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Jesus’ Resurrection and the Search for Peace and Justice

by Ronald J. Sider

Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action and a professor of theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article is adapted from his E. Stanley Jones Lecture he delivered at Boston University School of Theology. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 3, 1982, p. 1103. 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.


A recent California poll designed to ascertain the general population’s views on the possibility of nuclear war revealed that 85 per cent thought they personally would experience a nuclear war. Most of them expected to die as a result. If that is what the average American foresees, then it is hardly surprising that a deadly, debilitating despair has penetrated to the marrow of contemporary society.

Cynical opportunism often hides the despair: “Let’s seize the moment and grab all we can.” Those who are old enough to remember the tumultuous ‘60s will never forget those ardent crusaders for peace and justice, Jerry Rubin and the rest of the Chicago Seven. Ten years later, when Newsweek did a story on the Chicago Seven, Jerry Rubin was living in a plush Manhattan apartment seeking, he proudly announced, to be “as Establishment as I possibly can.” As for the poor, he casually commented, “I am not that overwhelmingly concerned with the state of the masses.” Cynical narcissism had displaced Rubin’s former passion for peace and justice.

Nor should we be too harsh with the cynical or the despairing; there certainly is sufficient reason for despair. The ghastly prospect of nuclear holocaust looms larger every year. Current policy in Washington puts the U.S. on a collision course with the poor of the earth, both here and abroad. At the present, sanity and optimism seem mutually exclusive. And the next two decades will undoubtedly be the most dangerous in the history of humanity. Nonetheless, we Christians dare to be optimists even in these times. But it is not that we see less than our despairing contemporaries; it is rather that we see more! People who know that the tomb was empty on Easter morning can be the guardians of hope in an age of despair.

To speak of the empty tomb, however, plunges one into the midst of very complex issues and intense controversy. Easter faith as the symbol of hope offends no one, but Easter faith as belief in an empty tomb and in Jesus’ bodily resurrection is quite another matter. A large percentage of Western intelligentsia over the past two centuries has rejected belief in miracles such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And a lot of Christian scholars have agreed. If we are to talk today of hope based on the resurrection, we cannot avoid this difficult, issue.

I think, in fact, that this question takes us to the heart of one of the two fundamental “fault lines” in the church today. Many old theological disputes -- about free will, the Eucharist and so on -- are still with us. But I do not think that any of those older disputes are nearly as significant today as two contemporary ones. The first fundamental fault line in the church is historic Christian theism’s controversy with Enlightenment deism and naturalism over the compatibility of modern science and belief in the miraculous. The other fault line is the debate between kingdom Christianity and cultural Christianity.

Historic Christian theism is supernatural to the core. There is more involved here than the fact that Christians through the ages have believed two monumental miracles in their confession of the incarnation and bodily resurrection -- although those two affirmations certainly are the heart of the matter. The miraculous is also integral to the historic Christian understanding of many basic affirmations, such as regeneration, the work of the Holy Spirit, prayer and eschatology. To take the case of prayer, one can, of course, follow Tillich and reinterpret it as meditation or self-hypnosis. But only with the presupposition of historic, supernatural theism does intercessory prayer make sense.

During the Enlightenment, more and more people came to think that belief in divine supernatural intervention in space and time was incompatible with modern science. Nineteenth century liberal theology was, to a significant degree, an attempt to reinterpret Christian faith in light of that fundamental assumption. Nor has that assumption disappeared. No one puts it more pointedly than Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps the most prominent New Testament scholar of the 20th century:

It is impossible to use electric lights and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles (“New Testament and Mythology,” Kerygma and Myth [Harper & Row, 1966]).

In his monumental work On Being a Christian, Catholic theologian Hans Kung makes the same assumption:

We tried to understand the numerous miracle stories of the New Testament without assuming a “supernatural” intervention -- which cannot be proved -- in the laws of nature. It would therefore seem like a dubious retrogression to discredited ideas if we were now suddenly to postulate such a supernatural “intervention” for the miracle of the resurrection: this would contradict all scientific thinking as well as all ordinary convictions and experiences. Understood in this way, the resurrection seems to modern man to be an encumbrance to faith, akin to the virgin birth, the descent into hell or the ascension.

