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Christianity: Can one be a Christian without believing in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus?

If one examines the significance of the Resurrection to the Christian identity solely as it is presented in the Bible, then the answer would be very simplistic: the Scripture clearly states, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). In other words, without believing in the resurrection, one’s self-professed Christian faith would be “useless.” To what extent, then, is belief in the Resurrection truly indispensable to the Christian identity? This essay contends that belief in the divine resurrection of Jesus, although important to Christianity, is dispensable to one’s self-identification as a Christian by asserting the relative importance of adhering to other key tenets of the Christian identity. This is complemented by establishing the possibility of doing so without believing in certain mystical aspects of the religion in the modern context. 

To commence a discussion of the theological importance of the Resurrection, the term “miraculous resurrection” must first be seriously considered. “Miraculous” carries a divine and supernatural connotation1; therefore, this essay will adhere to the biblical definition of the resurrection of Jesus to understand it in its original, divine, and scriptural terms. For the purpose of this essay, the miraculous resurrection of Jesus will be defined by the following events: 

(1) Jesus’s tomb is discovered to be empty on the third day (2) Jesus is resurrected bodily
(3) Jesus appears before His disciples
(4) Jesus ascends back into heaven2 

Before the optionality of belief in the Resurrection to the Christian identity is explained, it should be acknowledged that many Christians choose to simply subscribe to the necessity of belief in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus to the Christian identity without questioning. This concept of simple faith is apparent in the Doubting Thomas parable, which depicts a conversation between the apostle Thomas and Jesus after His resurrection in John 20:29:

Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. 

Likewise, it is undeniable that some believers, upon a strict theological examination of canonical Christian scriptures, invest their faith in divine resurrection and view it as indispensable to one’s self-identification as a Christian. This is because there are many layers of significance of the Resurrection to the Christian faith. For example, one could cite Mark 8:31 to assert that resurrection serves as a validation of Jesus’s credibility to impart to us His wisdom: 

He [Jesus] then began to teach them [the disciples]…that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 

Similarly, the importance of His Resurrection to these believers could also rest in the belief that Jesus died for the sins of humanity, as shown in 1 John 2:2: 

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 

However, whilst the theological importance of the Resurrection is crucial to some Christians, a more secular vision of what it means to be Christian may also exist concurrently. This is especially given the emergence of increasingly secular societies. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s attitudes towards this subject. Although he professed to maintain a faith, Jefferson was more deistic than evangelical, surmising that God existed but was not interventionist nor maintains a presence for humanity. This contrasts with what some believe to be ‘bona fide’ Christianity, due to his disbelief in the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection, and the Trinity. Yet, in The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, often known as the Jefferson Bible, Jefferson declares that “It [this work] is a document in proof that I am a real Christian,” and embraces all the philosophical teachings of Jesus, deeming them as “more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers.” Jefferson thus believed that these biblical teachings could be applied usefully to daily life and even supported the Virginia Bible Society to ensure each family could receive a copy of the Bible. This humanitarian deed conforms to the Christian principle of charity, as attested by Hebrews 13:16: 

And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. 

His deism aside, Jefferson can be considered Christian in his own right, considering his immense admiration for Jesus’s teachings and charitable acts in accordance with the Scripture. This example is testament to the plausibility of a more secular Christian identity. Some might claim, however, that a lack of belief in the Resurrection might contradict Jesus’s inerrant nature, especially as Jesus predicted that He would rise as noted in Mark 8:31. This contention, however, rests on the assumption that the teachings of Jesus are infallible given their inerrancy. Yet, as Jefferson demonstrated, reverence for His teachings does not need to come from the position that all of His teachings are eternally correct; they do not have to be so to impart wisdom to humankind. From this perspective, it is the life of Jesus as an example to follow which makes one a Christian above all qualifiers. 

In the contemporary era, it is undeniable that secular influences within institutions and society have influenced many Christians to adapt and adjust their faith. For example, in a poll concerning American self-identified Christians, 26% of Protestants and 28% of Catholics outright professed disbelief in the existence of God as described in the Bible, subscribing to a vague “form of higher power” instead.6 In the Netherlands, a pastor declared himself an atheist and claimed it was appropriate because “too many” Dutch Protestants also held the same view. As such, local church authorities decided against removing him from his position.7 Whilst some who might be described as conservative in their faith may feel offended by these acts, those with a more secular attitude may find themselves more able to find a compatibility between their Christian beliefs and a more secular society. In this light, they can fulfill the humanitarian message of Jesus without necessarily fully committing to the mystical elements. 

In finding a “middle way” between atheism and evangelicalism, ‘liberal’ Christianity emphasizes personal interpretation and welcomes modern scientific principles such as evolution. At the same time, it continues to revere Jesus’s teachings, specifically those applicable to what some may believe are the defects of modern society, and even recognizes the authority of the Bible. As such, a more secular variant of Christianity coexists with faith in God, the teachings of Jesus, and the Bible, sifting Christian beliefs through a test of their veracity and significance in modern contexts. To quote A.C. McGiffert of the Chicago Theological Seminary, “The future of Christianity, in this country [the United States] at least, depends in a degree…upon the persistence of a corrective and creative, open-minded, and courageous liberalism.” Whilst this was declared by McGiffert as far back as 1935, it is an argument which is still relevant. Evidently, these secular adaptations of the Christian faith not only coexist with adhering to the word of Jesus, but may also even help Christianity maintain and expand its influence in contemporary modern societies. 

