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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 14: What Can the ‘Resurrection of Jesus’ Mean for Us?


Our final task is to discuss what we mean when, as Christians, we affirm that God raised Jesus from the dead. In Chapter 1 it was pointed out that the meaning of the idiom of resurrection is much less clear and unambiguous than is often imagined. Many assume that it received its definitive meaning from a series of post-crucifixion events, as recorded in the Lucan tradition. But the idiom has bad a much longer and more varied history and it is in the light of this that we now attempt to outline what we mean in our time when we affirm the ‘resurrection of Jesus’.

This affirmation expresses in words something that lies near the Center of Christian faith. It is a confession of faith, which is made, and can only be made, by Christian believers. This immediately removes the ‘resurrection of Jesus’ from the class of events which are properly called historical and which are open to historical investigation. If the ‘resurrection of Jesus’ were an historically verifiable event, it would mean that the Easter element of the Christian’s faith depended, not upon a response of faith and obedience, but upon one’s competence as an historian. All competent historians of first-century Palestine should end up as Christians, leaving only the incompetent historian to remain an unbeliever. This absurdity is avoided when we acknowledge that the ‘resurrection of Jesus’ is part of the Christian’s confession of faith concerning Jesus, and, as such, lies outside the scope of historical enquiry. We must agree with Bultmann when he says, ‘The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. All that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection.’1

When a man confesses his faith in God through Jesus Christ he is proclaiming something about himself, as well as something about Christ. This may be illustrated by the fact that the Creeds commence with the words, ‘I believe . . .’ This is not the way an historian commences his book. What does the Christian reveal about himself when he confesses ‘I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead’? We must take this question into account as we discuss the meaning of the ‘resurrection of Jesus’, just because the latter belongs to the faith of the Christian, and is not an empirical fact that can be studied objectively by Christian and non-Christian alike.

In Chapter 10 we discussed the origin of this confession of faith. There we saw that the Easter message came to be expressed in the idiom of resurrection, partly, at least, because this idiom was an important element in one of the widespread Jewish beliefs of the day. To this extent it may be said that the particular idiom that has long been used for the Easter message was, in part, an accident of language and of history. The affirmations which the Easter message makes about Jesus are no more dependent upon the exclusive use of one particular idiom than they are upon the exclusive use of one particular language.

Christianity does not consist in the undying attachment to certain words, idioms, or even credal forms. It consists in faith in him of whom the words, idioms and creeds speak. The history of Christian thought shows many examples of terms and concepts which have enjoyed great popularity for a time before disappearing from common use. There have been times when resurrection-talk was not nearly so prominent in Christian circles as it was in the first two centuries, or as it is in the present. From time to time through Christian history it has become necessary to use fresh concepts and verbal forms that the Christian may confess his faith in a meaningful way.

We must therefore raise the question of whether it is absolutely necessary to use the idiom of resurrection in order to confess our faith concerning Jesus. Those who maintain that the idiom of resurrection is to be understood only in the traditional (or Lucan) sense2 would, if correct, leave us with no alternative but to abandon the idiom as a valid way of professing our Christian faith, if we are among the growing number of Christians for whom that tradition is neither historically founded nor even very meaningful.

Our study of the path followed by the idiom, however, has made it abundantly clear that while the Lucan tradition has been dominant throughout most of Christian history, it is by no means the only view that has been held by Christians, particularly in the first and twentieth centuries. The fact that the idiom has had a much longer and more varied history should make it possible for it to be rescued from bondage to a narrow usage which not only turns out to be unwarranted, but which is in actual danger of obscuring, even obliterating, an important value of the idiom. One of the virtues of the idiom is that it takes a realistic view of death and hence allows for discontinuity, as well as for continuity at that point. This is lost sight of when the idiom is interpreted as meaning that which is more appropriately referred to as ‘resuscitation’ or ‘revivification’.3

Our study has shown, in addition, that not only do the New Testament writers show some diversity in the way in which they talk about the resurrection of Jesus, but they are not all equally dependent upon the use of the idiom for the proclamation of the Christian message. The author of Hebrews ignored the idiom almost completely and the Fourth Evangelist developed his own way of using it.4 If, in the present, or in the future, Christians wish to confess Jesus Christ as Lord, without resorting to the idiom of resurrection, then we must acknowledge that there may be valid reasons for doing so.5

