Round Table: Resurrection
This week, Western Christians celebrate Holy Week, the last days of Jesus Christ on earth before his crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate, torturous suffering on a cross, and death. Of course, the story of Christ does not end there, but continues on Sunday with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This act—the defeat of death—became the launching point of the Christian faith, the linchpin of the Gospel: God has come to earth and he has destroyed the dominion of death. It is hard to overstate the importance of the resurrection.
In subsequent centuries, the Resurrection has come to mean different things for different communities of Christians. For some people today—dare I say, even some churches—the Resurrection is little more than a myth, a concocted story of ancient time, created to provide legitimation for the institutional church. For others, however, the resurrection remains a fundamental truth, without which, no true Christianity may exist. For this Round Table, we asked our authors to reflect on the following question: How does your theological tradition respond to the question of Jesus’ bodily resurrection?
Contributions to this forum come from Baptist, Orthodox, Catholic, and Reformed voices, though they will each tell you that their responses are Christian before they are anything else, for, as Editor-in-Chief Ben Cabe writes below, Christians who doubt the Resurrection can hardly call themselves Christians. Responses to this question—in true Conciliar Post Round Table form—are meant as beginnings to answers and dialogue points, rather than fully formed dogmatic statements. We encourage you to join in this conversation through the comments section below.
As a girl raised in Baptist and Bible churches, I knew where our circles stood on the bodily resurrection of Christ. Since Scripture reported that Christ rose bodily from the dead, we believed it without reservation. Then came that inevitable moment when I doubted. I at least had the honesty to understand that if I was going to reject the Resurrection, I might as well forget being a Christian. But why?
Centuries ago, Christians like me were asking the same questions and the Apostle Paul answered them in a letter to the church at Corinth. He begins by asking why some in the church were spreading rumors that there was no such thing as a resurrection of the dead.
“But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen; and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up…For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (I Cor. 15:13-19)
The Resurrection is central to Christianity—a testing ground. If Christ did not rise from the dead, he could not have been who he said he was. He could only be, as C.S. Lewis has put it, the Lord, a liar, or a lunatic. He claimed to be God, and only God could will himself out of the grave. No, I can’t scientifically prove that Christ rose from the dead. My unimpressive store of evidence is only what historians have to prove that any event took place—a few eyewitnesses who wrote about what they’d seen. Most of them died violent deaths, defending and preaching a faith that centered around, you guessed it, the Resurrection. But the skeptics have had all that for years and it never changed their minds. I have something more than that—the words of Christ and a record of his actions.
A liar couldn’t have said, “…Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” and then gone on to live his own words when the people rose against him, had him flogged, and nailed him to a rough piece of wood to suffocate to death.
A lunatic might have told us to love our enemies and been crazed enough to follow through on his own advice. But a lunatic on whose terms? Ours, who for the past centuries have been killing each other wholesale and soaking the earth’s soil with blood? Who’s crazy? His commands are sane. The way we live isn’t. But the LORD could have said it, done it, and risen from the dead, just like He said He would. That’s my conclusion. I can now say with Paul, “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept” (I Cor. 15:20). He is risen indeed.
How we answer this question largely depends on who is asking it. Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, addressed Christians confused by Gnostic dualism in a lost work entitled, On The Resurrection, fragments of which read:
“If the resurrection were only spiritual, it was requisite that He, in raising the dead, should show the body lying apart by itself, and the soul living apart by itself. But now He did not do so, but raised the body, confirming in it the promise of life. Why did He rise in the flesh in which He suffered, unless to show the resurrection of the flesh?”
Twenty-first century “Christians” who deny the bodily Resurrection can hardly call themselves thus. For such a person has torn to shreds the Historic Faith and, in an attempt to reassemble it—usually using the moral precepts of Christianity—has created something virtually unrecognizable. For them, God truly is dead, and the angst of the existentialists is realized; life is meaningless, death has the final word. Without the Resurrection there is no Christianity.
In the Lamentations on Holy and Great Friday, Orthodox Christians tearfully sing:
In a grave they laid Ye, O my Life and my Christ; and the armies of the angels were sore amazed, as they sang the praise of Thy submissive love.
But early Sunday morning, after our tears have fallen—like Christ’s in John 11—we sing the Paschal Troparion:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life!
Christ has filled all things with life! He has opened to us Paradise.
Belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ is seen not only in scripture and patristic writings, but in the events that took place afterward. Ultimately, rational proofs can only go so far; the only way a person will be “convinced” of Christ’s bodily resurrection is by an encounter with the resurrected Christ—the foundation of the Christian faith. To this, the Orthodox Church would merely respond as it always does: come and see.
