Apr
24

A Classic Sermon — John Tillotson (1630-1694) THE REASONABLENESS OF A RESURRECTION

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A classic sermon by John Tillotson (1630-1694)

THE REASONABLENESS OF A RESURRECTION

Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead?–Acts xxvi., 8.

The resurrection of the dead is one of the great articles of the Christian faith; and yet so it hath happened that this great article of our religion hath been made one of the chief objections against it. There is nothing that Christianity hath been more upbraided for withal, both by the heathens of old and by the infidels of later times, than the impossibility of this article; so that it is a matter of great consideration and consequence to vindicate our religion in this particular. But if the thing be evidently impossible, then it is highly unreasonable to propose it to the belief of mankind.

I know that some, more devout than wise, and who, it is to be hoped, mean better than they understand, make nothing of impossibilities in matters of faith, and would fain persuade us that the more impossible anything is, for that very reason it is the fitter to be believed; and that it is an argument of a poor and low faith to believe only things that are possible; but a generous and heroical faith will swallow contradictions with as much ease as reason assents to the plainest and most evident propositions. Tertullian, in the heat of his zeal and eloquence, upon this point of the death and resurrection of Christ, lets fall a very odd passage, and which must have many grains of allowance to make it tolerable: ’prosus credible est (saith he), quia ineptum est; certum est, quia impossible–it is therefore very credible, because it is foolish, and certain, because it is impossible"; “and this (says he) is necessarium dedecus fidei,” that is, “it is necessary the Christian faith should be thus disgraced by the belief of impossibilities and contradictions.” I suppose he means that this article of the resurrection was not in itself the less credible because the heathen philosophers caviled at it as a thing impossible and contradictious, and endeavored to disgrace the Christian religion upon that account. For if he meant otherwise, that the thing was therefore credible because it was really and in itself foolish and impossible; this had been to recommend the Christian religion from the absurdity of the things to be believed; which would be a strange recommendation of any religion to the sober and reasonable part of mankind.

I know not what some men may find in themselves; but I must freely acknowledge that I could never yet attain to that bold and hardy degree of faith as to believe anything for this reason, because it was impossible: for this would be to believe a thing to be because I am sure it can not be. So that I am very far from being of his mind, that wanted not only more difficulties, but even impossibilities in the Christian religion, to exercise his faith upon.

Leaving to the Church of Rome that foolhardiness of faith, to believe things to be true which at the same time their reason plainly tells them are impossible, I shall at this time endeavor to assert and vindicate this article of the resurrection from the pretended impossibility of it. And I hope, by God’s assistance, to make the possibility of the thing so plain as to leave no considerable scruple about it in any free and unprejudiced mind. And this I shall do from these words of St. Paul, which are part of the defense which he made for himself before Festus and Agrippa, the substance whereof is this, that he had lived a blameless and inoffensive life among the Jews, in whose religion he had been bred up; that he was of the strictest sect of that religion, a Pharisee, which, in opposition to the Sadducees, maintained the resurrection of the dead and a future state of rewards and punishments in another life; and that for the hope of this he was called in question, and accused by the Jews. “And now I stand here, and am judged, for the hope of the promise made unto the fathers; unto which promise our twelve scribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come; for which hope’s sake, King Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews.” That is, he was accused for preaching that Jesus was risen from the dead, which is a particular instance of the general doctrine of the resurrection which was entertained by the greatest part of the Jews, and which to the natural reason of mankind (however the heathen in opposition to the Christian religion were prejudiced against it), hath nothing in it that is incredible. And for this he appeals to his judges, Festus and Agrippa: “why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead?”

Which words being a question without an answer, imply in them these two propositions:

First, That it was thought by some a thing incredible that the dead should be raised. This is supposed in the question, as the foundation of it: for he who asks why a thing is so, supposeth it to be so.

Secondly, That this apprehension, that it is a thing incredible that God should raise the dead, is very unreasonable. For the question being left unanswered, implies its own answer, and is to be resolved into this affirmative, that there is no reason why they or any man else should think it a thing incredible that God should raise the dead.

I shall speak to these two propositions as briefly as I can; and then show what influence this doctrine of the resurrection ought to have upon our lives.