Nevertheless there are at least three good reasons why Christians may continue to use the idiom of resurrection to confess their faith concerning Jesus. The first is this. The more basic any term has been in the proclamation of the Christian Gospel, the more reluctant we should be to dispense with it, for, by its very use, it serves to demonstrate the continuity of Christianity from age to age. This is one of the great values in the continued use of the ancient creeds. (It must be acknowledged, of course, that few, if any, when they recite the creeds today, mean exactly the same as their fourth-century Christian forbears did.) Basic words and concepts, even when the changes of cultural milieu necessitate some re-interpretation, help to preserve the essential continuity of the living stream of Christian tradition. No-one could deny that the resurrection idiom has appeared to play a basic, and almost indispensable, role in Christian proclamation.

The second reason is that this idiom is peculiarly apt and forceful in communicating the particular truth about Jesus which Christians wish to confess. There are other words and concepts which could replace it in certain areas of its usage, such as ‘vindication’, ‘exaltation’, ‘ascension’, etc., but because the Easter message is essentially concerned with the death of Jesus, we would be hard pressed to find another idiom which acknowledges the significance of his death equally as well.

The third reason is that though the idiom of resurrection has pursued a long and varied path, in all cases it has been used as an expression of hope, enabling an otherwise closed future to be regarded as open-ended. All who confess the Christian faith do so because, in one way or another, Jesus Christ has led them to an attitude of hope, both for themselves and for the world. It is appropriate that Jesus Christ should be confessed in terms of this ancient and suggestive idiom of hope. It may be regarded as altogether fitting that we find the Johannine Christ proclaiming, ‘I am the resurrection’,6 for there is a sense in which, for Christians, Jesus has actually embodied in himself all the hope that man has ever associated with this idiom.

If, for reasons such as these, Christians choose to continue to confess their faith in Jesus by affirming that God raised him from the dead, they must be prepared to explain in a clear and convincing way just what they mean by ‘raising from the dead’. To this task we now turn.

True understanding of the idiom of resurrection starts from the true understanding of the nature of death. We have seen that it was because of the recognition of the real and all-embracing character of death that the hope of a general resurrection took such firm root in later Judaism. There is need to speak of resurrection only when it is recognized that man, as a whole conscious being, does not survive death. Resurrection, however, should not be thought of as reversing that which took place in death, so that death is cancelled out and the original condition restored. The idiom of resurrection can be genuinely used as an expression of hope for man only at the same time as one recognizes the finality of the phenomenon of death.

In the same way, any adequate understanding of the ‘resurrection of Jesus’ starts from the true understanding of the nature and significance of the death of Jesus. The first thing to be said is that Jesus was truly human. He died the same kind of death that, as human creatures, we all must die. As G. W. H. Lampe said in an Easter sermon, ‘As far as our human nature is concerned, when you’re dead you’re dead; and so was Jesus.’7 The phenomenon of death marks the end of the historical existence of a conscious living being. It is an historical event which no such subsequent event can cancel out. Where a person appears miraculously to revive after his apparent death, he cannot be said to have truly died in the first place. Jesus truly died. He remains dead for all time. When we speak of the ‘resurrection of Jesus’ we do not mean that his death was cancelled out and he became again, and continues to be, a conscious historical human being. In so far as the resurrection narratives are expressed in such a way as to imply that this is just what happened, they mislead us. Resurrection is something different from this; it speaks of victory over death, but not of the abolition of death.

Not only did Jesus truly die. His death became the focal point of Christianity. Because Jesus died by crucifixion, the cross became the chief symbol of Christianity, and the heart of Christian proclamation. It lies at the center of the Pauline Gospel, ‘But God forbid that I should boast of anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world is crucified to me and Ito the world!’8 The amount of space which the four Gospels devote to the suffering and death of Jesus shows clearly where the heart of primitive Christian preaching was to be found.

