Do you have trouble believing that Jesus really rose from the grave? If you do, you are not by yourself. After all, resurrections are scientifically impossible, and resurrection has never happened to anyone, at least not since about 30 A.D. But, your doubt or disbelief might bother you, because as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor. 15:17). It appears, at least according to the Apostle Paul, that belief in the Resurrection of Christ is essential for Christians.
Did it happen?
One can argue, of course, that the Resurrection of Christ is a miracle, and that if there were a scientific explanation, it would not be such a big deal. We would have no reason to celebrate Easter. So if one acknowledges that the Resurrection was a miracle, if it did indeed occur, overcoming one’s doubts about it might require taking a huge leap of faith. Or one might find meaning in the Resurrection as a myth. Or settle for a Gospel that ends with Jesus’ death.
But even if one is willing to accept that God performs miracles, the accounts of the Resurrection in the four gospels throw us several curves that make those accounts especially hard to accept. All four gospels describe the disciples and women finding an empty tomb on Sunday morning. Then the gospels tell of the resurrected Jesus suddenly disappearing from sight (Luke 24:31), eating (Luke 24:41-43), and walking through locked doors (John 20:19-20, 26).
Perhaps the Apostle Paul’s account is easier to believe, because he does not describe such preposterous acts. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is actually believed to be the earliest account of appearances of the risen Christ: For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephus, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. The scriptures Paul referred to are the Jewish scriptures, mostly what Christians today call the Old Testament. The word for “appeared” is the Greek word used to describe visionary experiences, such as the vision of the risen Christ that Paul had on the road to Damascus. For some, it might be easier to believe in the Resurrection if one thinks of it as manifest in visions. This kind of thinking does not necessarily deny that the Resurrection was miraculous. Paul certainly regarded it as miraculous. There are several interesting things to note about the above passage. There is no mention of appearances to women, except for their inclusion among the five hundred witnesses that came after the appearances to Cephus (Peter) and the twelve. Another thing that is puzzling is Paul’s mention of “the twelve,” suggesting that Judas Iscariot also might have been one to witness an appearance. There is no mention of an empty tomb anywhere in Paul’s writing, nor is there a mention of the Ascension. Indeed, Jesus’ appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus would have occurred after the Ascension.
What the scriptures really tell us about the Resurrection and the Ascension is that no one has decidedly figured out exactly what happened. Or what kind of substance Jesus’ resurrected body contained. Let us we simply let that mystery be.
While there is understandable doubt among modern, scientifically minded people that Jesus’ Resurrection actually occurred, what is clear and almost irrefutable is that Jesus’ first followers, including some who had been close to Him before His death, believed in it beyond a shadow of a doubt. One wonders why they would have been so convinced and so passionately engaged in the Gospel ministry had the Resurrection event not really taken place.
You may doubt the Resurrection. I have my doubts sometimes, too. And you may choose to dismiss it as a historical event. Perhaps you just find meaning in the myth. I believe that it was real a historical event. And that it is real (present tense).
Now I think there is a crucial question that takes us beyond the certainty we might have that the Resurrection really did happen. That is, assuming that it did happen, what did it mean? What does it mean to the believer today?
What does it mean?
We might start by asking what the Resurrection might have meant to the Jews who witnessed it, who heard about it, and who made up the early Christian Church. The Jews of the first century were familiar with the idea of resurrection of a body. While the early Hebrews did not believe in a life after death, the idea of a resurrection in the Last Days began appearing in Jewish apocalyptic literature during or after the Babylonian Exile. Early references to resurrection in the Old Testament appear in Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2. By the time of Jesus, many Jews believed there would be a resurrection of the dead at a future time. The Pharisees believed in it, and Saul of Tarsus (who was later called Paul) was a Pharisee. This resurrection was not thought of as a return of one’s spirit but a transformation of one’s body. Hebrew tradition did not make a marked distinction between body and spirit.
The meaning of the Resurrection of Christ to the earliest believers is probably reflected in the Apostle Paul’s account of the Resurrection that appears in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then come the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. (vs. 20-24).
This indicates that to Paul, Christ’s Resurrection was the first of many that would occur at the end of the age. And it is through His Resurrection that death is conquered so that we who belong to God might rise as well.
It is worthwhile to note that Paul regarded the Resurrection as an act of God, not as something Jesus did on His own. The theology that Jesus was God incarnate had not crystallized among believers by the time this epistle was written, which was around 55 AD. Paul’s point is that God raised Jesus, and God will certainly raise us. It is tempting to say that it was the Resurrection that convinced early believers to regard Jesus as God, but that argument is weak because the Jewish Christians believed that we too will rise one day, just as Jesus did. And we are not God.
