Chapter 1: A Question of Meaning

Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 1: A Question of Meaning

Before we can enter profitably into discussion with one another on any particular subject, it is important to ensure that we are all using our words in much the same way. Words are not the fixed objects which people often imagine them to be. Many words change their meaning over a period of time. Even at one particular time a word may possess not just one meaning, but in fact hold together a whole family of meanings. One meaning may be intended in one place but at a later stage another meaning implied. Because words sometimes depend upon their context for their exact meaning, even the speaker himself may be misled, not realizing that the new verbal context has given the word a slightly different meaning from what it had in an earlier context. This ambiguity in the very nature of the verbal language with which we communicate means that the value of our discussion or debate may be greatly reduced if, unknowingly,. we are using one or more of the key words in different ways. Where difference of opinion rests solely on the different uses of words, it is called a merely verbal argument.

Some verbal battles can be avoided at the outset if we simply take more care with our use of words. But they are not so easy to avoid wherever it is a question of that small number of basic words in the language, which by their very fundamental nature are either difficult or impossible to define in terms of others less basic. One such word, for example, is the basic term ‘God’ and the problem to which we have been referring often causes the modern debate between atheist and theist to be fruitless, for there is little use in discussing whether God exists until there is some agreement about the precise meaning to be given to the word.

‘Resurrection’ is another such word. We shall see later that it has been used with quite a wide range of meanings. But many think that the meaning which they themselves attach to it is not only perfectly clear to all but is the only possible meaning that could be attached to it. James Denney spoke for many when he wrote, ‘The rising is relative to the grave and the burial, and if we cannot speak of a bodily resurrection we should not speak of resurrection at all.’1 D. W. B. Robinson writes, ‘The expression, to rise or to be raised from the dead, seems clearly enough to mean that a person who has died and been buried (or perhaps left on the ground) rises up, alive again, from that dead condition. It is everywhere taken for granted that he rises in his body; indeed it may be said that it is his body which rises up or comes out of the grave.’2

This Strong conviction of clarity and certainty that a person may have about a particular word contributes greatly to the problem of communication. When the mathematician who wrote under the name of Lewis Carroll described Humpty Dumpty as saying to Alice, ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less’, he was making (as he did so often in the adventures of Alice) a shrewd observation about a common human weakness. When people declare that the word ‘resurrection’ can mean only one thing, they are really saying that ‘resurrection’ can mean only what they take it to mean -- neither more nor less.

R. Robert Bater has recently pointed out that even among biblical scholars and theologians it has far too often been an unquestioned assumption ‘that we know what we mean by the Resurrection’.3 How much more is this the case among the non-theological! He writes, ‘When someone asks whether we are saved, it is reckless to answer without knowing what assumptions lie behind the question. When someone asks whether we believe in the Resurrection, we should also be perplexed. It is altogether likely that the questioner assumes a uniform and unambiguous biblical testimony identical with his own mental image of the Resurrection.. In the face of the rich variety, ambiguity and inconsistency of Resurrection narratives (to say nothing of the Resurrection-Ascension identity) in the Epistles, the Gospels, and in the Acts, it is clear that church and popular tradition have deceived us into taking too much for granted.’3

In this book we set out to sketch how the concept of resurrection arose, to illustrate the diversity with which it has been understood, to show how Christianity came to use and depend upon it, and to suggest in what ways the concept may continue to be relevant to men of Christian faith within the context of thought today. We have spoken deliberately of the concept of resurrection, for concepts are usually much older than the words which are created to signify them, and in this case the word ‘resurrection’ (or its equivalent in the classical languages) was comparatively late in appearing.

But we cannot adequately trace the development of the concept of resurrection, if we already have a preconceived idea of what the word means. Because we are living in the aftermath of more than nineteen hundred years of Christian history and are ourselves the products of Christian culture, it is almost certain that the image or concept that we associate with the word ‘resurrection’ will be largely, if not wholly, colored by the understanding that has been dominant within Christian tradition. It is simply anachronistic, however, to read this kind of meaning back into the pre-Christian period, or even into the period of Christian origins. Our story really begins as far back on the other side of the birth of Jesus Christ as we are on this side.

