by N.T. Wright
N. T. Wright, canon theologian at Westminster Abbey, was recently named bishop of Durham.
This article is excerpted from The Resurrection of the Son of God (the third volume in his series “Christian Origins and the Question of God”), published in 2003 by Fortress. It appeared in The Christian Century, April 5, 2003, pp. 32-36. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Jesus’ followers really did believe that Israel was being renewed through Jesus, and that his resurrection was ordained by Israel’s God, YHWH, marking him the true messiah.
Among the first meanings that the resurrection opened up to the surprised disciples was that Israel’s hope had been fulfilled. The promised time had come, as Jesus himself had announced during his public career; but it looked very different from what they had imagined. The eschaton had arrived. The long narrative of Israel’s history had reached its climax.
"Resurrection" was a key part of the eschaton. If it had happened to one man whom many had regarded as Israel’s messiah, that meant that it had happened, in principle, to Israel as a whole. The messiah represented Israel, just as David had represented Israel when he faced Goliath. Jesus had been executed as a messianic pretender, as "king of the Jews," and Israel’s God had vindicated him. This, apparently, was how Israel’s God was fulfilling his promises to Israel. Again and again the early Christians emphasized that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, and they meant Israel’s God, YHWH. They saw the resurrection as a life-giving act of the covenant God, the creator who had always had the power to kill and make alive. The resurrection was the sign to the early Christians that this living God had acted at last in accordance with his ancient promise, and had thereby shown himself to be God, the unique creator and sovereign of the world.
The resurrection therefore constituted Jesus as messiah, as "son of God" in the Davidic sense of 2 Samuel 7 or Psalm 2 (texts upon which the early Christians drew to explain and expound their belief). "Davidic" psalms were ransacked for hints about the resurrection of David’s coming son. We can watch this process in Acts, with Luke 24 as its programmatic basis, and we can see exactly the same in Paul. The entire argument of Romans is framed between two great statements of this theme. In between, at one of the letter’s most climactic moments, those who share the "sonship" of the messiah will share as well the "inheritance spoken of in Psalm 2. The resurrection means that Jesus is the messianic "son of God," that Israel’s eschatological hope has been fulfilled; that it is time for the nations of the world to be brought into submission to Israel’s God.
The resurrection, interpreted in this sense, set the early Christians on a course of confrontation, not to say collision, with other Jewish groups of their day. Any claim that Israel’s God had acted here rather than somewhere else within Judaism (the temple, for example), vindicating a man whose work and teaching had been highly controversial, was bound to create a storm. Resurrection always had been a novel, revolutionary doctrine, and this new movement proved their worst fears about it to be true. "They were angry that the disciples were announcing, in Jesus, the resurrection from the dead."
With good reason. The announcement meant the inauguration of the new covenant. Jesus’ followers really did believe that Israel was being renewed through Jesus, and that his resurrection, marking him out as messiah, was a call to Israel to find a new identity in following him and establishing his kingdom. Their belief in the resurrection of the son of God, in this sense, marked out the early Christians from those of their fellow Jews who could not or would not accept such a thing. And it marked them out not as non-Jews or anti-Jews, not as some kind of pagan group, but precisely as people who claimed that the truest and most central hopes and beliefs of Israel had come true, and that they were living by them. To claim the risen Jesus as son of God in the sense of messiah was the most deeply Jewish thing the Christians could do, and hence the most deeply suspect in the eyes of those Jews who did not share their convictions.
The "new covenant" beliefs of the early Christians meant that, in hailing Jesus as son of God, they believed that Israel’s God had acted in him to fulfill the covenant promises by dealing at last with the problem of evil. One standard Jewish analysis of evil did not hold that the created order was itself evil, but that human beings, by committing idolatry, distorted their own humanity into sinful behavior and courted corruption and ultimately death. Death -- the unmaking of the creator’s image-bearing creatures -- was seen not as a good thing, but as an enemy to be defeated. It was the ultimate weapon of destruction: anticreation, antihuman, anti-God. If the creator God was also the covenant God, and if the covenant was there to deal with the unwelcome problem that had invaded the created order at its heart and corrupted human beings themselves, it was this intruder, death itself, that had to be defeated. To allow death to have its way -- to sign up, as it were, to some kind of compromise agreement whereby death took human bodies but the creator was allowed to keep human souls -- was no solution, at least not to the problem as it was perceived within most of Second Temple Judaism. That is why resurrection was never a redescription of death, but always its defeat.
