The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (April 15, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ

April 15, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0058}

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

In the Apostles' Creed the Western church declares that Jesus Christ "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again...." In the Nicene Creed both the Western church and the Eastern church declare of Jesus Christ: "For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures." The ecumenical creeds express the message of the apostles in the New Testament. The earliest summary of the apostolic message is found in the apostle Paul's recollection of the tradition he had received from the original apostles following his conversion: "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 that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (I Corinthians 15: 3-5)." In the creeds the juxtaposition of "was buried" and "rose again" underscores the church's belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
From the very beginning the ecumenical church has proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. It is not debatable that the apostles proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The late critical scholar of the New Testament, Raymond E. Brown, observed the only kind of resurrection a Jew could conceive would be a bodily resurrection.
In the modern era there have been individual biblical scholars and theologians who have stated that the resurrection should be conceived as a kind of "spiritual" experience. For some, this means that the apostles had an inner experience that caused them to believe that Jesus lives. According to this view, the resurrection of Jesus would be understood as a subjective experience of the apostles rather than an objective event in history and nature. For others, this means that Jesus does indeed live in some objective sense and presented himself to the apostles in his "appearances," but his victory over death does not require believing that his body was raised. Some of these assume that his body was thrown into a mass grave with others who were crucified, but Jesus himself was alive only in a "spiritual" mode of being. (Platonic and Gnostic ideas are obvious in these modern theories.)
What should we say about these modern theories of scholars and theologians? For one thing, we can observe that the opinions of individuals are no substitute for the common confession of faith of the ecumenical church. Moreover, we can say that their theories are contrary to the witness of the apostles themselves and the consensus of the ecumenical church. Furthermore, I would contend that their theories are based upon a naturalistic prejudice that the resurrection of a human body is impossible.
If we base our understanding of the resurrection of Jesus upon the testimony of the witnesses (not of the resurrection itself, but of the events related to it, i.e. the complex of happenings including the "appearances" of Jesus and the apostles' ability to proclaim without being challenged that he who had been buried had been raised, etc.), then we must be prepared to resist the modern prejudice that his resurrection would be impossible. On the contrary, we would have to develop a world-view that includes a larger understanding of reality than the one that assumes resurrection is impossible. As Leslie Newbigin insisted, "the incarnation and resurrection of Christ will fit into no other world-view than the one of which they are the cornerstone."
The attempt by some to deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a failure to understand that the living God who raised Jesus from the dead is the Creator who is both immanent in the world and transcendent to it. As the creeds affirm, the resurrection of Jesus was "in accordance with the Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible)." Jesus' resurrection should be understood in the context of the revelation of God to Israel, namely, the disclosure of the character and the purposes of the God who is the Creator of all nature and Sovereign of all history capable of "doing a new thing" (Isaiah 43:18 RSV). As N.T. Wright, the leading New Testament scholar in England, has observed, the resurrection of Jesus means that the god of Israel is no mere tribal deity, but the living God who is indeed the Creator of the world.
Of course, it is a distortion to understand Jesus' bodily resurrection as a mere resuscitation, only a "coming back to life" of a person who had died. No, in his resurrection Jesus' whole being was transformed. There are no analogies in all of human experience to the mysterious event of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The best way to express the unimaginable resurrected body is to say that it is "a spiritual body" (I Corinthians 15: 35-57). (The image of a "spiritual body" does not imply that Jesus' being is merely "spiritual" in a Platonic or Gnostic sense.) While we cannot adequately conceive Jesus' new being, we can apprehend the truth that Jesus' normal human nature that involved being born and dying was transformed into a new nature so that "death no longer has dominion over him" (Romans 6:9) and that "he will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself (Philippians 3:21)." Here is Good News!


This commentary relates to Christian Beliefs.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Annual Conference.

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