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What with Easter still ringing in our ears, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic of resurrection, but from a historical standpoint and why we can trust it as a real, world-changing event. So, what really is the resurrection? How will we be resurrected, and what does it mean for us that Jesus rose again? Let’s explore what this means for us as Christians, and see what the Scriptures say.
Jesus was raised bodily – and historically
Let’s look at the way Jesus was resurrected first, since he is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23).
The historical, bodily resurrection of Christ is central to our faith. Without it, we may as well pack up and go home, which Paul makes clear to the Corinthian church:
1 Corinthians 15:12-15
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.
I saw a survey recently about this very topic, which suggested that a worrying amount of self-identifying Christians in Britain don’t believe that the resurrection of Jesus happened at all!
Fewer than one-in-three Christians in Britain believe “word-for-word” the Biblical story of Jesus rising from the dead … A survey for the BBC carried out to mark Palm Sunday found that 23 per cent of those calling themselves Christians “do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” at all. [Source: telegraph.co.uk]
The resurrection is what makes Christianity unique!
Despite the misinformation that circulates on the internet, Jesus isn’t just a carbon-copy of previous “dying and rising gods” from Egypt and Greece – mainly because none pre-date Christianity!
The consensus among modern scholars — nearly universal — is that there were no dying and rising gods that preceded Christianity. They all post-dated the first century. [Source: y-jesus.com]
It’s this uniqueness and reality which impacts our lives and changes us from within, because the “Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells” in us (Rom 8:11)! Think about that for a moment. The power that raised Christ from the dead – that incredible force of God; the very life giving Spirit of the universe, dwells in US!
Christians might do all those [good works], but that is not the core of their faith. It is the result of their faith. They do those things as the musician plays music or the athlete plays his sport. They do those things because they are talented and it gives them joy. So the Christian does these good things because he has been filled with the Spirit of the risen Jesus Christ and he does those things with joy because he wants to. [Source: patheos.com]
Recently, the Shroud of Turin has been in the news again, as it has been recently authenticated again, which shows that it may not be a medieval forgery or piece of art! If you’ve not heard of this “Shroud of Turin”, it’s an ancient burial cloth which bears the image of a man who has been crucified, obviously meaning to be of Jesus. It attracts attention because of its unique nature and that it appears to be a negative image somehow imprinted on the cloth in an inexplicable way:
Giulio Fanti of Padua University ... In 2012 … concluded that an electrical charge in the form of radiation is what likely caused the man’s image to be imprinted on the Shroud. He has also dated the Shroud to the time of Jesus, debunking the flawed carbon-14 testing conducted in 1988.
You can read more about the recent study and its results here: nationalreview.com.
Now obviously, the truth of the resurrection doesn't rely on the Shroud’s authenticity; but if the Shroud is authentic, then it just adds further weight to what Christianity proclaims.
Imagine the level of power that must have happened to make something like that, and that is the same Spirit which lives in us! Just think about it, the death of Jesus caused an earthquake across all of Jerusalem, how much more power was there in the life of God coming back in resurrection? Maybe a similar process of how “nuclear shadows” were created? It’s speculation, but it’s definitely interesting.
Evidence from Paul
Paul talks a lot about Jesus in a spiritual, post-resurrection way; but he does give us a couple of references to the historic Jesus too. In his letter to the Corinth church there is one such example of what happened after the resurrection:
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
(v.6) “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.”
After a quick run-down of the Gospel and how Jesus rose again, Paul highlights a little tidbit of info which is him basically saying, “if you don’t believe me, you can go an ask those people!” He’s saying, “don’t just take my word for it”, because there are living witnesses all over the place who can testify to this fact, not just the small group of Apostles.
Aside from this, Paul’s own life and testimony is a pretty solid proof of the resurrection of Jesus. Paul was taught by the best, had a high position, well respected etc. (Acts 22:3 cf. Acts 5:34; Phil 3:4-6; 2 Cor 11:22); basically he was living the life – and then decided to throw all of that away and endure shipwrecks, beatings, lashings, torture, stoning, hunger and homelessness (see 2 Cor 11:23-27 for the full run-down of Paul’s sufferings!), just for something that may or may not have happened, a convincing story or fable?
No, Paul met the real, risen Christ, and it threw his old life out of the window!
The mystery of the resurrection
We get a small glimpse into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection from Peter and Paul in their letters where Peter explains that Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-19) – “prison” being the place of the dead for those people from times of old who had died. Paul also, in his letter to the Ephesians, follows up on this same event when he says that Jesus, “who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” and that in doing so “he made captivity itself a captive” (Eph 4: 8-10).
