Excursus: The Resurrection
In the last post I gave the basis from which I start in interpreting my faith, the Bible, and spiritual things in general–the love of God manifested in Christ. More specifically, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Before I move on to make the ramifications of that clear, it occurs to me that I need to say a few words about the last of these, the Resurrection. After all, except for those who doubt that Jesus even existed–and I think that viewpoint has been nicely debunked–no one doubts that he lived and died. The Resurrection is where we open the can of worms.
I contend that if Christianity is to make any sense, the Resurrection must have been a real, historical event. Further, I think it was a physical event (that needs to be qualified, but we’ll get there). Finally, I believe this not so much because my religion “requires” me to–there’s an awful lot of other stuff that I don’t accept as such–but more as a ground for believing in the first place. Put it like this: while I don’t think the Resurrection can be “proved” (most historical events can’t be, either), I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to reject it (qualifications on that, too, in a moment), and it seems to me the most probable explanation of the rise and spread of Christianity. If I were to cease to believe in the Resurrection, for whatever reason, I would cease being a Christian, as well, since there would then be, in my view, no basis for the faith.
In this regard, I’m following C. S. Lewis. If Jesus is merely human, a great moral teacher, then there is no real point to Christianity as a religion. Moral teachers are fine and good, but there is no shortage of them, and humans show no sign of listening to even the greatest moral teachers. Moreover, there is death and the meaning of life. I have nothing against anyone who holds Jesus to be merely a great teacher or all-around nice guy. I just don’t think that such a view speaks to the meaning of our lives, the mystery of our deaths, and our relationship to God. The Christian perspective–one shared even by most of the heterodox versions, to some degree–is not that Christ came to make a heaven on earth, or to give us moral teachings, but to save us–to show us a way out of this vale of tears, and to give us everlasting life.
Exactly how this is accomplished and the exact nature of the afterlife are issues of divergence and contention. The main point is that the transcendence of the role of Christ is central to Christianity. If he is not the Son of God, God Incarnate, then the whole system falls apart. The principle demonstration of his status is held to be his Resurrection. For this reason, the Resurrection is central to Christianity. Exact interpretations of it may vary; but if it is not accepted in at least some sense, you’ve got a different religion. Thus this excursus–the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus are the anchor which centers my faith in other areas. It is therefore not unreasonable to defend or at least clarify the Resurrection, since it is not universally accepted.
First, the qualification on evidence. If one is committed to a belief system in which one denies a priori the very possibility of miracles, then it is as much impossible to prove the Resurrection as it is to prove the existence of a four-sided triangle. From such a perspective, miracles cannot occur, and therefore the Resurrection, whatever it was, was not the return of a dead man from death.
This is a highly complex issue which would be fodder for a whole series in itself. I don’t want to go that far off track, though, so I will merely refer anyone interested in the metaphysical issues involved to C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles. I think he does a good job of arguing that miracles cannot be excluded a priori. There has been some controversy about this book in light of the infamous incident at the Socratic Club in which Elizabeth Anscombe is said to have disproved, or at least severely damaged, one of the book’s key arguments. Lewis afterwards revised the book to take account of this discussion. This series of events has been the subject of much debate and controversy. Suffice it to say that even Anscombe herself thought the revision answered her critiques; and it has been questioned whether Anscombe’s original critique was actually valid (that Lewis thought it was doesn’t necessarily make it so). Some extensive discussion of the issue can be found at this blog.
Thus, for purposes of what follows, I’m going to assume
1. That Jesus, in fact, existed.
2. That miracles are not, a priori, impossible.
Not everyone would agree with these, but I think they’re acceptable and have reasonably strong arguments in their favor.
One thing that I think can be fairly assuredly stated is that something happened to the Disciples soon after the Crucifixion. The Bible is unsparing in painting a warts-and-all picture of the Apostles–they’re constantly bickering, they jockey for position, and they rarely show any deep understanding of what Jesus tries to teach them. Finally, much like Brave Sir Robin, they all cravenly fled and went into hiding when Jesus was arrested, and (except, traditionally, for John) were not present at the Crucifixion. That these very same men, just a short time later, were boldly proclaiming the Resurrection and the Good News of Christ, ultimately being martyred “in many nasty ways” indicates that something profound had occurred to them in the interim. The question is, what?
The New Testament itself says that the rumor was put about that the Disciples had hidden the body (Matthew 28:11-15). Frankly, the Disciples, as portrayed in the New Testament, do not strike me as having the guts, let alone the cleverness, to have pulled such a thing off. If they had, it’s highly likely that at least one would have cracked under torture and given it all away. That none of them did strongly suggests that whatever happened, the Disciples honestly believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. I think this is the least controversial statement–even those who disbelieve that the Resurrection occurred will likely concede that the Apostles thought it did.
