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The Resurrection: A Truth Beyond Understanding

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 7, 1982, p. 403. 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.


This Easter, as with Easters past, most churches can expect a “good” attendance. If Easter doesn’t bring Christians to church, what will? Even those whose attendance is relatively sporadic -- the “Easter Christians” -- are aware, however vaguely, of the centrality of the resurrection for faith. Without their faith in the resurrection, the apostles, the original “Easter Christians,” would have come to assess Jesus very differently than they ultimately did judge him. The resurrection was perceived to be God’s vindication of Jesus as the Messiah, reversing God’s apparent repudiation of Jesus in the crucifixion. Without this faith, there would have been no Christianity.

Notwithstanding the vital importance of the resurrection for the church, past and present, it would be nave to suppose that there is anything approaching a consensus within the church over the objective question: What actually happened on the first Easter?

This Easter, though Christians in many churches will be standing together in the pews and singing in joyful harmony the triumphant anthem “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, Alleluia,” their interpretations of the resurrection will be radically discordant. Some members of the congregation will be thinking of a relatively straightforward physical event. Certainly more was entailed, but at the very least the resurrection entailed a resuscitation of the body and an empty tomb, with Jesus concretely and empirically manifested.

Others will conceive of the event in a “demythologized” manner. What came forth from death was not a body; the event was not historical but existential. What arose was the apostles’ faith, which impelled them to proclaim the kerygma. In a sense we are celebrating, through the “myth” of Christ’s resurrection, the existential fact of our own resurrection from despair through the proclaimed word of faith.

For still others such Germanic circumlocution is impossible to understand, let alone embrace; they will regard the resurrection in a rationalistic, relatively “old-fashioned” deist-liberal manner as a prescientific way of expressing the timeless content of Jesus’ life and ministry -- his preaching about the love of God and the need for human fellowship.

This latter view is emblematic of a relatively “low” Christology; however, there need be no direct correlation between a belief in a bodily resurrection and a “high” Christology. One church member might affirm the objectivity of the presence of the risen Christ as the first fruits of a new creation and still be entirely agnostic over the question of what occurred in the tomb. What was buried was flesh and blood; what confronted the apostles in the resurrection appearances was a new humanity. Who can know -- and who cares -- what happened to the atoms of Jesus’ body?

This range of opinions does not exhaust the list of possible alternative understandings of the resurrection, but it is enough to indicate that the church is not of one mind on the question of what happened that first Easter. This lack of single-mindedness is surely problematic. If, for example, we Christians testify to the resurrection of Christ but include in that testimony a myriad of self-contradictory caveats, does not the skeptic have some grounds for shaking a finger derisively at what is a perceived hypocrisy and insisting that Christians don’t really believe in the resurrection either? Or do we try to keep our divergent views to ourselves, and though meaning vastly different things when we say that Christ is risen, give the outward appearance of a unified intention?

Such a conspiracy of silence could not be maintained for very long, even if it were not dishonorable. Inquirers in and out of the church have always pressed for answers concerning the meaning and intention of resurrection talk. It does no good to keep repeating, “I believe in the resurrection,” when the question we are asked is what we mean by the word resurrection. The cat has long since been out of the bag; it is an open secret, this fact of the church’s pluralism in its interpretation of the resurrection.

But the church need not be embarrassed by this diversity of understanding. A wealth of interpretations is unavoidable -- given the character of New Testament witness, the difficulties inherent in the doctrine of revelation itself, and the pluralism of our philosophic environment.

Some of those who affirm a bodily resurrection argue that the Scripture is unambiguous, that its literal intention demands a physical interpretation. Consider the empty-tomb narratives, the Pauline insistence on the bodily resurrection, the Johannine episode in which Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, and so on. Surely, it is held, any questioning of the bodily resurrection is a clear departure from the biblical witness. Any questioning of the miracle of the resurrection is a typical modernist failure of faith.

One can affirm a bodily resurrection without such literalistic smugness; however, such a dogmatic insistence on a bodily resurrection is often indicative of a vague grasp of the problems involved. The implication that a physical event guarantees that a divine reality gave rise to that event is an assertion not of the Christian’s faith in the doings of the transcendent, invisible, eternal God, but an attempt to link a particular finite metaphysic and epistemology to the Christian faith.

