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The Resurrection of the Human Jesus

by Joseph M. Hallman

Joseph M. Hallman (Ph.D., Fordham University, 1970) is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Wheeling College, Wheeling, West Virginia. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 253-258, Vol. , Number 8, Winter, 1978. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It is the purpose of this paper to show how Jesus as a man was capable of becoming alive after death in himself and for his followers. The primary reason for my attempt to relate the resurrection to Jesus simply as a man is soteriological: if it is only Jesus’ divinity which explains and guarantees his resurrection, the condition of resurrection need not be a possibility for Christian individuals, because they are not similarly divine.

I

From the standpoint of the earliest Christian reflection, it is evidently not necessary to hold that the corpse of Jesus revivified in order to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. Apparition and ascension stories aside, it is clear in Paul’s theorizing that some sort of new bodies will come into being for us after the physical disintegration of our first ones (I Cor. 15:35f). In order to show that this Pauline conception is indeed a rational one, it will be necessary to show (1) how the human person is able to be immortal apart from the first body, (2) how the human person is able to develop a relationship to another physical or bodily reality which is at least analogous to the first relationship between person and body, and (3) how Jesus can be said to have risen in a manner consistent with the foregoing and the sense in which his resurrection may be said to accomplish our own resurrection as Christians.

Our first task is to theorize about the possibility of life after death, or subjective immortality. There are three important Whiteheadian texts which deal with the question of the immortality of the soul after the death of the body. In his final discussion Whitehead sees the question as irrelevant, given the "true destiny" which we have as a cocreator in the universe" participating with God in this work (Dialogues 297). His earlier discussions, however, treat life after death as an open question and thus, presumably, a relevant one. In RM he is "entirely neutral" on the question, thinking that it can be decided "on more special evidence, religious or otherwise, provided that it is trustworthy" (RM 110). Whitehead’s most important comment on the matter is the following:

The everlasting nature of God, which in a sense is non-temporal and in another sense is temporal, may establish with the soul a peculiarly intense relationship of mutual immanence. Thus in some important sense the existence of the soul may be freed from its complete dependence upon the bodily organization. (AI 267)

The views of Whiteheadians are more specific and more diverse. Charles Hartshorne’s view of immortality is little more than an extension of his theory of the divine memory. His judgment is similar to that of Whitehead’s comment in Dialogues. Hartshorne states that one contribution of Whitehead to his own thinking was to show him that "what is usually meant by ‘personal immortality’ is probably beside the point, since the divine immortality, and our oneness (in some sense) with God, is the proper solution to the problem of the transitoriness of life."1 Death means that life is terminated but not destroyed, since the past is forever remembered by God. Hartshorne is critical of the idea of personal survival, maintaining that this sort of everlastingness belongs only to God. Creatures are defined by spatial and temporal limitations, one of which is death (LP 245-46, 253, 262; PSG 479). There can only be "one Eminent Life or Mind" which "is deathless and unborn" (NTT 107). "Finitude, limited scope, birth and death constitute the definiteness or concreteness of our lives as contrasted with God’s. He who rebels against death wishes to be God. But only God can be God, infinitely able to adapt to changing circumstances." (NTT 112)

Hartshorne suggests, however, that resurrection can be interpreted as a "synthesis of one’s life in God, the divine act of envisagement that keeps adding up the story of one’s terrestrial existence, producing a total reality that is invisible to us on earth" (LP 261-62). Presumably it is only God’s remembrance which constitutes resurrection, and Hartshorne denies the possibility of the ongoing reality of the person after death. "To live everlastingly, as God does, can scarcely be our privilege; but we may earn everlasting places as lives well lived within the one life" (LP 262).

The judgment of Schubert Ogden regarding subjective immortality is also negative. Belief in immortality is philosophically suspicious because it represents no solution to the "fundamental problem of life’s transience, of which death, as we usually think of it, is merely the most extreme instance."2 In two objections which Ogden describes as "strictly theological," subjective immortality implies human self-assertion and idolatry. To wish to be an immortal subject is to wish to be like God, making the hope for immortality an instance of man’s primal sin.

One need not view immortality in this manner, especially if one sees it in the light of Christian resurrection of which Jesus is the first fruits. Livingness beyond the grave is the natural outcome of the Christian life lived "in the love of God decisively re-presented in Jesus Christ" in which Ogden grounds Christian hope.3 And the philosophic problem is easily resolved if the immortality of the subject can be shown to be compatible with Whitehead’s understanding of objective immortality.

John Cobb, on the other hand, has been more positive about the possibility of life after death. He appeals primarily and rightly, I believe, to Whitehead’s doctrine of the soul as "truly personal, the true subject" (CNT 66) which is ordinarily identified as the person itself. And even though we have no ordinary experience of the soul separated from its body, it is at least possible that the soul could prehend itself or other souls more directly without bodily mediation.

