What is the resurrection?
The Christian church commemorates Jesus’ death on Good Friday. While there is a wide variety of understandings about what the Atonement means, it is an often sombre event marked by commemoration in different ways. Two days later, however, things change, and the mood is one of celebration marked as it is by the exchange of so many chocolate eggs and familial gatherings. In churches, we greet one another with “He is risen” and the response “He is risen indeed.”
But what is this resurrection that we celebrate? And why is the resurrection, in many ways the high point of the Christian calendar and the event so often said to differentiate Christianity from all other faiths, venerated in the way that it is? In our contemporary context, knowing as much as we do now about science and the human body, the claim that someone died and was alive three days later is a strange claim. Is it one that still holds for a 21st century audience? And, for that matter, can you be a Christian if you don’t believe in the resurrection, at least in a literal sense?
Within the four Gospel narratives, the resurrection occupies a unique space. The event is described somewhat differently in each. Mark’s gospel ends with an empty tomb, where Matthew’s and Luke’s later gospels have Christ appear. John’s gospel has a lengthier conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Importantly, they all have in common the transformative nature of the event. Before the event, the disciples are depicted as being terrified for their lives, scattered and doubting whether or not Jesus is who he says that he was. After the event, their conduct is remarkably different, prepared to die for Jesus’ gospel message, armed only with the claim that they saw him again after his death. The vast majority went to their deaths with this message.
Even in the time that the text originates from, Jesus’ resurrection is a strange claim. Sayings such as “of course, the dead do not rise” were popular, and feature in letters from the time.
Interpretations about the bodily resurrection of Christ differ greatly, and stand as something of a marker between different strands of theology. For more liberal Christians, the bodily resurrection could be said to be something of a stumbling block. These Christians stress that the resurrection is an event within the disciples’ understanding of Jesus, an inner reality. One of the more famous authors from this particular approach is the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John ‘Shelby’ Spong. These Christians’ interpretive approach is sometimes referred to as the ‘spiritual resurrection’ of Jesus. Such Christians point to Paul’s testimony, an event where Jesus appeared before hundreds of others. As Spong said in an interview with Religion News Services, “I don’t think the Resurrection has anything to do with physical resuscitation.”
“I think it means the life of Jesus was raised back into the life of God, not into the life of this world, and that it was out of this that his presence” — not his body — “was manifested to certain witnesses.”
Bishop Spong worked during his time as an Episcopal priest to, in his terms, place the resurrection into its historical and literary context, moving away from a literal understanding of the event. He says that this approach to scripture saw attendance at his church grow.
“When people hear it, they grab on to it,” Bishop Spong said. “They could not believe the superstitious stuff and they were brainwashed to believe that if they could not believe it literally they could not be a Christian.”
And yet, for those who wish to hold to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the event is one of tangible hope, an event that vindicates Christ and His way in a way that a spiritual resurrection simply will not.
This, Sojourners’ Jim Wallis argues, is particularly true for those Christians in marginalised communities, those for whom the gospel remains a dangerous claim on their lives, a commitment for which they face the very real possibility of death.
For these persecuted Christians, Wallis argues that the resurrection is a vindication that a metaphorical approach would deny:
[T]hat debate is often a mostly intellectual one, with heady arguments flying back and forth, and usually ends up quite unresolved. Their sincere question prompted a different response in me. I simply asked a question back: “In the heat of South Africa’s oppression and the heart of apartheid’s despair, do you think that a merely metaphorical resurrection would have been enough for Desmond Tutu? It wouldn’t have been for me.” Mere intellectual debates aren’t enough when it comes to faith. It is what we face in our real lives and in the real world that has the most capacity to deepen our faith.
Whatever the interpretation of the event itself and how exactly the Atonement works, Easter is an important day for Christians as the reminder that God has forgiven our sin through the Christ event, an occasion in which He was present in human suffering.
As Synod of NSW and ACT Moderator Rev. Simon Hansford writes, the resurrection event should serve as a touchstone for the church’s contemporary work and witness. “The hope of Christ’s resurrection proclaims our belief that forgiveness for sins is real. We believe that chains can be broken, and prisoners released; we declare that our ears can be opened, as well as our hearts.”
Happy Easter from the Insights team.