Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton: London, Auckland, Sydney, Toronto, 1971.
Chapter 4: Where Does This Leave Us?
In the first chapter we opened up a discussion of what is meant by the term ‘resurrection’, and found that this quickly led us to the traditional conception of the resurrection of Jesus, a view often known as ‘bodily resurrection’, which, with minor variations, has dominated Christian tradition for about eighteen centuries. We therefore spent the last two chapters examining the historical basis upon which this view was believed to rest. This examination has led to the negative verdict, that it is no longer possible to defend on historical grounds a view of the resurrection of Jesus which necessitates an empty tomb and a restoration of the dead body of Jesus to some form of physical life.
This conclusion, it must be carefully pointed out, has been reached by many scholars (only a few of whom have been mentioned),1 not simply because the modern mind, dominated by a mechanistic and non-supernatural view of the universe, can no longer accept the notion of a dead body coming to life again. This factor has no doubt been presents but it must be said again that if there exist what appear to be historical narratives testifying to an event of a unique and seemingly impossible character, such as has not been known in modern times, it is quite unscientific to dismiss it because of our presuppositions. The evidence must first be approached with an open mind and examined as objectively as possible for its historical reliability. This we have tried to do.
The negative verdict on the historicity of the empty tomb has been reached by scholars not because ‘they are suffering from a failure of nerve and of imagination’, believing that ‘they must not introduce any supernatural agent into the setting of the burial of Jesus’.2 This judgment may have been true of some, and particularly those who were already hostile critics of Christianity. But the scholars whom we have been quoting are themselves committed to the Christian faith. In their examination of the written records, not only were they not of a mind to ‘insist on proving this tradition legendary’,3 but because of their Christian commitment they were ready to be convinced of the traditional view if only that were the conclusion to which their study of the New Testament records led them. This is true even of the frequently maligned D. F. Strauss, who wrote, ‘We might then rest satisfied with the evangelical testimonies in favor of the resurrection, were but these testimonies in the first place sufficiently precise, and in the second, in agreement with themselves and with each other.’4
The discovery that the tomb of Jesus was empty might well be difficult to understand within the modern world view, but it could not be dismissed as legend if the historicity of the records pointed otherwise. This is just what they do not do. On the surface they point to the discovery as a historical event, but when related to each other and to the approximate age of each Gospel, they are much more consistent with the conclusion that in the Gospels we have four versions of a developing legend which grew up as a consequence of an Easter faith which was already held.
This evaluation of the Gospel records has become clearer and more widely held during the last century or more, a period which has witnessed the development of biblical study on a scale more intensive than ever before, and using the valuable tools of historical and literary criticism. In the course of this time the position has changed from one in which only a few scholars questioned the historicity of the empty tomb to one in which this story is widely accepted as a legend. D. F. Strauss was conscious of belonging to a small minority when he ended his massive three-volume Life of Jesus with the words, ‘But there are also a few; who, notwithstanding such attacks, freely declare what can no longer be concealed -- and time will show whether by the one party or the other, the Church, Mankind, and Truth are best served.’5 Reinhold Niebuhr summed up the position nowadays when he said, ‘There are very few theologians today who believe the Resurrection actually happened.’6
It is an instructive exercise to read in chronological order the various studies of the resurrection of Jesus written during the last century, not by rationalist critics of Christianity, but by Christian scholars, most of whom were widely recognized as authorities. It makes one realize how far within a century the general consensus of New Testament scholarship has moved.7 We shall illustrate this with a few examples.
In 1865 Bishop Westcott could confidently write, ‘taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no single historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ’.8 By 1881 the Bishop was writing a little more cautiously. ‘the history is not a history of the Resurrection, but a history of the manifestation of the Risen Christ. The fact of the Resurrection is assumed, but it is nowhere described. A veil lies over all beginnings.’ (Italics mine.)9
By the beginning of this century a great change had taken place and James Orr prefaced his defense of the traditional position by sketching the widespread questioning and rejection of ‘bodily resurrection’ by Christian scholars.10 In 1907 Kirsopp Lake published the first study of the resurrection, in English, which rested upon a thorough application of historical criticism to the New Testament records and he concluded that ‘The empty tomb is for us doctrinally indefensible and is historically insufficiently accredited. Thus the story of the empty tomb must be fought out on doctrinal, not on historical or critical grounds’11 The traditional view continued to be defended, however, and by men of the stature of James Denney. Yet Denney adopted a different kind of defense, ‘it is not the story of the empty tomb, or of the appearing of Jesus in Jerusalem or in Galilee -- which is the primary evidence for the resurrection; it is the New Testament itself. The life that throbs in it from beginning to end … is the life which the Risen Savior has quickened in Christian souls.’12
Between 1905 and 911 W. J. Sparrow Simpson wrote three studies on the resurrection of Jesus. In the third, after a very extended discussion, he recognized that the Scriptures themselves appear to give support to two opposing views which he referred to as the ‘materialistic’ and the ‘spiritual’. He believed, however, that they could be reconciled, for while the glorified body of the risen Jesus is normally neither visible nor tangible, it ‘temporarily reassumes the human outline, and solid frame, and former appearance, and marks of the wounds, for evidential and instructive purposes’.13 In the resurrection narratives the Evangelists ‘describe the re-entrance of the glorified Body of Christ into terrestrial conditions, effected for the purpose of convincing His apostles of His Resurrection, and of giving them instructions and commssions’.14 He believed that Paul, being the theologian, was not concerned with these occasional manifestations, but with the essential condition of the risen Christ and that his is therefore the profounder teaching.