In the final part of this discussion, Cobb makes the intriguing suggestion that the separated soul might exist in two-dimensional space-time rather than in our four dimensional continuum. This coexisting continuum for souls would have the dimension of successiveness (time) as well as telepathic experience of other souls (one-dimensional space) (CNT 69f).

Lewis Ford and Marjorie Suchocki question whether immortality ought to be discussed in terms of the so-called "disembodied soul." They propose to interpret resurrection as the reenactment of the subjective immediacy of the separate occasions of experience.4 I take this to be an important direction for the discussion of immortality. For resurrection, however, we need an immortal soul which is identifiable as a person, and we require some new relationship of this immortal soul to a bodily environment if we are to represent the Biblical understanding. The doctrine of resurrection presupposes a reembodied soul, not a disembodied one.5

II

There are some problems in Whiteheadian thought in conceiving of the living person or soul as continuing to exist beyond the death of the body. The members of the living nonsocial nexus which is at the base of personality must inherit some of their data from bodily structures.6 We must either discover a new body to support this nonsocial nexus, or we must dispense with it as the basis of person. I suspect that Whitehead dispenses with it, at least unconsciously, in the passage from AI quoted above. In this case, however, it is difficult to see how we would have living persons. A past sequence of historical personal events, perfectly remembered by God, alive for God’s prehension, would nevertheless be dead in itself. No novel occasions could be added to its history. A person wholly independent of bodily structures would, in and of itself, be deceased.

In order for the living person or soul to be preserved, i.e., to continue in its personal existence beyond the grave, the living nonsocial nexus must be preserved. But is not the nonsocial nexus precisely what disappears when bodily organization disintegrates? To answer this question we need to consult the descriptions of nonsocial nexus which Whitehead gives: "The characteristic of a living society is that a complex structure of inorganic societies is woven together for the production of a non-social nexus characterized by the intense physical feelings of its members" (PR 161). Further on Whitehead states that this experience is derived from the complex order that is produced by the animal body. But let us ask ourselves whether a nonsocial nexus could be produced in some other way. What if we thought analogously about society as an organism and postulated a society of human individuals characterized by being woven closely together in the manner of a social body? Would not this ‘body’ have a nonsocial nexus of its own, that is intense living occasions which might support "a thread of personal order along some historical route of its members" (PR 163)?

Although Whitehead did not visualize the possibility that a living person might be supported by a human society which has a nonsocial nexus supporting the personality or character, such a theory is plausible even if it is denied by Whitehead. He states that "it is obvious that we must not demand another mentality presiding over these other actualities (a kind of Uncle Sam over and above all the U.S. citizens)." Whitehead’s basis for this judgment is the fact that "life in the body is the life of the individual cells," which, presumably, cannot give life to a unifying agency that is higher than their own mentalities (PR 165).

The problem with the example of Uncle Sam is that this particular person had no historical existence in the first place. Would Whitehead necessarily hold the same view about Thomas Jefferson? In any case my suggestion does not appear to contradict Whitehead’s theory of actual occasions, living person, or of societies. Admittedly a human social group such as the United States is not literally an organism. Therefore Thomas Jefferson cannot exist in exactly the same way as he existed historically. Nevertheless because of intense common feelings for him on the part of Americans, he may be said to have some sort of existence.

The only step which remains to be taken is to show how Jesus rose in a manner which is consistent with the theory suggested above. The historical person of Jesus lost one body in death and created and was received into a new body, the church, in which he lived again. Is this not exactly what the New Testament teaches? The theological advantage here is obvious: it fills out in a rational way the Pauline view of the church as the body of Christ. God’s raising of Jesus from the dead is, in Whiteheadian terms, based upon the divine provision of initial aims by which the Apostles perceived Jesus’ livingness. This means that as a group they felt a new type of existence was possible for them, and in prehending this novel possibility they formed nonsocial occasions which the person of Jesus organized and unified.

The ecclesiological implications of this theory are far reaching. In order for Jesus to be intensely alive, the church must be organically united, having a unity which is analogous to that of the body. In traditional terms, we must love one another. And yet Jesus does have an ongoing real, personal, and effective existence. He is able to affect me analogously to the way my mind affects my body, though, of course, social organization needs to be more democratic than in strictly organic society. Most importantly, we are able to say that Jesus is truly alive in us in a real sense without appealing to his personal divinity as such. Word and sacrament present him to us and we to him as mind to body and body to mind. Our moments of bodily and mental ‘togetherness’ are analogous to the experience we have of Jesus in the church. His personal character and thread of personal order is dependent upon our capacity to provide the environment for the occasions of the living nonsocial nexus out of which he constructs his personal life. He gives us life, as we, in a real sense, give him life.

