What does Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:31-34 tell us about whether Jesus lived, died and rose again?

Ascension of Christ, by Giacomo Cavedone (circa 1640)
Ascension of Christ, by Giacomo Cavedone (circa 1640)

Because we today generally come across the New Testament as a single book, it’s easy to forget its nature as a collection of twenty-seven extremely early documents of the Christian faith, each bearing witness to the earliest beliefs of Christianity. In this post we consider, from an historical point of view, what the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 8:31-34, tells us about whether Jesus of Nazareth lived, died and rose again.

I was struck recently whilst attending a Bible conference, by the value of this passage as an historical witness. When we do ‘history’ posts at etimasthe we normally consider early Christian texts from after the New Testament (e.g., here), but for once I would like to consider this passage from the New Testament itself.

“Of the fact that Jesus of Nazareth at least lived and died there oughtn’t to be any doubt in anybody’s mind. The evidence is overwhelming.”

Of the fact that Jesus of Nazareth at least lived and died there oughtn’t to be any doubt in anybody’s mind. The evidence is overwhelming. In spite of this, there continues to be a public narrative which claims that Jesus never existed. You may remember the Church of England survey conducted two and a half years ago which found that 40% of people in England believed that Jesus never existed. And in June last year the Independent Online published an article entitled, “Historians are questioning if Jesus ever existed at all” (with which we dealt here).

What contribution does Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:31-34 make, from an historical perspective, on whether Jesus lived, died — and rose again, and ascended to heaven?

Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 8:31-34

A few things ought to be said before we look at the passage in question.

Firstly, the Apostle Paul was not one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus. He did not see the risen Jesus during the initial post-resurrection appearances. But the New Testament says, in numerous places, that Jesus appeared specially to Paul some time later. Also — importantly — Paul met at least some of the original apostles who had seen Jesus during the initial post-resurrection appearances.[1] He is therefore a good historical witness to the earliest events of Christianity.

“We can place Paul’s Letter to the Romans with a good degree of certainty to around A.D. 57, give or take a year. From the point of view of the time elapsed from Jesus’ death and resurrection, that makes this letter a remarkably good historical witness to these events.”

Secondly, there is no real doubt about the genuineness of this letter. Even modern critical scholars almost universally regard the Letter to the Romans as an authentic production of the Apostle Paul.[2]

Thirdly, as to the date of the letter, we can place it with a good degree of certainty to around A.D. 57, give or take a year.[3] That means that the passage we are about to examine was written within thirty years of Jesus’ death and resurrection.[4] From the point of view of the time elapsed, that makes this letter a remarkably good historical witness to these events.

Having said all that, let’s look now at the passage. Although Paul didn’t write his Letter to the Romans in chapters and verses, I print it here verse by verse for ease of reference:—

[8:31] What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
[8:32] He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
[8:33] Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
[8:34] Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Letter to the Romans 8:31-34[5]

What does this passage tell us historically about whether Jesus lived, died and rose again?

Those who are familiar with Romans will know that what we are dealing with is a theological treatise. Unlike the Gospels, Paul isn’t trying here to persuade anybody that “this event and that event happened” — the Roman Christians already knew this — but to explain what these events mean for the life of the Christian believer.

Thus Paul’s letter makes a good complementary witness to the Gospels.

“Paul’s point is that God is absolutely committed to securing his people’s ultimate destiny. And he bases this argument on what God has already done. Paul could hardly make this point if Jesus was a mythical figure.”

Paul is arguing in this chapter that Christians can be assured of their ultimate destiny. For Christians to be assured of this, they need to know that nothing is going to ‘blow them off course.’

Paul’s point is that God is absolutely committed to securing his people’s ultimate destiny. And he bases this argument on what God has already done.

[8:31] What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
[8:32] He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Paul’s argument here is based on the fact that Jesus lived and died. On the cross. God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us.”

Paul could hardly make this point if Jesus was a mythical figure. We don’t know who originally started the church at Rome, but the Christians there would have had it on good authority that Jesus really had lived and died. Indeed it is probable that some Jewish believers were there at Rome who had actually seen these events for themselves.

So Paul’s argument gives us compelling evidence that Jesus really did live, and die on the cross.

But now notice what he says in verse 34:

[8:34] Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Not only did Christ die. He was also raised from the dead.

Again, this is not an argument that Paul could make if the Christians at Rome didn’t already have it on good authority that Jesus really had been raised from the dead.

And not only does Paul bear witness in verse 34 that Jesus rose: he also bears witness to the ascension of Jesus.

Did Jesus ascend to heaven?

Tomorrow is Ascension Sunday.

I suspect many Christians think that the ascension of Jesus is one of those events that is only related in a couple of places in the New Testament. Most famously it’s related in Acts of the Apostles chapter 1, and also more briefly at the end of Luke’s Gospel — but then, Luke and Acts were written by the same person.

And of course there is that well-known passage in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians where Paul relates the ascension of Jesus to the giving of spiritual gifts:—

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says [in one of the psalms],

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”

(In saying, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Ephesians 4:7-10[6]

So sure, there are these three passages. But is there anything else which tells us that Christ really did ascend to heaven?

“Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

Letter to the Romans, 8:34

It turns out yes! In fact, the ascension of Jesus runs through the New Testament like the writing through a stick of rock. We see it here in verse 34:—

[8:34] Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Where is Jesus now? asks Paul. He is in heaven — “at the right hand of God” — interceding on behalf of his people.

And how did he get there? — clearly by ascending from this earth.

There is no basis in the New Testament for thinking that Jesus went to God merely as some ‘disembodied spirit.’ The Gospels and many other passages are very clear that Jesus was raised in his body. Therefore if he is now at God’s right hand in heaven, he got there by ascending.[7]

Conclusion

So we have in this small fragment of Paul’s letter a wonderful early witness, from around A.D. 57, to the life, the crucifixion, the death, the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus.

If you’re someone who has always regarded the Gospels as invented stories, made up to peddle somebody’s belief system, then why not go back to the New Testament and look afresh? Why not go to some of Paul’s letters to the churches — letters such as Romans and 1 Corinthians — and examine again whether the claims of Christianity might even be true?

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Note that at the time described in Acts 9:22-28 he was named Saul. He later took the name Paul (see Acts 13:9).

[2] So, for example, Bart D. Ehrman: “Of the thirteen letters that are under Paul’s name in the New Testament, critical scholars are reasonably sure that Paul actually wrote seven of them — Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon…” In Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. © 2014. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., London: Chapter 6. ‘The Beginning of Christology: Christ as Exalted to Heaven.’

[3] D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A. Motyer & G.J. Wenham (eds.), New Bible Commentary. © Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham, England, 2009: p.1115

[4] Taking the death and resurrection of Jesus to have occurred in or around A.D. 30. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion_of_Jesus

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A31-34&version=ESVUK

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+4%3A7-10&version=ESVUK

[7] I appreciate that the idea of Jesus’ physically ascending to God is difficult to understand, particularly to us moderns who are so accustomed to the fact that the earth is spherical. The difficulty in conceiving how this could happen should not, however, be in itself a cause to doubt that it happened.

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