First, that it was thought by some a thing incredible that God should raise the dead. This St. Paul has reason to suppose, having from his own experience found men so averse from the entertaining of this doctrine. When he preached to the philosophers at Athens, and declared to them the resurrection of one Jesus from the dead, they were amazed at this new doctrine, and knew not what he meant by it. They said, “he seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods, because he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection.” He had discoursed to them of the resurrection of one Jesus from the dead; but this business of the resurrection of one Jesus from the dead was a thing so remote from their apprehensions that they had no manner of conception of it; but understood him quite in another sense, as if he had declared to them two new deities, Jesus and Anastasis; as if he had brought a new god and a new goddess among them, Jesus and the Resurrection. And when he discoursed to them again more fully of this matter, it is said that, "when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, they mocked.” And at the twenty-fourth verse of this twenty-sixth chapter, when he spake of the resurrection, Festus told him he would hear him no further, and that he looked upon him as a man beside himself, whom much learning had made mad. Festus looked upon this business of the resurrection as the wild speculation of a crazy head. And indeed the heathens generally, even those who believed the immortality of the soul, and another state after this life, looked upon the resurrection of the body as a thing impossible. Pliny, I remember, reckons it among those things which are impossible, and which God himself can not do; "_revocare defunctos, to call back the dead to life"; and in the primitive times the heathen philosophers very much derided the Christians, upon account of this strange doctrine of the resurrection, looking always upon this article of their faith as a ridiculous and impossible assertion.

So easy it is for prejudice to blind the minds of men, and to represent everything to them which hath a great appearance of difficulty in it as impossible. But I shall endeavor to show that if the matter be thoroughly examined, there is no ground for any such apprehension.

I proceed therefore to the second proposition, namely, that this apprehension, that it is an incredible thing that God should raise the dead, is very unreasonable: “why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” That is, there is no sufficient reason why any man should look upon the resurrection of the dead as a thing impossible to the power of God; the only reason why they thought it incredible being because they judged it impossible; so that nothing can be vainer than for men to pretend to believe the resurrection; and yet at the same time to grant it to be a thing in reason impossible, because no man can believe that which he thinks to be incredible; and the impossibility of a thing is the best reason any man can have to think a thing incredible. So that the meaning of St. Paul’s question is, “why should it be thought a thing impossible that God should raise the dead?”

To come then to the business: I shall endeavor to show that there is no sufficient reason why men should look upon the resurrection of the dead as a thing impossible to God. “Why should it be thought a thing incredible (that is, impossible) with you, that God should raise the dead?” which question implies in it these three things:

1. That it is above the power of nature to raise the dead.

2. But it is not above the power of God to raise the dead.

3. That God should be able to do this is by no means incredible to natural reason.

First. This question implies that it is above the power of nature to raise the dead; and therefore the apostle puts the question very cautiously, “why should it be thought incredible that God should raise the dead?” by which he seems to grant that it is impossible to any natural power to raise the dead; which is granted on all hands.

Secondly. But this question does plainly imply that it is not above the power of God to do this. Tho the raising of the dead to life be a thing above the power of nature, yet why should it be thought incredible that God, who is the author of nature, should be able to do this? and indeed the apostle’s putting the question in this manner takes away the main ground of the objection against the resurrection from the impossibility of the thing. For the main reason why it was looked upon as impossible was, because it was contrary to the course of nature that there should be any return from a perfect privation to a habit, and that a body perfectly dead should be restored to life again: but for all this no man that believes in a God who made the world, and this natural frame of things, but must think it very reasonable to believe that He can do things far above the power of anything that He hath made.

Thirdly. This question implies that it is not a thing incredible to natural reason that God should be able to raise the dead. I do not say that by natural light we can discover that God will raise the dead; for that, depending merely upon the will of God, can no otherwise be certainly known than by divine revelation: but that God can do this is not at all incredible to natural reason. And this is sufficiently implied in the question which St. Paul asks, in which he appeals to Festus and Agrippa, neither of them Christians, “why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead?" And why should he appeal to them concerning the credibility of this matter if it be a thing incredible to natural reason?

That it is not, I shall first endeavor to prove, and then to answer the chief objections against the possibility of it.

And I prove it thus: it is not incredible to natural reason that God made the world, and all the creatures in it; that mankind is His offspring; and that He gives us life and breath, and all things. This was acknowledged and firmly believed by many of the heathens. And indeed, whoever believes that the being of God may be known by natural light, must grant that it may be known by the natural light of reason that God made the world; because one of the chief arguments of the being of God is taken from those visible effects of wisdom, and power, and goodness, which we see in the frame of the world. Now He that can do the greater can undoubtedly do the less; He that made all things of nothing, can much more raise a body out of dust; He who at first gave life to so many inanimate beings, can easily restore that which is dead to life again. It is an excellent saying of one of the Jewish rabbis: He who made that which was not, to be, can certainly make that which was once, to be again. This hath the force of a demonstration; for no man that believes that God hath done the one, can make any doubt but that He can, if He please, do the other.

This seems to be so very clear, that they must be strong objections indeed, that can render it incredible.

There are but two that I know of, that are of any consideration, and I shall not be afraid to represent them to you with their utmost advantage; and they are these:

First, against the resurrection in general: it is pretended impossible, after the bodies of men are resolved into dust, to re-collect all the dispersed parts and bring them together, to be united into one body.