Recall from an earlier blog post, Making Sense of the Cross the mention of the “Christus Victus” or “Victory” theory of Atonement, and note how Paul hails the Resurrection as accomplishing victory over death and evil.
In writing this post, I had to ask myself what the Resurrection means to me. It was not an easy question to answer, because I have not spent a lot of time thinking of its meaning. I have probably spent much more time just questioning and convincing myself that the Resurrection really took place. But if it is so important to me that it really happened, it must also have great meaning for my faith.
What if one cannot believe that it really happened? What if one believes the resurrection stories are myths? Is it still possible to find meaning in them? I asked several people that question.
One person said that like many myths, the resurrection narratives reflect a need we have to get reconnected at the end of the story with the divine. A need for seeing victory of good over evil.
Another person said that to her it represents a commitment to non-violence. After forgiving His enemies, Jesus arises in victory over them, although not with any interest in revenge. Instead, disciples are told to spread the Good News.
One person found meaning in how the Resurrection is manifest each day in the lives of humans. How people whose spirit is virtually dead can become transformed and alive with energy and renewal.
Finally, one person pointed out that in many facets of life on earth, death leads to life. If a seed dies, it sprouts new life. And the deaths of some organisms allow them to become food. And modern medicine has made it possible for some persons to donate organs for new life in others.
So what does the Resurrection mean to me? For one thing, since I believe that God did raise Jesus, I can believe that God is able to resurrect me. This is a comfort, because I find death to be very scary. It also means that Christ Jesus is alive! Now this might sound very trite to you. But I do not think of Jesus as a child might think of an imaginary playmate, an invisible figure that shadows my every step. To illustrate what I mean, please allow me to tell a couple of stories.
One of my former pastors, Brian Erickson, told of how he once spent a summer volunteering in one of Mother Teresa’s missions in Calcutta, India. When he first traveled to the mission he said he was filled with passion for “bringing Jesus to the suffering people of India.” That summer was a life altering experience for him, and what he saw turned his perspective around. He said he met each day with workers and volunteers in a prayer chapel for devotions and worship. Windows in the chapel were opened, so that the sounds from the street, including cries and moans of distress, could be heard. On the wall above the altar was a mural showing the wounded head of Jesus hanging on a cross. And the caption below the mural stated what is known today as one of the last words of Jesus before His death, “I thirst.”
Having morning prayers in that chapel while looking at that rendering of Christ’s passion caused Brian to think about the suffering on the streets outside, and how for so many people a simple cup of water would be a glorious token of the love of Christ. He also recalled Jesus’ words recorded in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.” While working in that mission, Brian came to realize that his passion for “bringing Jesus to the suffering people” was misguided. Indeed, by showing compassion to these people, he was meeting Jesus. Jesus was there already. And alive.
Now when I heard Brian tell this, I had been involved in Kairos Prison Ministry for about a decade. While we ministry volunteers often traced our purpose back to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, “I was in prison and you visited me,” I still mostly thought of my work as bringing Jesus into the prison. But listening to Brian tell his story caused me to rethink my ministry’s purpose. Several years before I had met an inmate at a maximum security facility, and he had told me that the crime that had landed him in prison was raping a twelve-year-old girl. While we ministry volunteers are counseled to never ask an inmate why they are in prison, we know that sometimes they will choose to tell us without our asking. I do not know why this man told me about his crime, but his telling me kindled an anger greater than I would have felt had he confessed murder or rape of an adult. I understood that I was supposed to show love to the prisoners. In order to show love, it is necessary to forgive. I did not feel love, nor did I feel like forgiving this man, so I prayed at that moment for God to make it possible for me to forgive this inmate and love him. God answered my prayer, and I explained to this person that it was difficult for me to hear his confession, but that I still knew that there was nothing that God could not forgive, and that God loved him and so did I.
After hearing my pastor tell his story about Calcutta, I thought back to the time I had met this prisoner. I discovered that despite the nature of his crime, I saw Jesus in him. This criminal actually ministered to me by causing me to allow God to take my own weakness and supply His power to love and forgive someone who I was not capable of loving by my own strength. Jesus was alive in this man. Now I know that Jesus is alive in the prisons and is waiting for me to bring myself and submit to his great and mighty love.
We seek to bring Jesus to the world, but Jesus is already in the world. He is not only in the nice bright parts of the world, but He is also in the dark corners of the earth. And He is alive. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5).
If you ask people what the Resurrection means to them, you will encounter people, some identifying as Christian, who simply do not believe in it. You will find some who believe it really happened in history, and you will find some who recognize it as a myth. Too often, persons who embrace an interpretation variant from the traditional view taught by their church are ridiculed, viewed as heretics, and warned of being deceived by Satan. The important thing for us to remember is, regardless of what we think, to listen to these points of view, respect them, learn from them, and encourage the person to continue his or her quest for truth and meaning.