Consequently Simpson deplored the crudely materialistic view of resurrection that has often dominated the Western Christian tradition, and went so far as to say that ‘If the Body of Christ had been cremated, His Resurrection-Appearances must have assumed much the same characteristics of physical identity as those which the Evangelists report.’15 He further conceded that this view of ‘bodily resurrection’ may remain equally true whether the original corpse of Jesus continued to remain in the tomb or not. Nevertheless he accepted the historicity of the empty tomb, partly because he thought it to be sufficiently well attested and partly because it was ‘indispensable for the disciples’ work and the disciples’ faith. . . . However possible it might be for those who have grasped St. Paul’s conception of the spiritual body to contemplate undisturbed the body of Jesus in the sepulchre, this is not possible for the great majority of men even yet.16
These extracts from Simpson show how far he had moved from the traditional (or what he called the Latin) view of resurrection, even though his study appears conservative by today’s standards. It was but a short step now to the point where many were to recognize not only that the New Testament presents two main views of resurrection, but that one of them is earlier than the other. G. H. C. Macgregor set them out in clear contrast when he wrote in 1939, ‘But what is implied by "Resurrection"? What conception lies behind the triumphant cry, "Christ is risen!"? The theory of traditional theology has, of course, been that of a bodily resurrection. . . This conception is quite clearly present in parts of the New Testament, particularly in the Synoptic Gospels, and may be called for convenience, the idea of "reanimation". But side by side with it is another and quite inconsistent conception, according to which the Risen Christ is a purely spiritual and "glorified" Being, who in virtue of the Resurrection has been exalted forthwith to the right hand of God, whence he manifests Himself to believers. . . . This we may call the idea of "glorification".’17
In the previous chapter we have seen some of the reasons why Macgregor, like many others, accepted the more spiritual view as the earlier one, to which materialistic features were added out of apologetic motives. ‘Faith in the Risen Christ was thus at first a simple affirmation of His exaltation to the rank of Messiah and Lord, and was quite independent of any stress upon the material reanimation of the body. This is a secondary emphasis born of the necessity of apologetics. It was only later that the material side of the Resurrection became in itself an object of belief, and was constituted the chief proof or "sign" of the verity of the Christian faith.’ 18
Contemporary scholarship has brought to light the fact that the diversity of view-point found in the New Testament stretches even beyond the two views of resurrection just referred to. Hans Conzelmann writes, ‘There is no uniform idea of the raising or resurrection of Jesus in the early period. Side by side, one can find views (a) that Jesus went straight from the grave to heaven, i.e. that resurrection and ascension, resurrection and exaltation are identical; (b) that he first returned to earth from the grave and only ascended after he had spent some time with his disciples . . . Similarly, the views of the nature of the appearances of the Risen One are also modified. If Jesus ascended directly from the grave into heaven, then he appears from time to time from heaven. If he only ascended after appearing on earth, the Easter appearances are fundamentally different from all later appearances of the exalted Lord (e.g. before Paul at Damascus).’ 19
For this short sketch we have chosen some reasonably representative New Testament scholars, and the words we have quoted from them clearly illustrate how much the understanding of the resurrection of Jesus has changed in the last century. They further demonstrate that it is the study of the New Testament itself which has brought about the collapse of the traditional view, thus confirming the plea currently being made by Bater when he says, ‘Discussions of the Resurrection have never been biblical enough.’20
Those who have devoted their energies to defending the traditional view have rightly said that the affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus is basic Christian faith. Consequently they issue solemn warnings that they have issued solemn warnings that if the Easter faith of the church is surrendered or found to rest on a false foundation, then Christianity is no longer viable. There is much truth in this. No one can claim to have understood or to have embraced Christianity, who has not appreciated the significance of the proclamation that Jesus is risen from the dead.
