’s resurrecting activity. Jesus’ continually existing self would have strong reasons to cooperate with God’s resurrecting activity.

We can also imagine elements of Jesus’ body cooperating with God. Or those unable to cooperate may be rightly aligned despite their damaged state. Jesus’ body doesn’t disappear into nothingness.

We know from other resurrection accounts that dead bodies can revive without sufficient causes. The near-death experience literature offers many examples. Besides, a body dead for thirty-six hours in a cold tomb would not be entirely decomposed.

Ambiguous Post-Resurrection Witness

We find other intriguing factors and actors in stories about Jesus’ resurrection. For instance, Matthew says an angel rolled away the stone from the entrance to Jesus’ tomb (28:2).

If God can singlehandedly raise Jesus, why send an angel to open the door? Interestingly, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he asked someone else to roll away the stone before calling to Lazarus to come forth. Did God do the same in Jesus’ resurrection?

Consider also the high degree of ambiguity related to Jesus’ post-resurrection sightings. The women who came to the tomb on the morning of his resurrection mistook Jesus for the gardener (Jn 20:14-15). His friends walking for miles alongside Jesus going to Emmaus don’t recognize him until he breaks bread (Lk 24:13-35). And so on.

If God could singlehandedly raise Jesus and if God thinks witnesses to this resurrected man are important ought to make recognizing Jesus easy, obvious, and unambiguous. But that’s not what we find in the text.

This alone should make us rethink the idea God has the ability to raise Jesus singlehandedly and then exhibit the risen Lord unambiguously. Apparently, God can’t control others.

The Logic of Resurrection Love

The most important argument for thinking God’s raising Jesus was a cooperative venture comes from the logic of love itself. To many, love is by definition relational, persuasive, and uncontrolling. Love does not override, nor does it act in a vacuum. It isn’t a solitary activity. “Love does not force its own way” (1 Cor. 13:5).

To those who think God always loves, it’s natural to think God’s raising Jesus was not a controlling act. To put it another way, had God’s raising of Jesus been a controlling act, it would not have been loving!

Although many have not applied the logic of God’s uncontrolling love to Jesus’ resurrection, once presented, it makes good sense.

While some argue that love is by definition uncontrolling, others build a case from evidence and arguments that says God raised Jesus through uncontrolling love. This case looks at the clues I’ve mentioned above. But it also considers other questions of life, the broad biblical witness, the problem of evil, and more.

There’s a strong abductive case for believing Jesus cooperated with God’s resurrecting.

In my recent book Questions and Answers for God Can’t, I point out that no scripture explicitly says God singlehandedly controls others. The vast majority of biblical passages either explicitly or implicitly speak of both divine and creaturely activity when describing how any event occurred. No biblical passage unambiguously says God was the only actor in some event and there were no creaturely factors, actors, or causes.

The lack of explicit biblical support for the idea God ever controls fits well with saying God did not singlehandedly resurrect Jesus.

I explain more how Jesus reveals God’s love as uncontrolling in chapter five of Questions and Answers for God Can’t.

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Comments

Brett

Hi Thomas,

I don’t think many people argue that Jesus was AGAINST His Father resurrecting Him. Of course he was cooperating 100% with the Father’s will (they were ONE) on everything, so there is nothing forced or “against His will” on the matter…quite the opposite. In Jhn 12:32 Jesus declared IF HE BE RAISED, He would draw all to Himself….so….that being said:

1. Do you believe Jesus actually DIED as in 100% DEAD, or like some Muslims teach, he wasn’t REEEEALLY dead?
2. Since no human EVER can resurrect themselves, that leaves one being only that could possibly do so. GOD.

God the Father.

So…. I’m confused what this article is supposed to teaching is the truth of the matter. Did God the Father, who IS the CREATOR and SUSTAINER OF LIFE itself, raise His Son who was DEAD and could not raise Himself, as He promised to FRO ALL OF US someday, and as we hear in the words of Jesus Himself that He would do, or did He not? Of course He did. Of course He will, or we are all doomed.


Robert Shield

Who did Jesus cooperate with when raising Lazarus?