Even if God in his wisdom and mercy determined to commend the event to faith by the visible sign of a risen body, one could never prove that it was God’s act by looking at that body. Bodies are bodies, visible, concrete and finite. Whenever we perceive physical objects, we can be certain of one thing: we are seeing that which God is not. Revelation faith affirms that God is revealed through finite events in the finite world, but that any linkage between God and concrete historical events is never self-evident. A concrete “act” of God in history can be discerned only by faith -- and faith, as even the most orthodox theology maintains, is the gift of the Holy Spirit; the physical, objective “miracle” or act of God is only an outward indication. The miracle of revelation -- a work in which the Holy Spirit is indispensable, and which alone makes it possible to discern the significance of a concrete event -- can never be known except to faith. Even if a “body” was seen, there are various ways to account for it. For example, it can be regarded as a merely resuscitated Jesus, or even an elaborate hoax by which the apostles hoped to deceive a credulous populace.

On the religious TV shows on which people claim miraculous cures, the claims in many cases are sincere. One doesn’t necessarily suspect fraud. People on those shows insist that they have been healed. As the TV evangelist repeats pious Amens, many of us in the viewing audience are likely to look upon the “cure” as a part of the human comedy that we don’t understand. Jesus’ critics believed that they understood his healings only too well; he performed them by the power of Satan.

Some sightings of UFOs are still unexplained, but few of us are inclined, on the basis of such reports, to join societies whose members scan the skies for creatures from outer space. That which we find strange and inexplicable we are perfectly capable of filing away in our mind’s pigeonhole marked “strange and inexplicable.” Sometimes we file the whole universe away in that pigeonhole as we experience the “ontological shock” of the great mystery that radiates from the universe: Why is there something and not nothing at all?

For the same reason that all the “proofs” for the existence of God that are based on the design or the very facticity of the world must fail, so also must all “proofs” on the basis of “miracle” fail. No physical event can prove anything -- not even the reality of a physical world. Flesh and blood cannot reveal God unto us.

The Apostle Paul’s extensive wrestling with the problem of the bodily resurrection throughout the 15th chapter of I Corinthians is, as always, instructive. Paul does not insist that the salvation of the Corinthian skeptics is dependent on their accepting his view of the resurrection, but he does insist that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was vital to the preaching and witness of the church from the very beginning. The appearances of Jesus to Cephas and the Twelve, to more than 500 brethren, to James and all the apostles, and finally to Paul himself is self-evident proof to Paul that faith entails the resurrection.

Paul’s own Hebraic anthropology makes it all but impossible for him to understand how the Corinthians could believe in a future life without affirming the resurrection of the dead. That anthropology conceived of human beings as a psychosomatic unity, body and soul being inseparably united to constitute a person. For Paul, if there is to be a future life beyond death, it must encompass a resurrection of the whole person. Therefore, up to a certain point, Paul’s anthropology enabled him to make self-consistent sense out of the resurrection appearances. How else could God have revealed the triumph of Christ over death except in a bodily resurrection?

The Corinthians did not deny a life after death, but they conceived of salvation as the liberation of an immortal soul from the body; they were the “demythologizers” of their day. It was not in the name of modern scientific rationalism that they were unable to accept the resurrection of the dead. Their prescientific, quasi-religious anthropological dualism inhibited them. They were Christians, but they hoped for salvation on better grounds than they perceived Paul’s resurrection theology as providing.

Paul’s break with the Corinthian skeptics was therefore based on two major considerations. First, there was the nonnegotiable fact that he and many others had experienced the resurrection. A modern skeptic might argue that the appearances were the result of mass and individual hallucinations induced by grief and guilt; however, one would never convince Paul and the others that this was a legitimate reading of their experience. Second, there were philosophic barriers to mutual accord: Paul’s Hebraic psychosomatic anthropology and the Corinthians’ body-soul dualism.

Though Paul’s anthropology added a real coherence to his resurrection faith up to a point, beyond that point he faced genuine conceptual difficulties. The body terminology born of his Hebraic anthropology becomes increasingly strained when we try to conceive of its relevance for eternal life. Are there bodies in the kingdom of heaven? If “body” is symbol for the whole person, the answer might be Yes; however, our earthly mode of being is surely so different from heaven that eternal life lived in a form essentially like our present one makes no sense. Paul himself tells us that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. Put another way, wilt the body in which Christ rose from the dead be the same form in which he rules the universe as the Pantocrator?