The second is leveled against a resurrection in some particular instances, and pretends it to be impossible in some cases only–viz., when that which was the matter of one man’s body does afterward become the matter of another man’s body; in which case, say they, it is impossible that both these should, at the resurrection, each have his own body.

The difficulty of both these objections is perfectly avoided by those who hold that it is not necessary that our bodies at the resurrection should consist of the very same parts of matter that they did before. There being no such great difference between one parcel of dust and another; neither in respect of the power of God, which can easily command this parcel of dust as that to become a living body and being united to a living soul to rise up and walk; so that the miracle of the resurrection will be all one in the main, whether our bodies be made of the very same matter they were before, or not; nor will there be any difference as to us; for whatever matter our bodies be made of, when they are once reunited to our souls, they will be then as much our own as if they had been made of the very same matter of which they consisted before. Besides that, the change which the resurrection will make in our bodies will be so great that we could not know them to be the same, tho they were so.

Now upon this supposition, which seems philosophical enough, the force of both these objections is wholly declined. But there is no need to fly to this refuge; and therefore I will take this article of the resurrection in the strictest sense for the raising of a body to life, consisting of the same individual matter that it did before; and in this sense, I think, it has generally been received by Christians, not without ground, from Scripture. I will only mention one text, which seems very strongly to imply it: “and the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and the grave delivered up the dead which, were in them; and they were judged every man according to his works.” Now why should the sea and the grave be said to deliver up their dead, if there were not a resurrection of the same body; for any dust formed into a living body and united to the soul, would serve the turn? We will therefore take it for granted that the very same body will be raised, and I doubt not, even in this sense, to vindicate the possibility of the resurrection from both these objections.

First, against the resurrection in general of the same body; it is pretended impossible, after the bodies of men are moldered into dust, and by infinite accidents have been scattered up and down the world, and have undergone a thousand changes, to re-collect and rally together the very same parts of which they consisted before. This the heathens used to object to the primitive Christians; for which reason they also used to burn the bodies of the martyrs, and to scatter their ashes in the air, to be blown about by the wind, in derision of their hopes of a resurrection.

I know not how strong malice might make this objection to appear; but surely in reason it is very weak; for it wholly depends upon a gross mistake of the nature of God and his providence, as if it did not extend to the smallest things; as if God did not know all things that He hath made, and had them not always in His view, and perfectly under His command; and as if it were a trouble and burden to infinite knowledge and power to understand and order the least things; whereas infinite knowledge and power can know and manage all things with as much ease as we can understand and order any one thing; so that this objection is grounded upon a low and false apprehension of the Divine nature, and is only fit for Epicurus and his herd, who fancied to themselves a sort of slothful and unthinking deities, whose happiness consisted in their laziness, and a privilege to do nothing.

I proceed therefore to the second objection, which is more close and pressing; and this is leveled against the resurrection in some particular instances. I will mention but two, by which all the rest may be measured and answered.

One is, of those who are drowned in the sea, and their bodies eaten up by fishes, and turned into their nourishment: and those fishes perhaps eaten afterward by men, and converted into the substance of their bodies.

The other is of the cannibals; some of whom, as credible relations tell us, have lived wholly or chiefly on the flesh of men; and consequently the whole, or the greater part of the substance of their bodies is made of the bodies of other men. In these and the like cases, wherein one man’s body is supposed to be turned into the substance of another man’s body, how should both these at the resurrection each recover his own body? So that this objection is like that of the Sadducees to our Savior, concerning a woman that had seven husbands: they ask, “whose wife of the seven shall she be at the resurrection?” So here, when several have had the same body, whose shall it be at the resurrection? and how shall they be supplied that have it not?

This is the objection; and in order to the answering of it, I shall premise these two things:

1. That the body of man is not a constant and permanent thing, always continuing in the same state, and consisting of the same matter; but a successive thing, which is continually spending and continually renewing itself, every day losing something of the matter which it had before, and gaining new; so that most men have new bodies oftener than they have new clothes; only with this difference, that we change our clothes commonly at once, but our bodies by degrees.

And this is undeniably certain from experience. For so much as our bodies grow, so much new matter is added to them, over and beside the repairing of what is continually spent; and after a man come to his full growth, so much of his food as every day turns into nourishment, so much of his yesterday’s body is usually wasted, and carried off by insensible perspiration–that is, breathed out at the pores of his body; which, according to the static experiment of Sanctorius, a learned physician, who, for several years together, weighed himself exactly every day, is (as I remember) according to the proportion of five to eight of all that a man eats and drinks. Now, according to this proportion, every man must change his body several times in a year.

It is true indeed the more solid parts of the body, as the bones, do not change so often as the fluid and fleshy; but that they also do change is certain, because they grow, and whatever grows is nourished and spends, because otherwise it would not need to be repaired.