The ‘resurrection of Jesus’ must not be understood as something which lessens the significance of the death of Jesus, and any interpretation which implies that the death of Jesus was unreal, or only temporary, does just this. The Easter message must never be allowed to cancel out the cross; it belongs rather to the interpretation of the cross. In some theological circles there has been much criticism, and even consternation, occasioned by the now famous dictum of Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Indeed, faith in the resurrection is really the same thing as faith in the saving efficacy of the cross.’9 There may be more that we can say about the resurrection of Jesus than this, but this is certainly where it starts. The meaning of the resurrection springs from the significance of the death of Jesus, and is inseparable from it.

We must now try to see why, through Christian history from the apostles onward, the death of Jesus has been judged to possess unique and cosmic significance, bringing new life and hope to men. The New Testament nowhere clearly explains why the death of Jesus on the cross should have power to attract men and change the direction of their lives. It uses a variety of ways in order simply to describe the significance of the death of Jesus. The author of Hebrews speaks of it as the sacrifice for sin which Christ offered up once for all time in order to open up a new and living way to God.10Paul speaks of it as the means of reconciling the rebellious and estranged human race with their God.11 But the New Testament does not present us with one explicit and uniform explanation of why the death of this man should have achieved these things.

Christian thinkers through the ages have attempted to spell out in the various theories of the atonement what they thought actually happened in the death of Jesus in order to make it instrumental for men’s salvation. These theories were usually mutually exclusive. They all claimed New Testament warrant, but none of them, however popular for a time, ever became universally accepted by all Christians. Each of the theories reflected the dominant needs of the age in which it came to expression.

In what has been called the Classic Idea of the atonement,12 the cross is seen as the last, decisive battle-ground between God and all the spiritual powers of evil, a conflict in which God, through his Son Jesus Christ, won a final and eternal victory against all the evil that threatens and plagues men. Within a world-view where Spiritual powers and principalities were freely accepted, this view of the cross had the power to win conviction.

In the medieval world men felt burdened with a sense of guilt and sin. The theory of penal satisfaction met this pressing need. It recognized on the one hand that God is just and cannot ignore man s sin, but it showed on the other hand how God, in his Son Jesus Christ, had himself borne the penalty of man’s sin by dying on the cross, thereby making it possible for God in his justice to offer his forgiveness freely to penitent men.

It belongs to the very nature of the power of the cross of Jesus Christ to attract men, that it rises above all our human theories and continues to speak to men of various ages. In each age men must express afresh for themselves, and in the circumstances of their own time, just what particular significance the death of Jesus holds for them. This will depend upon the way in which an individual, or a particular generation, has come to formulate its chief problem in life.

The problem of modern man is not that of finding deliverance from the unseen powers of evil, or from the burden of guilt, but is the search for meaning in human existence. The meaning of the life of any individual is chiefly threatened by the phenomenon of death. In the context of created life as a whole, and in the continuance of the human species, we can see that death has a positive role to play. But when the individual man contemplates the death that will eventually bring his own historical existence to an end, it threatens him with the annihilation of what he is and what he has been. Man is the only living creature known to us who has to live his life in the face of the foreknowledge that he is going to die. This must necessarily affect his attitude to everything he does, the more he looks into the future. Why should one attempt anything at all, if it is going to be obliterated and end in nothingness in the course of time?

From primeval man onwards, so far as we can ascertain, man has imagined that death was followed by some form of afterlife in a spirit-world, or by a re-incarnation in this world. In this way man has cushioned himself against the sharpness of death by refusing to accept it as final. It is not the purpose of Christianity to provide a more sophisticated and viable belief in such an after-life even though, in popular thought, it has often appeared to do so.

It is no accident that Christianity arose from a people who were rather unique in the ancient world for the following two reasons among others. First, they pioneered a concern for the meaning of history. They saw that if life had any meaning it had to be sought within the intricate web of history being spun by men in the world of here and now. Secondly, and partly as a result of the first, they were led virtually to abandon any interest in an after-life.13 The significance which came to be attached to the death of Jesus, and the resurrection-talk associated with it, need to be understood in the light of this heritage of Israel which preceded it.

Man finds the phenomenon of death a threat to the meaning of his existence not simply because it is part of the natural order of creation, for when a man is spared to live a long, fruitful and satisfying life, his aging and worn-out body causes him to find the indefinite prolongation of life a source of pain and suffering which could become increasingly intolerable. When death brings the cessation of consciousness and feeling, this in itself may be a welcome form of rest and peace. The sting of death is more to be found in the fact that it appears to obliterate all that a man has been and has achieved before his death. For this reason death threatens man as an evil enemy to be fought and kept at bay.