But is ‘bodily resurrection’ the only valid view of what it means to say that Jesus is risen? If it is, then we are left with little choice but to say that Jesus did not rise from the dead, nor is he risen today. Two quite independent lines of reasoning lead us to the same conclusion. The historical study of the New Testament records has not confirmed the traditional view that the physical body of Jesus (either transformed or not) came forth from the tomb within thirty-six hours after it had been placed there, later to ascend into heaven. Secondly, it is more or less meaningless to maintain that somewhere in the universe the risen Jesus lives today as a bodily form which is either physical or transformed from a physical body. For reasons such as the latter even Simpson, in 1911, declared that continuing insistence for the traditional materialistic view of resurrection ‘accounts for much repugnance to the Christian truth’.21
Fortunately this threat to a basic tenet of Christianity is only apparent. The Easter faith is neither restricted nor permanently anchored to this rigid view of the Resurrection that has long been traditional. The modern study of the New Testament, which seems to have undermined the historical foundations for the traditional view, has at the same time brought to light that in any case this was not actually the way in which the first apostles understood the resurrection of Jesus. On the contrary, it resulted from a development that took shape later and mainly in the last thirty years of the first century. Since Christianity began without this rigid and materialistic view of resurrection, it can also live again without it.
New Testament study is today showing that there was considerable variety of views and no little ambiguity in what first century Christians meant when they unanimously affirmed that Jesus is risen. Bater pertinently comments, ‘If there was that much ambiguity about the resurrection of Jesus for the eyewitnesses, on whose testimony all the succeeding ages must depend, do not the efforts twenty centuries later to establish it as demonstrable and unambiguous take on a certain comical effect?’22
We may go further and say that in the light of contemporary biblical study and of the knowledge of the world in which we live, the traditional, restricted view of resurrection is seriously defective. By attempting to pin the resurrection down to something which it, in fact, was not, we are prevented from appreciating the full scope of what the Easter faith is pointing to when it affirms that Jesus is risen. For example, it for ever tries to turn our attention back to some supposedly historical event which took place at the tomb on Easter day instead of the present realty of the risen Christ. Unless the Christian can affirm the presentness of the risen Christ (as Paul did in Galatians 2:20) then it matters little what happened at a tomb some nineteen centuries ago.
The traditional view is further defective in that, as many contemporary scholars have pointed out, it makes the truth of the Christian faith appear to rest upon the findings of the historian and so gives to Christianity a vulnerability which does not properly belong to it. Goguel expressed it this way, ‘If some document were discovered and established beyond all possibility of dispute that the body of Jesus slowly decomposed in the grave where it had been laid, Christianity with all the gifts of spiritual life which it has given to mankind would not be destroyed. On the other hand, if it were possible to prove that on the morning of the third day the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb and every possibility of fraud had been excluded, it would not follow that those who were forced to admit this fact would on that account become Christians.’23
More recently Ronald Gregor Smith used some rather striking words which reflect how the abandonment of the empty tomb viewpoint leads to a fuller understanding of the Easter faith. ‘We may freely say that the bones of Jesus lie somewhere in Palestine. Christian faith is not destroyed by this admission. On the contrary, only now, when this has been said, are we in a position to ask about the meaning of the resurrection as an integral part of the message concerning Jesus. The reality of Jesus with which we have to do in faith at this point is not an irrational addendum to his whole life. We are not asked to believe in the empty tomb, or in the resurrection: but in the living Lord. So far as the historically ascertainable "facts" are concerned we have the faith of the disciples nothing more.’ (Italics mine.)24
A more extended discussion of the meaning of resurrection for the Christian today will come at the end of this book. The point being made at the present is that we are not really ‘in a position to ask about the meaning of the resurrection’ until we have escaped from the fetters of the rigid tradition of ‘bodily resurrection’. It is not too much to say that during the last hundred years this tradition, old as it is, has collapsed. Many other old traditions in the Christian faith have been collapsing too, but none, perhaps, which seemed so close to the living heart of Christianity. It is understandable if many Christians have witnessed this collapse with alarm.