The resurrection of Christian believers may be seen in the same way as the resurrection of Jesus. We also may be said to live after death as church members related to the person of Jesus and dependent upon the church’s unity and prayers for our continued existence. The traditional doctrine of the communion of saints had heavenly members in the church which had an influence upon it. Here again resurrection is dependent upon the church, and with church unity and prayer the various personal threads of order which were originally embodied individually continue to live on socially. Outside the church there is no risen Christian existence, no Christian resurrection.7

To apply the same argument to believers that I have applied to the risenness of Jesus, we need a living nonsocial nexus for each deceased person. Various smaller groups such as families and friends may be held to provide the environment for these special nonsocial nexus, by praying, remembering, and creating an especially intense group unity among themselves. This would enable the personal thread of order to construct itself as long as the church exists.

III

Two important questions remain regarding my thesis. First of all, is the thread of personal order in the church the exact same thread as the historical Jesus of Nazareth? The answer is yes and no. Jesus died in the sense that his individual bodily organization disintegrated. But he came to life again after the decisions made by his followers, in cooperation with God, restored him in a new way by giving him a new body, the body of ourselves as a group. The church prehends both past and present occasions of Jesus as living person.

Jesus is the same insofar as many of the historical person’s characteristics have carried over into the church. The church confesses the Jesus of history and not a Redeemer myth. He is not the same, however, because he is risen. He is transformed to become someone that he was not before. This accords very well with the New Testament as well as with Christian tradition. Jesus really did die as all orthodox theological views of resurrection hold. Therefore, he simply cannot be exactly the same now as he was before. On the other hand, he cannot be entirely dead or merely a memory, according to the Christian claim.

A corollary of distinct importance emerges at this point. The occasions of the entirely living nexus always emphasize conceptually reverted objects. This means that they are alive to the extent that they are novel, since everything else is explicable by tradition. What these occasions explain is "originality of response to stimulus. This amounts to the doctrine that an organism is ‘alive’ when in some measure its reactions are inexplicable by any tradition of pure physical inheritance" (PR 159).

If we apply this aspect of the theory to the presence of the risen Jesus in the church, it clearly entails a christology of call and response. As the thread of personal order among these novel entities, the living Jesus represents not tradition, but intense challenge, call, and originality of response. Obviously one must also argue for tradition as that which gives the necessary support to life. The existence of the body is necessary as is the tradition of the church. But the point to be emphatically made is that the living Jesus represents conceptual originality and not the repetition of pure physical inheritance. Tradition supports and sustains his life, but does not explain it or create it,

The second question about my thesis is whether it is consistent with the traditional understanding of Jesus’ divinity. The question of the personal divinity of Jesus is an important question which must be and is being faced in current theological writing, process and otherwise. My own inclination is to emphasize the transcendence of the man Jesus and to resolve the Chalcedonian question in the manner of P. Schoonenberg.8 This paper, I believe, fits Schoonenberg’s christology quite well. That the second person of the trinity rises from the dead is not surprising, because he cannot die. It is the resurrection of the human Jesus which is remarkable, and it is this resurrection which is constitutive of Christian faith.

 

References

CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965.

LP -- Charles Hartshorne. The Logic of Perfection. LaSalle: Open Court Publishing Co., 1962.

NTT -- Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time. LaSalle: Open Court Publishing Co.. 1967.

PSG -- Charles Hartshorne and William L. Reese, eds. Philosophers Speak of God. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

 

Notes

1 Charles Hartshorne, "Whitehead and Contemporary Philosophy" in The Relevance of Whitehead, ed. Ivor Leclerc (London, 1961), p. 21f.

2 Schubert Ogden, "The Meaning of Christian Hope,.’ Union Seminary Quarterly Review 30 (1975), 161. See also "The Promise of Faith" in The Reality of God and Other Essays New York, 1963), p. 224f.

3 Schubert Ogden, "The Meaning of Christian Hope," p. 159.

4 "A Whiteheadian Reflection on Subjective Immortality" PS 7/1 (Spring, 1977), 3. Also Marjorie Suchocki, "The Question of Immortality" The Journal of Religion 57/3

5 The direction I will take in this paper was suggested in a student paper submitted to me by Ms. Paula Pasden.

6 This development is dependent upon Donald W. Sherburne, "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology" The Southern Journal of Philosophy 7/4 Winter, 1969-70), 401-07.

7 This is in no way meant to argue against immortality and/or resurrection for everyone. I state only that Christian resurrection is dependent upon the church. The question of the general possibility should be approached in two steps: first, one should ask whether immortality of the soul is simply a natural condition, as some maintain; secondly, one could connect a general theory of immortality or, if possible, resurrection to the theological construct of this paper.

8 His excellent discussion of Chalcedonian christology is in The Christ (New York, 1971), p. 51f; on the human transcendence of Jesus, see p.91f.


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