It has seemed that there are only two options regarding the resurrection. Either the dead body of Jesus was resuscitated or it was not. If it was, then this has been taken to be proof of the existence of a God who could reverse the processes of death. As we understand it today, this would amount to a reversal of chemical reactions, bacterial growth and invasion, cell rupture and the rest of the physiological and molecular chaos that death produces. The God whose existence this is evidence of is one who is able to interrupt the processes of nature.
One of the triumphs of the Enlightenment was that it unconsciously retrieved the concept of nature as natural as it was originally conceived in the first creation narrative. By “natural” I mean that the world was not inhabited by Gods and ghosts. The sun was not a God but a light in the sky and so on with the rest of the creation. The controversy between science and religion has revolved around whether God existed as a supernatural being and whether he could interfere with natural processes. We must admit, I think, that science has won the day here and has successfully chased God from the physical world. This is a triumph for theology because it can now proceed without the idea that any knowledge of God can come from the physical world and return to its proper study of the traditions of scripture and the church.
This would seem to undermine any talk about the resurrection. While science must be given its due with regards the physical world, what should not be admitted is the way it views knowledge as being the sole possession of the scientific or empirical method. There are other kinds of knowledge that do not rely on observation and experimentation and we use that knowledge every day to navigate crucial aspects of our lives. The favouring of the objective over the subjective in the scientific method has robbed us of our trust in our inner experience of life so necessary to any religious sensibility.
My contention is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not an event that may be observed and examined so as to come to a conclusion about its reality or not, but rather is based on the subjective; the experience of the presence of Christ. It is interesting that there are no accounts of the resurrection in the Bible. No one saw what happened in the darkness of the tomb on the third day.
What we do have in the New Testament are accounts of the appearance of the risen Lord. In hearing of the appearances, believers have, without thought, made the causal connection between resurrection and appearance. While this is a reasonable deduction it goes against the primary witness of scripture to the appearances, the experience of the presence of the risen Christ, and makes the resurrection the primary event that makes the appearances possible. But what if we are faithful to the texts and make the appearances the primary event and concentrate on the subjective rather than the objective? In other words instead of saying that Christ appeared because he was raised, we reverse the causal direction and state that Christ was raised because he appeared.
This would mean that the appearances are the primary historical experience, the subjective event, and the resurrection becomes a metaphor defined by the appearance.
There are many texts that would favour this view. It is quite clear from at least three of the appearances of the risen Christ that this was no resuscitated person. The gospel of Luke (24:13-35) gives us the story of the road to Emmaus on which Jesus joined his disciples. We are told that “their eyes were kept from recognising him”. So the risen Jesus, incognito, accompanied them on the day’s journey even interpreting the scriptures to them. When they came to their destination they invited him to stay with them and it was when Jesus broke the bread that their eyes were opened and they recognised him, upon which he vanished from their sight.
The second example is the appearances of the risen Jesus given by the gospel of John (20:1929). He appeared to them in a house, the doors being locked “for fear of the Jews” and similarly disappeared.
The third example also comes from John (20:11-18) and is the story of how Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds that the body is not there. She saw Jesus standing by but did not know him. Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him”. When Jesus addresses her by her name she recognises him.
These three examples of resurrection appearances appear to cancel out the idea that Jesus was restored to life, resuscitated. There is something else going on here. The appearance stories insist that the risen one is the crucified one having still the wounds in his hands and feet and side. They also insist that the risen one is not a spirit or a ghost, even if he can appear and disappear at will and enter locked houses. The resurrection of Jesus is not the persistence of an idea but the physical presence of the Lord. This would be in line with the Bible’s contention that there is no life other than life in the body.
The contention that the resurrection was a fact of history in which Jesus was resuscitated quickly runs into trouble. Did he die again? Where are his bones? But what is more, when one insists that God has reversed the processes of death we have to roll out a whole theology of the omnipotence of God and his power to alter the physical processes of the world, against which atheists rightly protest. But most importantly, if the resurrection was a physical historical event it is trapped in time and becomes more remote from us by the second, contrary to the sayings of Jesus that he will be with us until the end of the age.
When we confess that Jesus is raised because he appears, making his appearance primary, then we can understand the theology of the presence of Jesus as “Emmanuel”, God with us, not only two millennia ago but now and in the future. For the message of Easter day is that God has vindicated this one whom we murdered and in doing so turned the tables on us so that our judgment falls back on us. We who wrought death were judged as dead and the one who we killed was judged as living.
Key ideas for this essay were provided by the Rev. Bruce Barber of Ascot Vale in Melbourne.
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