Thursday 24 August 2006

Theology for beginners (7): Resurrection

Summary: The dead Jesus was raised into the life of God’s future, and in this way Jesus has become the goal of all history.

Three days after his burial, the dead Jesus appeared to his followers as the Risen One. Though this man had been put to death, he and his message were powerfully vindicated by Israel’s God. Through the power of God’s Spirit, this dead man was raised from the tomb into new life.

Jesus was not merely resuscitated. He did not simply come back to life. Nor did he enter into a disembodied afterlife, or “go to heaven.” Rather, God took this dead man through death into new life, into the life of God’s future. Precisely as a dead man, he lived! Precisely as the Crucified One, he became the Risen One! The power of God’s future entered into death and transformed death from within.

Jesus had proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom. He had proclaimed that God’s own future was dawning. He had proclaimed that history was about to reach its climax. All this came true – although not necessarily in the way that Jesus himself had expected! For Jesus died without having seen the kingdom of God – but then God himself came crashing into history from the future, thrusting the dead Jesus forward into the life of the future, into the life of God. And so history’s appointed goal did arrive! The end of history came crashing forward into the present like a missile from the future. Through his powerful Spirit, God raised Jesus from the dead: that was the arrival of the end – ahead of time!

Thus this dead man, Jesus of Nazareth, appeared to his disciples as the world’s true Lord, as the Risen One whom God had affirmed and vindicated even in death. And thus the earliest Christians proclaimed that the Crucified One was Lord – “Jesus is Lord!”

Jesus had been raised into the life of God’s future. The future is the “place” where the risen Jesus now lives. And this means that he is himself the end of history, the final goal towards which everything is heading. In exactly this sense, he is called “Lord” – he is the kingly Lord who lives and reigns from the future of God’s kingdom.

When the early Christians remembered Jesus, their memory of him was wholly shaped by the overwhelming reality of his resurrected life. When they looked back on the course of his earthly life, they saw retrospectively that he had always been the Lord, he had always been destined for death and resurrection, he had always stood in a unique relationship to the God of the future. Thus they understood that Jesus was the “Son of God” – the one who perfectly expressed the Father’s will, the one who had been with his Father from the beginning. Because Jesus had been raised into the life of the future, he must always have been the meaning and purpose and goal of all that exists.

A story makes sense only because it has an end; it is the end of the story that gives meaning to everything else in the narrative. In the same way, the whole story of Jesus has meaning only because Jesus was raised from the dead. The gospel-story narrates the meaning of all reality only because this story ends with the resurrection.

And it is for just this reason that the gospel is also a story about God. For God is the one who lives from the future. God is the context of all reality – he is the context which gives meaning to everything else. The gospel tells the defining story about God, since it narrates the final end of history. The end of history arrives beforehand in the resurrection of Jesus. And the name of this “end” is – God! To tell the story of Jesus is, in other words, to define God by narrating God. Or to put it more sharply, God himself is the event that happens when the dead Jesus is raised into the life of the future.

Further, since the gospel is the story about God, it’s also a story about ourselves. God is our goal – as the end of history, he is the goal of all our personal narratives. So to tell the story of God is, by definition, to narrate the reality of our own existence. When we speak of the resurrection of Jesus, we are also speaking about the goal of our own lives; we are speaking about that final end which will put everything else in its proper context; we are speaking about God as the meaning of reality, and therefore as the meaning of ourselves.

Throughout the rest of this series, then, we’ll be exploring these two dimensions of the gospel: in the story of Jesus, God defines himself, and in the same story God also defines us.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), pp. 299-357.
  • Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 825-79.
  • Ebeling, Gerhard. The Nature of Faith (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), pp. 58-71.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 179-206.
  • Marxsen, Willi. The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (London: SCM, 1970).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Way of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 1990), pp. 213-73.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 53-114.
  • Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK, 2003), pp. 587-738.


Anonymous said...

Ben, what do you understand "history" to mean?

Ben Myers said...

Good question, Andrewe. Admittedly in this series I'm not always using the word "history" very precisely (sorry if this has created confusion).

But I largely agree with Pannenberg's understanding of history as "a totality presented from the perspective of an end provisionally and proleptically accessible" (History and Hermeneutic, p. 151). Or to paraphrase: history is simply the whole temporal process, viewed from its end-point.

Does that answer your question?

Anonymous said...

9+1/2 out of 10, Ben! (Only God gets a perfect score!)

Just for the sake of a couple of questions that may be at the back of folk's minds . . .

1. You (rightly) insist that the risen Jesus is not "disembodied". Does that mean you agree that the tomb was empty, that it was that dead body that was raised, transformed, glorified by God; that Christ is not just raised into the kerygma (Bultmann); that the resurrection is more than just a way of talking about the cross (Jüngel) (though it is, of course, that too)?

2. You (again rightly) emphasise that Christ was raised into the eschatological future. But what about the Christus praesens? Or will that come under Spirit, Church and Sacrament?

David W. Congdon said...

Ben, your best post yet in this series! Thus far I have been wanting less description and more interpretation, and now we're seeing that transition. Great post.