The evil element in death is further to be seen in the fact that it stands over man as a threat from the time of his birth. Some men die, long before they expect to, because of famine, disease, war, accident and so on. Some of the evil associated with death is directly traceable to the evil to be discerned in man himself. The death of half a million people in East Pakistan by a tidal wave shakes us and wins our immediate sympathy. But the deliberate and carefully planned extermination of six million Jews in Europe moves us to anger, for it strikes us as an evil which is quite literally demonic, just because the responsibility for it lies in the will of man himself. But not all the evil in the world is directly, or even indirectly, traceable to man, and that is why the origin and presence of evil in the world remain perennial problems to baffle the mind of man.

Although this is not the place to discuss at greater length the nature of evil, human sin, suffering, death and the relationship between them, they must find mention here for they constitute the chief problems which continually confront man and make him question whether there is any justice or meaning to be found in life. In this complex of problems it may have been possible for man to expect a satisfying solution ultimately to be revealed if only he waited long enough. Often he has been sustained by some such hope. But the phenomenon of death not only cuts off the individual from conscious existence, but also cuts him off from any such ultimate solution. In some respects, then, death becomes the ultimate enemy, ‘the last enemy to be abolished’,14 in that it becomes for man the symbol of all which threatens his life with defeat and meaninglessness. It becomes the symbol of the deep sense of tragedy that can lead man to despair. Although Paul was thinking of his own particular experience of frustration, he spoke also for modern man, when he cried out, ‘Miserable creature that I am, who is there to rescue me out of this body doomed to death?’15

In what way does the death of Jesus on the cross answer man’s cry to be delivered from meaninglessness and despair? Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, ‘the ending of our life would not threaten us if we had not falsely made ourselves the center of life’s meaning.’16 These words point back to the way in which Jesus began to answer man’s basic cry by what he taught during his earthly ministry. This teaching has been preserved for us in the language and thought-forms of the later Evangelists, and is written in the light of the death of Jesus on the cross. But there seems little doubt that the Gospels here reflect the genuine teaching of Jesus and his concern to turn men’s attention away from self-interest. The Synoptic Gospels put it this way, ‘Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind; he must take up his cross, and come with me. Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the Gospel, that man is safe. What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?’17 The same teaching is expressed by the Fourth Evangelist as, ‘The man who loves himself is lost, but he who hates himself in this world will be kept safe for eternal life.’18 We may confidently conclude that Jesus taught that, in order to live the true life, self-centeredness has to be abandoned.

Jesus not only taught men to live for others and not for themselves. Jesus himself lived out what he taught. He lived to serve. He not only lived for others, but he died for others. The whole life of Jesus was a demonstration in flesh and blood of what it means to empty out one’s self, to make oneself nothing, to assume the nature of a slave.19 This culminated in a most telling form in the sufferings and death which he willingly accepted. The death of Jesus on the cross consequently became the most powerful manifestation of the self-giving of Jesus. So Paul wrote, ‘His purpose in dying for all was that men, while still in life, should cease to live for themselves, and should live for him who for their sake died and was raised to life.’20

Paul recognized that when the Christian responds to the challenge to abandon all concern for self he is identifying with Jesus in his death. So he wrote, ‘We know that the man we once were has been crucified with Christ for the destruction of the sinful self…’21 He likened the Christian’s immersion under the water at his baptism to the death and burial of Jesus.22 The self must die before a man can rise to new life. One can speak genuinely of resurrection only when it has been preceded by a real death. When we come to a full appreciation of the significance of the death of Jesus we are already on the verge of what is meant by his resurrection.

