The Resurrection: A Dialogue by G.W.H. Lampe and D.M. MacKinnon
G.W.H. Lampe was Ely Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University and Canon of Ely Cathedral. He is author of The Seal of the Spirit, a major work on the theology of Baptism. D.M. MacKinnon was Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University and a Fellow of corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He is co-author of God, Sex and War, in the Adventures of Faith series. Published by Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1966. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 4: Easter: A Statement by G.W.H. Lampe
Among the questions put to Professor Lampe in the Meeting Point discussion as reproduced in the previous chapter, one was: ‘Is one not able to believe that Christ was resurrected in a physical form and still be an intelligent Christian? After all,’ the questioner added, ‘it is what the Church has believed for two thousand years, isn’t it?’
The beginning of Canon Lampe’s reply was as follows: ‘I shouldn’t want to say at all that it isn’t possible to be an intelligent Christian and take the story of the empty tomb as a literal historical fact. After all, a great many highly intelligent Christians do. I do not, myself. I regard the story of the empty tomb as a myth rather than literal history, and profoundly significant as a myth.
Both question and reply gave rise to a great deal of correspondence, much of it, as regards the latter, highly critical. In the light of that reaction, and as an integral part of the dialogue in which he has subsequently been engaged with Professor MacKinnon, Professor Lampe prepared a statement which forms the basis of the following chapter.
Neither in my sermon nor in the subsequent broadcast discussion of it was the fundamental question about Easter directly raised. This is the question whether what happened at the first Easter was an objective event in the external world or whether it was simply a change of mind, radical and dramatic but not necessarily sudden, on the part of the disciples. Was the Resurrection an event in the life of Jesus, so that we can say that God actually raised him from the dead? Or was it only an event in the lives of the disciples -- a change in their outlook as they came to realize through further reflection upon their dead and buried Teacher, that his influence still lived on, that his teaching had been true, that his life must be their example and his character a pattern for themselves to follow, that although he was dead he must still be revered in their memory as their Lord whose spirit could still be recreated in themselves in so far as they dedicated themselves to the aim of following in his footsteps? When we say that Jesus was raised from the dead are we speaking literally or metaphorically? Do we mean that he was raised in the minds of his disciples: that as they remembered him and began to put a new and higher value on his words and deeds he seemed to be still so real to them and so uniquely important that they found that they could think of him as though he were still with them? Or are we making a factual assertion, not only about the mental processes of the disciples but about Jesus himself? Are we saying that, however mysterious and inexplicable the event may be, Jesus was actually made alive, in a new and glorious mode of existence, although he had really died and been buried?
Professor MacKinnon and I agree in the belief that the Resurrection was an event in the external world: that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. In holding this belief we differ from some recent writers on the subject of Easter. They maintain that Jesus ‘rose’ in so far as his followers came to understand his true significance. My sermon, on the other hand, asserted in the strongest possible terms that the Resurrection was a fact, attested by a series of events which those who experienced them described, in so far as they could be described in human language, by saying that Jesus ‘appeared to them’ or ‘was seen by them’ alive. Like Professor MacKinnon in his Easter meditation, I based my sermon on the assumption that there was an objective Easter event, and that it was this event which produced the dramatic change in the outlook of the disciples; that to speak of ‘Easter’ is not a way of describing the disciples’ growing conviction that Jesus had been right after all; but that it was only because something real and objective and totally unexpected had actually happened at Easter that the disciples became changed men.
I did not discuss the other possibility. My reason for this was because I find it incredible. All the indications in the Gospels suggest that at the time of the arrest of Jesus the disciples lost all hope and faith in Jesus. They all forsook him and fled, except Peter, and he very soon denied all knowledge of him. Unless something extraordinary happened to convince them that against all their expectations God had reversed his apparent verdict on Jesus, I cannot imagine that they would later on have taken immense risks to assert in public that a man who had been condemned and hanged was no less than God’s Messiah. It proved difficult enough to persuade the world that this was so, even when it was proclaimed by men who believed that God had raised him from the dead. Without that belief I think it inconceivable that the first disciples could have even entertained the idea themselves. The attitude of the Qumran community to their revered ‘Righteous Teacher’ offers no adequate parallel, and I cannot think that, apart from the Resurrection, a fundamental change of mind on the disciples’ part about the true significance of the crucified Jesus is historically probable or that it is sufficient to account for the origin of the Christian Church. The ‘Pentecostal’ enthusiasm of the disciples arose, not from reflection about the value of a dead man’s deeds and words, but from the conviction that that man was alive as Lord and Messiah and that they could testify from their experience of actual encounter with him that God had glorified him.
Having deliberately passed over in silence the possibility of a purely subjective interpretation of the ‘Resurrection’ and committed myself as strongly as I could to the belief that at Easter certain things actually happened which persuaded a number of people that God had truly raised Jesus from the dead, I expected a vigorous rejoinder from those who take the view that I had ignored. I was surprised to receive no ‘come-back’ of this kind. Among the great number of correspondents who wrote to me after this broadcast there were many who attacked my presentation of the Easter message; but these were not, as I had expected, skeptics or unorthodox Christians, but the orthodox themselves. Some of these had totally misunderstood what I had said. They accused me of reducing the Easter event to a mere change of outlook on the part of the disciples, or, in the manner of Bultmann, to a decision on our part, at this present time, to accept as our Lord the Christ who encounters us in the Easter preaching of the Church, to which the whole question of an event alleged to have happened two thousand years ago is irrelevant. Many others, who did grasp my meaning, were dismayed because, while I asserted the objective reality of God’s act at Easter, I did not take the stories of the empty tomb as the basis of my interpretation of that act of God, but, on the contrary, suggested that these stories may be unhelpful to our understanding of the Easter message. The controversy which followed this broadcast was therefore not about the fact of the Resurrection (except where my meaning had been misunderstood), but about its nature: about what we may believe to have actually happened at Easter. The question is whether the good news of Easter, ‘The Lord is risen indeed’ (Luke. 24: 33), may or may not be true without what is implied in the invitation of the angel to the women at the tomb, ‘Come, see the place where he was laid’ (Mt. 28: 6).