Kim, I do not have anything to say in disagreement with you, but I wish to make a point that might be helpful to those who could get the wrong impression from your comment.

I happen to think the question about the emptiness of the tomb is a distraction. I am not saying the physicality of the resurrection is unimportant, only that we should not view Bultmann's kerygma and a physical resurrection as mutually exclusive options. In the same way that Christ in the flesh was not self-evidently God (cf. Peter's confession), so too the empty tomb is not self-evidently the eschatological event of the resurrection. The being of God in the incarnation and in the resurrection are accessible only to the eyes of faith, and thus through the kerygma. The gospel proclamation that Jesus is truly Lord is not one that "resurrection evidence" could ever make self-evident.

Thus, Bultmann is not wrong in emphasizing Jesus' resurrection in the kerygma, but he was misguided in placing that in opposition to a "mythical" physical resurrection. And Jüngel, I think, understands the event quite well, in that he recognizes the role of faith. In that faith sees in the resurrection the eschatological event of God's YES disrupting the order of this world, we are given a framework within which to understand the rest of the narrative, including the death of Jesus on the cross. The resurrection looks forward to the kerygma proclamation and back to the cross and, still further, to the history of Israel.

So, in my opinion, the tomb itself is more like a detail in the story of God's in-breaking in human history. It is not superfluous, but neither does it convey meaning or significance. The significance rests solely in the God who resurrects, the One who is resurrected, and the proclamation that narrates this event to others.

Like I said, I do not disagree with your desire to make sure the resurrection remains particular and embodied, but I also want to make sure we do not undermine what Bultmann and Jüngel get right.

Chris Petersen said...

Very well said, Ben.

Anonymous said...

Hi DW.

Thanks for your helpful and enlightening comments. I think that we are basically in agreement, given your generous interpretation of Jüngel and, especially, Bultmann. Except that I would submit that the empty tomb is more than a "distraction", precisely because without out it the "physicality" of the resurrection (on which we concur) is baseless, and we are left with a docetic Christ. If it is a "detail", God is in the detail, the God who you rightly say alone gives Easter its significance.

So though I certainly do not think that the empty tomb is self-explanatory, that it is a sufficient condition for resurrection faith, I do think that it is a necessary condition.

It is, in any case, the unanimous NT witness that the tomb was empty - and not just the witness of the gospels - even if that witness is implicit - because "the simple fact [is] that no Jew would have used the word 'resurrection' to describe an afterlife in which the physical body was left to the grave" (George Caird, foonoting S. H. Hooke and R. H. Fuller). Caird (who was my teacher at Oxford), by the way, is not as charitable as you are in his reading of "The New Testament and Mythology": he speaks of Bultmann "leav[ing] us only with the bodiless grin of existentialism". And of course you know what Barth had to say about the matter! Bultmann shook his head at Barth's reading of Luke's forty days.

Again, resurrection-talk is not just a way of talking about the cross (though, again, it is that too - and no one does it better than Jüngel), but it is "quite straightforwardly, a way of talking about being bodily alive after a period of being bodily dead. Resurrection is a second-stage post-mortem life: life after 'life after death'" (Tom Wright).

Regarding the appearances of the Christ - to pick up on Ben's emphasis on narrative - "There is," writes Rowan Williams, "a definable beginning to the process of resurrection encounter, and it is the discovery of the absence of Jesus' corpse. . . The empty tomb certainly does not create resurrection faith, but what it does do is to guarantee that when the community encounters the mercy and the calling of the risen Lord, it interprets his risen-ness in a certain way. . . If [Jesus'] body is not in the tomb, then that must be what is met when Jesus is met." The One who was dead and laid in the tomb - and who is no longer there - that is the One on whom, as you say, the significance of the resurrection rests.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben, I think it answers my question. It makes me recall a really interesting related quote from Oliver O'Donovan. Writing about the end of Revelation where it says "Behold, I make all things new." "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." O'Donovan says:

"With these three words we stand in the sanctum sanctorum of history. Everything is stripped away; even judgment and reconciliation stand to one side. We confront the sheer act and being of God. He who by his mere decision created the heaven and the earth, now by his mere decision makes all things new, conferring upon creation a 'history' and a fulfillment. The words 'I make' and 'All is accomplished' complement one another: there is no futurity about the first, no preterity about the second. History is summoned into being by God's ever present declarative act, and there and then it is accomplished, reflecting back the glory of the one who summoned it, who can now be known as Alpha and Omega, its source and end." ('The political thought of the Book of Revelation,' Tyndale Bulletin 37, 1986).

P.S. on the subject of your coffee photos, was one of them taken at Campos Coffee in Newtown?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Andrewe -- no, unfortunately the photos aren't from Campos (although Campos is my favourite cafe in the country -- they make good coffee!). And, speaking of coffee, you're right, Steph: I'd never drink anything that looks like this -- I just thought people would be getting bored of all the espresso pictures....

