A good question: What’s the point of resurrection?
Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: resurrection – what is it for?
‘Is my spirit really the only bit of me that matters?’
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” I remember the squirming embarrassment as it came out that, yes, I really did believe in the empty tomb, vacated by the resurrected body of Jesus. She looked at me with a mixture of pity and incomprehension that I could sacrifice my intellect in this medieval way. I so wanted to be cool and sophisticated and intellectually sharp, and now I’d blown it.
Where does resurrection “point”? Away from intellectual openness and clarity, it seems, and towards the lunatic fringe where people believe 10 impossible things before breakfast every day, and on Sundays the most impossible of all – that a corpse, 36 hours after death in a hot climate, suddenly returned to vigorous life, and that this miracle somehow conferred deity on the subject.
Do I have to keep company with the lunatic fringe, to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and indeed of me? Some Christians, of course, have found refuge in the Jenkins compromise – I refer to the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who caused anguish in the Church of England 30 years ago by (apparently) referring to the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”, and by promoting the view that the Resurrection stories were the early Christians’ way of asserting their belief in the continued “livingness” of Jesus: they experienced him as alive among them, and to this experience the presence or not of a body in a tomb was (and is) irrelevant.
Attractive, cool, spiritual, nicely marrying “modern” scepticism to postmodern subjectivism – a view to keep the baying dogs of mindless supernaturalism behind bars. But it means selling out to Greek dualism, and I’m not sure that’s a price worth paying, much though I love the Greeks. Do I really want a view that makes my “spirit” the only bit of me – and of Jesus – that really matters? If I just connect with him “spiritually” then I have to leave my body behind – check my body into the cloakroom in the church porch so that I can get into the spirit for the worship.
Many of us do that anyway – but it’s not a good idea. It’s more cool, actually, to be brazenly bodies in worship: to dress up, to dress down, to wave arms or not, to fling ourselves around or stay still to feel him in our guts (our splangchna, our “bowels” where the love and longing of Jesus are felt, according to Philippians 1:8 – three cheers to the Greeks for this great word!) If the early Christians were into comfortable Greek dualism, distinguishing neatly between spirit and body, they might have been up for the Jenkins compromise. But they weren’t. They used words like splangchna to express their spiritual feelings.
Give yourself a pinch. That’s you. The point of resurrection is – God wants to give you life, in all your earthy bodyliness. So he gave it to Jesus first. It’s a good idea.
Stephen Motyer is a lecturer in New Testament studies and hermeneutics at London School of Theology
‘It’s the murder of precious, toxic and graceless ways of being’
Okay, for me, this is the point of resurrection. This is what I have come to believe; and what I manage to remember on bad days: Our resurrections come from killing the ways in which we separate ourselves from the love of Christ.
Resurrection is real; it’s possible and it’s personal. It’s the murder of our most precious, toxic, graceless ways of being; and their astonishing re-membering into something that can live. And it’s entirely non-cerebral; pain, not brain brings us to it. Acceptance of our isolation, recognition of our powerlessness, and the courage to hope are the tools which get us through it.
Most of us, Christians included, live our lives fighting resurrection; it goes against human experience of loss. We know that people die; we know that relationships die; we know nothing wonderful was ever lived twice. So we find bleak, irreverent ways of managing, and ultimately numbing, that human pain.
Here are some of the ways we may do it. We drink, (or eat, or exercise, or do drugs, or gamble, or work, or think) too much. Or we worship and idol-ise a human being. Some of us substitute sex for love. Or we wallow. Or purge. We rage. We theorise. Or we exercise servility. We sulk and bully. We envy and jeer. We withdraw. We withhold. We regulate. We deny joy by refusing hope and by risking nothing. Most dangerous of all, we judge. Not everyone does all these things; but most of us do some. If we do lots we reign as the tiny, shrinking gods of lonely kingdoms. And we do it because, though such control separates us from salvation now, it separated us from ancient pain – once.
If we cope this way, it’s not in our interests to believe in resurrection. For resurrection doesn’t happen on our terms. God doesn’t do terms. Resurrection is not something you negotiate.
So, of course, our temptation is to cling to these shabby old ways; to visit them, to cuddle them, to fondle them. And to theologise along the lines of: “Jesus died and rose again so that we don’t have to.” No. Jesus died and rose again so that we could trust the danger, the pain and the outcome.
So, I believe this: you consent to the murder of all your shabby, nasty darlings. And you wait in the dark, unclothed of childish things, for God-knows how long. In darkness you bear truths, remember happiness, pray honestly; after an unspecified time you collapse and succumb to hope and love. The tomb opens.
