Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?
I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.
Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic tradition, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.
That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.
But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?
In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.
The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he simply not think them important enough to include?
Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.
Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).
All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?
Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.
However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it reduce the significance of resurrection belief to simply another “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?
But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.
And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”
Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.
Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).
In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).
Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.
I for one feel a need to think together about practical responses to an Easter invitation understood in this way.
7 thoughts on “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?”
Has there ever been a Jesuit Pope before Francis? Thanks
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Coincidentally I received this morning, just now, a personal email (from a mutual friend I note) on the subject of today’s blog.
I thought your readers would like it and know my friend will nor mind sharing!. I liked it….as I did yours.
Years ago here at home our eldest two children were playing hide and seek all over the house.
All I could hear all day was, “ready or not, here I come!”
That evening my eldest asked me how did Jesus rise from the dead.
I told her that on Easter Sunday morning the soldiers were outside the tomb, cooking their Easter eggs in a pot on the fire.
Then suddenly from the tomb came this thunderous voice, “ready or not here I come!”
Then the rock rolled away and out came Jesus.
The two boys fainted with the fright.
The following week, the teacher asked the children to explain how the resurrection happened.
My eldest told her how. The teacher was not impressed.
I asked her which story she preferred. She said, yours Daddy.
In one fell swoop, she turned me into the fifth evangelist. A storyteller with a myth, a story, a lie that tells the truth.
She understood hermeneutics. In our recent discussions I told her that if ever she is tempted to go literal, she’ll lose the meaning.
Always go symbolic. If you go literal, then you’re wondering at Christmas was Jesus born in a stable, or a cave or was it a kindergarten for the Essenes?
Literal is a dead end. But when you go symbolic you realise that the Christmas story simply means that great power comes in humble packages.
End Quote. Enjoy. Jim
Thanks, Jim. Declan sent me a copy of this too. I’ve asked him for permission to share it on my blog. It’s always so good to hear from you. — Mike
The real pressing question here is whether or not Jesus saw his shadow coming out of the tomb.
For me, the fear of death is Humanity’s big motivation and justification for killing those perceived as threats. Thus death – specifically the fear of death – gives rise to oppression worldwide. Specifically our morbid(!) fear of dying or of our loved ones dying gives rise to legal killing “in self-defense” which generalizes to pre-emptive killing when we are afraid of another having power to strike at us. This applies at both individual criminal level and in international conflict.
Heb 2:14& 15 claims Jesus can deliver us from fear of death:
Therefore, since the children have flesh and blood, he himself also shared the same things, so that by his death he might destroy the one who has the power of death (that is, the devil)
and might free those who were slaves all their lives because they were terrified by death.
How can Jesus’ death free us from our terror of death and so enable us to become absolute pacifists? I suggest it is because He demonstrated that the God who called the world into being is not limited by the physical laws that our sciences study, and that God has a greater plan than the current universe, one in which our personalities and relationships with Him and each other transcend death. It seems to me that our very humanity, including the depth of our attachment to each other, cries out for this to be so.
Hence, for me the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is truly bound up in a LITERAL interpretation of it. Jesus’ literal resurrection to an immortal body prefiguring our own similar resurrections (1 Cor 15:12f) means love will swallow up death in victory later and right now it is disarming the power of death to fuel oppression, murder and war in this world! To “symbolize” the resurrection for me and for many is not to gain meaning but essentially to lose this meaning!
Excellent comment. Very thought-provoking for me. But I think you and I might agree to disagree right here. It’s not clear to me why the symbolic is less real or meaningful. Perhaps we should talk more about this. — Mike
Would you feel more blessed by God to be “symbolically resurrected” by a helpful perspective for this life only? … or to be given assurance that you will be literally resurrected later resulting in joy, peace and added courage now too?