David Edgren

Stretch —- > Snap.
Yeah. Nah. Nah. Yeah. Nah.
The Nah’s have it.
Your over theologizing of everything you can’t explain rationally or believe marginally has lost the match this time.
It’s like watching a mathematician trying to describe and define a game of hopscotch.
Become like children, someone said, and enter the Kingdom.
Maybe it was meant literally. No hypothesizing or aggrandizing needed.
Play like children. The Kingdom is made for such as these.


thomasjayoord

Thanks for weighing in, Dave. Maybe I’m missing your point, but it seems like your appealing to mystery when talking about the faith of a child. I don’t interpret that children story as Jesus saying we should just adopt blind faith when we aren’t sure of answers. Is that what you’re arguing?


thomasjayoord

Great question, Robert! I find three interesting aspects of this story of Lazarus. 1. When Jesus is told that Lazarus is dead, he responds by saying Lazarus is sleeping. 2. When Jesus gets to the tomb, he asks others to roll away the stone. If Jesus doesn’t’ require help, why ask for it in rolling away the stone? 3. Jesus calls out to Lazarus in a way similar to God calling out to the chaos in Genesis 1. Lazarus (and the chaos) responds. That’s cooperation. I wouldn’t say these three interesting points PROVE my theory, but they support it.


thomasjayoord

Great questions, Brett. I’m affirming that God raised Jesus and will raise us. I’m just saying God doesn’t do this singlehandedly. So our hope is God’s raising. But as Augustine and Wesley put it, God will not save us without ourselves.

By the way, your point 1 reminds me of the movie Princess Bride. Miracle Max says Westley is “mostly dead!” Have you seen the movie?

Tom


Bill Yarchin

Your essay is stimulating but, as formulated, not convincing to me. But I think your argument can arrive at essentially the same conclusion albeit by a somewhat different route.
First of all, you appropriately acknowledge that the NT witness is unanimous in the testimony that God was the one who raised Jesus from the dead. Your question, asking whether God did this without the cooperation of any other actor, does not seem to be one that the biblical writers took into account.
If we conclude, then, that God did not do this single-handedly, it will not be through appeal to biblical testimony but to something else. In your argument, that something else is the assumption of “continued subjective experiences beyond bodily death.” Whether that assumption was operative in the minds of the NT writers is not clear, so we cannot appeal to Scripture for unambiguous support for the assumption of continued personal subjective experience after the physical human organism has expired.
In fact, in one of the NT texts you cite (Rom 8) Paul makes a declaration that both minimizes the likelihood of after-death continued personal existence while at the same time pointing to illumination upon your question about God’s single-handedly raising Jesus from the dead.
Paul’s phrase is “the body is dead because of sin” (8:10), and in that same passage his reference to “spirit in which there is life” denotes exclusively the divine spirit rather than the human. This would seem to point away from any appeal to a deceased physical organism retaining any capacity for response to God or cooperation with God. As a deceased human being, Jesus did not continue as an existing self, unless by that we mean simply that Jesus’ body did not cease to exist simply because it ceased to pass breath and circulate blood.
Your explicit acknowledgment of this last statement, about Jesus’ post-mortem body, points to a way through the difficulty. You write “we can imagine elements of Jesus’s body cooperating with God,” referring to his dead body “rightly aligned.” We can now consider why and how that would be: why it would be Jesus’ body—and no one else’s—that could be so rightly aligned with God’s purposes that death could not maintain its purchase?
[Reference to other grave-side events like Lazarus et al. in the NT are irrelevant because those raised bodies were still subject to death, and indeed they later died.]
The answer lies in Jesus, the only human being to live in complete obedience to God’s purposes. From his conception and his birth through his childhood, his interactions with people, his journey to the cross, to his last breath, his body was in 100% alignment with God’s purposes. In theological terms we call that sinlessness. Never before had a biological organism done that, and, in Paul’s harmartiology, Jesus’ physical organism would not be subject to death. Nonetheless—and this is the critical point—as the incarnate son of God Jesus was so fully human that he partook also in, yielded himself to, human mortality. And this was explicity in obedience to his heavenly father.
To me this is the glory of Holy Saturday. To me, even more than in the crucifixion, on Holy Saturday Jesus was most fully participating in creation’s situation of mortality. With us, in that tomb Jesus was completely without capacity, even to have faith. He was dead, the fate all living creatures. Yet his dead body, thanks to his unprecedented life of obedience, of complete alignment with God’s purpose, offered to God an unprecedented opportunity for God to finally and again be the creator. Jesus’ dead body was a tiny unfallen fragment of an otherwise fallen world. And with that fragment God the creator was able to bring about a whole new creation woven of the fabric that Jesus’s body provided: a new creation free from sin, a new creation wholly aligned with God’s purpose. The Bible’s predominant way of speaking about redemption is as (an act of or as acts of) creation and re-creation, and the good news is that that is what God did on Resurrection Sunday thanks to what Jesus made available to God on Holy Saturday.
To say then that Jesus cooperated with God in his own resurrection is a little off, because “cooperation” implies a capacious agent. That is what Jesus was while he still breathed, but not after he stopped. Nonetheless when he did stop breathing, what he committed to God in his last breath was sufficient for the creator to change everything.


