In his review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Luke Timothy Johnson readily concedes that neither the empty-tomb stories nor the accounts of Jesus’ appearing to the disciples after his crucifixion prove–or could prove–the Christian confession that Jesus is divine. Rather, Johnson says, this confession was rooted in the early Christians’ experience of being made “new creations” through the power of the Holy Spirit:
To close that gap [between the appearances and the confession of Jesus’ divinity] we must turn to a register of language in the New Testament’s earliest writings (the letters of Paul) that Ehrman’s historicist blinders do not allow him to consider. Paul speaks of the “new creation” as a reality that is experienced, not by a few visionaries, but by all the members of his churches. This new creation is at work through the presence of a personal, transcendent, and transforming power called the Holy Spirit.
The Resurrection experience, in Paul’s letters, is not something that happened to Jesus alone. It is happening now to those who have been given this power through the one Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:45 as having become “life-giving spirit”—a statement oddly absent from Ehrman’s discussion of that chapter in First Corinthians. Similarly, Ehrman fails to consider 1 Corinthians 12:3, where Paul states emphatically that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” The presence of the transforming power of the Spirit among believers is the basis for Paul’s remarkable language about the Holy Spirit “dwelling” in them (Rom 8:9) and their being “in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:2–3). In the same way, Paul speaks about Christ “dwelling” in his followers, and their being “in Christ ” (Rom 8:9–10).
In short, it was not the reports concerning an empty tomb or claims about post-mortem visions among a few of Jesus’ followers that caused the early Christians to recognize Jesus’ divinity. It was the shared experience of divine power—manifested in a variety of wonders and gifts and new capacities of existence—among those who had all “drunk the same spirit” and had become members of “Christ’s body” (1 Cor 12:12–27).
As Schleiermacher would say, the heart of Christian piety is the experience of redemption in Christ. This, not “proofs” derived from historical reconstructions, is the basis for Christian faith. As Johnson notes, both Christian apologists and their critics like Ehrman tend to argue on the positivist ground of historical criticism. “But the good news is not and never has been based in verifiable fact; from the beginning and still today, it is based in the experience of God’s power.”