A third party might have stolen the body unbeknownst to the Disciples, but this would not explain why they claimed to have seen and interacted with the Risen Jesus.
More elaborate theories of third-party fraud have often been suggested–Jesus didn’t actually die because he was drugged, he did die but someone else masqueraded as him, etc., and the disciples were deceived. The Disciples weren’t exactly rocket scientists, but I don’t think they could have been taken in by a person pretending to be the Risen Jesus. The so-called “swoon theory” has been debated long and vigorously, and I won’t rehash it here. Suffice it to say that I hold with those who hold that he actually did die, and that it is highly unlikely, given his likely physical condition had he actually survived crucifixion, to say nothing of the scourging, that the Disciples would have been in awe of a Gloriously Risen Savior.
Bishop Shelby Spong has suggested that the “Resurrection” was merely the result of the Disciples, over time, meditating on Jesus’ life and teachings and coming to see a greater significance in them, feeling his ongoing “presence” in their lives, without actually meaning that he literally “rose” from the dead. To me, this is silly and fatuous in the extreme for an intelligent man to put forth seriously; but Spong is not the only one who has suggested this. I think it’s easily dismissed. At times we all say, “So-and-so lives on in us today.” What we don’t say is, “So-and-so rose from the grave”; and if we were threatened with death for saying that so-and-so rose from the dead, we certainly wouldn’t maintain it to our deaths! Once more, whatever actually happened, the Disciples believed Jesus really, actually died, and really, actually rose from the dead.
Mass hallucination has been suggested, but there is vigorous debate as to whether such things happen or not. Moreover, it is not often remarked on, but the fatal weakness in both this and Bishop Spong’s hypotheses is that in both cases the authorities could have easily quashed all this talk of Resurrection by merely producing the body! Even the harshest foes of the incipient Christian movement never claimed that this gloriously simple act of debunking had ever occurred.
The simplest explanation, then, IMO, is that the Resurrection actually occurred.
Now some refinements. Among those who do believe in the Resurrection, there is a difference of opinion as to its physicality. Did the actual, physical Jesus, body and all return? Or were the experiences of the Disciples and others more visionary, a sort of series of paranormal phenomena? Certainly Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus sounds more like the latter. On the other hand, the Gospels describe the Risen Jesus as letting the Apostles touch the scars on his hands and his side, and eating fish (Luke 24:36-43, John 20:26-29). Then again, they also describe him as apparently appearing and disappearing at will (Luke 24:28-32, John 20:19), something decidedly non-corporeal.
It is very important to keep in mind that in writing of the resurrection of believers, Paul uses the term pneumatikon soma, or “spiritual body” with some consistency, describing it at length in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49. While he clearly sees it as a continuation, in some sense, of the physical or natural body (what he calls the psychikon soma, literally the “living being body”), it is not at all the same in its properties. The author Philip St. Romain postulates that the so-called “astral body” may be the forerunner–the “seed”, if you will–of the resurrection body. In any case, the differences between the material and the spiritual bodies seem to be profound.
Thus, while I believe that Jesus’ body did not remain in the tomb, it was not merely resuscitated, or even healed, but transformed. His transformed body seems to have been under his full control, and capable of appearing in different ways, as needed. Thus, in some cases he seems to have appeared in a mode where it was possible for him to be seen by normal means, touched, etc. At other times, his appearances seem to have been more visionary.
Thus I disagree with those (such as Richard McBrian) who argue that the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus were always totally non-physical, or, as he put it, if you went back in time for a group picture, Jesus wouldn’t have shown up on it. I think it’s quite possible–probable, in fact, in view of the frightened Disciples’ skepticism–that Jesus did appear in full physical modes at times, and could have, in principle, been photographed by a time traveler. Some of the appearances, such as the vision of Paul on the road to Damascus, seem to have been partially perceivable by others (depending on the account, they either saw a light but heard nothing, or heard a thundering sound they couldn’t understand, but saw nothing). Other appearances may have been strictly private to the person so visited, and would have been invisible and non-photographable. We just don’t know; but to insist on a too abstract version of the appearances is as bad as to insist on too much gross physicality.
Thus, I believe
1. That Jesus rose from the dead.
2. That the tomb was empty and no body was ever found.
3. That he appeared in different ways and different modes to various members of the early Church.
4. That in at least some of these appearances, he manifested in a physically perceivable form.
5. That his post-Resurrection body was a body continuous with, but radically different from his Earthly, material, biological body.
Given the first three and number five, four is negotiable. I could live with the notion that Jesus manifested in a quasi-visionary way, given the reality of his Resurrection; but I see no good reason to reject number 4 out of hand, either.
Next we’ll look at the implications and ramifications that flow from all this.