What is really at issue, of course, is our doctrine of God. If the God of traditional theism exists, then nature is never free from the possibility of his miraculous intervention. On the other hand, if the Enlightenment is correct and we ought to adopt a deistic view of God, then it would be theologically inappropriate to think of supernatural intervention. (A deistic God would be a poor, incompetent clock-maker if he had to keep intervening to get his technology straight!) Philosopher Merold Westphal puts it this way:

When one speaks of the divine activity no conditions outside of God could be obstacles for the realization of what is logically possible. If God exists, miracles are not merely logically possible, but really and genuinely possible at every moment. The only condition hindering the actualization of this possibility lies in the divine will. For the theologian to say that scientific knowledge has rendered belief in miracles intellectually irresponsible is to affirm that scientific knowledge provides us with knowledge of limits within which the divine will always operates (Religious Studies XI [1967]).

To suppose that more and more scientific information makes belief in miracles more and more intellectually irresponsible is sheer intellectual confusion. Science simply tells us with greater and greater (indeed, breathtaking!) precision what nature regularly does. But no amount of scientific information could, in principle, ever tell us whether there might be a God outside nature who could intervene in nature if he or she chose.

Modern science really does not help us very much in the choice between theism and deism. But if we are not confused by the Enlightenment’s deism, then many (but not all) of the reasons for refusing to accept the historic theistic perspective on the incarnation and resurrection fall away. And if we affirm that Jesus was true God and true man and believe that he rose bodily from the tomb, then logical consistency demands that we not use the Enlightenment’s antisupernatural, deistic or naturalistic arguments against traditional views on the virgin birth, the miracle stories of the Bible, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the future return of Christ, prayer and others.

This fundamental debate between historic Christian theism and Enlightenment deism is one that activists cannot ignore if we want to ground our search for peace and justice in Jesus’ resurrection. And I think it is crucial to see that at the heart of the rejection of the historic, Christian affirmation of Jesus’ bodily resurrection is an unwarranted philosophical presupposition.

The question that we ought to be asking, however, is a historical one: What evidence is there? Consider four points: (1) the change in the discouraged disciples, (2) the empty tomb, (3) the fact that the first witnesses were women, and (4) the very early evidence in I Corinthians 15.

A short time after the crucifixion, the disciples announced to a Jerusalem crowd that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Within a few years these same men proceeded to criss-cross the eastern part of the Roman Empire, braving intense Jewish and pagan persecution and eventually experiencing martyrdom. And it was these very men who had scattered at Jesus’ arrest and fled home in despair.

What gave rise to the “resurrection faith” and the disciples’ willingness to risk their lives to spread it? Reginald H. Fuller, formerly a professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, has underlined the fact that this total transformation demands explanation: “Even the most skeptical historian has to postulate an ‘X,’ as M. Dibelius called it, to account for the complete change in the behavior of the disciples, who at Jesus’ arrest had fled and scattered to their own homes, but who in a few weeks were boldly preaching their message to the very people who had sought to crush the movement launched by Jesus” (in The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives [Macmillan, 1971]). The explanation given by the people closest to the events was that Jesus of Nazareth arose from the tomb and appeared to them over a period of a number of days.

If one rejects the New Testament explanation of the resurrection faith and the transformation it caused in extremely discouraged people, then one is left with the very difficult task of proposing other grounds adequate to explain it. According to Robert M. Grant of the University of Chicago, “The origin of Christianity is almost incomprehensible unless such an event took place” (Historical Introduction to the New Testament [Harper, 1963]).

Second, and very important, is the question of the empty tomb. A short time after the crucifixion, Peter claimed that Jesus arose from the dead -- and note that he made the claim in Jerusalem. It is exceedingly significant that the controversy over the resurrection, and the rise of the first church, took place precisely in Jerusalem, where anybody could have gone to visit the place of burial. And in Jerusalem hundreds became Christians within months of Jesus’ death. Obviously it was in the interests of the religious leaders to produce the body of Jesus or give clear evidence of its proper disposal. But the earliest counterargument against the claim that Jesus was alive. was the suggestion that the disciples had stolen the body. This was an acknowledgment that it could not be produced.