Some may think that it is profitless to discuss ‘what we may believe to have actually happened’. The Resurrection, they may say, is not an event on the same plane as other events. It is a unique act of God. It lies outside the purview of the historian and it is not open to investigation by the methods of ordinary historical inquiry. There are those who would add that it is an event which belongs to the realm of ‘salvation history’, and that ‘salvation history’, that is, the process of the working out of God’s plan for man’s salvation, is not accessible to the historian. Its events belong to the sphere, not of history in the ordinary sense, but of the supra-historical; they cannot be objects of historical research because they are discernible only by faith.
Now it is perfectly true that it is only to the eye of faith that certain historical events may reveal the operation of God’s saving purposes. Faith alone can discern a mighty act of God in the Exodus from Egypt. The historian as such cannot tell us whether or not the Exodus belongs to ‘salvation history’. But he can tell us whether or not it is probable that the Exodus from Egypt ever happened; and if he were to tell us that in all likelihood the whole story is unhistorical then it would cease to be for us a revelatory event, since it would have ceased to be an event. The story could still be told, but as a myth. It would be a fictitious story expressing certain timeless truths or beliefs in the form of a concrete and particular narrative. Such truths or beliefs might perhaps be that patient endurance gets rewarded in the long run, that one should never despair even in impossible circumstances, that tyrants tend to come to a bad end, and so on. But the myth cannot offer any assurance that the beliefs are well-founded; it is only a pictorial way of expressing them.
So, too, with the Resurrection. It is true that the historian cannot pronounce upon the significance which faith discerns in what happened at Easter. That Jesus was raised by God and exalted as the Lord of glory is not a statement which the historian as such has any grounds either for affirming or denying. It lies outside his province. It is an assertion that is possible only to faith. But faith makes this assertion on the basis of certain things which are recorded as having actually happened at Easter. The claims which Christian faith makes are an interpretation which it puts upon these happenings; and the historian has every right to investigate the records of these happenings and to pronounce upon the probability or otherwise that they did in fact occur. If the result of the inquiry were to be that it is exceedingly improbable that any part of the record is true, then the Easter story becomes a myth and not a part of history (and hence not a part of ‘salvation history’). And to maintain that, if an event belongs to ‘salvation history’ or is ‘supra-historical’, it lies outside the province of the historian not merely to judge whether the interpretation which faith puts upon it is justified or not (which is true), but to investigate whether it ever happened or, if it did, what kind of thing it was that happened, is tantamount in practice to saying that it is mythical.
Some might be content, as I said before, to relegate the Resurrection to the category of myth. This would not deprive the Easter story of all value. It would then be an attempt to convey in a vivid pictorial form the truth, or the belief, that self-sacrificing love is so supremely valuable that in comparison with it even death is of small significance; that although the enemies of Jesus won their victory over him, yet in retrospect his life has become a more potent influence than theirs, for his memory has survived as an inspiration and example for all men. But this is not what either the first disciples or all later Christians have meant by the Resurrection. Paul’s life was not turned upside down because he reflected on the value of Jesus’ life and decided that goodness, even in defeat, is a more potent force than triumphant evil. He was convinced, against all his previous beliefs, that the same Jesus who had been crucified had encountered him objectively as the living Lord who now claimed his obedience.
A myth of ‘resurrection’ might certainly express the hope that goodness prevails over wickedness in the long run. It might even encourage men, in the face of despair and death, to hope against hope: perhaps to echo Job’s cry, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’. But it could offer no assurance either that there is a God or, if there is, that he is a God who cares and who will not let us down. It can afford no real answer to the cry, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
We have to be concerned, then, both with the question, ‘What happened at Easter to awaken the Christian faith that God raised Jesus from the dead ?’, and with the question, ‘What does the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead mean to us?’
My sermon was intended to show something of the meaning of the Resurrection for us. In it I said that I am convinced that the Resurrection, as something that really happened, is the one thing that assures us that in the last resort the world is not mad but sane. It is the evidence that there really is a God, that he is the God of love, and that we can call him ‘Our Father’. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, after his life had seemed to end in tragedy, we can be sure that faith in God will not let us down. If, on the other hand, nothing actually happened at Easter and if, therefore, the Christian faith which rests upon the Resurrection is a delusion, then we might as well be dead. For it is only if we believe that death was not the end of Jesus, the one man whose trust in God was complete and perfect, that we can accept Paul’s brave advice: ‘Stand firm and immovable, and work for the Lord always, work without limit, since you know that in the Lord your labor cannot be lost’.
What, then, did happen? The friends of Jesus, and afterwards Paul himself who had been, until that moment, an active enemy and persecutor of the first Christians, found that Jesus, who had died and been buried, encountered them as their living Lord and claimed them for his service in the world. The evidence that this happened to them is good. Paul gives us first-hand testimony that Jesus appeared to him. He also tells us of many people before him to whom the same experience had come, beginning with Peter and the other original disciples of Jesus and including five hundred people most of whom were still alive when Paul was writing, which was some twenty-five years or rather less, after the Crucifixion (I Cor. 5, Gal. 1:16). We also have a fuller account of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord in Acts 9, repeated in Acts 22 and 26. This may represent an early tradition of that event, handed down in the Christian community, perhaps at Jerusalem, rather than Paul’s own account of the matter; but it is consistent with what Paul says himself in his own letters. There are also accounts of appearances of the risen Jesus in the Easter stories in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John.
