Ask Andrew 4: The Resurrection

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew 4: The Resurrection

Regarding the resurrection, this is kind of a two part question.

a) Do you believe the resurrection happened? (And when I say this I am referring to a physical resurrection; not someone just having a vision.)

b) How important is the answer to this question? Was Paul correct in 1 Corinthians Chapter 15 verse 17 when he said ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins.’ (The entire Chapter 15 in fact deals with the resurrection, and it certainly seems to me that Paul believed it was important)

Before I arrived in Ottawa in 2004, the Ottawa Citizen posted a question to religious leaders along these lines: “if archaeologists found the tomb of Jesus and his body was still in it, how would that affect your faith?” Of all the Christian leaders responding, only the United Church rep answered that it would not matter.

I have heard about this article, but not seen it, so I cannot comment on the content, or even say what approach was taken. Did it talk about whether the resurrection was a literal bodily resurrection? Did it suggest that the idea of the resurrection was not important since Jesus was a great leader, and we still needed to follow his teachings to be faithful to God? I can imagine several options.

Back when I was in seminary, I took a course in “Resurrection Narratives”, examining those parts of the Bible that talk about the resurrected Jesus. The prof went to some lengths to avoid giving an opinion on the nature of the resurrection. Instead he tried to show us the variety of things the Bible says about it.

That variety surprised most of us. We were a group from various Christian traditions, and we had grown up with creeds, like the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene creed, and a variety of Reformation creeds, all of which were very firm about the importance of the resurrection. Combine that with those passages of John’s gospel with doubting Thomas, who wants to touch the nail holes and the spear hole, and we were accustomed to a clear continuity between the risen Christ and the body of Jesus that died on the cross. The thought that there might have been a variety of opinions on the resurrection in the early church was startling to us students.

But as we learned, the gospels were written after decades of discussion and debate. Other books, like Paul’s letters, were much closer to the event. Even the oldest gospel, Mark’s, does not show us a physical resurrection in its original ending. Rather it shows us an empty tomb, with the clear message “do not look for the living among the dead.

When you look at them closely, the ancient creeds of the church don’t talk about a physical resurrection either. Even the Nicene Creed, which was developed to determine orthodoxy, has no explicit mention of the bodily resurrection. This is odd, since they got pretty explicit about other theological statements. Either they were leaving room for different understandings because they couldn’t agree, or there was enough of a sense of mystery that they felt like they could NOT define exactly what happened.

When the gospels were written late in the first century it was clear that the resurrected Jesus was seen as more than merely a raised body. He could appear in locked rooms and then disappear again. He was solid enough to eat and be touched, yet at the same time he could walk and talk with his own disciples for hours without them recognizing him.

There was a movement in the first century called Gnosticism. Its principles included the idea that the material world is evil, sinful, and that only spiritual things can be pure. The Christian version of this taught that Jesus never had a body at all: that his whole life was a kind of shared illusion by all the people he met. This offended all the people that actually knew Jesus and it was declared a heresy, but by the time John’s gospel was written it was so popular that John had to make the point that the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. The vision of Jesus had become so spiritual for some people that they thought he never had a body and thus never needed resurrection.

Over the centuries the church clearly decided to officially believe that Jesus was resurrected bodily. That is the doctrine we have inherited.

But in the early decades of Christian thought, it was not so clear, as the Bible itself shows us. Our earliest testimony is from Paul, who never met Jesus before the crucifixion, but who declared that Jesus appeared to him “as to one untimely born”.

That is why I would challenge the premise for part of the question above. Paul didn’t care about whether the resurrection was physical or not! He dismissed the question as foolish in the very chapter quoted above. Then Paul goes on to lay out a theology of the resurrection involving something he calls a Spiritual Body which, in the terminology of his day, was a contradiction in terms.

Jews generally thought of human beings as animated dust: bodies given life by the breath of God, the Spirit. Greeks tended to think of human beings as embodied spirits: incorporeal living things given flesh for this life.

Paul’s explanation of the resurrection blends these understandings so that the resurrection life will be in spiritual bodies: something that combines the qualities of flesh and spirit in some new and wonderful way. And it is clear from his argument that he believes that this is what happened to Jesus too, since he argues that what is in store for us is what has already happened to Jesus.

Paul is not arguing that it is important to believe in a bodily resurrection. Paul is insisting that it is important to believe in a new life after this one. The physical aspects he leaves in the hands of God. Rather than addressing the physical question, Paul gives us an image of something far beyond what we experience in this life.

This is because he is making an existential argument, not a procedural one. Most Jews did not believe in any resurrection in those days. The Sadducees were the traditionalists, and they denied that there was any kind of resurrection or individual afterlife at all. The Pharisees, the more modern types, were teaching that there would be a resurrection, an afterlife. They agreed with Jesus on this question. But in those days this was a new teaching, and the majority had not decided to trust it.

See what Paul is saying? “Jesus proved that there is a resurrection by being resurrected! What happened to him will happen to us, and the form it takes will be part of the wonderful plan God has, which goes way beyond anything we know in this life.

So, with that as the introduction, I am prepared to answer the “Ask Andrew” question

a: I used to believe in the bodily resurrection: it was simply part of what I learned to believe. I don’t anymore, not in the literal way the church eventually made part of its doctrine.

I do believe that Jesus’ disciples experienced the risen Christ, most probably in things we would call visions or spiritual encounters. This is not just a leap of faith. It is the best explanation I have for the survival of Christianity after the crucifixion. Whatever those fearful, uneducated people experienced was so powerful, so moving, that it allowed them to overcome their terror of the Romans, and further led them to their fearless sharing of Jesus’ teachings. The Roman policy of killing the leaders of movements they distrusted was very effective at destroying those movements, and worked in most cases. It utterly failed in the case of Christianity.

I do believe that God provides a life after this one for all of us, not just Jesus. I believe that it takes a radically different form, one that we can’t easily put into words. Paul’s analogy is as good as we can probably get: the seed going into the soil to rise up as a totally transformed plant. It’s a good and hopeful image, and I plan to hold on to it.

b: As for the importance of believing in the resurrection, I don’t think it is a make or break issue that will separate us from God. It is certainly possible to be a good Christian while believing that this life is all there is. It is even admirable: too much reliance on faith in the next life can distract us from living this life well, and if you live a generous, forgiving, sharing life now without expecting a reward in the next life, you are clearly not acting out of a selfish motive.

For me, the idea of the resurrection fits my understanding of God. The understanding that God brings us from this life into something beyond is part of my hopeful picture of God “who has created and is creating” (in the words of the New Creed), the same God who leads us forward into new things all the time.

If theoretical physicists can mathematically prove the existence of multiple dimensions we can’t see, and multiple universes diverging from our own constantly; if we are now considering the existence of a universal field that permeates even empty space (which leads me to wonder how it relates to other universes); why is it so hard to consider that the one who created all of this can take who we are here, in this reality and move us beyond this into something more when we leave this life?

It bothers us because it raises so many questions, and answers so few. But I believe that Paul got it right. I no longer get tied up in rigid doctrines or worry about the mechanics of the resurrection. I believe that God has something in store for us after this life; something that people got a glimpse of 2000 years ago.

That gives me great hope.

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