Death itself is captive to Jesus because he holds the keys to Death and Hades (Rev 1:18), and dare I say, this moment when the Light of the World went down into the shadowy darkness of Sheol, it was possibly the first and last time there was ever any light in that gloomy place!
Ignatius gives us an early insight into the understanding of this descending and rising out of that “prison” Hades (or Sheol in Hebrew), by linking it to the event in Mat 27:52 –
“For Says the Scripture, ‘Many bodies of the saints that slept arose,’ their graves being opened. He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude” – Ignatius to the Trallians, ch. IX
The nature of the resurrection
Firstly, the resurrection is spiritual.
Though spiritual isn’t the only type of resurrection taught in the New Testament, many people think that’s it’s purely a physical act only.
Many times in Scripture when speaking of baptism, it is used and described as a symbolic act of dying and being raised with Christ into a new creation, despite keeping our “old” bodies in the meantime (see Col 2:12; Col 3:1; Eph 2:5-6; Rom 6:4). This, I believe, is why there was such an emphasis on the importance of baptism in the early Church, and why it’s something sacred we should also highly esteem and not take lightly.
While these verses (and many others) make it clear that through baptism we die to our old selves and are raised anew in Christ, we must also understand that this prefigures our future resurrection when we finally “put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:53-54). Though we will eventually die physically in the body, we won't die at all because death is defeated and it has no sting nor power over us!
In ancient times (and probably still today) accepting the resurrection of Jesus, and our future selves, was a major sticking point for new converts, or those interested in the faith. Even the Jewish leaders couldn’t agree in on this let alone Gentiles! Resurrection was a totally new concept to expect to receive personally, or to happen at all; even the Jewish sect of the Sadducees didn’t believe it – just see Acts 23:8 for that.
Paul spends quite some time on the resurrection and explaining what it means and how it will be, though it is a topic that will always be limited by our human understanding. This is why the nature of the resurrection is always contrasted with the putting on of new clothes or in building a new tent, or the sowing of seeds. Even if you don’t have a farming background, it’s still easy to understand the concept of what is being said here in terms of our physical, mortal body being removed like an outer garment, and being replaced with something better (1 Cor 15:44; 2 Cor 5:1-2).
It is quite rightly a mystery, as Paul says!
Justin Martyr gives a good analogy in his great work, First Apology, when trying to explain this concept of the resurrection to a Roman emperor, and contrasts it with “human seed” (ie. sperm);
[If I] were to show you human seed and a picture of a man, and were to say with confidence that from such a substance such a being could be produced, would you believe before you saw the actual production?
– St. Justin Martyr: First Apology
Basically, if you’d never known human growth, and someone showed you a drop of fluid and a photo of an adult and said one produced the other, would you believe it if you hadn’t already witnessed it to be true? In the same way then, the resurrection happens, and it can only be accepted by those who are willing to believe something which seems impossible, but will “in God's appointed time, rise again and put on incorruption”.
The resurrection is more than physical
I prefer to use the word “glorified” with regards to our resurrection because saying “physical” just isn't adequate enough to describe the mystery of what our bodies become.
Our new bodies will be similar to our current physical bodies, but not the same – not limited like our earthly bodies are; in the same way Jesus was changed, we too shall also be transformed “into the likeness of His glorious body” (Phil 3:21)!
In the same way that spiritual beings such as angels can become “physical” in appearance, they aren't the same as we are now. Much like when Jesus ascended to the Father and later appeared to his disciples, he was no longer the same human Jesus they once knew (2 Cor 5:16).
Despite eating and drinking (Luke 24:39-43) and seeming the same as before, he now appeared in their midst behind locked doors (John 20:19); travelled with people in an unrecognisable form – or could control other’s perceptions of him until required (Luke 24:15-16), and the could also disappear in the blink of an eye (Luke 24:31)!
Christ was raised physically, initially, but then his body was different. Glorified, not human.
Origen captures this concept well in his book Contra Celsus;
“After his resurrection, Christ existed in an intermediate state, as it were. For it was somewhere between the physicalness of the body He had before his sufferings and the appearance of a soul uncovered by such a body. It was for this reason that … Jesus came and stood in [the disciples] midst, even though the doors were shut.”
– Origen, Contra Celsus, Book II, ch.62
So what is the resurrection? It is a mystery of something which is deeply spiritual, yet also joined in the flesh of renewed bodies. It is hope for our future and peace over death, and encouragement for those who have had people they love die (1 Thess 4:13-14).
It is something we can rejoice in now through our baptism and new spiritual life in Christ by his Spirit within us, which makes us a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).
It is strange co-joining of this world and the heavenly realms where, despite still being in our tarnished flesh, we are also seated with Christ up high (Eph 2:6), waiting until the day in which we finally put on immortality and join our Lord in a restored creation.