It is not possible to say precisely what the nature of these experiences was. That is not surprising. Their effect was shattering, and especially in the case of Paul, the enemy of the Christian movement, they had the effect of turning upside down the whole outlook of the people concerned and reversing the course of their lives in the most drastic and complete way. An experience of that kind is scarcely describable. Paul himself speaks of it, in his own case and in that of the others before him, in terms of sight: ‘He appeared’ or ‘was seen’. The word used here generally denotes a vision of God or of ‘God’s angel’. We cannot say whether Jesus was actually seen with the bodily eyes in some kind of physical form (so as to have been capable in theory of being photographed). I think, however, that this is highly unlikely. According to Acts, what Paul experienced when, as he tells us, the Lord appeared to him (or was seen by him) was a blinding light and the hearing of a voice speaking to him. Acts 22 and 26 suggest that his companions may also have seen the light (the three accounts in Acts are not consistent on the point of whether the whole experience was private to Paul or not), (Acts 9: 7 and 22: 9 are contradictory about the hearing of a voice. For the sake of brevity my sermon assumed the story as related in 22:9 and confirmed by implication in 26:14.) but they saw no one. More important, these appearances were not primarily proofs demonstrating objectively to the world in general that Jesus was alive. They were the way in which the risen Lord called men to his service; hence to be a witness of the Resurrection was to be a missionary. God reveals his activity in claims to faith and obedience, not by demonstrative proofs outside the sphere of his call to particular men whom he chooses, though it remains true that his revelation in these ways may become evidence to us (although not proof) that God is, and that he is a gracious God.
Of course, the evidence of Paul, at first hand, and of many others which we know about primarily through Paul (his letter to the Corinthians is considerably older and closer to the events than the earliest of the written Gospels), is open to the objection that we have no guarantee that the appearances were not hallucinations. Some people are disturbed by the idea that Christian faith may rest only upon the testimony of certain individuals to have experienced a vision of Jesus after his death. It seems to them that this is an insecure foundation on which to build the whole Structure of Christian belief and the way of life which follows from it; especially since such experiences may not be unique, for there are possible parallels, not only in the visions of the saints but in many alleged psychic phenomena. Can these appearances rank (as Acts 1:3 claims) as ‘ample evidence that he was alive?’ Is there no assurance of a more objective and less disputable kind?
The objection has considerable force. There is no guarantee in the records that the Easter appearances were not a series of hallucinations, including a mass hallucination of the five hundred people. I do not think we need be dismayed by this. It is consonant with what Christians believe about the manner in which God reveals himself. He makes his activity known to faith, and faith is not compatible with unmistakable proofs. It was precisely this desire for some infallible external guarantee which Jesus resisted when he was tempted to test his experience of receiving a divine call at the time of his baptism. The temptation was to throw himself off the Temple roof and challenge God to preserve him unhurt. It was this same desire which he refused to satisfy for other people when they asked him to give them a sign from heaven. There can be no objective proof that Paul and the others were not self-deceived.
On the other hand, it is important to observe that they were not expecting to meet Jesus as their Lord. In Paul’s case this is obvious; he was persecuting the Christians because he thought that Jesus had been a false prophet or bogus messiah. It is hard to think that his experience on the road to Damascus was a piece of unconscious self-deception or wish-fulfillment. And it seems clear from what took place after the arrest of Jesus that Peter and the other disciples had no hope that this would happen. Jesus probably foresaw his own death; but I think it is almost certain that the passages in the Gospels which speak of this, and which in some instances go on to say that he prophesied his resurrection, have been written up and embroidered in the light of what actually happened at Easter. Only in the obviously late and legendary story of the guard at the tomb (Mt. 27:63) is there any clear indication that a resurrection was expected, and this story is evidently related to controversies between Christians and Jews in Matthew’s own day, many years after the event and at a time when the subject of dispute was the empty tomb. It runs counter to the general evidence about the disciples’ state of mind at the time of Jesus’ death, all of which suggests that the experience of encounter with the living Lord was something which, as I said in my sermon, they had not dreamed up for themselves, but which ‘came to them out of the blue when they were least expecting it’. This tells to some extent against it being hallucinatory.
It is also proper to ask whether the effect of that encounter on their own lives, and through them on their contemporary world, is more consonant with it being genuine than with being an hallucination. I think that the answer is yes. It is also legitimate to adduce the continuing experience of Christian believers down to the present day. This is not the same as that of Paul or the others to whom he refers. It does not take a form which could be described by saying ‘He appeared to me.’ The Easter appearances lasted for a brief period only and Paul was aware that the appearance to him was the last of the series. After it the presence of the Lord was no longer mediated in visual or auditory encounter. Yet Christians continue to be encountered by his living presence in other modes, and the reality of their experience is more easily understandable, to say the least, if the appearances at Easter were a real encounter with an objective presence.
I do not think that the subjectivity of ‘vision’ and ‘hearing’ renders the Easter appearances inadequate as an assurance that God truly raised Jesus and that he won the decisive triumph over death. If the appearances to the apostles were private manifestations, in the sense that a casual bystander would have seen nothing: if; that is to say, they were in the nature of visions rather than of bodily seeing, this does not imply that these men were not confronted with the Lord’s presence as an external reality. To maintain the contrary would be to pass a very sweeping and damaging judgement on a great body of religious experience. It would be hard to think that because, in all probability, no other worshipper in the Temple saw anything remarkable when Isaiah ‘saw the Lord, high and lifted up’ (Is. 6. ff.), therefore the prophet dreamed up that experience and the Lord’s presence never impinged upon him in objective reality. It does mean, however, that, as this example from the Old Testament indicates, the Easter appearances were not dissimilar in kind from other phenomena in the history of religious experience. I see no reason why this should not be so. God’s revelation in Christ is final and complete; but the Gospel events are not the only point at which God has revealed himself to men, and since there is continuity in the substance of revelation there is no need to be surprised if there is also continuity in the modes in which it is communicated.
In the discussion which followed the sermon, I was questioned about this passage in it. ‘Forget, if you will, the picture, beloved of the old artists, of a body, holding a flag of triumph, stepping out of a grave. That suggests a corpse come back to life on this physical plane. If that were all that Christ’s Resurrection means, then it were better forgotten. . . . The real Christ is not a revived corpse. He lives in the fullness of God’s life. He is the life, the truth, the way for us.’
The question was: ‘Is one not able to believe that Christ was resurrected in a physical form, and still be an intelligent Christian? After all, it is what the Church has believed for two thousand years, isn’t it?’ To this I replied: ‘I should not want to say at all that it isn’t possible to be an intelligent Christian and take the story of the empty tomb as a literal historical fact. After all, a great many highly intelligent Christians do so. I do not, myself. I regard the story of the empty tomb as myth rather than literal history, and profoundly significant as myth. But what I was getting at in my sermon was not exactly that point. It was rather that whether you take the story literally or as a mythical description of what we mean by the Resurrection (namely, that the living presence of the crucified Christ is present with us now), the idea is better forgotten, or rather is better not entertained at all, that the Resurrection is parallel to the raising of Lazarus from the grave in the Fourth Gospel. That was somebody who had died coming back to life. He was not glorified; he did not enter into a new and higher mode of life; he did not become the source of new life for us. That was the sort of event which might make us marvel. We might say about it, "Oh, wonderful", or, "Oh, how extraordinary", but it would not necessarily communicate God to us at all; and Christ’s Resurrection does communicate God to us.’
