Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Believing in the resurrection

In a very lively post, Mike Bird critiques N. T. Wright’s view that one does not need to believe in bodily resurrection in order to be a Christian. Wright says: “I have friends who I am quite sure are Christians who do not believe in the bodily resurrection. But the view I take of them—and they know this—is that they are very, very muddled.... I do think, however, ... that for healthy Christian life individually and corporately, belief in the bodily resurrection is foundational.”

To all this, Mike replies: “No!” He points out that according to early Christian belief, it is confession of Jesus as the “Risen Lord” that marks a person out as a Christian. He also notes that “the belief that Jesus ‘died and rose’ was the most basic and primitive Christian confession,” and that the resurrection is bound up with the gospel (as Paul argues in 1 Cor. 15).

On this occasion, I will have to side with N. T. Wright against Mike. I think Mike is exactly right about the centrality of resurrection in the primitive Christian kerygma. But the crucial question is whether any particular theological interpretation of resurrection belongs to the heart of the gospel. And it seems to me that the New Testament itself resists such a view. In fact, the New Testament witnesses don’t offer any precise theological interpretation of the resurrection. None of the Gospels tries to describe or explain the event of resurrection at all—rather, the resurrection is precisely the mystery at the centre of the story of Jesus.

The closest thing to a definition of “resurrection” in the New Testament is of course Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 15. But even here, Paul focuses sharply on the discontinuity between the physical body and the resurrected body, so that the precise meaning of “resurrection” is made all the more mysterious. Paul elucidates the concept only with the aid of various metaphors—and that is just the point! The precise meaning of “resurrection” remains unknown; it remains an event of the world to come, whose meaning lies beyond the horizon of our current understanding.

Resurrection is not a this-worldly reality; it is eschatological reality. We can grope toward its meaning through metaphors like resuscitation or awakening from sleep. We can grope toward its meaning through narratives like Mark’s story of the transfiguration (Mk. 9) and Matthew’s story of the opening of graves (Matt. 27). But we cannot define the concept of resurrection itself. When we speak of the resurrection, we are speaking of a mystery.

So to make any specific theological interpretation of “resurrection” an essential component of Christian faith seems to be at odds with the New Testament witnesses, and with the eschatological character of resurrection.

I myself believe in “bodily resurrection,” and I think this concept is the most faithful way of following the New Testament witnesses—but I could never tell you exactly what “bodily resurrection” means, and I would never want the term to become anything more than a metaphor. Other Christians interpret the resurrection using different terms and different metaphors; in different ways, they are still trying to affirm the resurrection of Jesus.

Needless to say, some interpretations of the resurrection are mistaken, and some are closer to the truth than others. But the one thing that matters ultimately is faith in the “Risen Lord”—not one’s ability to define this faith in correct conceptual terms.

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