If we consult the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary we are told that ‘resurrection’ means: ‘1. ‘The rising again of Christ after his death and burial. 2. The rising again of men at the Last Day. 3. The action or fact of rising again from sleep, disuse, etc.: revival; restoration to previous status or vogue.’ First of all we notice how the word is defined in terms of Christian tradition. This dictionary entry further illustrates the fact that for most people the first mental association prompted by the word is the particular resurrection which is affirmed of Jesus Christ; this association then largely fashions how the general resurrection is to be understood; and from them both the word can be extended for use in a metaphorical way. Historically speaking, as we shall see later, the concept developed in a process almost the reverse of this. First there arose the concept of restoration to new life, understood in a variety of contexts; this led to a conviction about the resurrection of some or all of the dead at the end of the world; in the light of this conviction, the first Christians came to make their important affirmation that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead.

In view of the Christian tradition we have inherited, we do not start our discussion of resurrection from scratch. As the dictionary entry has illustrated, the connotation of the word ‘resurrection’ with which we start is already biased in the direction of the orthodox Christian tradition. We must examine the significance of this bias before we are free to start our enquiry at the beginning with an open mind.

As the Oxford Dictionary has indicated, the word ‘resurrection’ usually makes us think first of all of the resurrection of Jesus. What kind of mental picture takes shape in our minds when we think of this? If we were to ask a group of people at random today, we would probably get a variety of answers. There has always been some diversity, but this has greatly increased in the last hundred years, during which the resurrection has come more and more under close scrutiny. But if we go back before the mid-nineteenth century, it is likely that the answers would conform to a more uniform pattern. Let us try to sketch what could be called the traditional view of the resurrection of Jesus, and then check it with some widely accepted statements. Here is an attempted summary:

The dead body of Jesus was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb, but there it did not undergo any form of decay. The resurrection of Jesus began when life miraculously returned to the dead body of Jesus so that he once again became a conscious living being, the same Jesus who had died on the cross. He rose from the position where he had been laid, disentangling himself sufficiently from the linen cloths in which his body had been swathed to enable him to walk. Then he walked out of the tomb, from the mouth of which the customary round stone had been rolled aside by unseen forces. During the period of the next forty days the risen Jesus was seen and recognized in this form by his disciples. He made it clear to them that he was not simply an apparition, by inviting them to touch him and by eating and drinking with them. At the end of this period he gathered them together, and bidding them farewell, he ascended before their eyes into the clouds above to take his seat in heaven at the right hand of God.

The latter part of this brief description is based on the traditions written in the New Testament. The first part is reconstructed in the imagination, or at least inferred, for of course the New Testament nowhere describes the actual event of the rising of Jesus from the dead. Bater has rightly pointed out that another false assumption in so much discussion about the resurrection of Jesus is ‘that the New Testament narrates the Resurrection’. ‘In point of fact what are called resurrection narratives are therefore narratives of an inferred resurrection or of some sequel to the resurrection. All the would-be witnesses just miss the event itself.’4 Kendrik Grobel asks whether this is ‘a tacit avowal (on the part of the Evangelists) that the occurrence was such that no human witnesses could have seen anything had they been present’.5

The New Testament does, however, describe how the bound Lazarus walked out of the tomb when Jesus raised him from the dead, and it is possible that Christians have often unconsciously transferred the mental picture of the resurrection of Lazarus to the resurrection of Jesus in order to fill the gap left in the Gospel records. In the second century the apocryphal Gospel of Peter6 attempted to fill in the missing piece in the story of the resurrection, but it produced nothing like the above description. In it two men descended from heaven, entered the tomb, came out carrying a third man between them, with a cross following after, and their heads already reached into heaven. This is a mythological description of the exaltation of Jesus to heaven.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized at this point that the New Testament is silent concerning the crucial element in what was to become the traditional understanding of the resurrection of Jesus. The New Testament traditions leave the actual rising as a conclusion to be drawn from the circumstantial evidence they provide, namely the appearances of the risen Jesus, and an empty tomb. The mental image of what took place at the resurrection, such as is described in the words of D. W. B. Robinson above, must be supplied by the imagination, or by the transference of the Gospel description of the raising of Lazarus.

The traditional Christian view of the resurrection of Jesus, as sketched above, was held with conviction from the end of the first century right down to the modern period. We find it basically confirmed in the fourth of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England: ‘Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.’ Similarly the Westminster Confession of Faith says of the Lord Jesus that ‘On the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered; with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father.’ (Italics mine.)