Here are the reasons why I do not take the story of the empty tomb as factual history, but as an attempt to express the implications of the Easter appearances in terms of a story or picture (i.e. as a myth). Some of these reasons are historical. The earliest account of the Easter events is made up, first, of the first-hand testimony of Paul, who had no doubt that his encounter on the Damascus road was to be classed among the Easter appearances (in adding, ‘though this birth of mine was monstrous’ (I Cor. 15: 8) he is alluding to a difference in his own condition as compared with the first disciples, not to any difference in the nature of the appearance). Secondly, the account comprises Paul’s recitation of a tradition of similar appearances to others before him (I Cor. 15:3 ff.). This was part of what he calls ‘the facts which had been imparted to me’. By this he means that it had been passed on to him long before he wrote this letter to Corinth, probably, indeed, soon after his conversion. It therefore goes back to the earliest days; it is extremely important evidence, and we are on relatively sure historical ground here. It is true that the tradition contains the assertion that the Resurrection, like Christ’s death, took place ‘according to the scriptures’. This need not, however, mean that the story had already either been invented or modified in order to square with Old Testament prophecies. The mention of ‘the third day’ (I Cor. 15: 4) suggests that the scriptures which the tradition had in mind were Hosea 6:2 and possibly Jonah I:17 (conceivably also 2 Kings 20:5, by a far-fetched interpretation). Now none of these texts corresponds very readily to the tradition of the Easter event. It is unlikely that they would, as it were, catch the eye of a Christian reader searching the Old Testament for prophecies about Christ, and induce him to think up a story to show that an important prophecy had been fulfilled. It looks much more as though these texts caught the eye, and were regarded as prophetic, only because it was already known, on the testimony of witnesses of the Resurrection appearances, that Jesus was actually encountered as the living Lord on the third day after his death. The prophecies are probably adduced to support this testimony, rather than vice-versa. This being so, it is an important fact that this very early account of Easter makes no mention of the tomb being found empty. Neither does what Paul tells us about the appearance to himself suggest that he thought of this in terms of a bodily manifestation (and the account of it in Acts indicates clearly that Luke believed it was not). These earliest testimonies thus stand in contrast to the Easter stories in the Gospels, where the empty tomb is a central fact and the appearances of Christ are thought of, in the light of this, as being in some cases bodily: involving touch as well as sight, and including eating in the presence of the disciples. They indicate that the Easter message that Christ has been raised from the dead was originally based historically on a series of appearances rather than on a discovery that his tomb was empty. The reference in the ancient tradition to the fact that Jesus had been buried (I Cor. 15:4) does not necessarily imply a belief in a bodily resurrection, and, since there is no mention here of the empty tomb, it probably does not; rather, it indicates the reality and finality of Jesus’ death (he had been actually dead and buried), and just possibly hints that in his burial the prophecy of Isaiah 53:9 had been fulfilled. The whole of this passage of Isaiah was of great importance to Christians as pointing to the fact that the paradoxical death of the Messiah was part of God’s plan, and later on this particular verse may have influenced the development of the detailed story of Nicodemus and the burial of Jesus.
If Paul and the tradition which he cites lay no emphasis on the empty tomb the question arises whether Paul nevertheless may have known of it. Many New Testament scholars hold that he did.(They include my colleague, Professor C. F. D. Moule. See his footnote (p. 122) in his important article, ‘St. Paul and Dualism’ (New Testament Studies, 12, 2, January, 1966). Certainly it would be quite unsafe in the ordinary way, to infer that he did not from the fact that he does not actually allude to it. But in this case I think that the argument from silence has unusual force. For the situation in which Paul wrote I Corinthians 15 was that some of the Corinthians were denying that there is a resurrection of the dead (I Cor: 15: 12). In answer to them Paul marshals every possible argument, and in particular, he adduces the known fact that Jesus was raised from the dead as the foundation for belief in the future resurrection of Christian people. If Jesus’ Resurrection is denied, he says, the bottom drops out of the Christian gospel. And the evidence that he was raised consists in the appearances to himself and to others. Had he known that the tomb was found empty it seems inconceivable that he should not have adduced this here as a telling piece of objective evidence.
In the same chapter he maintains that Christ’s Resurrection is the first-fruits of our own. It is the assurance that Christ’s people will also be raised. The argument rests on the belief that his Resurrection was not different in kind from what they may look forward to through trusting in him. It is therefore important to see what he says in answer to the question, ‘How are the dead raised?’ (I Cor. 15:35 ff.). Since Pharisaic Judaism held a strong belief in the resurrection of this mortal body, and Paul belonged to this tradition (see Acts 23: 6), it might be expected that Paul would affirm that belief. At one time, indeed, he does seem to have thought of the future resurrection in this way. In Thessalonians 4:14 (probably his earliest letter) he says: ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died as Christians; God will bring them to life with Jesus. . . . We who are left alive until the Lord comes shall not forestall those who have died; because . . . the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.’
This is the traditional imagery of Jewish apocalyptic. The picture suggests a bodily resurrection of the dead and a transference of the living directly from this world to another. But Paul is not content simply to reproduce this traditional picture. He gropes after some way of expressing a more original conception of resurrection; and one reason why he does this may probably be because his belief in future life came to be founded much more upon his own Easter experience, and that of the others whom he mentions, than upon Pharisaic and apocalyptic tradition. So in I Corinthians, having asked how the dead are raised, he attempts to answer the question by saying, on the one hand, that there is some kind of real, though indefinable, continuity between our present bodily mode of existence and the life beyond death, and, on the other, that there is discontinuity also. He cannot grasp the nature of this continuity, for it is a mystery; but it seems to him that there is an analogy in the relation of the grain that is sown to the corn that grows up. His point is that what comes up in the farmer’s field is not the same thing which was sown. The seed, indeed, suffers dissolution. The corn has a different kind of ‘body’ from the seed. Yet, although corn and seed are different, there is an organic connection between the two.
