The “gospel” according to Paul focused on the “crucifixion and resurrection” of Jesus.
Paul believed that the crucifixion of Jesus represented a sacrifice of Jesus’ life to pay the death penalty which humankind had allegedly incurred because of disobedience to God, beginning with the “first man” Adam. So Paul viewed the cross as the symbol of “salvation” from sin and its “penalty”.
Paul also believed that God “resurrected” Jesus from death to demonstrate God’s power to give life after death. In fact, Paul wrote that if Jesus was not resurrected from death, people have no hope for life beyond death (I Corinthians 15:17-18). The rock tomb in which Jesus had been placed was found to be empty a day and a half later, so the “empty tomb” became the symbol of the “resurrection” of Jesus from death.
How do I, as a Christian Deist, view the “crucifixion and resurrection” of Jesus?
In my view, Jesus knew that he was risking crucifixion by the Roman government, which ruled the Jews at that time, because Jesus preached the coming of the “Kingdom of God” on earth. When Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand (near),” the Jewish population believed that Jesus was announcing the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel as an independent nation. The Romans viewed Jesus as a minor Jewish revolutionary and crucified him, as they usually crucified Jewish revolutionaries.
The Jewish authorities were afraid that Jesus would antagonize the Romans and cause them to destroy the Jewish nation and temple (John 11:47-50). These Jewish authorities thought that they were protecting the Jewish nation by turning Jesus over to the Roman authorities. (As a matter of fact, the Jewish authorities’ fears were well-founded because 40 years later when the Jews revolted against the Romans, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple.)
Jesus was willing to die, if necessary, in carrying out his mission of preaching his “gospel” that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” But Jesus hoped that he would not die, as evidenced by his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…” (Matthew 26:39). “This cup” refers to dying. His crucifixion showed Jesus’ commitment to doing what he believed God “anointed” him to do, regardless of the risk to himself.
As a Christian, I see the cross of Jesus as a symbol of commitment to doing the will of God regardless of the risk to oneself. Jesus called for his disciples to take up their own crosses (risk death) and follow him (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-13).
In regard to Jesus’ “resurrection” from the tomb, it is apparent that when Jesus appeared among his disciples, Jesus was wounded but physically alive. His disciples were surprised that Jesus was alive, so Jesus showed them his wounds to verify that he was the same man who was crucified (John 20:20). That Jesus was physically alive is not unusual. After all, he was on the cross for only six hours and his only serious wound came when a Roman soldier pierced Jesus’s side with a spear to see if Jesus was dead. When Jesus did not respond, it was assumed that he was dead.
It would have been very unusual for a human being to die after only six hours on a cross. Usually it took days for a person to die by crucifixion, unless the person’s legs were broken so the person would strangle by hanging. The Romans broke the legs of the two men who were crucified with Jesus but the Romans did not break Jesus’ legs (John 19:31-33).
During some days of meeting in secret with his disciples, Jesus charged them to go out and “make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20) and “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations…” (Luke 24:47). Jesus did not instruct his disciples to preach about his “death and resurrection.” Jesus instructed his disciples to preach obedience to God’s commandments, as Jesus had preached. And Jesus instructed his disciples to preach “repentance and forgiveness,” the same message that Jesus had preached.
After some days with his disciples, Jesus disappeared from history. There are various and conflicting reports about when and where Jesus was last seen by his disciples. It is possible that Jesus finally died from the spear wound in his side. It was reported that “water and blood” came out when the spear pierced Jesus’ side (John 19:34), so he may have sustained a serious wound that was eventually fatal. Apparently Jesus did not die in the presence of his disciples, so his disappearance must remain an unsolved mystery.
The fact that Jesus survived his crucifixion convinced his disciples that Jesus was the “messiah” that the Jews were expecting and his disciples believed that Jesus would reappear soon to restore the Kingdom of Israel. This, of course, did not happen. It is apparent now that Jesus envisioned a different kind of “kingdom”–the “kingdom of God” that comes whenever we obey God’s laws of love for God and each other.
Jesus’ own belief in life after death has nothing to do with his alleged “resurrection.” Jesus spoke of heaven during his days on earth. When he thought he was dying on the cross, Jesus prayed to God, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) which shows Jesus’ confidence in God’s ability to take care of Jesus beyond this world. I think that we should trust God as Jesus did. Belief in Jesus’ “resurrection” is not a necessity. The existence of our own life now is all the evidence we need that God can give us life. If we live our present life as God intends, God will have a reason to give us life again. The question is not whether we can trust God to give life; the question is whether God can trust us to live life.