Documents like this, enshrining the most conservative form of the Christian tradition, lay great emphasis on the identification of the risen body of Jesus with the dead body of Jesus which had been laid in the tomb. J. A. Scheps defends this extreme view by going so far as to say that the risen ‘Jesus could not have entered through the closed doors because, according to his own words, he had a body of flesh and bones that could be handled, take food and the like’(!)7 It is also usually insisted that the dead body did not undergo any of the normal processes of decay during its period in the tomb.

Provided that heaven was vaguely imagined in largely materialistic terms, existing beyond the clouds in the region above the earth, such a view could be held with some conviction. But there has always been some debate about the exact nature of the risen body of Jesus. This question had to come to the fore in the modern period with the rise of an altogether different world view. The effect of this on the traditional view of the resurrection of Jesus has been briefly sketched in God in the New World. There it was pointed out that the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus were ‘meaningful and even to a certain degree reasonable within the ancient world view. The idea of a physical body from this earth being raised to the heavenly sphere above did not appear impossible, even if it rarely happened. The Old Testament told stories of how Enoch and Elijah had made similar ascensions. But the disappearance of this kind of heaven from our space universe, according to our contemporary world view, removes this version of the Resurrection and the Ascension from the miraculous to the meaningless.’8

Most Christian writers, including even the more conservative ones, are today more cautious than the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents quoted above, when they discuss the nature of the risen Christ. James Denney, for example, writing sixty years ago, concluded that some elements of the resurrection narratives must certainly be legendary, on account of ‘a tendency to materialize the supernatural’. ‘There does seem something’, he further writes, ‘which is not only incongruous but repellent in the idea of the Risen Lord eating. It makes him real by bringing Him back to earth and incorporating Him again in this life, whereas the reality of which His resurrection assures us is not that of this life, but of another life transcending this.’9

As soon as it is realized that the risen Christ cannot today, in our world view, be regarded as possessing a physical body identical with that of his earthly life, then it becomes necessary not only to conjecture that his life (and body) transcends our material form of existence, but that, in addition, there was a particular time when the body of Jesus was transformed from the physical to the transcendent.

So James Orr, who was defending the traditional view against the attack of ‘liberalism’, declared it to be an error ‘to speak of the ordinary conception of the Resurrection as that of a simple reanimation of the mortal body. No one will think of it in that light who studies the narratives of the Gospels. They show that while Jesus was truly risen in the body, He had entered, even bodily, on a new phase of existence, in which some at least of the ordinary natural limitations of body were transcended.’10

Thus, in order to reconcile the traditional view of the bodily resurrection of Jesus both with the diversity which exists in the Gospel narratives, as well as with the modern world view, it became common to think in terms of a transformation of the body of Jesus at the time of the resurrection. A. B. Bruce attempted in 1892 to defend the substance of the traditional view by saying, ‘In the resurrection of Jesus, two processes seem to have been combined into one: the revivification of the crucified body, and its transformation into a spiritual body endowed with an eternal form of existence; the first process being merely a means to an end1 the actual, if not the indispensable, condition of the second.’11

Of course (it was freely admitted) no one is able to describe the exact nature of this higher form of existence. But as long as the Gospel narratives were regarded as historical, they were thought to throw some light on it. Yet even they applied only to the limited period during which Jesus was believed to have appeared to his disciples. What happened thereafter? Forrest was thinking of a transformation which took place in two stages when he wrote, ‘Christ hovers, as it were, on the borderline of two different worlds, and partakes of the characteristics of both, just because He is revealing the one to the other. . . During the forty days His body was in a transition state, and had to undergo a further transformation in entering into the spiritual sphere, its true home."12

The idea that the resurrection involved a transformation of the body of Jesus is a very interesting one (and it is by no means wholly new, for it was conjectured by some of the ancient writers). But it must be recognized that it immediately concedes that there was at least some element of discontinuity present in the resurrection of Jesus. The risen Jesus was not the mortal man he was before his death on the cross. He was no longer subject to death and therefore he no longer shared with us a mortal body.

What kind of body, then, do we suppose the risen Christ to have had, firstly, on the occasions when he is said to have appeared to the apostles, and secondly, in the present when apparently he appears to no one? Unless we can be more precise as to what kind of body it was (and is), we cannot be dogmatic as to how it was related to the former physical body which was like our own, and if we are unclear about that relationship, we are less clear than is often assumed about the nature of the resurrection.