So it is with the dead. The body which is put in the grave is not raised as a physical body. ‘Flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God, and the perishable cannot possess immortality’ (I Cor. 15:50). What is ‘sown’ is ‘an animal body’; what will be raised is a ‘spiritual body’. Paul is quite clear that the body of flesh and blood no more emerges from the grave than the seed itself comes up out of the ground. And yet the new form of existence, the ‘spiritual body’ (that is, a body made for life on a different plane of existence, life with the risen Christ), is not entirely unrelated to the body of flesh and blood. ‘It is raised’, says Paul, ‘as a spiritual body’. If we ask what he means by ‘it’, he cannot precisely tell us; but he is evidently groping after the idea that ‘we’, that is our personalities, will be re-made by God for a different mode of existence from that of the flesh-and-blood body, and yet that in some way we shall retain our identity and be the same personalities as those which now live in the mode of physical beings. This will be so, even though the physical structure is not raised as such (compare Cor. 6:13).
Elsewhere Paul lays less emphasis on the element of continuity, or rather, perhaps, he expresses it somewhat differently, finding the continuity between this life and the next in our ‘selves’ rather than in any organic link between the physical body and the spiritual body. In 2 Corinthians ff. he says: ‘We know that if the earthly frame that houses us today should be demolished, we possess a building which God has provided -- a house not made by human hands, eternal, and in heaven. In this present body we do indeed groan; we yearn to have our heavenly habitation put on over this one -- in the hope that, being thus clothed, we shall not find ourselves naked.’ He thinks of the present body as ‘demolished’ in death. And yet he wants to say that it will be our whole selves which will enter into new life. It is not merely some one part of our make-up which will be brought to life again: naked, as it were, and without any mode of self-identification and self-expression corresponding, in a spiritual existence, to the physical body in our earthly existence. In Philippians I: 22-24, again, Paul contrasts ‘departing’ (from this life) ‘and being with Christ’ with ‘staying on in the body’.
In the light of this profound and difficult thought about the resurrection of believers, and bearing in mind that he believed Christ to have been the pioneer or ‘first-fruits’ of those who will be raised like him, I find it difficult to think that Paul could possibly have believed that Jesus rose from the grave as, or in, a physical body. ‘Flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God.’ But if the body of the risen Christ could be handled, and if he truly ate food, then this is untrue; flesh and blood manifestly did possess the kingdom of God. I think we can be reasonably sure that those Resurrection stories which speak of a fully corporeal presence of Jesus after his death could not have been known to Paul. It is not so impossibly difficult to think that he could have believed that the physical body of Jesus had been transformed in the grave into a spiritual body, and that it was no longer there at Easter because it had been changed into another substance which did not exist spatially. Perhaps he did believe this; but his language about the grain and the corn, and especially the way in which he speaks of the dissolution of our bodily frame, makes me think it improbable that he could have thought that the coming into being of the spiritual body involved the disappearance of the flesh-and-blood ‘framework’: that the corpse itself must disappear. It thus seems to me probable that the earliest stratum of the Easter tradition did not make the gospel depend upon an empty tomb. The Easter stories in the four Gospels, on the other hand, come nearer to doing this. These stories are somewhat different in character from the main body of the Gospels, especially in the case of the first three (the Synoptic Gospels). They have, like the Infancy narratives, the characteristics of myth. Angels, visible in human form, appear as characters in the narrative and address the chief actors; an angel descends from heaven, rolls away the stone which sealed the rock tomb and sits upon it. The stories of the appearances of Christ combine traditions about a ‘spiritual body’ such as Paul speaks about (the Lord appears suddenly within a room) with others which tell of a tangible body, capable of being touched or grasped and of the physical process of eating. More obviously than in other parts of the Synoptic Gospels there is much material which is evidently a casting back, in the form of a narrative about Jesus, of the thought and experience of the Church in later years, and of its controversies with opponents. The narratives in the various Gospels are remarkably inconsistent with each other (e.g. Luke insists that all the Easter events took place in or just outside Jerusalem; Matthew that it was in Galilee that Christ was seen by the disciples). They are all clearly independent of the very early tradition recorded by Paul, and in some respects are very difficult to reconcile with it.
It may be as well to give a brief summary of the stories in the first three Gospels. In Mark three women come to the tomb on the morning of the first day of the week to anoint the body. They see that the huge stone has been rolled away. Inside the tomb they find an angel (a young man in a white robe, a regular way of describing a supernatural being). They are stricken with amazement, as in most stories of angelic appearances. The young man calms them, tells them that Jesus is not there because he has risen, and gives them a message for the disciples and Peter, that Jesus is going on before them to Galilee and they will see him there. But the women run away in terror, and say nothing to anyone. Here Mark’s original Gospel ends. A late and spurious conclusion has been added. Whether Mark intended to finish his book at this point, or whether an authentic ending was somehow lost before it had ever been copied is a matter of dispute. I think that the former view is much more probable.
The point of this story is contained in the angel’s words to the women. These words explain that the tomb is empty, not because the body has been taken somewhere else, but because Jesus has risen, presumably in corporeal form. They also point to a Resurrection appearance in Galilee. The fact that the women do not pass the message on may suggest that the evangelist, or his source, knew that the story of the tomb and the angel was not part of the original Easter proclamation and had only developed at a relatively late stage in the tradition.
Mark is generally held to be the earliest Gospel, written some thirty-five to forty years after the events. The order in which Luke and Matthew follow Mark is uncertain. Probably they were both written between fifty and sixty years after the events that they record, and I am inclined to think that the order is Luke-Matthew. All the evangelists, of course, used written sources (though in Mark’s case this cannot be demonstrated for certain) and oral traditions; and Mark’s Gospel was a source used, in the opinion of most scholars, by both Luke and Matthew.