There have been a number of attempts to explain the empty tomb. The old one of the theft is no longer accepted. It has been suggested that Joseph of Arimathea, or the Romans, or the Jewish leaders removed the body before the women arrived; but if so, the Jewish leaders would surely have conducted guided tours to the real burial place as soon as the silly disciples claimed Jesus had arisen. In his discussion of Jesus’ resurrection, Wolfhart Pannenberg quotes Paul Althaus to underline this point:

In Jerusalem, the place of Jesus’ execution and grave, it was proclaimed not long after his death that he had been raised. The situation demands that within the circle of the first community one had a reliable testimony for the fact that the grave had been found empty. [The resurrection kerygma] could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned (Jesus: God and Man [Westminster, 1968]).

Because the Christians and their Jewish opponents both agreed that the tomb was empty, it seems very likely that the empty tomb is a historical fact.

Third, the fact that women were the first people to visit the tomb and allegedly the first to see the risen Jesus speaks in favor of the authenticity of the accounts. According to Jewish principles of evidence, women were notoriously invalid witnesses. If, then, the early Christians had fabricated the accounts of the first visit to the tomb and the first meeting with the risen Jesus, they would certainly have claimed that the first witnesses were men. The best explanation for the priority of the women is that it actually happened that way.

Finally, we must look at the oldest evidence for the resurrection, I Corinthians 15:3 ff. The most important aspect of this passage is its early date. Many scholars have pointed out that the words used here (“I delivered to you what I also received”) are technical terms used to refer to the careful handing down of oral tradition. Paul apparently taught these details of Jesus’ appearances to all the churches. Furthermore, he says he received word of them presumably after he became a Christian about 35 A.D., just a few years after Jesus’ death. That means that this witness to Jesus’ resurrection received a fixed form very soon after the actual events -- quite possibly before Paul’s first postconversion visit to Jerusalem about 36 A.D. (Gal. 1:18 f.).

As a historian, I find the evidence surprisingly strong. The most unbiased historical conclusion is that Jesus was probably alive on the third day. But so what? What if somebody 2,000 years ago were alive again after he had died? What does that have to do with our search for peace and justice in the 1980s? I want to develop four theses:

1. The resurrection is the foundation of our belief that Jesus Christ is the present sovereign of this beautiful, endangered planet

2. The resurrected Lord Jesus offers the inner strength for the long, weary, 20-year struggle that will be necessary to avoid nuclear holocaust and implement a new international economic order.

3. The resurrection is the best clue about the relationship between our work for peace and justice now and the perfect shalom of the coming kingdom.

4. Finally, the Christian view of death, grounded in Jesus’ resurrection, is the only foundation solid enough on which to build a movement of costly, sacrificial confrontation with nuclear militaristic madness and entrenched economic injustice.

First, it was the resurrection that convinced the discouraged disciples that the carpenter from Nazareth was truly Messiah and Lord. It is clear everywhere in the New Testament that the resurrection validated Jesus’ claims and his announcement of the messianic kingdom. Jewish eschatological expectation looked for a general resurrection at the beginning of the New Age. As the early Christians reflected on Jesus’ resurrection, they realized that one instance of this general eschatological event had actually occurred already in the Old Age. Thus they referred to Jesus’ resurrection as the first fruits (I Cor. 15:20-23) of that final general resurrection. Here, then, was decisive evidence that the New Age had truly invaded the Old. Jesus of Nazareth was now called Jesus Christ (Jesus, the Messiah) because his resurrection was powerful evidence that his messianic claims were valid.

Indeed, even more lofty titles seemed appropriate after the resurrection. Acts and the epistles make it clear that the resurrection was the decisive demonstration that convinced the disciples that Jesus was truly the Son of God (Rom. 1:4, Acts 2:22-26). They now called him Lord (kurios), the term used in the Greek version of the Old Testament to translate the word Jahweh.

But if that is who he is -- if he is indeed God in the flesh -- then we must submit all of our lives to him. We dare not pick out those parts of his teaching that appeal to us, to our friends, to our subculture, and ignore the rest. We dare not so emphasize the fact that he calls us to love our neighbors and liberate the oppressed that we forget that he also came to die for our sins. We dare not so emphasize the fact that he calls us to be peacemakers that we forget that he also summons us to sexual purity.