It must further be recognized that the idea of transformation, whether in one or two stages, is pure conjecture, and is itself a departure from the Gospel narratives, where there is no explicit reference to any kind of transformation. On the contrary, in those places where the risen Christ is described, it is the idea of continuity with the pre-crucified Jesus which is stressed.

Admittedly, the idea that the resurrection of Jesus involved a transformation appears to receive some support indirectly from the Gospel narratives themselves, for while on the one hand they portray a Jesus who can be touched and who can eat food with his disciples, they also portray a Jesus who can pass through closed doors and appear and disappear at will. While on the one hand the disciples are said to have been glad ‘when they saw the Lord’, Mary Magdalene and the two on the road to Emmaus did not recognize him at all at first sight.

The idea of a transformation from a physical to a spiritual mode of existence has been made necessary, particularly in modern times, because resurrection can be spoken of in two contexts which were not at all clearly distinguished from each other in the ancient world but which more and more need to be kept distinct from each other in our world of thought. These two contexts may be conveniently referred to as the historical and the mythological.

By ‘mythological’ we mean that unseen world, intangible to man, from which angels and evil spirits are thought to exert their mysterious influences upon man. Because it is out of reach, man has to fall back upon his imagination in order to describe it, and he has no way of producing objective evidence to demonstrate its reality to those who do not share his presuppositions. Just because the mythological world rests so much upon the imagination, the description of it enjoys almost unlimited scope, and that is both its strength and its weakness. Its value is that it opens up a way, rather parallel to poetry, in which man can communicate verbally about that which he finds he can express adequately in no other way. Its weakness is that depending so much upon the human imagination, it can quickly move out of touch with the objective, real world. The Book of Revelation is composed largely of mythological language and well illustrates both its value and its limitations.

Historical events on the other hand are to be distinguished from mythological events in that they do not take place in the unseen world, but in the observable world of space and time, where they may be witnessed by all who happen to be in the vicinity. There is always something public and open about an historical event in that anyone could have seen it, if only he had been there. In comparison with the mythological event, the historical event depends far less upon the subjective impressions of the observer, and the element of subjectivity can to some degree be minimized by checking the evidence with other witnesses. The historian who is trying to reconstruct an historical event is looking for corroboration from as many reliable and dispassionate witnesses as possible.

As indicated above, our thought world today is such that we observe a much stricter differentiation between the historical and the mythological than did ancient man. In the Resurrection stories both elements are in most cases clearly evident. Where they speak of angels, voices from heaven, the ascension of Jesus into heaven, they have definitely drawn upon the language and concepts of mythology.

But other parts of the same narratives are expressed in the language of the historical world, and, if adequately substantiated, they should be accepted as historical evidence. It is just at the point where the historical language intermingles with the mythological language that we meet the problem of what the resurrection means, and see the reason why many want to speak of it in terms of transformation. At the point where the story moves from the historical into the mythological (or, if it is preferred, from the observable world to the spiritual world) so the body of the risen Jesus must undergo the transformation required by the change of context. G. W. H. Lampe writes: ‘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.’13

Let us take the example of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We need not here discuss whether such an event actually took place (and today only the most conservative scholars think that it did). What is important is that it is narrated in historical language. The dead body of Lazarus came to life and walked out of the tomb, and all the bystanders witnessed it. It was a public event. But if it actually happened this way, then Lazarus was being resurrected and restored to his former mortal existence, and the time would come when he would die again, and his body go through the normal processes of decay for the last time.

If it could be shown that this actually happened, then the raising of Lazarus would be termed an historical event. But however much this picture may have influenced Christian tradition, the resurrection of Jesus could not have been like this, for either Jesus would have been subject to death at some later time (which is the negation of the resurrection faith), or he would be walking the earth to this day (which is absurd), or he would be in some corner of this space-time-universe where theoretically he could be found by some future astronaut (which is equally absurd). The last alternative did not appear so absurd however in the ancient world, and it is substantially what the ascension of Jesus to heaven implied, and what many Christians of the late first century believed. It is also the point where the description of the resurrection of Jesus moved out of historical language into mythological language.