2. The body which a man hath at any time of his life is as much his own body as that which he hath at his death; so that if the very matter of his body which a man had at any time of his life be raised, it is as much his own and the same body as that which he had at his death, and commonly much more perfect; because they who die of lingering sickness or old age are usually mere skeletons when they die; so that there is no reason to suppose that the very matter of which our bodies consists at the time of our death shall be that which shall be raised, that being commonly the worst and most imperfect body of all the rest.

These two things being premised, the answer to this objection can not be difficult. For as to the more solid and firm parts of the body, as the skull and bones, it is not, I think, pretended that the cannibals eat them; and if they did, so much of the matter even of these solid parts wastes away in a few years, as being collected together would supply them many times over. And as for the fleshy and fluid parts, these are so very often changed and renewed that we can allow the cannibals to eat them all up, and to turn them all into nourishment, and yet no man need contend for want of a body of his own at the resurrection–viz., any of those bodies which he had ten or twenty years before; which are every whit as good and as much his own as that which was eaten.

Having thus shown that the resurrection is not a thing incredible to natural reason, I should now proceed to show the certainty of it from divine revelation. For as reason tells us it is not impossible, so the word of God hath assured us that it is certain. The texts of Scripture are so many and clear to this purpose, and so well known to all Christians, that I will produce none. I shall only tell you that as it is expressly revealed in the gospel, so our blest Savior, for the confirmation of our faith and the comfort and encouragement of our hope, hath given us the experiment of it in his own resurrection, which is “the earnest and first-fruits of ours.” So St. Paul tells us that “Christ is risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept” And that Christ did really rise from the dead, we have as good evidence as for any ancient matter of fact which we do most firmly believe; and more and greater evidence than this the thing is not capable of; and because it is not, no reasonable man ought to require it.

Now what remains but to conclude this discourse with those practical inferences which our apostle makes from this doctrine of the resurrection; and I shall mention these two:

The first for our support and comfort under the infirmities and miseries of this mortal life.

The second for the encouragement of obedience and a good life.

1. For our comfort and support under the infirmities and miseries of this mortal state. The consideration of the glorious change of our bodies at the resurrection of the just can not but be a great comfort to us, under all bodily pain and sufferings.

One of the greatest burdens of human nature is the frailty and infirmity of our bodies, the necessities they are frequently prest withal, the manifold diseases they are liable to, and the dangers and terrors of death, to which they are continually subject and enslaved. But the time is coming, if we be careful to prepare ourselves for it, when we shall be clothed with other kind of bodies, free from all the miseries and inconveniences which flesh and blood is subject to. For “these vile bodies shall be changed, and fashioned like to the glorious body of the Son of God.” When our bodies shall be raised to a new life, they shall become incorruptible; “for this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality; and then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory.” When this last enemy is conquered, there shall be no “fleshly lusts” nor brutish passions “to fight against the soul; no law in our members to war against the laws of our minds"; no disease to torment us; no danger of death to amaze and terrify us. Then all the passions and appetites of our outward man shall be subject to the reason of our minds, and our bodies shall partake of the immortality of our souls. It is but a very little while that our spirits shall be crusht and clogged with these heavy and sluggish bodies; at the resurrection they shall be refined from all dregs of corruption, and become spiritual, and incorruptible, and glorious, and every way suited to the activity and perfection of a glorified soul and the “spirits of just men made perfect.”

2. For the encouragement of obedience and a good life. Let the belief of this great article of our faith have the same influence upon us which St. Paul tells it had upon him. “I have hope toward God that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust; and herein do I exercise myself always to have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward man.” The firm belief of a resurrection to another life should make every one of us very careful how we demean ourselves in this life, and afraid to do anything or to neglect anything that may defeat our hopes of a blest immortality, and expose us to the extreme and endless misery of body and soul in another life.

Particularly, it should be an argument to us, “to glorify God in our bodies and in our spirits"; and to use the members of the one and the faculties of the other as “instruments of righteousness unto holiness.” We should reverence ourselves, and take heed not only how we defile our souls by sinful passions, but how we dishonor our bodies by sensual and brutish lusts; since God hath designed so great an honor and happiness for both at the resurrection.

So often as we think of a blest resurrection to eternal life, and the happy consequences of it, the thought of so glorious a reward should make us diligent and unwearied in the service of so good a Master and so great a Prince, who can and will prefer us to infinitely greater honors than any that are to be had in this world. This inference the apostle makes from the doctrine of the resurrection. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; for as much as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

Nay, we may begin this blest state while we are upon earth, by "setting our hearts and affections upon the things that are above, and having our conversation in heaven, from whence also we look for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile bodies, that they may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”

“Now the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make us perfect in every good work to do his will, working in us always that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”

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