In your time of reflection this Paschal season, I would highly recommend listening to this.
For Roman Catholics, the Resurrection is the central truth of the Christian faith. If Jesus had suffered, died, and was buried, but did not rise from the dead, then he would have been like so many others executed by the Roman Empire. It is the fact that he rose from the dead that we worship him as our Savior and a member of the Holy Trinity. Christ’s resurrection from the dead was a physical, bodily resurrection; his soul reinhabited and reanimated his body. For us Christians, the bodily resurrection of Jesus promises that we will experience bodily resurrection in heaven in the new world to come.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of Jesus’ Resurrection as a “historical and transcendent event.” Christ did not merely rise spiritually as a representation of his conquering of sin and death; his resurrection was as bodily as his incarnation. It historically happened three days after he was crucified. We have inarguable proof to his bodily resurrection in Scripture with the empty tomb, with Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus in the garden, with the appearances on Emmaus and to the Apostles, and with Saint Thomas’ touching of Christ’s wounds.
The Catechism proclaims, “Give all these testimonies [in Scripture], Christ’s Resurrection cannot be interpreted as something outside of the physical order, and it is impossible not to acknowledge it as a historical fact.” Historical facts happen to people who live and perceive the world with their bodies, for history progresses through time and space; as a historical fact, then, Christ’s Resurrection had to happen in the physical order of the time and space that govern our world.
The bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead is also a transcendent event. It is unlike the resurrections of Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the others whom Jesus raised during his earthly ministry. Rather, as the Catechism states, “Christ’s Resurrection is an object of faith in that it is a transcendent intervention of God himself in creation and history.”1 The Resurrection of Christ represents much more than a return from the dead; it “above all constitutes the confirmation of all of Christ’s works and teachings”2 and “is the fulfillment of the promises of both the Old Testament and of Jesus himself during his earthly life.”3 His bodily resurrection confirmed Christ’s divinity and power over all things, including death and sin, for only God has the power to give, take, and return life.
Finally, the bodily resurrection of Christ matters because of the promise of our resurrection. When we recite the Nicene Creed, we proclaim with Christians from throughout the ages, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Through God’s grace, we become co-heirs to eternal life through Christ. Because Christ bodily rose from the dead, so too, can we hope for a bodily resurrection after our time on earth is past.Show Sources
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . . (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).”1
So begins Paul’s famous chapter on the Resurrection. Looking at the question before us, there are a couple different ways that we could head. On the one hand, we could ask “Was there a bodily resurrection?”, diving into the apologetic related arguments for the empty tomb. On the other hand, we could ask “Why a bodily resurrection?” and start examining the impact of the Resurrection on our lives today. I have elected to go the latter route, partly because it has more immediate application to our lives, and partly because I think a separate article would better serve the apologetic arguments. If you’re interested in hearing more about why we believe the tomb to be empty, take advantage of the Ask page and let us know. We would love to look at the ideas that are of particular interest to you.
When it comes to our faith and day-to-day lives, both the Resurrection and the fact that it was a bodily resurrection are of importance. As his argumentation fills out, Paul highlights the importance of the Resurrection with the reminder that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Death is the visible consequence of sin. This fact stretches from the beginning2 to the end3 of the Bible. With the Resurrection, Christ defeated death, demonstrating that his sacrifice had indeed atoned for our sin. In effect, Christ’s work is worthless without the Resurrection. Second, it is important to keep in mind that this was a bodily resurrection. The resurrection of Christ’s body shows that God is committed to all of his creation. It reminds us that the world was originally created good4 and therefore our history goes further back than the Fall. Ultimately, sin and death do not get the final say for the Creation. God will redeem it as well. Additionally, the resurrecting of the physical body dissuades us from the Gnostic notions of a distinction between the spiritual and physical worlds. All are created by God and will equally be part of the redemption.
Putting all this together, the Resurrection is a call to bring redemption to the rest of the world, physical and spiritual. Another way to say this would be that both the Great Commission5 and the call to Stewardship in Genesis6 still direct the Church today. That, in Christ, we will effectively pursue these charges is the final message of the Resurrection. It is the finale of Paul’s discussion of the Resurrection, and an ongoing challenge and encouragement to us: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).Show Sources
1 Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Genesis 2:16-17
3 Revelation 21:1-4
4 Genesis 1:31. I’m taking the last verse in Genesis as a sample, but the end of each day in the creation is described as being good.
5 Matthew 28:18-20
6 Genesis 1:28