Within the New Testament this perspective is most clearly articulated by Paul, especially in Romans 8 and the Corinthian correspondence, and in Revelation. In the most obvious passage, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, we find an explicitly messianic theology, rooted in messianically read psalms, in which Jesus, as the son of God, is the agent of the creator God in accomplishing precisely this task of ridding the world of evil and of death. As far as Paul was concerned, this was the defeat of death. The early Christians saw Jesus’ resurrection as the act of the covenant God fulfilling his promises to deal with evil at last. Declaring their faith in his resurrection was a self-involving act in the sense that the world of meaning within which they made sense of Easter was the new world in which sins, their own included, had been forgiven. This did not, of course, reduce the meaning of "Jesus is risen from the dead’ to "My sins have been forgiven." It was not simply a way of saying that Jesus’ crucifixion had been a victory rather than a defeat. The first level of "a son of God" understanding of Jesus’ resurrection can therefore be summarized as follows: Jesus is Israel’s messiah. In him, the creator’s covenant plan to deal with the sin and death that has so radically infected his world has reached its long-awaited and decisive fulfillment.
A second level of understanding the resurrection has to do with claims to leadership. If the phrase "son of God" could mean "messiah" to a first-century Jewish ear, it had a significantly different sense in the world of early Christianity, where it was applied to pagan monarchs and to Caesar in particular. Not that the early Christians chose the phrase "son of God" on the basis of this pagan usage. But there can be no question that many in the Greco-Roman world considered the title a challenge to Caesar. And there is no question that some of the early writers, including Paul, intended it in this way. The long line of Jewish thought that ran from the stories of David and Solomon, through the psalms to books like Isaiah and Daniel, and then into the flourishing literature of the later Second Temple period, saw Israel’s true king as the world’s true lord. The early Christians, precisely because they regarded Jesus as Israel’s messiah, also regarded him as the true monarch of the gentile world.
Calling Jesus "son of God" within this wider circle of meaning constituted a refusal to retreat, a determination to stop Christian discipleship from turning into a private cult, a sect, a mystery religion. It launched a claim on the world -- a claim at once absurd (a tiny group of nobodies thumbing their noses at the might of Rome) and very serious, so serious that within a couple of generations the might of Rome was trying, and failing, to stamp it out. It grew from an essentially positive view of the world. It refused to relinquish the world to the principalities and powers, but claimed even them for the messiah who was now the lord.
To use the phrase "son of God" for Jesus, in a sense which was an implicit confrontation with Caesar, was to affirm the goodness of the created order, now claimed powerfully by the creator God as his own. The resurrection of Jesus supplies the groundwork for this: it is the reaffirmation of the universe of space, time and matter, after not only sin and death but also pagan empire (the institutionalization of sin and death) have done their worst. The early Christians saw Jesus’ resurrection as the action of the creator God to reaffirm the essential goodness of creation and, in an initial and representative act of new creation, to establish a bridgehead within the present world of space, time and matter through which the whole new creation could now come to birth. Calling Jesus ‘son of God" within this context of meaning, they became by implication a collection of rebel cells within Caesar’s empire, loyal to a different monarch. The Sadducees were right to regard the doctrine of resurrection, and especially its announcement in relation to Jesus, as political dynamite.
This is why to imply that Jesus "went to heaven when he died," or that he is now simply a spiritual presence, and to suppose that such ideas exhaust the meaning of "Jesus was raised from the dead," is to miss the point, to cut the nerve of the social, cultural and political critique. Death is the ultimate weapon of the tyrant; resurrection does not make a covenant with death, it over-throws it. The resurrection, in the full Jewish and early Christian sense, is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter. That is why resurrection has always had an inescapable political meaning; that is why the Sadducees in the first century, and the Enlightenment in our own day, have opposed it so strongly. No tyrant is threatened by Jesus going to heaven, leaving his body in a tomb. No governments face the authentic Christian challenge when the church’s social preaching tries to base itself on Jesus teaching detached from the central and energizing fact of his resurrection (or when, for that matter, the resurrection is affirmed simply as an example of a supernatural "happy ending" which guarantees postmortem bliss).
The third and final meaning of the resurrection of Jesus has to do with the meaning of the word "God" itself. This was, after all, the greatest of the questions that the early Christians posed not only to their pagan neighbors, but also within the Jewish circles where they began. If there is one true God, as the Jews had always claimed, and if he really is the creator of the world and the covenant God of Israel, then what must now be said of him on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus? How does calling Jesus son of God, in this sense, help us to understand not only who Jesus was and is but who the one true God was and is?
The early Christians usually referred to the resurrection of Jesus as the work of this God. "He has been raised," they said; "God raised Jesus from the dead." The work of this God was part of the interpretation, the grid of meaning through which they viewed this event. And from very early on (it is already taken for granted by Paul), the fact that this Jesus had been raised by this God, when mulled over and reflected on in the light of all that Jesus had done and said, and all that Israel’s scriptures had said about the redeeming and reconciling action of this God, drew from the early Christians the breathtaking belief that Jesus was son of God, the unique Son of this God as opposed to any other. They meant not simply that he was Israel’s messiah, though that remained foundational; nor simply that he was the reality of which Caesar and all other such tyrants were the parodies, though that remained a vital implication. They meant it in the sense that he was the personal embodiment and revelation of the one true God.