Matthew Palm

Hello everyone,

I love the fact that Thomas challenges our understanding of what we think we believe. The English language is such an imprecise way of communicating because the word “can’t “ itself denotes in ability. The argument goes like this, God can’t change his mind because he is ultimate good. In the context of most of the arguments that Thomas makes is an implicit understanding of what defines good. But if God defines good and we base our definition of good on God, to tell God he can’t change his mind is to define God on our terms not his. This is also where the argument gets into murky ground because as the French philosopher once said, “God created man in his own image, and man being the gentleman that he was returned the favor.”

I enjoy wrestling with the concepts,

Mathew Palm


thomasjayoord

Great response, Bill! You rightly point to continued subjective experience beyond bodily death as the key notion in my view. If this does not occur, there is no agent to cooperate. If it does, we can talk about personal agency. Less developed in my essay is the possibility Jesus’ body retains some responsive capacities. Again, this is conjecture. But it’s conjecture aligned with assumptions about ontology. As a dual-aspect monist (a form of panpsychism), I can imagine the elements of Jesus’ body having some capacity to respond to God, albeit a constrained capacity. I can even appeal to what you call Jesus’ “unprecedented obedience” as positively affecting the members of Jesus’ body. They too would be habitually conditioned to respond to God’s action.

In any case, I love your pushback. Thanks, Bill!


thomasjayoord

Thanks for you response, Mathew. You rightly point to a key assumption in my argument: what we think is good is not altogether different from what God thinks is good. The alternative is saying our views of God are different from God’s. If that’s true, saying “God is good” is meaningless, as is all claims about the positive values of God and divine action. So I feel pretty comfortable claiming that what I think is good corresponds with what God thinks is good.

Thanks!

Tom


Dan Held

I’d be interested, Tom, in how your resurrection theology interfaces with your creation theology. If life is first spoken or breathed into life (who else created life itself if not God single-handedly?) then the Holy Spirit seems in my own thinking to have a loving and empowering influence that paradoxically transcends mere control. Perhaps you may, or may not, agree that molecular life at every level bears an influence upon all other life. Evolutionary influence, not sudden control, is the ultimate power to create and resurrect, imho.


Geir

Thomas, interesting perspective.

I had to pause at the statement “dead bodies can revive without sufficient causes”. Do you men “can” or “cannot”?  If you mean “can”, I read the sentence like this “… dead bodies can revive without enough causes for the bodies to revive”. But that statement does not make sense. If the causes are not sufficient for X to happen, then X cannot happen. What meaning or logic am I missing here?


Randy Baker

Tom, do you not believe that Jesus was God in flesh?


thomasjayoord

Thanks for your good question/comments, Dan! I do think God creates at all levels and at all times through uncontrolling love. And I think language of Spirit makes the most sense when talking about God’s creative action. So both at the beginning of our universe and in Jesus’ resurrection, the uncontrolling Spirit of love worked with creation.


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Randy. I think God is incarnate to varying degrees in ALL creation. But God is incarnate in Jesus in a special way, because Jesus cooperated so well with God. For this reason, we consider Jesus divine: he reveals God’s way of love best.


thomasjayoord

Geir,

Good question! My sentence is poorly worded.

I was trying to say that other resurrections have occurred. And we don’t need to think of those other resurrections as occurring because of God alone. To put it positively, any resurrection requires multiple causes never just one.

Does that clarify?

