Reading Time: 5 mins

Resurrection Life for Resurrection People Part 2: Wittgenstein’s Resurrection Principle

Reading Time: 5 mins

If Jesus did not rise, then religion is just religion — a mere anthropological phenomenon.

The resurrection of the Son of God carries compelling evangelistic and apologetic import. This is because Jesus’ resurrection possesses concreteness in terms of historicity and facticity, witness and testimony. What’s more, his bodily resurrection fits the total and prophetic story of Scripture (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22). This is why the brilliant twentieth-century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), argued that Jesus’ resurrection must be affirmed and confessed or else we are, once again according to the deniers, abandoned in the universe. Without the resurrection, he believed, life empties of divine meaning and presence, and we are orphaned in our existence — an existence of hopelessness and helplessness.

“What inclines me to believe in Christ’s resurrection?” Wittgenstein rhetorically asked himself in a private notebook that recorded his many interior struggles. “It is [this:],” he explained:

If [Christ Jesus] did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven.

This passage may seem, to some, overwrought. But I don’t think it can be denied that it in fact captures the seriousness and urgency of the question, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” If Jesus did not rise, then religion is just religion — a mere anthropological phenomenon; something people made up — the religious things people believe and do. If that’s the case, then all religion is equally relative and relatively worthless when it comes to ultimate questions, ultimate things, because Jesus, like Confucius, Buddha, Muhammad, Joseph Smith or whoever, is just another decomposed corpse. In Wittgenstein’s words, “he is a teacher like any other.” Just another face in the pantheon of prophets…helpless, dead prophets. Jesus did not break through to God and/or God did not break through to us. Nothing he said or did warrants an argument of vindication, and his words and actions carry no more authority than any other religious person. Jesus, like everybody else, can’t say: “See, I told you so,” precisely because he’s dead. He lost in the game of life, too. Jesus goes without vindication, because he has the same amount of authority to “say so” about life and death, right and wrong, good and evil, as any of the rest. And that authority amounts to little more than mere human opinion. Jesus brings nothing compelling; no persuasive force to listen to him much less worship him. His disciples follow him out of mere taste. In the Baskin-Robbins of religion, Jesus is just another flavor.

If God doesn't actually, show up in real human history and translate himself into the one category we know and understand best—the category of humanity itself—then we are orphaned and alone in the universe. 

But Wittgenstein goes a step further, a step deeper to grasp the existential reality of the situation: If Jesus decomposed, then “once more we are orphaned and alone” in the universe. Wittgenstein’s point is this: Not only is Jesus, likewise, a resolute failure with his kingdom message and thus entirely untrustworthy when it comes to ultimate questions, but it also turns out that there is no god, or at least not one that we know or justifiably speak of with any confidence. Warrant for belief in the God who objectively communicates and reveals himself fades to black. Because if the divine himself doesn't break through, if God doesn't actually, show up in real human history and translate himself into the one category we know and understand best—the category of humanity itself—then we are orphaned and alone in the universe. 

In fact, it’s worse than that, concludes Wittgenstein: We are helpless. We are, to put it bluntly, without help. Jesus cannot help. There is no god to help, and all we are left with is the best effort of humanity “roofed in,” i.e., stuck in the closed box of this world, left to dream. The result, muses Wittgenstein, is “a sort of hell.” Mindful of the two World Wars that spent the lives of tens of millions of people, nuclear devices detonated on civilian populations, and Europe in ashes, Wittgenstein knew what kind of hell humanity is capable of unleashing on itself. This is why he may be considered a post-modern philosopher. He experienced the catastrophic failure of the Modern enterprise called the Enlightenment, which promised that by human reason alone we would be ushered into utopia. Instead, modernity unleashed hell. And little has changed, in the intervening years. Medical science and technology, despite certain benefits, haven’t resulted in advancing humanity to a more noble and moral stage. Instead, societies are gripped and torn by their abuses. Godless humanity has left us with “a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream” that political parties or green movements or social justice warriors are the answer or bringing an answer. But “roofed in” we hear nothing but our own voices.

But more importantly and relevant to us today, Wittgenstein understands that if indeed Jesus was raised from the dead the one thing we can know and be confident of is help, divine help. Jesus’ resurrection means there is one who can help us. Help from Jesus himself, the most amazing and astonishing help conceivable — help when it comes to our personal and collective treason and help when it comes to the daunting onslaught of death, to say nothing of the help we need to deal with our individual helplessness. The risen Christ helps in the present. Jesus can help you. And it isn’t merely help with justification before God, but help in this world, in the here and now. We aren’t roofed in. Instead, the resurrection of Christ means the roof has been blown off — the heavens aren’t made of brass. God became man and this man brings not merely life over death, but abundant life in the here and now.

Wittgenstein recognizes that with Lord’s resurrection not only has Christ Jesus been vindicated in everything that he said and did, but also that he is uniquely and exclusively credentialed to tell us what happens through death. Only he has been through it and back again with verifiable continuity of his person. And if he is the Lord of life over death, if he holds the keys to death in his hands, he most certainly is vindicated of his claims to being the Way, the Truth, and the Life, to being the Resurrection and Eternal Life. 

Simply put, Christ Jesus can help. We can confidently trust him who promises us that he can and does help both in this life and when life comes to its end. In fact, for this life in which we experience existential crises of anxieties, stress, worry, concern, pain, and suffering, Jesus has promised one called “The Helper,” namely the Holy Spirit. John 14:16-17:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will beg in you.

In this very saying of Jesus, we learn, too, that the Father can and does help: It is the Father who gives us the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is our only true and trustworthy help in this life and through this life. Jesus says we can know this life in a different sense as people of the resurrection. For Wittgenstein, it was the resurrection of Jesus, tethered to all that he said and did as the divine Logos, that infused this life with meaningfulness and help. We are not alone and we most certainly have not been left alone.