Anyway, back to the resurrection: thanks for these various comments. I agree with Kim that Jesus is raised into bodily existence (not merely into the kerygma, etc.). After all, it wouldn't be "resurrection" unless there were some kind of bodily continuity. On the other hand, though, (as I've posted on earlier) in 1 Cor. 15 Paul also emphasises the element of discontinuity: yes, there is a resurrection "body", but we don't know what we're saying when we speak of a "body" in this context!

So perhaps the most we can say is that the same body is raised (thus the "empty tomb" traditions are significant), but that this body undergoes eschatological transformation and is thus also different (in inconceivable ways).

Anonymous said...

Absolutely, Ben. You could even say that we, living betwen the times - in contrast to the first witnesses to the resurrection - and Paul - will not know what a "body" really is until the risen Christ comes again.

David W. Congdon said...

Kim, I agree with you. I personally have full confidence in the emptiness of the tomb and the physical particularity of Jesus' bodily resurrection. That said, I have two goals in mind: (1) to avoid the inerrantist-evidentialist camp that tries to make the "facts" of the resurrection the foundation for belief, and (2) to rehabilitate Bultmann's kerygma so that we understand the close relation to the gospel proclamation and the presence of the risen Lord through the Holy Spirit (though, unlike Bultmann, I do not place the kerygma over against the bodily resurrection).

Finally, I actually do not think that I am saying anything that Jüngel could not confess. Jüngel avoids talk about the bodily resurrection, only because he does not feel that it can be dissociated from the crucifixion — the Resurrected One is the Crucified One. The crucifixion casts Jesus' whole life and the very being of God into a new light. The resurrection then casts all of that into an even newer light. The former demonstrates God's solidarity with humanity unto death; the latter God's victory over death and suffering.

The empty tomb and physical body of Jesus is important and not to be discarded, but these are understandable in light of the gospel proclamation: Jesus is Lord. Otherwise the meaning of the resurrection is lost, and without the meaning, an empty tomb loses all significance. I simply want to stress that the existential side and the "objective" side should not be mutually exclusive, or appear to contradict one another. In saying that, I am trying to do what Jüngel does in many of his works, that is, bridging Barth and Bultmann.

Anonymous said...

DW - bingo!

And thanks for the further explication of your "programme" - its polemical opposition to the inerrantist/evidentialist purveyors of facts and foundations to the Easter faith. How banal all those books - like Who Moved the Stone? - that "prove" the resurrection, QED!

By the way, on the issue of theologoumena with polemical intent, cut back to the discussion on The Beauty of the Infinite, where I ask some questions about Gregory of Nyssa's doctrine of the divine infinity.

Steven Carr said...

Why did early Christian converts in Thessalonica believe that the dead were lost?

And why did many early converts to Jesus-worship in Corinth scoff at the idea that a corpse could rise from the grave?

And why did the author of 1 Peter write that 'All flesh is grass'. Didn't he know that flesh was the one eternal material in the universe?

BHCh said...


1. Why is this story different from the stories about the resurrection of Osiris, Tammuz, Attis or Mithra?

2. How do you know what happened? There is a very long time interval between surviving records and events. Sadly the Church continued its doctorship (and destruction) of relevant texts from Constantine times till at least 16th century.

3. How do you know what "early Christians" believed? Which "early Christians" are you referring to? Do you mean followers of Joshua lead by his brother in Judea or Gnostics in Egypt or ...?

byron smith said...

Thanks Ben, Kim and DWC for an informative and insightful discussion, where there seems to be a great deal of basic agreement. Thanks Ben also for linking back to that previous post about the resurrection - I had been looking for it recently and hadn't found it on a quick search.

Shlemazl: 1. A great deal could be said here (and others may add more), but I'd say that one of the key differences is that this is a once-off eschatological event, rather than a mythical cyclical event.

2. Again, there are complex and simple answers. For a fuller, more complete argument, see the recent volume by N. T. Wright called The Resurrection of the Son of God. But a brief answer is that our knowledge of the past comes through the critical examination of the accounts of witnesses, and whatever other evidence is available.

3. As Wright has shown (in the book above), there was a striking and broad consensus about the meaning of resurrection across the early Christians, with the exception of the 'gnostic' texts. The divergences and relationship(s) between gnostic and 'catholic' Christianity is far from simple or easy, but can nonetheless be summarised as two quite different takes on the Jesus events. If you are serious about your questions, I really do recommend Wright.

Others with more time might take up more detailed responses - though I wonder whether you've arrived on this discussion too late...

Steven Carr said...

Wright wrote a 700-plus page book on the resurrection without one finding space to quote in full Paul writing 'The last Adam became a life-giving spirit'.

Nor did Wright feel like discussing the obvious typology here - that we too will become life-giving spirits.

Nor did Wright find space in his 700-plus page book to quote 1 Peter saying 'All flesh is grass', although there is a footnote saying this is a 'positive passage', without saying what is in the passage.

So if you want a discussion of resurrection , which actually deals with what early Christians believed, you need to supplement Wright with a comprehensive work.

Matthew Moffitt said...

Didn't Wright deal with 1 Cor. 15.45 in Climax of the Covenant? (pp. 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 38, 178).

Given all the footnotes, you do need to read Resurrection of the Son of God along with Resurrection and Moral Order

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