In Luke Mark’s brief story is evidently used, but it is drastically altered. Three women as before (but the name of one is different) go to the tomb. The stone has been rolled away. The body is found not to be there. Then two men in dazzling garments (i.e. angels) suddenly appear at their side. The women are terrified, but the two men tell them, not that the disciples are to go to Galilee, but that they themselves are to remember that while Jesus was in Galilee he had prophesied that he would be crucified and would rise again. The men also ask them why they are looking among the dead for one who is alive. The women do report this to the apostles, but their story is taken to be nonsense, and is not believed. Some manuscripts here add that Peter, however, did then go to the tomb, looked in and saw the grave-clothes, and went home amazed; but this is not certainly a part of Luke’s own story, and it may have been introduced from the Fourth Gospel at a later stage.
Thus far Luke has followed Mark in broad outline, but the account of the empty tomb has been built up in rather more detail, the saying of the angel (s) to the women has been completely recast in line with Luke’s view that all the Easter events happened at Jerusalem, and not in Galilee, and the women are said to have informed the disciples. Luke’s version still suggests that the empty tomb was not part of the original tradition; for although in Luke the women do not ‘say nothing about it to anyone’ (as in Mark) their report is disbelieved.
Luke then adds further information. Two disciples encounter Jesus on the way to Emmaus, but do not recognize him. He converses with them and reinterprets the Old Testament for them, showing that in every part of it the suffering and glorification of the Messiah was prophesied. Finally, at supper with them, he takes bread, blesses, breaks and gives it to them. Then they recognize him and at once he vanishes from their sight. This story also includes a reference to some disciples having gone to the tomb and found it as the women had reported, but having not seen Jesus. This may refer to the visit of Peter mentioned earlier, if this is authentically Lucan.
When the two disciples return, the eleven apostles and others tell them that the Lord has meanwhile appeared to Peter. This episode is, no doubt, the same as that appearance to Peter which comes first in Paul’s list in Corinthians, and is thus part of the very early tradition. It is very awkwardly integrated by Luke with the Emmaus story, and looks as though it comes from a tradition which was originally quite independent of it, and probably also of the rest of the Synoptic Resurrection narratives.
While this is being discussed, Jesus suddenly appears among the disciples in the room at Jerusalem. They think he is a ghost; but he invites them to touch him and see that he has flesh and bones (contrast Paul’s language about flesh and blood). He then takes a piece of fish, and eats it before their eyes. Then, as on the way to Emmaus, he expounds the Old Testament as a body of scripture referring to himself assures them that it was written in these scriptures that the Messiah should suffer death and rise again and that repentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed to all nations in his name. He commissions them as witnesses of all this, promises that they will receive the gift of the Spirit, and bids them remain in Jerusalem until then, since their mission is to start from Jerusalem (compare Isaiah 2: 3, Micah 4: 2). He leads them out to Bethany, blesses them, and parts from them (and, according to most manuscripts, ascends to heaven).
In Acts, Luke’s second volume, a period of forty days elapses before the Ascension, during which Jesus discourses with the disciples and commissions them as witnesses. He then ascends bodily, while two men in white (i.e. angels) interpret this to the disciples.
These stories that are peculiar to Luke seem clearly (with the exception of the appearance to Peter) to embody in the form of myth the experience of the post-Easter Church. They show that the Old Testament can, and must, be read as a Christian book, prophetic of Jesus; that the paradox that the Messiah should suffer death can be understood in the light of the scriptures; and that the risen Lord’s presence, even if it is not recognized at other times, is to be discerned when he encounters his people in the breaking of bread (the Church’s Eucharist). They also reflect controversies about the Easter appearances. It was evidently being objected that the appearances may have been hallucinations, or that what the disciples saw was merely a ghost. In answer to this it was being asserted that the presence of the risen Lord was corporeal, tangible and possessed of flesh and bones: this despite the obvious inconsistency with the Pauline tradition and with elements incorporated in Luke’s own narrative, namely, the sudden appearance within a room and the seemingly simultaneous appearance to the two disciples at Emmaus and to Peter at Jerusalem.
In Matthew Mark’s narrative is followed more closely but with a number of elaborations. It is introduced by a story which obviously reflects later controversies with the Jews. Christians were claiming that the tomb was found empty; Jews were replying that the disciples must have stolen the body away. A Christian apologetic argument had then been developed, which Matthew incorporates: the Jewish authorities had heard that the disciples were expecting a resurrection; they therefore got Pilate to post a guard at the tomb. After the Resurrection had happened, the guard reported to the authorities, who bribed them to say that while they were asleep the disciples stole the body. This legend, which is very much in the manner of the later apocryphal gospels, is interwoven with the Marcan narrative. It is obviously a reflection of the controversies of Matthew’s day, and has no historical value.
In Matthew’s main narrative two women, not three, go to the tomb. Instead of the stone being already rolled away, there is a violent earthquake, an angel descends, rolls back the stone, and sits on it. ‘His face shone like lightning, his garments were white as snow.’ He tells the women that Jesus is not there, but has been raised; and he gives them the message for the disciples which Mark had recorded. The women run to tell the disciples this, but on the way Jesus meets them and gives them greeting. They clasp his feet and fall before him. He then repeats the message given by the angel: the disciples will see him in Galilee. Matthew then adds a story which tells how they did see Jesus on a mountain in Galilee, and worshipped him, though some doubted. Jesus assures them that all authority has been committed to him in heaven and earth (that is, he is the Lord). He commissions them to go and make all nations his disciples, to teach them his commandments and baptize them; for he will be with them always.
Thus, like Luke, Matthew embodies in a Resurrection story the conviction of the Church that the raising of Jesus from the dead, as the Lord of all men, meant that its task must be to witness to him and to preach him as Lord to all the nations, although, as Acts shows, the realization that the gospel was meant for all nations, and not only for the Jews, came gradually as a result of further revelation, and could not have been an instruction given at Easter.