If the carpenter from Nazareth was indeed God incarnate, then we must joyfully submit our total lives to him as Lord: our family budgets, our lifestyles, our sexual lives, our theology, our politics, our economics, our jobs. If the peacemaker of the Sermon on the Mount is truly Lord of all things, then we dare not restrict his sovereignty to the private sphere of family life while we participate via our jobs, our research and our votes in society’s blind rush to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

It is because we know that the Risen One is now the Sovereign Lord of history that we have the courage and hope to risk all for peace and liberation.

Second, the risen Lord Jesus offers the inner strength we need for the long, weary struggle for peace and justice. The rapid disappearance of youthful activism at the end of the ‘60s and the young people’s rush to join the establishment underline the need for something more than an ephemeral social mood as the foundation for persistent commitment to fundamental social change. The kind of fundamental transformation of American society that is needed if we are to edge a bit closer to peace and justice will not happen in one year or in five years. It will take decades -- if God in his grace restrains the principalities and powers that seek nuclear wará -- for the new abolitionists to persuade militaristic America that preparation for nuclear holocaust, like slavery, is an affront to the Creator.

Nothing can more securely anchor our doggedly persistent commitment to the struggle for peace and justice than the revolutionary regenerating presence of the risen Jesus in our life. Paul says that Christians die to their old selves and are raised to a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1 ff.). The same supernatural power of God that raised Jesus from the dead now blows through our formerly timid, fearful personalities. It is in the power of the resurrection that we go forth boldly to demand nuclear disarmament and to seek justice for the oppressed.

That may mean losing a job because we will not participate in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. It may mean rejecting or abandoning an attractive position in Boston or Washington in order to stand with the oppressed in the Third World. It may mean deciding to live in the scarred inner city rather than in the pleasant suburbs. It may mean going to jail to warn our rainbow race that it’s too soon to die. It will certainly mean risking the disapproval of our friends, colleagues and parishioners by clearly and persistently announcing the biblical word that God is on the side of the oppressed and that he calls us to be peacemakers.

It is this transforming power of the resurrected Christ that must characterize the new movement for peace and justice. A confession by Jerry Rubin is most striking in this regard. In 1977, he said:

We had a psychological and spiritual vision in the ‘60s, and we screamed it out and stomped against reality. But we didn’t embody that vision ourselves. We were not the men and women we were talking about [Newsweek, September 5, 1977].

To have integrity we must incarnate the shalom to which we call the larger society. It is through the living presence of the risen Jesus that we can do it.

It is absolutely crucial not to become confused at this point. As passionately as I believe in social justice and nonviolence, I must still insist vigorously that we have everything confused if we suppose that the ethical teaching of Jesus is the essence of Christian faith. The rabbis and Confucius had taught the golden rule long before Jesus came along. Others had already advocated nonviolence. The essence of Christian faith is I-Thou encounter; it is a personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ. The risen Lord Jesus grants us forgiveness and a new inner power as he reshapes our miserable, selfish personalities. Of course that kind of saving faith must necessarily lead to a life of discipleship and passionate concern for peace and justice. But let us never reduce Christian ethics to a list of Jesus’ ethical teachings. That is to tear the guts and power out of it. That is to remove the revolutionary transforming power of the risen Jesus in our lives.

Third, the resurrection offers the best clue about the relationship between our work for peace and justice now and the perfect shalom of the coming kingdom.

Repeatedly, the New Testament promises that what happened to Jesus at his resurrection will also happen, at the final resurrection, to those who believe in him (Phil. 3:20-21; I John 3:2). Nor is this promise merely an individualistic hope, although it certainly is that. Paul also indicates that, just as the individual Christian will experience the resurrection of the body, so the whole creation will be purged of evil and decay and injustice, and will experience total transformation (Rom. 8:18-25). Because of the resurrection, we know that this whole fantastic creation will ultimately be freed from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.

There is both continuity and discontinuity between our work now and the coming kingdom, just as there was continuity and discontinuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the risen Lord Jesus. The continuity is crucial. It was Jesus of Nazareth who was raised on the third day. It was not some spiritual resurrection in the confused minds of befuddled disciples, but the man from Nazareth who arose bodily from the tomb and appeared to talk and eat with his discouraged, frightened followers. But there was also discontinuity. The risen Jesus was no longer subject to death and decay. His resurrected body could do things we do not understand in our space-time continuum.

