The Resurrection of Jesus

by frankbeswick

Faith in the resurrection is central to Christianity, but we need to know its significance and as far as possible what did happen.

Had Jesus not been encountered by his disciples after his death, he would have been just another good guy or idealistic prophet who thought that he could challenge evil and failed. But in a life that was already strange the events after Jesus' death were even stranger. For the first time ever, it is claimed, someone passed through death not by reincarnation, but by a return to an albeit transmuted/glorified body and did so by the power of God working in him. Whatever conclusion you reach about the veracity of the resurrection, you must not ignore it. Accept or reject wisely and after due consideration, for if it happened it is an event of enormous significance.

Image courtesy of MelSi

The Significance of the Resurrection

"If Christ has not been raised your faith is worthless." said St Paul in First Corinthians chapter 15, verse 17. Why did he think this? What was the significance that he saw in the resurrection; and as Easter, when the church celebrates the resurrection, draws near, this is the time to ponder the question and issues surrounding it.  The resurrection must be understood in the light of the temptations of Christ recorded in the synoptic gospels. The tempter tries to turn Jesus off his mission and to evil,but Jesus defeats him and goes on to challenge the evil that he encounters. But the powers of evil mass against Jesus and have him killed. On Good Friday evil seems to have won, the malice of Satan, the corrupt religiosity of the ruling Sadducee class and the cynical cowardice of Pilate have conspired to kill Jesus. The disciples are scattered by overwhelming force and the women weeping at the cross were considered so insignificant that the Romans did not disperse them, for  Rome did not take women seriously.

But it is only in the ultimate defeat of good that victory is gained, for the Christian faith is that God raised Jesus from the dead and through this event Jesus reached his destiny as Christ. Evil has done its worst and has been outwitted and overcome. Life is victor over death. Christian Theology gives this the term Christus victor, one of the four great salvation themes in Christianity. Moreover, the weeping women dismissed so imperiously come to testify at the greatest event in world history, the victory of life over death.  

Moreover in the resurrection Jesus' claims before the Sanhedrin were affirmed by God."You will see the son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven" [Mark 14:62] said Jesus to Caiaphas, and this combination of religious titles can only be construed as a claim to be more than human, indeed divine in some way. There are only three possibilities: Jesus was mad or deluded; he was a blasphemer making excessive claims beyond the right of humans, or he was speaking truly. The death sentence from the Sanhedrin was for blasphemy, though Rome gave it for treason, as Jewish law was not enforced by Roman courts. But the Christian teaching is that by the resurrection God affirmed Jesus' claims and revoked the sentence of the courts. This is yet another aspect of the Christus Victor salvation theme. 

Pharisaic Jews had long believed that the age to come would be characterized by the resurrection of the righteous dead, and for St Paul Jesus' resurrection was the first fruits of the age to come. Moreover, for Paul Jesus was the pathway into the resurrection, to attain which you had to repent, accept him as Lord and be baptized into him in his community. The resurrection is thus an event of very great human significance. 

But the resurrection can be challenged, for it is possible to deny that it happened. 

The Empty Tomb

None in the ancient world rejected the claim that Jesus' tomb was empty, but the question was how  and why. The empty tomb proves nothing, as the apostles knew; and the resurrection does not require it, for God could have resurrected Jesus with an entirely new body distinct from the one which died. However, the empty tomb is a challenge that requires explanation, and the explanations alternative to the Christian one are weak. 

Matthew's Gospel makes reference to the guards' claim that the apostles stole the body while the guards were sleeping. The first point to note is how did the guards know that the thieves were the  the apostles if they were asleep; and how did the apostles manage to get the tomb open without awakening the guards. Furthermore, Roman guards who slept on duty were executed, and these seem to have lived to tell  the tale, so the sleep explanation does not work. Moreover, the Jews are a people who respect graves, so why were not the apostles prosecuted for grave robbery? The stolen body theory is a rationalization that explains away what cannot be explained.  

Had the priests taken the body they could easily have rediscovered it when the resurrection story got round, but they did not do so. So this explanation is a non-starter. 

A sexist mis-explanation is that the women went to the wrong tomb, something that those who make this claim cannot know from documentary support or archaeological evidence. The claim rests on the unspoken and sexist assumption that women are not to  be trusted. Besides the fact that this assumption is wrong, everyone else including the whole Christian community, the Jewish authorities and the Romans would have to have made and never corrected the same elementary mistake. 

A piece of incredible nonsense came from an Australian "theologian" Barbara Thiering, who claimed that Jesus was not really dead.  but that the two thieves who were executed with him revived him in the tomb, pulled the stone back and helped him escape. For a man who has been crucified and stabbed in the heart to be revived without medical attention of the best that modern medicine can throw at it, and to be helped by two men who were themselves executed [and not known to have been buried in the tomb with him] just defies all credibility. It makes the stolen body theory seem respectable in comparison.Those who claim that Jesus feigned death on the cross fail to realize that by feigning death on a cross you must hang in the dead position, a situation in which you suffocate. So feigning death is impossible.

The best options are that Jesus either rose from the dead or there is yet another unknown explanation better than the weak ones just given. 

The Resurrection Accounts

Cardinal Kasper, writing in Jesus the Christ, observes that the resurrection kerygma [preaching] is older than the resurrection accounts, by which he means that the church was proclaiming the resurrection before it put into writing the four gospels. The result of writing them down several years after the events and having gone through a period of oral transmission means that there can be some loose ends that don't fit together and no one has been able to construct a coherent pattern that includes all recorded experiences. However, judges who deal with eye witness testimony will say that a thoroughly consistent testimony between several witnesses often suggests collusion, and eye witness testimony can have rough edges.