The analysis of the Synoptic narratives of Easter suggests that, while they are full of profound theological reflection about the Christian experience of the risen Lord (especially the Emmaus story), they are of much less historical value than the tradition recorded by Paul. They suggest that the story of the empty tomb may not have been part of the first proclamation of the Easter message, and that the story itself has undergone a process of building up (at least if Mark’s brief account was all that that evangelist himself offered). They suggest that, apart from a parenthetical allusion in the Emmaus narrative, and a doubtfully authentic mention of Peter going to the tomb, the disciples themselves were not concerned about the tomb at all. Either the women did not tell them, or they did tell them but they disbelieved the report, or (in Matthew) the women told them, but the important part of their message was that they should go to Galilee and the disciples therefore went on there without taking any action about the tomb. Except in those Matthaean additions which are generally agreed to be legendary, the tomb is not the main focus of interest even in these Gospels, and attention is concentrated rather on the appearances of Jesus.
This indicates a reply to those who argue that if the tomb was not empty the enemies of Christ had only to show his body in the grave to refute the whole basis of Christianity.
This may not be so. Even assuming that Jesus’ grave was known, which is by no means certain, it seems very possible that neither party was interested in it, or regarded the truth of Easter as dependent on it, until long after the event: until the period of the controversies reflected in Matthew, which would not arise until the empty tomb had become important in Christian thought about the Resurrection. It should be observed that the Christians, on their part, showed no disposition to point to the grave of Jesus, or exhibit it, when they preached his Resurrection, any more than their opponents referred to it.
The Synoptic narratives, taken at their face value, show considerable confusion about the nature of the appearances. Sometimes the risen Presence is bodily: indeed, fleshly. At other times this is not so. The risen Christ appears suddenly in the midst at Jerusalem, or vanishes at Emmaus. If they were of the latter kind, consistently with the Pauline record, then they were not appearances of what is meant by the term ‘body’. In that case, if they were in the nature of visions (which does not imply unreality) or manifestations of a spiritual body, the old artists’ picture of a material body emerging from the tomb is altogether incongruous. We may, however, grant that the evangelists do not speak of an ‘emergence’. Matthew’s angel rolls away the stone, not to allow the body to emerge, but to show that it is no longer there. This suggests a transformation into a spiritual or dematerialized ‘body’; but, as I have suggested before, there seems no reason to suppose that a re-creation of the ‘self’ in a different dimension of existence should involve the abolition of the material flesh and blood. The empty tomb would still be unnecessary to the Easter story. Such an interpretation, too, would seem inconsistent both with those narratives which speak of a material body of flesh and bones being seen by the disciples and also with the insistence of later Christian preaching (e.g. in Luke’s speeches in Acts) that the flesh of Jesus was raised without having seen corruption (in fulfillment of Psalm 16:10). To suppose that the body of Jesus was ‘dematerialized’ in the grave, but from time to time ‘re-materialized’ seems altogether pointless. More important, this would do away with that correspondence of the Lord’s Resurrection with our own which was fundamental to Paul’s argument about future life and is vitally important for our own belief about it.
Bodily resurrection, therefore, to which the empty tomb would be appropriate, and a raising to a new and non-material dimension of existence, to which it would not, seem to be confusedly woven together in the Synoptic traditions when these are taken as factual records. One must add that if the Resurrection were to be conceived of in a material way the question will arise, ‘What happened to the risen body of flesh and bones in the end?’ Luke may have had no difficulty in answering this: it went up, spatially, to heaven. For us that reply is impossible. Indeed, as early as Origen in the third century it was being pointed out that we must not think of the Ascension as a movement in space; and in fact Luke seems to have translated into mythical form, i.e. a pictorial narrative, the universal belief of the early Church that Jesus has ascended to the throne of God, not in a physical manner but in the sense that he has been exalted to Lordship over all the world.
In fact, however, as I have indicated, I do not think that the Synoptic traditions should be taken for the most part as factual history, but rather as reflections, cast in narrative form, of the theological thinking of the early Church about the Easter appearances and of various current controversies about them.
The Fourth Gospel offers, in my view, a most profound and moving meditation on the traditions used by the Synoptists, in the light of the experience of Christian believers who truly encountered the risen Lord in the worship and witness of the Church. Its narratives Contain many echoes of the stories in Mark and some of those which occur in Luke, and the evangelist has modified and added to the earlier traditions (his Gospel is generally agreed to be the latest of the four) in such a way as to make them the vehicle for a great body of deep religious truth.
The story begins with Mary Magdalene, alone, going to the tomb while it was still dark (an impressive piece of symbolism). She finds the stone removed, and runs to tell Peter and the ‘beloved disciple’ that the Lord’s body has been taken away. These two then run to the grave; the ‘beloved disciple’ looks in and sees the grave-clothes lying there. Peter goes inside and sees the wrappings arranged in order (there is an intentional contrast here with the raising of Lazarus, still helplessly bound in grave-clothes). The other disciple then enters, sees, and believes. The author adds that they did not yet realize from the scriptural prophecies that Jesus must be raised; if they had discerned the truth from scripture, it may be implied, the sight of the tomb would have been unnecessary, as it is for Christians now. They then go home; but Mary stays at the tomb weeping for the body which she thinks has been taken away. She looks in and sees two angels where the body had lain. They ask her why she is weeping, and she explains her sorrow that the body is no longer there; indeed, Mary identifies the body with ‘my Lord’. Then she turns and sees Jesus; she does not recognize him, but takes him to be the gardener who may have removed the body; but when Jesus calls her by name she realizes that he is ‘my Master’. Jesus says, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’; and she is told to tell the disciples, not that he is going to Galilee, but that he is ascending ‘to my Father and your Father’. She gives the message to them, saying, ‘I have seen the Lord’.
On the same evening Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples, though they are in a room with locked doors, and commissions them to proclaim the gospel which brings forgiveness or condemnation (according to the way in which it is received), breathing upon them the Holy Spirit. Thomas, who was absent, is told about this, but refuses to be convinced of the living presence of the Lord unless he can see and touch the wounds in the body of Christ’s flesh. Next week Jesus appears once more, again behind locked doors. Thomas is invited to do precisely what he had said would alone give him assurance, but, without touching Jesus, he confesses him as ‘my Lord and my God’. In answer, Jesus declares that faith is not to be dependent upon sight: ‘Happy are those who never saw me and yet have found faith’ (like the believers of the evangelist’s own day).