Tom


Chris Eaker

I have been learning about quantum physics. By no means am I qualified to discuss it. I wonder though how the things we are learning about quantum physics impacts the idea of resurrection from the dead. Specifically, that energy is matter and matter is energy and they can move back and forth. I suspect open and relational theology is sort of getting at these issues, but from the theological standpoint rather than the scientific standpoint. What do you think about that Tom?


thomasjayoord

I think that quantum theory opens new ways of thinking about divine action at even the smallest levels of existence. And this can help us imagine God working to resurrect Jesus. Thanks for inserting this, Chris!

Tom


Stuart Donnan

“Is there possibly a confusion between resuscitation and resurrection, and must this affect the conclusions?”

My point is that Lazarus’s body was, in one way or another, resuscitated in the sense that it was the same (mortal) body. Whereas with Jesus, everything from the Gospel records through Acts to Paul describe (implicitly or explicitly) that Jesus’s body was different from what it had been when he was taken down from the cross and put in the tomb. Might this be construed as a literal re-creation (an idea for which there is other NT support) of Jesus (or is it of Jesus’ body) so that the idea of agency (human agency) is either removed or at least made very different from ‘normal’. If we follow the idea that Jesus is the first-fruit then all people would be re-created after death. This would be the purpose of the creation – a re-creation where independent agency would seem to be still an essential component but where the nature r essence of both the agency and the independence might be expected to be not quite the same as for the original creation up to now.
Is this worth thinking more about?


thomasjayoord

Thanks for this great question and commentary, Stuart!

You point to an intertangled set of issues that deserves a book rather than this short response! But let me point to what I think is an interesting dilemma. If we say Jesus resurrection was different in kind from Lazarus’s because Jesus had a different (spiritual?) body while Lazarus retained the same physical body, we place into question what we mean by a “bodily resurrection.” At least such a resurrection is of a spiritual body radically different from the body that went into the grave.

I’m fine with this radical difference of Jesus’ body. If true, it makes my view that God worked with Jesus in the resurrection much easier. I don’t have to worry about the cells and organisms in Jesus’ legs cooperated with God. The downside, of course, is that a spiritual body points to much discontinuity between Jesus before the tomb and then after. And many people want to retain as much continuity as possible.

I could say MUCH more, but I’ll stop here. Thanks again for your comments!

Tom


Stuart Donnan

Thanks for your response Tom. Just a few more thoughts.
There is a lot of discussion, including in biochemistry and information, about what being ‘alive’ implies or requires. Despite Martha’s concern there was no report of a stink when Lazarus’s tomb was opened and so either decay had not occurred or the decayed cells were replaced by undecayed ones. (For the widow’s son and Jairus’s daughter there was no or minimal delay.) In any case, it seems to me that the biochemical and cellular response (even the ‘information’ response) of Lazarus’s ordinary, mortal body to Jesus’s command was not in principle any different from how the cosmos is ‘normally’ sustained by the Creator – and that ‘normal’ situation surely involves the response or collaboration that Tom is looking for.
I think that for Jesus the situation was different. Notwithstanding the quoted prophecy about the Holy One not seeing corruption, I think that the whole story depends on Jesus’s body being absolutely dead. (Of course there’s a history about that idea.) He received or assumed, as I said before, a new resurrection body, which was attested by all as being different but also recognisably the same (at least after a time, and perhaps as much or more by what he did as by what his physical appearance was).
Again notwithstanding (or perhaps as part of) the ‘homoousios’ debates and equivalent, sameness and continuity have always been challenging concepts to clarify in relation to Jesus, and I think that must include his body which cannot, after what we call the ‘incarnation’, be other than part of his being.
‘Re-creation’ may not be the best word or concept (although I think it’s not a bad approximation). It doesn’t do away with the question – for all of us but especially for Jesus – of how our essential individual nature (taking a dual-aspect view as I do with Tom) might or does ‘cooperate’ with the Creator in resurrection as with all of life. But I think that the cooperation might after all be no more difficult to understand for Jesus than for Lazarus, even though the details are significantly different.
Tom’s response on October 14 to Bill Yarchin’s comments follow my line (or I follow his). Can I be so bold as to suggest that science and philosophy might be as important as theology in addressing this sort of question – for teasing out the questions and the concepts, not least of how we think about ‘life’ after ‘death’, and for helping understand what the Scripture (and the Church Fathers and subsequent theologians) are trying to communicate.


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