Various sects on the spectrum of Christianity with anomalous beliefs may also offer a wide range of interpretations and understandings of the Resurrection. While some believe in a differing form or meaning of Resurrection, others did not subscribe to any manifestation of this belief at all. For instance, adherents of the different sects of Gnostic Christianity in the first century A.D. denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus as detailed in the Bible. This was on the grounds that Jesus was resurrected spiritually instead, for flesh is corrupt in nature. The Sethians, a major sect of Gnostic Christianity, denied the Crucifixion altogether. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, allegedly written from Jesus’s perspective, details His escape from the Crucifixion: 

They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder… And I was laughing at their ignorance.

Although its theology and aforementioned view on the Resurrection diverge significantly from that of most other denominations, the beliefs of the Gnostic Christians very much reflect many teachings of Jesus as presented in the Bible. In fact, certain tenets proposed by the Sethians even influenced early Christianity. This example, therefore, reveals a possible coexistence of an adherence to the teachings of Jesus and the lack of belief in bodily Resurrection. It would thus be inapt to dismiss this faction as non-Christian considering the historical, rather than theological, factors that resulted in the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church and its interpretation dominating in the centuries that followed.

A modern example is paralleled in the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, an eccentric yet fast-growing sect of Christianity. Akin to the Gnostic Christians of the first century A.D., Witnesses believe that Jesus was only resurrected spiritually, not bodily, in contrast to the teachings of more mainstream Christian sects. Although some of their other more conspicuous beliefs, such as the refusal to salute any national flags, grant them their reputation, this should not distract from the Witnesses’ core tenets. To put aside their nontrinitarian beliefs and conception of Jesus as a purely spiritual being, their values are shared by most other Christians, namely living a moral life and being good to one’s neighbors. In fact, after the First Great Commandment, which states that one should “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…,” the second commandment compels Christians to “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31). To argue for the exclusion of these passionate believers from the Christian identity may oppose the inclusiveness and tolerance expected of all Christians, regardless of their disbelief in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Ultimately, Christians should adhere to the teachings of Jesus as a way of life, and the belief in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus is not a strict requirement to practice this. 

Nevertheless, some may refuse to deem these approaches to the Christian faith as bona fide, pointing to certain “essential” beliefs of Christianity to which these groups fail to subscribe. However, to paraphrase ecclesiastical academic Diarmand MacCulloch, the very identity of Christianity entails the sheer variety of the religion. Therefore, one could only turn to the Bible and the word of Jesus for a general understanding of the meaning behind the Christian identity, the common source of authority for all Christians, which writes in Matthew 7:21 that: 

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 

Evidently, it is following the life of Jesus that is the definition of being Christian. As demonstrated by previous examples, fulfilling the two greatest commandments – loving God and loving one’s neighbor – do not directly require manifestation of a belief in the Resurrection. 

Now that great elasticity for who can be considered a Christian has been established, the argument that Christians must profess a belief in the Resurrection is arguably too restrictive. Although many still hold this belief sacrosanct, others, as previously described, may not need to subscribe to the Resurrection of Jesus in order to profess their belief in the Christian faith. Whilst the theological significance behind belief in the Resurrection of Jesus is deeply held by many who see it as a central aspect of their faith, it may not be a necessary belief if one seeks to commit to the teachings of Jesus and aspire to a life of Christ. Alas, the biblical account of the Resurrection is often associated with Christianity as a core tenant. Yet to enforce this belief would entail the loss of Christian identity for more than 69% of faithful self-identified Christians in the United Kingdom, for instance, and many more across the globe. A Christian should indeed believe in the teachings of Jesus, but in an era in where the biblical account of the Resurrection is increasingly hard to believe, a belief in the Resurrection itself should not be considered a necessity for Christians. 

Work References

Bryan, Christopher. The Resurrection of the Messiah. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

Burton, Tara Isabella. “This Poll Asked Americans If They Believe in God. The Answers Were Fascinating.” Vox, April 26, 2018. -faith-identity. Accessed June 15, 2022. 

BBC News. “Dutch Pastor on ‘Believing in a God That Does Not Exist,’” August 5, 2011. Accessed June 18, 2022. 

BBC News. “Resurrection Did Not Happen, Say Quarter of Christians,” April 9, 2017, sec. England. Accessed June 15, 2022. 

Dunn, James D. G. The Evidence for Jesus. Google Books. United Kingdom: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985. 

The Gnostic Society Library. “The Second Treatise of the Great Seth – Bullard & Gibbons – the Nag Hammadi Library.” Accessed June 19, 2022. 

Jefferson, Thomas. The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels. Google Books. N. D. Thompson publishing Company, 1902. 

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. “Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs,” 2008. beliefs. Accessed June 10, 2022. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Jesus’ Body—Was It Flesh or Spirit after His Resurrection?” Accessed June 10, 2022. Accessed June 21, 2022. 

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. United Kingdom: Penguin Publishing Group, 2010. 

McGiffert, A. C. “The Future of Liberal Christianity in America.” The Journal of Religion 15, no. 2 (1935): 175. Dictionary. “Miraculous.” Accessed June 10, 2022. 

Pagels, Elaine H. “‘The Mystery of the Resurrection’: A Gnostic Reading of 1 Corinthians 15.” Journal of Biblical Literature 93, no. 2 (June 1974): 276–86. 

Schmoll, Jeffrey. “Sethians or ‘Gnostics’?” Wake Forest University. 2022. 

Todd, Douglas. “Liberal Christianity: Ten Things to Know about This ‘Middle Way.’” Vancouver Sun, June 7, 2014. h-knowing-about-this-third-way. Accessed June 20, 2022. 

Wah, Carolyn R. “An Introduction to Research and Analysis of Jehovah’s Witnesses: A View from the Watchtower.” Review of Religious Research 43, no. 2 (December 2001): 161. 

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