Paul’s letters indicate that from very early on in the Christian movement this God and this Jesus were being referred to as father and son within contexts that clearly put them together on the divine side of the equation. The truly remarkable thing about this is that the arguments that were being mounted at the time, and even the Old Testament scriptures that were being quoted and expounded, are all of a strongly monotheistic tone. In key Pauline texts, Paul speaks of Jesus as son in relation to God; in others, of God as father in relation to Jesus. There are, of course, various arguments where he puts the two together, and not surprisingly the resurrection is never far away when he does so:
For if, being enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his son, how much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life . . . (Rom:5:10).
For as many as are led by God’s Spirit are the children of God. You did not receive a spirit of slavery to go back to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship, in which we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit’s own self bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children, and, if children, then heirs: heirs of God, and joint heirs with the Messiah, if we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. . . (Rom. 8:14-17).
For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters . . . (Rom. 8:29).
These passages make sense only if Paul, by referring to Jesus as the son if God, means that Jesus is the one sent by God, from God, not only as a messenger but as the embodiment of his love. To send someone else is hardly an ultimate proof of self-giving love. The same is true in Galatians:
I am crucified with the Messiah; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but the Messiah lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal: 2:19f.).
As long as the heir is a child … he is under guardians and trustees until the time set by the father’s will . . . So when the time was fully come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who are under the law, so that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts, crying, Abba, father. So you are no longer a slave but a son; and if a son, then an heir, through God (Gal. 4:1f. 4-7).
And it is in the light of these rich, multilayered statements that we discover another layer of meaning in the great opening statement of Romans:
. . . God’s gospel concerning his son, who was descended from David’s seed according to the flesh, and marked out as son of God in power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead, Jesus the Messiah, Lord . . . (Rom. 1:1, 3f.).
The resurrection, in other words, declares that Jesus really is God’s Son -- not only in the sense that he is the messiah, though Paul certainly intends that here, and not only in the sense that he is the world’s true lord, though Paul intends that too, but also in the sense that he is the one in whom the living God, Israel’s God, has become personally present in the world, has become one of the human creatures that were made from the beginning in the image of this same God.
The picture of the true God that emerges from all this is totally different from the caricatured "all-powerful miracle-worker," the "interventionist" God who has become such an easy target in some recent polemical writing. Theologians today are understandably eager to shed any suggestion of a pompous, omnipotent bully, a triumphalist "God" in that sense. But it would be a bad mistake to suppose that this is the picture of God offered in the New Testament, or that the resurrection of Jesus lends it any support.
Of course, there is triumph in the message; where would the power and appeal of the gospel be without Romans 8:31-9 or 1 Corinthians 15:54-7? But we should think again before we accuse the early Christians of "triumphalism." Such charges have a habit of rebounding -- not least on those who insist on promoting the unstable worldview of late-modern or postmodern Western culture to a position of preeminence, and then try to climb on top of it, claiming it as high moral ground, and looking down on all who went before them.
It is precisely the Christian understanding of Israel’s God that prevents a move toward the God of Deism on the one hand, and the God of pantheism on the other, together with their respective half-cousins, the interventionist God of dualist supernaturalism, and the panentheist deity of much contemporary speculation. Conversely, where we find resistance to the vision of God offered by the New Testament (a vision which grows precisely from the Easter faith of the early disciples), there is good reason to suppose that the underlying cause of such resistance, in the contemporary world as in the ancient, is to be found (to quote T. F. Torrance) in "the sheer horror that [some] people . . . have for the being and action of God himself in space and time."
When the early Christians developed their understanding of Israel’s God, they did not abandon their Jewish roots and adopt the language and thought-forms of paganism. They developed their theology by embracing one of the central Jewish beliefs of their day, the resurrection of the dead (which had been the solace of many a righteous Jew when faced with pagan oppression and injustice), and by understanding it all the more deeply in the light of what they believed had happened to Jesus. This was what made them a messianic group within Judaism. This was what made them take on Caesar’s world with the news that there was "another king." This was what made them not only speak of the one true God, but invoke him, pray to him, love him and serve him in terms of the Father and the lord, of the God who sent the Son and now sends the Spirit of the Son, in terms of the only-begotten God who makes visible the otherwise invisible creator of the world. This is why, when they spoke of the resurrection of Jesus, they spoke of the resurrection of the Son of God.