by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 4, 1990, p. 331, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
As Christ surprised Mary in the garden, he may also surprise us in the routine of the liturgy, the lections and hymns, perhaps even in the preaching.
". . . they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?"
Let’s begin by admitting that we Christians can’t agree on what happened Easter morning. Certainly resurrection faith does not require belief in the resuscitation of a corpse! But does it require faith in the empty tomb? Maybe the various Gospel accounts are best read as innocent attempts — decades after the first Easter — to provide some historical hook on which first-century believers could hang their experiential faith.
The proclamation of the empty tomb was not self-evidently believable to many early Christians. Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, indicates that the resurrection itself was an intellectual hurdle for antimaterialistic first-century believers who supposed salvation to be the liberation of the soul from the body. Nonetheless, despite their philosophic biases, many early Christians experienced Christ alive in their hearts, and thus questions surrounding his resurrection became significant. How could he be alive in us even as we dwell on this earth if his earthly body lay rotting in an earthly grave?
If the empty tomb is ahistorical and is merely an ad hoc answer to such a question, it is clearly a naïve solution. For if the empty tomb merely solves a perceived contradiction between the risen Christ being truly among us while his body moldered in the grave, then where is the body now? If the Ascension is merely a sensational way of getting rid of the body problem once and for all, what sense can be made of the idea that the corporeal Jesus resides somewhere in the invisible realms of eternity?
Paul’s understanding of Christ’s resurrection does more than give us an empty tomb for a resurrection faith. For Paul what came forth from the grave was a new reality — not a physical body but a "spiritual" body (I Cor. 15:35-44) . Whether belief in the empty tomb is required by Paul’s account of the resurrection of a spiritual body can be argued interminably. Was the earthly body of Christ somehow consumed in his resurrection like a grain of wheat that sprouts new life (I Cor. 15:36-37) , in which case the tomb would have been empty? Or did Jesus’ body simply go the way of all flesh, while his "spiritual" body was an utterly new creation? And what of the authority of Scripture? On what grounds can we claim to accept God’s promise of eternal life and then reject the Scripture’s claim that the sign of God’s promise is the empty tomb?
A growing number of theologians and pastors are indifferent to any such arguments and reject all belief in life beyond the grave. According to them, even Jesus went into oblivion. Christ’s resurrection is meaningful only if we make it so here and now in the only existence we will ever have. Such debates don’t seem terribly helpful to Christians as they in faith approach the tomb with Mary at Easter. Overwhelmed by these contradictory theories, we cry out with Mary, "They have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When the children of God ask for bread, has theology provided only a stone? Or worse, morbid debates in which we Christians end up sounding like embalmers, necrophiles or nihilists?
I know what I think "happened" on Easter — at the tomb and beyond. But at the most important level, it doesn’t matter in the least what I or anyone thinks. For the reality outstrips our thoughts about it. The whole history of the modern and postmodern eras has burned into our consciousness — on grounds as various as Enlightenment rationalism and post-Nietzschean deconstructionism — the scientific, psychological and ontological impossibility of a resurrection. Even more grievous is that our lifestyles are so utterly worldly that our praxis seems to give the lie to any residue of belief in life beyond the grave. Yet despite all this, Christ keeps coming back to us.
Nearly 2,000 years separate us from Mary, yet we will go to church this Easter with many of the same expectations as she on the first Easter at the tomb. Everything our mutual worldliness — Mary’s and our own — has taught us leads us to believe we will find only death. And we will find the death, the living death, that our worldliness and sin and religiosity has wrought in us. Nevertheless, as Christ surprised Mary in the garden, he may also surprise us in the routine of the liturgy, the lections and hymns, perhaps even in the preaching.
For despite our doubts and denials, our complacency and hedonism, he is alive. Even we First World Christians, we secular lords of the earth, know he is alive. He survives even us. Is it any wonder he is discovered walking daily among his own, among the wretched in developing countries? Africa and South America already number the majority of the world’s Christians. Of course he would be walking among the poor. And how powerfully he is alive among the long-suffering Christians of Eastern Europe where communism sought in so crude (and thus in a far less corrupting manner) to take his life.
To rid ourselves of him once and for all, we must slay him. But slay him and he will rise. "God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, for it was not possible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2:24) . We keep crucifying him — by our treatment of the poor, by our ceaseless intellectualizing, by our rank worldliness — and he keeps rising to meet us; he will not be snatched away. Furthermore, despite our evasions and doubts, we know very well where to find his body. God forgive us, we his church are his body, in our faithfulness but also in our sin. His body is on his table, on our tongues, in our bellies and in our bowels. How foolish of us to deny his resurrection or slay him anew, for we but deny and slay ourselves.