You see out, all self-built confidence destroyed, and risk a step forward; no longer a god, but God’s.
Lucy Berry is minister of Bethnal Green Meeting House United Reformed Church, London
‘It enables us to challenge the authorities of our day’
Many Christians might describe resurrection in the following way: God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus went to heaven. And so will we.
A robust account would speak of resurrection as ushering in God’s new creation. Resurrection not only happens to Jesus but encompasses the entire cosmos. It doesn’t simply point towards the future but involves the present. Resurrection roots us here on earth, where we begin to experience God’s healing of creation. It informs our spirituality, but also embraces materiality, for God redeems the world through flesh and blood.
What’s the point of resurrection? The question is critical, for what we believe about resurrection has consequences – for our life and the life of the world. Because the meaning of resurrection is bound up with God’s action in raising Jesus from the dead, resurrection implicates our actions in response to God’s deed.
The primary response of the disciples who bore witness to the Easter event was worship. For many contemporary Christians, to proclaim Jesus as Lord is to affirm a doctrinal statement. For first-century Christians, to proclaim Jesus as Lord was to make a political statement of the highest order. That is, if Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not sovereign. The affirmation of Christ’s Lordship for early believers was traitorous. It indicated their allegiance to a different ruler and defiance of the Emperor. For Christians to attest that God through resurrection had reversed the Empire’s verdict of Jesus, as Dominic Crossan reminds us, was to place themselves in conflict with Rome. When retrieved, this neglected “subversive” aspect of the Resurrection enables us to challenge the authorities of our day that tempt us in subtle and seductive ways to renounce Jesus as Lord.
Of course the evidence of God’s radical transformation of creation was displayed through radically transformed lives. To proclaim that Christ has been raised from the dead is to renounce sinful practices. Therefore, the most telling response of Christians to sceptics of the Resurrection is not “Look at 1 Corinthians 15!” but “Look at us! Notice the difference he’s made in our lives – that we might make a difference in the lives of others.” The political and public difference that resurrection makes discredits accounts that are so “heavenly bound, they are no earthly good.” We who long for God’s transformation of our bodies and world in the future are called to place our bodies in service to God’s world-transforming work in the present – in view of God’s promised future (NT Wright). But such work is not without consequences. After all, the point of resurrection is to live the kind of life, one of costly allegiance to God, which led Jesus to be crucified.
Tammy Williams is a Baptist minister and a former theology professor at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina
‘It sends me out renewed on the Christian journey’
Some slices of the Bible have been oases for me over the years. They beckon me in again and again, with a message that is familiar yet very fresh, and send me out renewed and reoriented on the Christian journey. One such snippet is 2 Corinthians 4, about “treasure in clay jars”.
Here is the testimony of a life beset by troubles, hardships and knocks – partly because those times were tough and most people suffered, and partly because the Christian good news brought challenge, opposition and difficulty of its own. Yet here too is the confidence of days and years lived in the company of Jesus. Jesus’ life is woven into the lives of his friends. His story becomes ours, and the chapters of our living start to recall the events of his. Good Friday and Easter echo in our experience too.
So resurrection marks our life, says this chapter, in three different ways. First, it seeps out from us, to bring hope and life to other people: “Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” We see this occasionally in Christians who have painful crosses to bear, but out of their struggle something of Easter touches the people around them. Their company is heavy with the hidden presence of Christ. We visit to offer support, and find ourselves receiving far more blessing and benefit than we have given. Resurrection flows outward, through the cracks in damaged people.
We read of an inward resurrection too: “Our inner nature is renewed day after day.” More happens in a person than shows on the surface. Even as our bodies weaken and get weary, our inner self may drink deep from the wells of God. Strength, solidity, sureness and stamina come from within – not only from fortune and circumstance but from faith and from Christ. That’s the second kind of resurrection this chapter explores.
Then the third contact with the Easter story is ahead, at the junction where all our journeys meet: “One day a company of people will make their way to a churchyard, and lay a coffin in the ground, then all go home again. Except that one of them will not come back, and that will be me.” So said a famous Christian thinker, Karl Barth, about his own death. 2 Corinthians also speaks of “the tent we live in being destroyed”. Yet we shall have “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” (5:1). The grave, our dying, the end of our mortal life is the point of resurrection. There we look forward to the opening of a new door, a new dawn and new delight. That’s worth celebrating at Easter.
John Proctor is vice-principal of Westminster College, Cambridge
This article was published in the April 2013 edition of Reform.