The bodily resurrection of Christ is basic to Paul’s understanding of eternal life, but this very concrete faith that gives rise to his hope that we will join Christ in a resurrection like his becomes less and less comprehensible the more one reflects on the eternity it promises. Eternal bodies? we ask. This tension is at the root of Paul’s concern in his paradoxical description of “physical” and “spiritual” bodies in I Corinthians 15:35-55.

For Paul, there is a bodily resurrection, but since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God,” there must be different kinds of bodies or different sorts of vessels in which we have our humanity. We are perishable, but we will be raised imperishable. We will be like grain that is sown. The bare kernel must die so that it can produce new and fuller life -- a life not unrelated to the old life, but a life manifoldly increased.

The word “body” is thereby quite remarkably stretched beyond its definitional limits. For Paul, “body” in this context means not an object extended in space but the mode in which we have our being. In the finite mode we are perishable, but it is within the power of God to re-create our lives in an immortal and imperishable mode. This new mode is promised us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Surely it should be clear that the paradoxical character of the term “spiritual body,” when applied to the resurrected Christ, means that Paul did not conceive of the bodily resurrection as a “proof.” It is a sign that only faith can interpret.

It is not just modern scientific rationalism that leads some Christians to doubt the physical resurrection. Paul’s paradoxes indicate that the resurrection had to be radically rethought in order to make it consistent with its ostensible purpose; i.e., the promise of eternal life. Those who have trouble with the bodily resurrection find some basis for their uneasiness from the New Testament itself.

One does not, however, escape paradox by demythologization. It is hardly valid to argue against the miracle of the bodily resurrection on scientific-rationalist grounds and then stop short of the non-theistic logic of such scientism by continuing to speak of God. If God cannot act, he cannot act existentially; after all, we have our existence in the concrete. If God does not act, God is unknowable. We know God only through his acts.

All this is to suggest that there is no completely adequate conceptualization which, if only we had sufficient ingenuity, we could discover and proclaim to the general satisfaction of Christendom. No basic stance is free of contradictions and limitations. One’s credo is not only a matter of one’s faith, but also a matter of which of the various theological paradoxes one is willing to live with.

Years ago, when I entered the pastorate, I was emerging from a period in my life when I was deeply influenced by the skepticism of David Hume. For some time I had been kept from an atheistic position only by my attraction to Jesus. Even after I had undergone a conversion and affirmed the Lordship of Christ, I had great problems with miracles. Though I was well aware that the resurrection is pivotal to the Christian faith, my own view of it was highly spiritualized -- not to say demythologized.

My first pastorate was rather stormy, and after nearly a year I began reading some of the sermons I had been preaching to see where my ministry was headed. To my surprise I realized that the person who had written these sermons believed in some kind of physical resurrection. The writer, of course, was myself, and the conviction had come upon me almost without my noticing it. When I began to study the 15th chapter of I Corinthians, I felt I agreed with every drastic turn of thought Paul made.

I mention this personal episode not in order to claim that as I became mature in the faith my view of the resurrection became more objective and that therefore all mature Christians should come to the same view. I am well aware that many Christians proceed in the opposite direction; from the “nave” literalism of their youth they move to a modern, demythologized understanding.

My point is quite the opposite. Although I came to affirm more than 20 years ago that Jesus Christ was raised, I would not want to suggest that I became a Christian only at the moment I accepted the New Testament view of the resurrection. The heart of the Christian faith is Christ. Christ comes to us in the world where we are, where we have been, and where we are going, despite our various metaphysical biases -- certainly never because of them.

Am I more loved by Christ because I become increasingly skeptical of scientism and find myself more deeply appreciative of Plato the older I get? Am I more of a Christian because my fundamental skepticism about the viability of any particular philosophic system allows me to be so eclectic that I can value both Paul and Plato? Or is faith perhaps made too easy for me, precisely because I need not swim against the current of my own thought in order to be a believer? Perhaps the real Christian believing is being done by those modernists whose naturalistic prejudices make faith an enormous intellectual struggle.

All this is not to say that since everyone is in one way or another wrong, theology doesn’t matter. In another context I’d be happy to argue for the Pauline view of the resurrection. What I am saying is simply that when we gather on Easter we should not be dismayed by our differences. We should rejoice that the Easter event is more true than are any of our explanations.


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