There is, I believe, the same continuity and discontinuity between culture and history as we know them, and the coming kingdom. Certainly there is discontinuity. We will not create more and more peaceful, just societies until we awake some century and discover that the millennium has arrived. Dreadful imperfection will remain in persons and societies until our risen Lord Jesus returns at the Parousia to usher in the final consummation. But there is also continuity. The New Age is best described, according to Scripture, as a new earth and a new city (Rev. 21:1 ff.). It is this groaning creation that will be restored to wholeness. The tree of life in the New Jerusalem is for the healing of the nations. The kings of the earth will bring their glory and honor into the Holy City (Rev. 21:22-27).

So we work for justice and peace now: not with a na´ve optimism that forgets that faithfulness involves the cross, but with the solid assurance that the final word is resurrection. And we dare to persist in that costly struggle even when it gets dangerous, even when it involves death, because the resurrection has removed the sting of death.

That is my final point. The Christian view of death, anchored in Jesus’ empty tomb, is the only foundation solid enough on which to build a movement of costly sacrificial confrontation with militarism and injustice.

Over the ages, death has seemed to pose a terrify-i ing threat. Modem secular folk, of course, pretend otherwise. Bertrand Russell assured us that there is no need to tremble at the idea that death ends personal existence forever. We die, rot, and that’s it. Most people merely buy life insurance and try not to think about death. But what ultimate meaning does personal existence possess if it exists for a mere three-score years -- or perhaps by reason of modern medicine, four-score years -- and then passes into sheer nothingness?

The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch thinks that the relative neglect of the problem of death in modern secular thought is due to the unconscious influence of inherited Christian views: “Thus in its ability to suppress the anxiety of all earlier times, apparently this quite shallow courage [of modern secular people] feasts on a borrowed credit card. It lives from earlier hopes and the support that they once had provided” (Das Prinzip Hoffnung, in Pannenberg’s Jesus: God and Man).

Christians appreciate Bloch’s exposÚ of secular shallowness in the face of the ultimate reality of death. But, unlike Bloch, we insist that the ancient hope for life after death is not wishful dreaming but assured reality. Christians believe that death is not a terrifying passage into nothingness but rather a transition into a glorious eternity in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus. Christians hold that belief because one person, Jesus of Nazareth, has already experienced death in all its fullness and returned from the dead to live forever. When Paul told the Corinthians that Jesus was the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20), he meant that what happened to Jesus will, at his return, happen to all who believe in him. We await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly (earthly) body to be like his glorious (resurrected) body (Phil. 3:21).

Death is not a terrifying threat, we believe, because the tomb was empty, because the one with whom the disciples had lived appeared to them and assured them that he is alive forevermore. We await the risen Lord Jesus. One who trusts in the Lord Jesus can declare with Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? . . . Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

With this view of death, the Christian can act courageously today. Life at any cost is not our motto; death for our king’s cause is not disastrous. Paul says: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. . . . For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and the living” (Rom. 14:8,9).

Because Christ is Lord of the living and the dead, we dare to face racists and militarists for the sake of our sisters and brothers; we dare to go as missionaries into dangerous situations; we dare to leave comfortable classrooms and secure homes to try to apply Jesus’ call to peacemaking in the halls of government and the factories of destruction; we dare to join the poor in the swirling abyss of revolutionary situations in emerging nations where the oppressed masses are determined to secure justice for themselves. In fact, we even dare to apply Jesus’ concern for the poor here in North America where so much of their oppression originates. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. For he is king, the Lord even of death!

Jesus of Nazareth arose from the dead. But that is not just an interesting item of ancient history. Jesus’ resurrection is the foundation of our belief that the carpenter from Nazareth is the Lord of the universe. A living relationship with the risen Jesus provides the guts and the power of the new life of radical discipleship. Jesus’ resurrection offers the decisive clue about the relationship between our work for peace and justice now and the ultimate shalom of the coming kingdom. And, finally, the risen Jesus is powerful evidence that even that last terror, death itself, will be but for a moment.

Our Lord reigns. And he is on the side of peace and justice. We can create a more just world, despite what the momentarily powerful in Washington or Moscow may say. We can avoid nuclear holocaust in this generation. Because of the resurrection, we know that God’s final word is resurrection and shalom. Christians can be guardians of hope in an age of despair.


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