The Resurrection: An 18th Century Defense for 21st Century Christians

The two key elements at the heart of Christianity are the cross and the empty tomb. Rarely do many outside of the faith deny the veracity of the cross. It seems self-evident that the man Jesus would have died. But, the element more difficult to believe is that of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Paul found the men at Athens skeptical of the resurrection (Acts 17:32), so do we too today have people who struggle to accept this most important truth. In fact, without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christianity itself falls apart. Paul makes this explicitly clear in 1 Corinthians 15:12–19:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.[1]

Christianity stands or falls on the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In an age of skepticism regarding anything supernatural, Christians find it difficult to show people the truth of Christianity because of denials to the resurrection. This though is not a new phenomenon.

During the rise of the Enlightenment period in the 18th century, it became common to embrace only what could be verified using normal human faculties. Since no one could reproduce a resurrection, logically, it must be impossible. Therefore, when one removes the supernatural emphasis from Christianity, particularly through the denial of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of Christianity falls. Thankfully, there were people who fought against the tide of anti-supernaturalism during the Enlightenment period. One such man was John Gill.

John Gill was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, England on November 23, 1697. His parents were God-fearing individuals of the Calvinistic Baptist tradition. His early years were spent studying in the local grammar school where he excelled in languages.

The church at Kettering recognized his gifts as a preacher and in 1719 became pastor of the famous Horselydown congregation in London where he served for a staggering 52 years until his death in 1771.

Gill would become a prolific author and one of the most influential theologians of the Particular Baptist cause.

Gill’s Defense of the Resurrection

Gill, was a frequent preacher and teacher upon all things doctrinal and the doctrine of the resurrection was no exception. He preached sermons at the famous Lime Street Lectures in 1731 on the subject. In it he defended the reality of the resurrection from the dead. While we cannot spend a detailed amount of time analyzing his defense, we can make some general conclusions about how he defended the resurrection and how we can learn to do the same today from his example.[2]

First, Gill knew his opponents and their arguments. Gill, even uneducated beyond some initial grammar school, made it his goal as both a Christian and as a minister of God’s Word to be informed in the writings of the orthodox and the unorthodox alike. Gill, expertly versed in Jewish thought and literature, also was aware of ancient pagan authors and the arguments they made. He was aware of Christian thinking on the issue from the early church through the Reformation and post-Reformation Puritan period in which he found himself. He was aware of the arguments made by those who agreed with a resurrection and those who denied it.

Second, he progressed through his argumentation in a logical way. First, he considers that the doctrine of resurrection is a “credible” thing. It is not completely impossible to consider, even in a secular-thinking world. From there he goes to more explicit references in Scripture to argue for the resurrection of the dead. Finally, he considers how the resurrection is necessary because it is connected with all kinds of other doctrines in the Bible. He clinches it with the key: If Christ is raised, so too are we. This leads the reader along the argument, slowly building the case, so as when one reaches the end, he faces an insurmountable amount of material defending the resurrection from the dead.

Third, we can see that clearly the core of the defense of the resurrection for Gill comes straight from the Scriptures. When much Enlightenment thinking was turning to the other “book of the revelation of God” namely nature, to define the world, Gill still sees the lasting answers in God’s special revelation, Scripture. Predicated on all of this is the concept that our theology can only be derived from the Scriptures itself. It is God’s communication to man and thus gives us the answers we are looking for. Instead of rooting his argument in the conclusions of others, he looks to the Scriptures to defend this crucial doctrine.

What Can We Learn from Gill’s Defense?

It is not just the secular atheistic world that denies the core supernatural elements of our faith but also much of liberal Christianity too denies the miraculous and especially the resurrection from the dead. It is imperative that we understand and defend this crucial element of our faith. If the resurrection of Christ is denied then our faith is in vain. What then can we learn from Gill when defending the truth of the elements of our Christian faith?

First, the maxim of “know thy enemy” is completely true in this instance. If we want to honestly interact with those who disagree with our position, we need to know what they are saying. Too many Christians attempt to argue against the arguments of liberals and atheists alike and know nothing about what they actually believe about the subject. Study the issue especially as articulated by those who disagree with you.

Second, know the Word of God. There is no more important tool in your arsenal than the Word of God. Gill demonstrates his vast knowledge of the Word of God on the subject and can draw Scriptures from all over the Bible to rally to his argument. Knowledge of the Bible and how it systematically fits together helps to provide a strong argument for affirming the truth of the resurrection because it creates a systematic understanding of the teaching in the entire Bible.

Finally, know how to make your argument. The reality is that the unbelieving mind cannot grasp the spiritual things of God. You cannot convince them with logical arguments that the resurrection is reasonable or possible apart from the Word of God. The mind of the unbeliever is hostile to God. So, our goal is to present the truth claims of the Scriptures and pray that the Spirit of God would use this Word to draw our hearer to Christ. So, Gill’s approach to simply systematically walk through the Scriptures as the best and most reasonable defense of the resurrection is our most basic approach.

Conclusion

Our world may seem more sophisticated today than it was in Gill’s time. Yet, frankly, little has actually changed. The arguments are the same. Nothing new is under the sun. Unfortunately what has changed is how little we care about history. Many of these fights have been raging for hundreds of years. Think about how much we can learn from those who have gone before us. Gill’s comprehensive defense of the resurrection should help us in our own defense of this crucial doctrine. And there is no more important doctrine. In closing, Gill’s words as to the importance of the resurrection are fitting:

The whole gospel is connected with it; if there is no truth in this, there is none in that. As the doctrine of the resurrection receives confirmation from the doctrines of personal election, the gift of the persons of the elect to Christ, the covenant of grace, redemption by Christ, union with him, and the sanctification of the Spirit, so these can have no subsistence without supposing that.

[1]All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.

 [2] The sermons are available at http://www.pbministries.org/books/gill/Sermons&Tracts/sermon_87.htm

 

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