Ernst Käsemann concluded an article on The Pauline Theology of the Cross as follows: ‘For Paul the glory of Jesus consists in the fact that he makes his disciples on earth willing and capable to bear the cross after him, and the glory of the church and of Christian life consists in the fact that they have the honor of glorifying the crucified Christ as the wisdom and power of God, to seek salvation in him alone, and to let their lives become a service to God under the sign of Golgotha. The theology of the resurrection is at this point a chapter in the theology of the cross, not its supersession.23

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the way to understand the resurrection of Jesus is first of all to become convinced of the unique significance of his death. Those who defend the view that the resurrection of Jesus was an historical event in the physical world unintentionally detract from the significance of the death of Jesus, the real center of Christian proclamation, by making it dependent upon a subsequent event. Bultmann is right when he says, ‘You cannot prove the redemptive efficacy of the cross by invoking the resurrection.’24 This reversal of order -- resurrection first, and then the unveiling of the significance of his death -- is not Biblical. Paul wrote, ‘Bearing the human likeness, revealed in human shape, he humbled himself, and in obedience accepted even death -- death on a cross. Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue confess, "Jesus Christ is Lord"…’25

Hugh Anderson has pointed out that James Denney, the well-known Scottish scholar of the beginning of the century, saw clearly that ‘what Easter revealed was the Cross standing at the heart of everything’ and because of this may be said to have pre-figured ‘certain emphases that have appeared in Bultmann’. He went on to say, ‘if the proof of a theology is in its preaching, Bultmann’s understanding of the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen as a summons to men to die to the world with Christ in order to live unto God is near the heart of the true evangel. The essence of the message is that in and through the Cross, where all human hope is silenced and all human dreams are vanquished, God speaks the Word of life in death.’26

As we have seen in Chapter 10 we can no longer recover the actual historical development by which the apostles came to see the significance of the death of Jesus. They must have wrestled with the ‘offence’ of the cross, in the light of the teaching of Jesus and of their memory of all that he had been. It was in this development, now lost to us, that they heard the Easter message which was God’s answer to their problem. They recognized that the death of Jesus was not the destruction of all they had begun to hope for in Jesus their Master. It was not an embarrassing set-back which had to be explained away. It was not a hopeless defeat. The death of Jesus was the way to a new beginning. It was the first step in a new message of hope for mankind. It was the foundation of good news for men. This was the seed of the Easter message. In the eyes of God the death of Jesus had been fully vindicated. This man, though dead, was one worth living for and dying for. God had made him the Lord of men. The apostles went out and proclaimed, ‘Let all Israel then accept as certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.’27

The New Testament preserves for us many and various expressions of the Easter faith from men of the first century. But faith involves a person in personal conviction, trust and commitment, and it consequently cannot be transmitted like an object to be given away and received. The Easter faith is no exception. Each man, in each generation, must come to a fresh and first-hand experience of what Easter faith means. To achieve this it is not sufficient to go back to the empty tomb. We must go back to the life and death of Jesus. That is where Easter faith begins.

It is a tragic paradox, and indeed a travesty, of Christianity that it has so often been proclaimed to men as a way to save themselves and to reach a haven of eternal security. This is to mistake the significance of the death of Jesus and indeed often to ignore it altogether. It is impossible to understand Christianity as a whole, or the resurrection of Jesus in particular, until we have come to terms with what the crucifixion did to Jesus, and what it challenges us to do. The confession of Jesus as Lord begins with the understanding of the cross, and the understanding of the cross begins with the readiness to empty oneself of all concern for oneself here or hereafter.

It is in coming to terms with the death of Jesus that we find an answer to our search for meaning, in face of the complex nature of finite existence and the problems raised by evil, suffering and death. What Jesus has done for us in our day, by his teaching, his living and his dying on the cross, is to take the sting out of death. For those who respond to him in faith he has ‘broken the power of death’28 The response of faith involves one in taking up the cross and sharing in the death of Christ. To the extent to which we learn how to abandon self-interest and to die daily29, death loses its power to threaten us in any terrifying or disillusioning way, for there is nothing further it can take away from us. We too can say that there is ‘nothing in death or life . . . that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.30

Yet the very taking up of the cross can be a hard and painful business. The Christian life is no bed of roses. The Christian, by his very allegiance to Christ, is not delivered out of the evil and suffering in the world, but is led to become increasingly involved with them. He is continually learning more of what it means to ‘share in Christ’s sufferings’.31 This loving concern, by which he is prepared to lose himself for Christ in the tragic side of life, constitutes a more than adequate reason for living. It enables him to find in life a meaning which transcends death and which death can no longer destroy.

