Bertrand Russell was an ‘enfant terrible’ of the earlier part of the last century. Before the Second World War he gained some notoriety for his views on sexual behaviour. He was one of the forerunners of the permissive society. “I developed the view,” he tells us, “that complete fidelity was not to be expected in most marriages.” But he not only threw overboard Christian personal and sexual ethics, he also jettisoned Christian beliefs about God and Jesus Christ. His book Why I am not a Christian shows us his position – a position that had no room for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For many in the Western world of the twentieth century he symbolised and summed up their own attitudes and ideas. He was able to give expression to these in a way few could imitate. Listen to how he soliloquises on the meaning of life and the universe. It is a brilliant description of despair.
“The mental night that has descended upon me is less brief and promises no awakening after sleep. Formerly the cruelty, the meanness, the dusty fretful passion of human life seemed to me a little thing, set, like some resolved discord in music, amid the splendour of the stars and the stately procession of geological ages. What if the universe was to end in universal death; it was none the less unruffled and magnificent. But now all this has shrunk to be no more than my own reflection in the windows of the soul, through which I look out upon the night of nothingness.
The revolutions of nebulae, the birth and death of stars, were no more than convenient fictions in the trivial work of linking together my own sensations, and perhaps those of other men not much better than myself. No dungeon was ever constructed so dark and narrow as that in which the shadow physics of our time imprisons us; for every prisoner has believed that outside his walls a free world existed; but now the prison has become the whole universe. There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness, anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”
I shall never forget one occasion when it seemed right to read that passage in public. I was on a university mission in Oxford when over the radio we heard of the death of Bertrand Russell. After a very long life the old philosopher and anti-nuclear campaigner was no more. It was a sad moment. David MacInnes, [then] from Birmingham was the main missioner on the mission team. So I suggested to him that he should read this passage from Russell’s Autobiography [recently published] during his address that night. The Union Debating chamber was packed. There was an ‘overflow’ meeting to a nearby hall. Hundreds of students were present, and most had by now heard of Russell’s death.
As the passage was read out there was total silence. Here was a man who had died without God and without hope and who, very publicly, had turned his back on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The contrast between the glorious hope of Jesus and the Resurrection being preached that night and the total despair of Bertrand Russell could almost be felt.
Hope and forgiveness
Contrast that with the situation of another man. He was from Alaska and in the world’s terms, unlike Russell, insignificant. He had a bad home. The only friendship he ever experienced was from a Christian school teacher. Many years after he left school, the teacher received a letter. The gist of it was this:
“Dear Teacher, You may not remember me; but I’ve now got an ugly story. I’m in death row awaiting execution for murder.”
The letter went on like this:
“I desire to die so that is OK; but one thing bothers me. I’m afraid of what comes after death. I know you believe in God and prayer, and that is why I ask your help now. In other words, I cannot face what lies beyond with guilt on my soul and no hope of forgiveness. If you still believe in God, write and give me the courage to face death.”
The teacher then entered into correspondence. She spoke of the death of Christ on the cross and how he had borne the penalty for human sin as she believed. Then she made a positive suggestion. He should take a big sheet of paper and write down all this crimes, fears, sins and hatreds and say, “God, there it all is – all of it. Forgive me Father” and then destroy the paper.
The result was another letter:
“Dear Teacher, I followed your instructions perfectly. I want you to know – because you love me regardless of everything. I stayed on my knees all night praying. I wasn’t conscious of time or anything, only of God’s forgiveness and love pouring over my guilty soul.
When the guard came with breakfast I lay on the floor as though dead. The man stared at me, turned white and fear showed in his eyes. ‘You OK?’ he choked out. I nodded and smiled. The guard looked at me again. ‘My God,’ he gasped, ‘there’s light on your face.’ He set the tray down and fled.
Through God’s grace I am clean, clean. I could shout it from the house tops … I’m not afraid anymore of death or the hereafter. I am condemned to die in the gas chamber. I am ready to go to meet my God.”
Compared with Bertrand Russell here was a man humanly insignificant. But he was a man with a sure and certain hope as he prepared for death. And it was the resurrection of Jesus that gave him assurance of forgiveness as well as hope.
Jesus implied that the resurrection and forgiveness go together. Before his disciples had much idea about the Resurrection or even of his death, Jesus began to make them think about the question of where he was soon to go. His remarks were enigmatic, but later they were seen to have been providing clues about the meaning as well as the destination of his journey.
Think back to that occasion when the disciples were in the upper room the evening before the Crucifixion. Jesus had washed their feet – a remarkable sign of humility and service. Judas had gone out into the night. And Jesus then said, “I am going to him who sent me” (John 16.5) and went on to speak about the Holy Spirit. He said that the Holy Spirit would come to them, when he left, and would “convince the world” on issues such as sin righteousness and judgment. But the conviction of the world over “righteousness” would be directly related to where Jesus was going: “the Counsellor will … convince the world … concerning righteousness because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more” (John 16.10). No doubt this was confusing to those disciples as it is today to anyone not familiar with the events that followed. But after the resurrection of Jesus the disciples came to see precisely what it meant.
Among other things it meant that the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb was God’s “Yes” to his death on the cross. To them it proved that on the cross Christ had borne the world’s sin and guilt – and that included theirs. Christ’s death was not a criminal’s punishment, even though some thought judicial crucifixion could only be that. The Resurrection proved the “rightness” of Christ. So his death had to be something very different. In time it was seen as God’s way of enabling them to be “right” with him and forgiven. Paul summarised that when he said: “Jesus our Lord … was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (lit. ‘to establish our justification’)” (Rom 4.25). And this is what that man in Alaska believed.
Most of the above I previously wrote in Where did Jesus go? – the truth and meaning of the Resurrection (published in 1983). The book was written to answer the question: “But was it all wishful thinking? Did Jesus go anywhere apart from into the ground?” For the (shorter) answer “No! it was not all wishful thinking” go to the JPC website at www.church.org.uk and the Coloured Supplement for April 2007 entitled The Resurrection – Spiritual or Physical?
The key evidence, of course, is in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are sufficiently different to show they are not just copying each other (their main differences relate to the appearances of Jesus, but this is what you would expect if Jesus did meet different disciples on different occasions). However, they are sufficiently similar in their accounts of the empty tomb. Also when Paul was writing 1 Corinthians 15 on the Resurrection in AD 56, we are told that many of the disciples who had seen Jesus after the Resurrection "are still alive" (1 Corinthians 15:6). It is unthinkable that any eyewitnesses would have allowed a Resurrection tradition to develop so uniformly if it was fiction.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1.3).