There is no doubt that members of the early church experienced something.  Maurice Casey, not a believer, writing in Jesus of Nazareth, states that the experiences are explicable in terms of the hallucinatory sightings of dead relatives often seen by the bereaved, though he excepts Paul's vision from this explanation. But Casey thereby contradicts himself, as he is accepting that there is one experience that does not fit his explanation, and if one, why not others? Furthermore, the accounts given in the gospels do not fit into the this bereavement hallucination model.  If you read Luke 24, the encounter on the road to Emmaus, you see that the disciples do not recognize Jesus until he breaks bread with them. then they say that they should have known him by his inspiring scriptural explanations that had their hearts burning within them. The sighting in a bereavement hallucination is not an unidentified person  only recognized later. The failure to initially recognize Jesus also occurred in Mary Magdalen's encounter, so the bereavement hallucination model does not work here either. Of course the objection could be that the gospels are making up the facts. You could say that, but the question the objector must answer is whether he has a source of facts better than the gospels and if so, what is it.

Furthermore, when Jesus met the apostles in the upper room he not only is said to have eaten some fish, but allowed them  to touch him. Again, Casey's simplistic explanation does not work in this case. I do not deny that there may have been some hallucinatory experiences, but to say that all, particularly the ones reported here, were hallucinatory, is erroneous.

Nothing can be proved or disproved, but like the empty tomb the resurrection calls for a decision. Did he rise or not? The negative answer fits in with the modern world-view; the positive answer challenges it and opens the door to a confidence in the power of God to defeat evil. 

Icon of the Crucified Christ

Icon of the Crucified Christ
Icon of the Crucified Christ

An Event in History?

A common objection to the resurrection is that it is not an event in history. It is not within the scope of the academic discipline of history,which merely reports religious phenomena as what people believed. Thus history will report that the apostles believed that they had encountered the risen Christ. But academic disciplines are only aspects of the great web of knowledge,and so we can say that it is true that the resurrection cannot be an event within secular history, but it is also the case that the Bible is a work of sacred history  that charts the great deeds of  God within the history of the people of Israel. The resurrection is part of the sacred history of Israel. 

Luke's Gospel gives a slant on Israel's sacred history. Luke focuses on Jerusalem, which is for him the true world centre rather than the pagan world centre at Delphi. The first of the three ages of history was the time up to Jesus' birth, the second age being his life, which culminates at the world centre,  Jerusalem. With the resurrection the new age in the sacred history begins, it is the history of the church, the community in which Jesus is incarnate and in which his Spirit is the animating power. 

We have no knowledge of the nature of the risen body of Christ, for he is not merely a reanimated corpse. We say that he has a glorified body, which merely means a body greater than the one in which he was incarnate prior to death. But at this point our ontological knowledge, our understanding of being fails and we are better not speculating.

We cannot say Jesus rose from the dead, QED. Belief is a response to the testimony of the apostles and others, inspired by the awareness that Christ lives on and is present through the Holy Spirit. All beliefs involve an act of choice, a decision to believe or reject. In this case the decision is an existential one, one of great personal, spiritual and moral significance that determines the direction of one's whole life. I believe. 

Updated: 04/04/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 04/17/2017

An interesting metaphor that I had not met before.

blackspanielgallery on 04/17/2017

Frank, I thought I would share something a theologian once used for an analogy for the Redemptive Act. The late Father Miller used a circle, and Jesus reaching up on the cross as the bottom of the circle. The Father's acceptance the Resurrection, he assigned the Father reaching down to complete the circle. Simple, but quite effective.

frankbeswick on 04/04/2017

I could write lots on reincarnation, as I have studied its place in Christian thought. Resurrection is similar to reincarnation in that re-embodiment occurs, but reincarnation differs from it in that persons are re-conceived in a new womb, whereas Jesus' resurrection was a continuation of his embodiment in a transmuted form. That being said, there was an early Christian reincarnation tradition found in Clement of Alexandria,Origen, Synesius and some other thinkers associated with Egypt. I have searched to find any reference to it in the traditions of the Celtic church, which was associated with Egypt, but have found none so far.

I don't think that the failure of recognition is support for reincarnation, and consider that it is at the moment hard to explain. It may be that recognition occurs in a social framework, and so Mary and Cleophas may have not expected to see Jesus so merely thought that the person looked like him.

Cleophas may have been Jesus' uncle, as Joseph's brother Cleopas [variant spelling] is mentioned in Eusebius' history of the church written in the fourth century. If that is so, then the other disciple with him on the road to Emmaus may have been his son, Simeon, later to succeed James the brother of the Lord as bishop of Jerusalem in the 60s

DerdriuMarriner on 04/03/2017

frankbeswick, There's an excellent source for the resurrection as a real event in The Bible.
In another direction, What do you think of the interpretation of Jesus not being recognized initially by Mary Magdalene and on the Emmaus road as a validation of reincarnation?

frankbeswick on 04/03/2017

"They had to have no power to stop things" is a good way of explaining the situation. That this was so indicates that they saw something inexplicable that transcended human power at the tomb.

blackspanielgallery on 04/03/2017

I once heard a person on the radio go through ten reasons the resurrection had to be real. The fact the soldiers were allowed to live was one of them. They had to have had no power to stop things, and apparently this was quite clear.

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