In the last chapter we explained that the ‘resurrection of the dead’ expresses the hope that the whole of a man’s life from beginning to end will be raised before the divine Judgment Seat and be accepted by God as possessing something of value which will give it an eternal meaning. When the life and death of Jesus are viewed against the background of this hope (and this is part, at least, of what the apostles did after the death of Jesus) those who have felt the attraction of what Jesus said and did are led to the conviction that the judgment of God is already clear. The life and death of Jesus are such that he is to be acclaimed worthy of all the allegiance that men can offer to him. Jesus is to be confessed as Lord. The writer of the Apocalypse put it this way, ‘Worthy is the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain, to receive all power and wealth, wisdom and might, honor and glory and praise !’ 32

The first affirmation we are making when we confess that God raised Jesus from the dead is that the resurrection hope which we hold for all men has already become for us a living reality in the case of this man Jesus. We are saying that Jesus has been raised before the divine judge and finally vindicated. His death was not a defeat but a victory. The death of Jesus did not bring to an end his power to attract men and to lead them to new life; on the contrary, because of his very death his power and influence have been experienced by men more fully and more widely. When we say ‘Jesus is risen’ we are attempting to express what we believe to be the divine judgment concerning him, namely, that he has been exalted to the highest possible role, Son of God and Lord of men. This was expressed in the imagery of myth by saying he is ‘seated at the right hand of God’.33

Here we pause to make a little clearer what we mean by the word ‘Jesus’ in this Easter message of exaltation. We do not mean a contemporary human being of flesh and blood in either earth or heaven. There is none such to be found. We mean the historical Jesus who lived and died at the beginning of the Christian era. We do not mean a ghostly or immortal part of that Jesus which has survived death. We mean all that Jesus was and did during the length of his whole life through his teaching, his ministering, his self-giving and his death.

One way for allowing for both the continuity and the discontinuity which need to be understood between the earthly Jesus and the risen Christ is to say, ‘In the body he was put to death; in the spirit he was brought to life.’34 But this leads us to two further difficulties. It is probable that ancient men used the word ‘spirit’ rather differently from us, for an unseen spiritual world was an accepted part of their world-view. Even among ourselves it is not at all clear if we mean the same thing when we say, for example, that God is spirit. In the second place, ever since the Lucan chronology (placing the resurrection of Christ on the third day and the pouring Out of the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth day) became the accepted tradition, and this led to the hypostatizing of the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity, we have been accustomed to making a fairly rigid separation between the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit.

But there is widespread agreement among New Testament scholars that in the apostolic period there was no such clear distinction between the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. G. H. C. Macgregor wrote, ‘The real significance of the Resurrection for Paul is seen in the fact that time and again he practically identifies the Risen Lord, at least in His activity, with the Holy Spirit.’35 By way of example let us note how Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘You are on a spiritual level, if only God’s Spirit dwells within you; and if a man does not possess the Spirit of Christ, he is no Christian. But if Christ is dwelling within you…’36 Here it is clear that ‘Paul can speak of the Spirit’s indwelling as the presence of the risen Christ in the Christian.’ Indeed there is one place where, as D. M. Stanley further remarks, ‘With somewhat disconcerting brevity Paul can assert that "The Lord is the Spirit".’37

If the Lucan tradition had not established the pattern for later understanding both of the risen Christ and of the Holy Spirit, the category of spirit may have continued to be the natural language in which to speak of the risen Christ. In any case it is only by using this category that we can understand the great variety of ways in which Paul felt free to speak of the risen Lord. There are places where he resorts to the imagery of myth and speaks of Christ as if he were living an unseen life with God in a heavenly realm above, from which he would descend to appear on the earth at the imminent end-time.38 At other times Paul could speak of the church as the body of Christ, of which the Christian believers formed ‘the limbs and organs’.39 He exhorted the Galatians to ‘put on Christ as a garment’,40 he said to the Romans, ‘Let Christ Jesus himself be the armor that you wear’,41 and he told the Galatians how he was in travail until they ‘took the shape of Christ’.42 In various ways Paul spoke of the risen Christ as an indwelling presence in the believer, the most moving passage being his own testimony, I have been crucified with Christ; the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me; and my present bodily life is lived by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.’43

