It’s about to be Easter when Christians across the globe will celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. Churches will be filled with the cacophonous call
Alleluia, Christ is risen:
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
But a recent BBC poll suggests that large numbers of those who describe themselves as Christians do not actually believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This does sort of beg the question, what in fact do they believe? (It’s well worth reading this piece by Peter Ould and Ian Paul, both wiser than this Monkey, on the data itself, incidentally.)
What does resurrection actually mean? I would contend it can only mean – and indeed, at the time that the New Testament was being written, could then only mean – one thing. That is the actual, real, physical, bodily (I’m deliberately overloading on adjectives, lest my point be missed) raising to life of the previously dead, crucified and put-in-a-tomb-for-three-days Jesus of Nazareth.
There is no scope for understanding the available data in any other way, no option provided by the writers of the New Testament for something along the lines of the his disciples had a profound spiritual experience after his death and described it in terms of having encountered him in a new way which they called resurrection.
Why is there only one possible way of understanding the term resurrection? Because it only had one meaning at the time that the documents were written. If you talked about resurrection, you meant just that. You were also likely to be considered to be out of your mind, incidentally, because, despite modern and post-modern assumptions about the backwards ways of ancient peoples, around the Second Temple period, people were well aware that dead people stayed dead. What happened after that was up for debate and largely depended upon which God or gods you worshipped but in this world, dead people stayed dead.
Now, as I mentioned in a recent post, the prevailing view of Jews at this time was that at some point in the future, their God would act decisively, bring this present world to and end and initiate a new earth and new heavens and the dead faithful would then be raised. This same hope was expressed in the inter-testamental books of the Maccabees, as indeed it was in, for example, Daniel 12. This resurrection for which the Jews hoped and longed (this is not the place to consider those Jews who did not believe in a resurrection except to note that the resurrection in which they did not believe was the same one believed in by those who did) was not some idea of being taken up into heaven or of living as disembodied spirits. It was physical and bodily. Resurrection can only mean “the reversal of death, its cancellation, the destruction of its power” (N.T. Wright) or in the words of the hymn, “death of death.”
So, what of Jesus? Well, the first thing to note is that when he was executed by the Romans on behalf of the local authorities, his claim to be Messiah would have been seen to have died with him. A dead messiah was no messiah. There were plenty of would-be messiahs around the time of the Second Temple, all of whom died (often, executed) and all of whose claims and movements died with them. None of Simon bar Kokhba’s followers claimed to have had a profound spiritual experience related to him after his execution by the Romans. Without the encounters that the New Testament writers tell us Jesus’ disciples had with him following his death, they would have been afraid for their life (justifiably so, if their leader was guilty of sedition, so were they) and so would either have ended up in hiding or been rounded up and executed themselves. Yet what we know is that they were so transformed that they began announcing that in Jesus, Israel’s God had indeed acted decisively. Moreover, the temporal authorities – those who could wield the threat of death – held no fear for them. Where, O death, is your sting?
That is to consider (albeit briefly) the outworking of Jesus’ resurrection. All of which only makes sense if we understand it to be physical but what of the descriptions of him once he had been raised? They all point to what N.T. Wright calls in The Resurrection of the Son of God, a “transphysical” body. Wright coined this term to express the way in which the resurrection body has both continuity and discontinuity with the body before death. Continuity in the sense that it is clearly a physical body – he stands on the banks of Galilee and cooks breakfast, taking bread and fish and giving them to the disciples; he invites Thomas to touch his wounds that he still bears and to put his hand in the hole in his side; he walks the seven miles or so to Emmaus with Cleopas and his companion before then breaking bread with them. A profound spiritual experience doesn’t do these things, nor does a disembodied spirit or ghost of some kind. The discontinuity is in the ability of the resurrected body to do things that the pre-death body cannot. It can appear in a locked room or disappear from the sight of Cleopas and his friend; it can carry the wounds that led to death without them causing death again. No wonder Paul describes it as a glorious body (Philippians 3.21).
Finally, what is the theological significance of Jesus’ bodily resurrection? In other words, why does it matter? It matters chiefly because it is the hope that the church has to offer to the world. The promise of following Jesus is that death is not the end. Not “not the end” in the sense of something like reincarnation which is no hope at all – an eternal endurance of this broken world over and over and over again but not the end because death itself is defeated and overturned. It is undone and it holds no fear for us any longer. No wonder despots and tyrants hate Christianity because those who follow Jesus can stand before them when they would execute them and “see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7.56) before entrusting their spirit to Jesus (Acts 7.58). The resurrection of Jesus means that we can stand before God in heaven in full assurance of forgiven sins and reconciled relationship because we are found “in the Messiah”. Remember that a dead messiah is no messiah and so, “if the Messiah has not been raised, [our] faith is futile, [we] are still in [our] sins.” (1 Corinthians 15.17) It is precisely his resurrection that vindicates the eerthly ministry of Jesus and demonstrates the veracity of his Messiahship. It also underlines and demonstrates God’s commitment to his creation and the covenants he makes. We can see that the physical world matters to God and is not to be “escaped” as in the pseudo-gnostic doctrine of the rapture. God’s mission is not merely about the spiritual outworking of forgiving sin but in rescuing the entirety of his creation and this is demonstrated by the physical nature of the resurrection found in Jesus and offered to humanity so Easter tells us also that we must not plunder and destroy the world around us for our short-term gain. It is God’s and he is committed to it.
There is more, much more that could and should be said about the resurrection and, indeed, that has been said by people far wiser than me but please, this Easter – and every day – remember the significance of our risen Saviour, the transformation that his resurrection offers to us and the implications of its physical reality. And, in closing, a few days prematurely…
Alleluia, Christ is risen:
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!