The resurrection of Lazarus, if it could be adequately attested, would be called an historical event. But it would be more satisfactory to describe such an event as resuscitation than as resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus was not a resuscitation. It cannot be adequately described within the limits imposed by historical language, as resuscitation can, nor does it meet the canons of an historical event, for it was not a public event observed by anyone at all, let alone by all and sundry. We can agree with H. H. Rex when he writes, ‘The resurrection of Jesus is certainly not a historical event in the sense in which his crucifixion is accepted as a historical event. The historicity of the latter could be verified by anyone who cared to visit the scene of the crucifixion, believer and non-believer alike. The same claim has not been made by any New Testament author for the resurrection. No unbeliever ever saw the risen Lord . . . the risen Lord did not appear to men like Pontius Pilate, king Herod, or the Jewish high priests.’14

Whatever historical events were associated with the rise of the Christian faith (and these will be examined later) the resurrection of Jesus describes something which in the main lies beyond historical enquiry. Christians proclaimed the Resurrection as an act of God, and as Neville Clarke says, ‘historical techniques can never establish events as acts of God’.15

Hans Conzelman writes, ‘The question whether the resurrection of Christ is a "historical event" is theoretically inapposite. Of course it is a historical event for Paul, in so far as he cannot know the modern theoretical distinction between historical and supra-historical (in effect: unhistorical). We for our part cannot retreat behind his reflection. But for faith, the particular stage of consciousness reached by thought is quite unimportant. Faith at any stage is -- faith. Its object cannot be experienced. Only the cross can be perceived . . . The question of the historicity of the resurrection must be excluded from theology as being a misleading one.’16

The conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus lies outside the scope of historical enquiry does not necessarily mean that it is thereby less true or real, for truth cannot simply be identified with that which can be established historically. But it does mean that the Christian affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus is not something which can be shown to be true or false by using the historical method of enquiry. Many are reluctant to accept this conclusion because there has been a popular and widespread practice of defending the truth of Christianity by saying that it is an historical religion, a claim which usually implies that its most striking tenet -- the resurrection of Jesus -- is firmly attested by historical evidence.

But the truth of Christianity cannot be proved by historical evidence or by any other rational process. The substance of Christianity can be grasped only by faith. The crucifixion of Jesus is an historical event which can be fairly well attested. But Christianity does not affirm simply that a man was crucified, (the two thieves also were crucified) but that it was Jesus, Son of God, who was crucified, and that in some way he died for the sins of men. No amount of historical enquiry can show that it was the Son of God who was crucified, or that he died for the sins of men. In the same way the resurrection of Jesus cannot be identified with the re-animation of a corpse (which, if it occurred, would be subject to historical enquiry), but it has to do with the very nature of the Christian’s faith concerning this same Jesus, and the faith of the Christian believer is not open to historical enquiry.

Further, because the resurrection of Jesus has to do with faith rather than with objective historical fact, it can be described and understood in more than one way. This has been so from the beginning. We shall later see that, prior to the advent of Christianity, there was considerable diversity in the way men understood resurrection language. Christianity came to birth within this diversity and reflected it at many points. This diversity has now clearly been shown to exist in the New Testament writings. They do not all speak of the resurrection of Jesus in the same way, though there has long been a tendency to attribute to the New Testament a uniformity of viewpoint that it does not possess.

The traditional understanding of resurrection not only vastly oversimplifies the New Testament traditions but is open to serious objections. Before we pursue the matter further to see if there is a more adequate understanding of resurrection to be found we must examine the chief arguments used to defend the traditional one. For so long as these appear to contain some power to convince, we are not ready to look further afield. To these arguments we shall now turn.



1. Jesus and the Gospel, p. 113.

2. ‘The Empty Tomb’, an essay in The Third Day He Rose Again, p. 25.

3. Towards a More Biblical View of the Resurrection in Interpretation, January 1969, p. 51.

4. op. cit., p. 52.

5. Theology as History, ed. By J. M. Robinson and J. Cobb, p. 172.

6. See Chapter 11.

7. The Nature of the Resurrection Body, p. 141

8. God p. 146.

10. The in the New World, p.41.

9. op. cit., Resurrection of Jesus, p. 54.

11. Apologetics, p. 398.

12. The Christ of History and Experience, pp. 150, 152.

13. The Resurrection, p. 54.

14. Did Jesus Christ Rise from the Dead? p. 11.

15. Interpreting the Resurrection, p. 94.

16. An Outline of the Theology of the New Testament, p. 204. See also W. Marxsen, The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ, pp. 21-2.