Just as in so much of Paul’s language the Jesus who was raised from the dead must be understood in terms of spirit, so also this remains the most satisfactory, if not indeed the only, category in which to understand the nature of the risen Christ. If the Christian is to experience any kind of encounter or personal relationship with the risen Christ then it must be in the realm of the spirit. It is important to note that, in the last resort, the truth of the claim that Jesus is risen is to be tested primarily by the examination of contemporary Christian experience rather than by research in ancient documents. Unless there is some way in which contemporary Christians can show the significance of confessing that Jesus is risen now, whatever may have happened to originate the Easter faith in the first-century Palestine becomes largely irrelevant. Since no one can point to Jesus today in bodily or physical form, we arc forced to resort to the category of spirit in which to speak about him.

We are now ready to discuss the second affirmation we are making when we say Jesus was raised from the dead. At the very point where the significance of the cross takes hold of us, we become involved in what may be called a personal encounter. When we find ourselves attracted and challenged by the cross, this is more than just an idea of our own that has happened to strike us. It is truer to say that we find ourselves addressed by a living Word, which calls us, makes demands upon us and forces us to a decision. This Word emanates from God. But it comes to us through the life and death of Jesus. We may say that it is Jesus himself who encounters us in the proclamation of his life and death. Such a statement need not be interpreted in any mystical sense, though those who wish are free to do so. The Jesus who lived and died speaks to us and calls to us through the medium of the Christian proclamation. When Christ is truly proclaimed44 or ‘set forth’,45 it is Jesus who encounters us.

This encounter caused the first apostles to say Jesus had ‘appeared’ to them and to proclaim that God had raised him from the dead. It caused Paul to say that he had been blinded by a light, and had heard the voice of the risen and exalted Christ. Because this is a personal encounter, various men will describe it in quite different ways. But in every genuine confession of the ‘resurrection of Jesus’ there must be some element of personal testimony. As we warned in the beginning, in making this confession the Christian is saying something about himself as well as about Jesus. The grounds upon which the contemporary Christian makes this confession must differ in some respects from those of the first apostles. They had known Jesus in the flesh. We have known him only as he has been remembered and proclaimed by the church. Our grounds for making this confession may arise from the Christ-like qualities of love, gentleness or selflessness, which we have encountered in certain Christians. In the quality of the lives of such men Jesus has ‘appeared’ to us. This enables us to join the community of witnesses who confess with joy that God raised Jesus from the dead. The second thing we are affirming in this confession is the presence of Jesus in our world; we testify to his livingness or what we may call his eternal contemporaneity.

The third affirmation has to do with the new strength of willpower which comes to those who respond in faith to the encounter. The paradox of Christian living is that the more one submits in obedience to Christ as Lord, the more one becomes a free man. The more one is prepared to abandon self-interest and to die to the world, the more one experiences new life. The readiness to die releases a new and unexpected source of power. There are many ways, both religious and psychological, of explaining this liberating experience. The Christian traces it back to the Word Christ addresses to him through the cross. It led Paul to speak of ‘the power of the resurrection’,46 and to refer to ‘all the power and energy of Christ at work’47 in him.

When the Christian confesses that God raised Jesus from the dead he is testifying to the source of spiritual strength which enables him to overcome lethargy and temptation, to continue in the bearing of the cross, and to become involved in the pain and suffering of the world with an attitude of hope. The amazing vigor, enthusiasm, joy and energy which burst out among Christians in the apostolic period constitute an essential part of the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus, even though such gifts have been traditionally attributed to the Holy Spirit. The seed falls into the ground and dies, yet rises to new life in the harvest which follows. Jesus ‘in obedience accepted even death’,48 yet rose again to new life in the ‘harvest of the Spirit’.49 Wherever Christians meet in the name of Jesus, his risen presence is there.50 Wherever Christians are inspired and strengthened for acts of mercy, love, goodwill in the promotion of social harmony and human welfare, the presence of the risen Christ is to be hailed.