To try to interpret the meaning of this narrative in detail would require a long chapter to itself. It is not possible to attempt it here. One element in it, however, stands out. This evangelist has taken the stories of the empty tomb and of a material Presence of the risen Lord, has accepted them, but at the same time has indicated, subtly but emphatically, that the essential truths of Easter are not to be found in them. Faith does not need to be confirmed by sight. The scriptural witness of the prophecies should be enough as a basis for faith; Mary did not find the Lord through her quest for his body, but only through answering his personal call to her; she must not cling to his bodily presence, for his life is now on another plane, with the Father who is the Father of all those who follow Jesus because he is his Father who has raised him from the dead; Thomas is offered sight and touch, as a gracious concession to his lack of faith; but he does not believe because of this, but because the risen Lord addresses him; and the happiness of those who have faith without sight is greater.
So the Fourth Gospel, while offering us, on the surface, a materialistic presentation of the Resurrection, leads us through it to a deeper interpretation related to the Church’s continuous experience of the risen Lord.
The last chapter of this Gospel may perhaps be by another hand. It records an appearance in Galilee, reminiscent of the tradition in Matthew and the implications of Mark; but it is connected with a miraculous catch of fish which, or a story parallel to which, is placed by Luke at the time of the call of the first disciples at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As in Luke, it symbolizes the scope and success of the apostles’ mission to the world, to catch men. It includes a meal by the lake-side where the Christian experience of meeting the Lord at the Eucharist is reflected back into the Easter story; and it leads up to the rehabilitation and commissioning of Peter as the leader of the mission, a foreshadowing of his death, which had happened, of course, long before this Gospel was written, and a discussion of the destiny of the ‘beloved disciple’, possibly John. All this is, I think, a reading back of the circumstances of the later apostolic mission into the time immediately after that Resurrection which was the reason for the mission, the basis of it, and the power which inspired it.
It remains to ask why, if the empty tomb is not an original or essential part of the Easter message, it came to take so prominent a place in the story. The answer is that this was very natural. Once Christians began to reflect on the original proclamation that God raised Jesus and that he was seen alive by many witnesses, they would naturally picture the event of his raising in terms of an empty grave. Particularly would this be true of men who were accustomed to the beliefs of Pharisaic Judaism about future life; though the tendency would not be entirely confined to them. But the natural inclination to picture it in this way would be greatly stimulated by reflection on the scriptures. When Christians searched the Old Testament for texts bearing on the Resurrection they would be struck by Psalm 16:10: ‘Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy loyal servant suffer corruption’, This prophecy was a powerful weapon in the armory of Christian apologetic. It is cited in Acts 2: 27 and Acts 13: 35.( It would immediately suggest that the raising of Jesus ought to be conceived in terms of a physical resurrection of the body. From that point the story would inevitably come to be built up, as we can see it growing in the Gospels.
These are the historical reasons why I told my questioner that I did not myself accept the story of the empty tomb. I must, however, admit at once that they are not conclusive, for at every point other students of the New Testament might disagree with my exegesis. The interpretation of these documents leaves room for much difference of opinion. When all is said and done, many possibilities of other interpretations remain open. That is why I said that of course I did not maintain that one cannot be an intelligent Christian and continue to believe in a bodily resurrection.
For myself I find these historical arguments quite compelling; but my fundamental reason for basing my Easter sermon on the appearances of Jesus, and not on the empty tomb, is not historical but religious. It is a double reason, First, that sight, or objective proof; is not the proper ground of faith; and I think that the passionate desire of many of my correspondents to cling to the historicity of the empty tomb is due to a failure to realize this truth, Secondly, that I believe that Christ’s Resurrection is the assurance that we too shall rise from the dead. I think that this implies that his Resurrection was not different in kind from what we may hope for through him; that our rising will be a sharing in that Resurrection. Further, the truth of the Incarnation is that the Son of God became fully man. He entered into our human condition, and experienced all that belongs to our human nature, without the sin which is a perversion of our nature (but not, of course, without temptation, which does belong to it). This means that he experienced the whole course of our life from birth to the grave and whatever lies beyond it. Yet, if his body was raised physically from the grave and did not see corruption, or if his body was transformed after death into something different, in such a way that in itself it was annihilated, then he did not experience the whole of our human destiny. His entry into life beyond the grave was different from what we hope may be our own. For it is demonstrable that our bodies of flesh and blood will be dissolved, and that in whatever mode of existence we may be raised from death it will not be by either the resuscitation of this mortal body or its transformation -- unless, indeed, we follow the speculations of some of the Fathers concerning the reassembling, by God, of the dispersed molecules of the flesh, which I am not inclined to do.
The lines of Baxter’s well-known hymn have been a source of hope and comfort at countless funerals.
Christ leads me through no darker rooms
But if the story of the empty tomb were true, Christ’s door into God’s kingdom would not be ours. We should be confronted by another door through which he has never entered: into a dark room which his incarnate presence has never lightened.
For it is the Resurrection alone that gives us sure hope of a life to come. In my sermon I said that there is nothing inherent in our own nature on which we can rely for our hope; nothing, as it were, whether we call it a soul or anything else, which provides us with a built-in guarantee of survival. We believe that we shall live after death, not because of anything in ourselves, but because the God who raised Jesus is our Father, because he is unchanging, and because his love for us does not change, even, as the Resurrection assures us, through death. The principle of our immortality, if we may call it that, is God’s relationship to us which he has established by grace. It is this relationship which, we may believe, overcomes death. Of course, if my relationship to God continues, then I must continue: as my self; or my soul (I take these terms as synonymous), not in this present bodily mode of existence, but living because the God on whom my life depends will maintain his grace towards me. I do not mean that my existence will depend on whether, or how firmly, I believe in God through Christ; but that it must depend on the love of God through Christ for me. This does not imply that this bodily existence is of only limited value or importance; the value of the material creation does not necessarily involve its eternity. For us, as the only mode of existence we know, and as the mode which God has seen to be good, it is of supreme value and importance. Yet it may be transcended by the relationship of God to us in which he has made us his sons; and it is that sonship which assures us of life beyond death even though the mode of that life is entirely beyond our imagination.