In actual fact, however, what appeared to be a loss, turns out to be a distinct gain. As the Christian comes to abandon his belief in the empty tomb and ‘bodily resurrection’, even though he once regarded it as a sure and certain proof of the truth of Christianity, he may experience an exhilarating sense of freedom not unlike that felt by Paul when for the sake of Christ he abandoned the former things in which he trusted. Concerning these he said, ‘I count everything sheer loss, because all is far outweighed by the gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I did in fact lose everything . . . All I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, and to share his sufferings, in growing conformity with his death, if only I may finally arrive at the resurrection from the dead.’25 For resurrection is not something less than the traditional view has made it out to be, but something greater, something that can be expressed in quite a variety of ways, something that has had a meaning for men in very different ages in the past, and can continue to have a meaning for men today and in the future.
We are now free to explore this meaning without being restricted to a particular concept or interpretation which because of our pre-suppositions, we think the word ‘resurrection’ must possess. Now we have the freedom to move back into the pre-Christian period where the idea of resurrection had an extensive history long before it ever became part of the vocabulary of the Christian faith. This was the real background against which the apostles made their victorious Easter affirmation rather than the discovery of an empty tomb.
As we explore the path taken by the concept of resurrection over some four thousand years of the cultural history which is our heritage, we shall find the resurrection theme expressed in a great variety of ways. Resurrection has been understood in different ways in the different cultural settings and historical periods in which we find it. But it is also possible to trace the links, however tenuous, which join them all together in a fascinating line of succession. One is reminded of John Buchan’s novel, The Path of the King, where he traces the progress through many generations of the descent of royal blood. It may be regarded as a parabolic parallel to the story we are about to begin.
It is not our purpose to set one particular understanding of resurrection over against another, for each was the vehicle of truth in the particular setting in which it took shape. We shall attempt to discern why that particular form won conviction in its own setting, and why it conveyed truth to those who affirmed it as the expression of their hope.
For resurrection, we shall see, was primarily an expression of hope. It normally had to do with that which was yet to come. Even the resurrection of Christ proclaimed in the Easter faith had this future element in it as a necessary ingredient (scholars refer to this as the eschatological character of the resurrection) and it was partly due to the loss of this element that the Easter ‘event’ came to be misunderstood.
The concept of resurrection arose long before technical words were coined to describe it. The Latin word resurrectio appears to have been created for Christian use, and while the Greek equivalent anastasis is certainly pre-Christian, it does not seem to have been widely used until Christian times, some scholars thinking that, when Paul referred to it at Athens, his hearers mistook it for the name of a goddess.26 The idea of resurrection first came to expression in the form of a narrative, and until the advent of the above technical terms, words of very general usage, such as ‘raise’, ‘wake up’, ‘stand up’, etc., served the purpose of relating it. In the course of time such words came to assume a more specialized or idiomatic usage. From henceforth we shall speak of the idiom27 of resurrection, remembering that the words conveyed no clear-cut connotation, but were sufficiently fluid to allow a wide variety of meaning.
The idiom of resurrection came to be used as language in which men could express their hope for the future. We are now ready to trace the long and tortuous path which this idiom pursued. When we have done this, we shall be in a better position to understand how the idiom may continue to be used as an expression of our hope in the face of a fast-changing world where so much is uncertain.
1. An exhaustive list would be too numerous but by way of example we may mention B. W. Bacon, H. D. A. Major, M. Goguel, R. Bultmann, G. Bornkamm, W. Marxsen, G. Gloege, H. Grass, G. W. H. Lampe, H. Anderson, G. H. C. Macgregor, R. Gregor Smith, N. Pittenger, J. Knox, Reinhold Niebuhr.
2. See H. H. Rex, op. cit., pp. 20-1.
3. ibid., p. 20.
4. The Life of Jesus, vol. 3, p. 365.
5. ibid., p. 446.
6. The New Theologian, by Ved Mehta, p. 34.
7. The chief books are set out in chronological order in the bibliography at the end of the book. A. M. Ramsey gives a brief sketch in Chapter 4 of The Resurrection of Christ.
8. The Gospel of the Resurrection, Fourth Edition, p. 115.
9. The Revelation of the Risen Lord, p. 4.
10. op. cit., chap. 1.
11. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, p. 253.
12. op. cit., p. 111.
13. The Resurrection and Modern Thought, p. 418.
14. ibid., p. 419.
15. ibid., p. 421.
16. ibid., p. 422.
17. ‘The Growth of the Resurrection Faith’, Expos. Times, Vol. L, p. 217.
18. ibid., p. 220.
19. An Outline of the Theology of the New Testament, pp. 64-5.
20. op. cit., p. 65
21. op. cit., p.420.
22. op. cit., p. 60.
23. op. cit., pp. 29-30.
24. Secular Christianity, p. 103.
25. Phil. 3:8, 10-11.
26. Acts 17:18.
27. I am indebted to Professor Dietrich Ritschl for this suggestion.