There is always the danger that, when once the joy of the Easter message has been heard, the cross will be forgotten or gilded over. This can lead only to disillusionment. Our final word on the meaning of the ‘resurrection of Jesus’ must be a return to the cross. It is the crucified Jesus who is exalted as Son of God and Lord of men. It is the Jesus who truly died who has been raised to spiritual life in a new form in the community which bears his name. It is the man who is willing to bear the cross to the end of his days who knows the meaning of resurrection and the secret of eternal life. For eternal life does not mean the endless prolongation of a conscious self but a life of such quality that, having no further concern for self-interest, can transcend death and rise to a fresh mode of manifestation in the lives of men who follow. It is in this sense that Christians use the idiom of resurrection to confess their faith in Jesus and say that God raised him from the dead. Those who share his sufferings and die with him will also rise with him in the ‘resurrection of the dead’. In the idiom of resurrection this is the Christian hope.

 

Notes:

1. Kerygma and Myth, Ed. by H. W. Bartsch, p. 42. To the extent to which Paul, in Cor. 15, leaves us with the impression that the resurrection can be substantiated on historical grounds, he leads us astray. Barth denies that Paul attempts any such apologetic demonstration here. See Church Dogmatics, IV:2, p. 143. Bultmann thinks that Paul does here attempt, though mistakenly, ‘to guarantee the resurrection of Christ as an objective fact’. See Theology of the New Testament, Vol. I, p. 295.

2. See pp. 16-19 above.

3. It is interesting to note that in books by more conservative theologians, e.g. Jean Dani6lou, one sometimes finds the terms ‘resurrection’ and ‘resuscitation’ being used synonymously.

4. See C. F. Evans, op. cit., pp. 135-7.

5. Marxsen touches upon this issue in The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ, pp. 32, 42-4.

6. John 11:25.

7. op. cit., p. 10.

8. Gal. 6:14. See also I Cor. 1:18, 23, 2:2.

9. Kerygma and Myth, ed. H. W. Bartsch, Vol. I, p. 41.

10. Hebrews 10:12, 19, 20.

11. Col. 1:21-2. See also Rom. 5:6-21.

12. See Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, for a study of the three main theories of the atonement.

13. See God in the New World, Chaps. 9 and 11.

14. I Cor. 15:26.

15. Rom. 7:24.

16. op. cit., Vol. II, p. 303.

17. Mark 8:34-6. See also Matt. 10:39, 16:24-6, Luke 9:23-5.

18. John 12:25.

19. Phil. 27.

20. 2 Cor. 5:15.

21. Rom. 6:6.

22. Rom. 6:4.

23. Interpretation, Vol. XXIV, 2, p. 177 (italics mine). The articles in this issue were prepared for a theological committee of the Evangelische Kirche der Union in northern Germany and constitute a companion volume to those which were published as The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ.

24. Kerygma and Myth, p. 40.

25. Phil. 2:8-11.

26. op. cit., pp. 206-7.

27. Acts 2:36.

28. 2 Tim. 1:10.

29. 1 Cor. 15:31. See also Rom. 6:5,6, 8, 7:6,8:13,2 Cor. 4:10-Il, Gal. 2:20, 6:14, 2 Tim. 2:11, I Peter 4:13.

30. Rom. 8:38-9.

31. I Peter 4:13.

32. Rev. 5:12. See also 5:9-10. Note also that in Mark’s view it was when the centurion witnessed the crucifixion that he confessed ‘Truly this man was a son of God’. (Mark 15:39)

33. Col. 3:2. See also Rom. 8:34, Eph. 1:20, Peter 3:22.

34. Peter 3:18.

35. op. cit., p. 218.

36. Rom. 8:9-10.

37. 2 Cor. 3:17. See Christ’s Resurrection in Pauline Soteriology, p. 283.

38. 1 Thess. 4:16-17,2 Thess. 1:7.

39. 1 Cor. 6:15, 52112-13, 27, Eph. 4:16, 5:30, Col. 1:2.

40. Gal. 3:27.

41. Rom. 13:14.

42. Gal. 4:19.

43. Gal. 2:20. But see also Phil. 1:20, Eph. 3:17,2 Cor. 13:5.

44. Phil. 1:15.

45. Phil. 1:18.

46. Phil. 3:10.

47. Col. 1:29.

48. Phil. 2:8.

49. Gal. 5:22.

50. Matt. 18:20.

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