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Resurrection and time

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 31 August 2015

When Newton told us that space and time were absolute he unknowingly placed an impediment to our understanding of biblical texts and subsequently, Christian theology. Time became a physical phenomenon that could be represented in an equation by t. Time was absolute in that it proceeded regardless of events and it had a direction that could not be reversed. This may be why his researches into history consisted of a list of dates and little more.

Thus, in the modern age, following Newton, time is understood as a physical process. However, our perception of time is a modified version of chronological time in that it's passing seems to speed up and slow down and, in sleep is absent altogether. Not all events in time have equal importance, subjective time is lumpy, like prey in the stomach of a snake. Our perception of time is tied up with how memory works. We do not remember each breakfast that we have had but we do remember a fragment of a conversation uttered years in the past. In other words, our minds are attuned to salience. We remember what is important and we forget the rest. This is why I describe perceived time as lumpy. Written history is always lumpy time.

Even though, in chronological time, events are placed on a time line that cannot be changed, they are "historical" only as they relate to the future. Thus the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima is "historical" only as it relates to the future of possible atomic warfare. Such events are never isolated to themselves; they are interpreted according to their future as well as to their past. There is a sense in which their end is in their beginning and their beginning is in their end.


This is similar to the mode of time of biblical thought known as eschatological time, the time that includes the beginning and the end. When Jesus says "before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:56) he is speaking in eschatological time as is the proclamation " I am the alpha, and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." (Rev.22:13) God is the presence to which all reality is present. Thus when the congregation says in the Mass "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" they do not refer to the past, present and future but to all of time being present in the presence of God.

Readers of biblical texts who have only a Newtonian understanding of time will be at a disadvantage because they will insist that one event follows from another in a linear sequence of cause and effect. But this does not account for how we perceive events in both directions. Our judgement on whether it was legitimate to drop two atomic bombs on Japan relies on seeing the event both from their beginning and their end. Time may only move in one direction but our perception of events in time may be bidirectional. Indeed, this is necessary if our observations are to be called history.

While, for example the gospel according to Luke gives us a chronological sequence of events in the life of Jesus: birth, infancy, manhood, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, thinking in eschatological time would have it that the child in the womb of Mary is already the crucified and risen one. His end is in his beginning. This is hinted at in the prophesy of Simeon when he says;

"This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your soul also.." (Luke 2:33-35)

This is not about foretelling the future; it is about reading the beginning through the end. In order to understand this we must learn to read with a reversed sense of time. The painters of the Madonna's knew this when they portrayed Jesus and John the Baptist as infants, the latter holding a cross as in this painting by Raffael.

If the crucified and risen one are present in the man Jesus then what does this say about the resurrection? It says that the resurrection is not an event in time that followed the crucifixion but a reality present in the life of Jesus as the one who has been raised from the dead and who walked among us who are dead.


Thus the difference between Jesus and us is that He was already in his life free of the death dealing powers of the world and we are still subject. He was already the crucified and risen one and was thus living in the reality of resurrection. The promise of the gospel is that, through baptism, that symbol of death and resurrection, we too may live in freedom.

The meaning of the cross is answered when we ask who was crucified and by whom. The drama of the passion displays this for us. He was framed by the religious ones who held to the law and murdered under the Pax Romana as a rebel outside of the city walls in a place of destitution. When we say that God raised Jesus from the dead we essentially affirm the vindication of the crucified. This means that the judgment that we thought fell on Him actually falls on us. Jesus is the judge judged in our place. In raising Jesus from the dead God has turned the tables on us and we become the judged i.e. adherence to the law as a path to righteousness and the power of the state exercised in violence are put to death. While we thought it was Jesus who was judged it was actually, in the resurrection, we ourselves. Thus cross and resurrection must be held together and not split into two separate events on a time line.

As a response to the observation that the righteous suffered and the unrighteous prospered, that the victim died at the hands of the murderer, Israel began to believe in an end time in which God would judge the world and the unrighteous would be punished while the righteous would be rewarded with eternal life with God. Thus the honour of God would be preserved. History would be shown to be fulfilled at its end when death would be no more and ever tear would be wiped away.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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