Chapter 5: Resurrection: Christ ‘Risen from the Dead’

After Death: Life in God
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 5: Resurrection: Christ ‘Risen from the Dead’

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer directs that on Easter Day there shall be sung at the services of the church a special canticle, arranged from portions of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5.7 and 12.20) and the Romans (6.9); similar directions are found in the liturgy of other Christian communities. The canticle runs like this:

Christ our passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast

Not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness: but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.

For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.

Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin: But alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Christ is risen from the dead: and become the first fruits of them that slept.

For since by man came death: by man came also the resurrection of the dead.

For as in Adam all die: even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

Thus it is established in a liturgical manner that at the heart of Christian faith is the conviction both that Jesus Christ is ‘risen from the dead’ and also that ‘in Christ’ our human existence finds its intended destiny and fulfillment. Christ risen and Christians ‘in Christ’: these are the subjects for our discussion in this and the next chapter. The two topics belong together; and together they bring us to the main stress in Christian thinking about the worth or value, the significance and importance, of the lives of human beings, now that the event of Jesus Christ has taken place.

But we cannot leave it there. Neither the resurrection of Jesus Christ nor the ‘life in Christ’ which it is claimed is available for men and women, can be taken as self-explanatory. Both of them require exploration and explanation, so far as we are able to give this. And the first matter for study is the meaning of resurrection in the case of the Lord in whom Christians find both the decisive disclosure of God and also the empowering from God which they say has brought to them ‘newness of life’.

There have been many different ways of interpreting Jesus’ resurrection. The simple reader of the New Testament material might assume the obvious interpretation to be the literal coming to life again of the One who died on Calvary. And this might be taken as requiring the literal ‘rising’ from death of the physical body of Jesus. Unquestionably many have believed just this. But St. Paul makes a distinction in I Corinthians 15 between such a ‘physical body’ and what he styles (in the common English translation of his Greek words) a ‘spiritual body’. For him there is a continuity of some sort between the two; yet there is also a difference. He is clear that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven’, so for him, the literal physical body of Jesus, with its flesh and blood, cannot be raised from death. But continuous with that physical body, although different from it, there is a ‘body’ which can thus ‘inherit the kingdom of heaven’. Evidently it is a ‘body’ which is appropriate to life in and with God who himself is ‘spirit’. And the gospel narratives about the resurrection of Jesus portray a ‘body’ which was indeed very strange -- a ‘body’ which in one sense is presented as quasi-physical, to be sure, but, which also can appear without movement from place to place, a ‘body’ which bears the marks of his passion, but which is not exactly the same as the body which hung upon the cross.

Some have said -- and doubtless the majority of believers have assumed that after Jesus’ burial there was a rising such that the tomb in which he had been laid was found empty. Others have not been so sure of this supposed fact, but have preferred to stress the appearances of Jesus to his disciples following his death. The way in which these appearances have been understood has also varied from what might seem in effect a materialization of the risen Lord to what have been called ‘veridical visions’ seen by the disciples, but yet not of the order of obvious manifestations which anybody could have experienced at the time.

Biblical study, of the most exacting sort, can never answer the question of what precisely did happen, nor can it provide the evidence necessary to assure us of the specific and concrete events associated with Jesus’ resurrection, whatever they were. What it can do is to work towards a discovery of the earliest strata of material in the gospel narratives, and thus indicate what it is highly likely the earliest disciples believed. For many, if not most, New Testament scholars this has resulted in the belief that the first or most primitive material has to do with the appearances of Jesus; the empty tomb material is secondary, however deeply it may seem to be embedded in the ongoing tradition of which the gospel narratives are the deposit.

It would seem that Paul Tillich is correct in saying that there are several different theological views which believers have held in this respect. The notion of a sheer ‘resuscitation’, in which the physical body of the Lord was brought to life once again, is one. Another is what might be styled the ‘transformation’ theory; that is to say, with St. Paul (and later with St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance), that the physical body was in some wonderful way changed into a ‘spiritual body’ which could pass through closed doors, be in many places almost at once, and have qualities more characteristic of ghosts than of human existence. Then there is the theory that whatever may have happened to the actual physical body of Jesus, his ‘total personality’ (as it might be put) is no longer associated with the ‘physical integument’ (the phrase is Dr H. D. A. Majors) which was its mundane abode, but now continues in such a fashion that it may be known and experienced by others in a genuine communion of persons. And there is also Tillich’s own theory: the resurrection really is a statement that the existential Jesus has become, for those who have faith, the essential Christ in whom Godhead and manhood are so united that existential human possibility has become essential manhood or humanity. This is the ‘restitution’ theory, as Tillich calls it. It is the vindication and validation, by God, as ‘the ground of being’, of Jesus as the existential manifestation of that ‘ground’.

Now these theories are interesting, although as theories they are indemonstrable and can only be accepted on the basis of a particular way of reading the New Testament material, differing according to the assumptions of those who study this material. At least one of them, that suggested by Tillich, depends to a considerable degree upon the Tillichian ‘system’ in which there is much talk about ‘existential’ and ‘essential’ manhood, not to mention the more general philosophical position which he adopts with its talk about ‘the ground of being’, ‘the power of being’, and ‘the new being in Christ’ -- the last of these constituting in fact what ‘restitution’ is all about. For him it is this ‘new being, made available through the total fact of the ‘biblical Christ’, which is established by ‘restitution’, in that there has now been manifested the basic reality of the divine-human relationship or what might be styled, with some Eastern Orthodox theologians, the truth of ‘God-manhood’.

In the writing of Rudolf Bultmann, the great German form-critic whose program of ‘de-mythologization’ attracted much attention during the past quarter-century, there is still another way of presenting the meaning of resurrection. For Bultmann, Jesus died on the cross; but he is ‘risen in the kerygma’ or the preaching of him as the unique ‘act of God’ the one in whom the past is overcome, the future is opened up, and a new life in faith by grace is made available to those who will respond to the proclamation. This kind of interpretation obviously does not require anything to be said about a ‘resurrection body’ of any kind. Bultmann is quite prepared to allow that the physical body of Jesus went the way of all human bodies, although at the same time something about or of Jesus may have continued -- perhaps this would be like the soul, in older Hellenistic idiom, or the ‘personality’ of Jesus without the ‘physical integument’. But questions of this kind appear to the great German scholar to be both irrelevant and meaningless.

Perhaps for Bultmann, certainly for Tillich, there is no absolute requirement that we accept the familiar soul-body dichotomy. On the other hand, in most of the conventional ways of understanding resurrection, such a dichotomy is presumably taken for granted. If it is the ‘personality’ of Jesus which is raised from death, that must be distinguishable, and in principle separable, from the body which was his in ‘the days of his flesh’ in Palestine. If the physical body of Jesus was not thus raised, but only a ‘spiritual body’ which was continuous with, but different from, the physical, then the question can be asked; is this at once united with, part of, or in what other way associated with his soul? The last point assumes considerable importance when we ask just what it is that constitutes a genuinely human existence. I have urged in an earlier chapter that to be human is to be both body and soul in a complex relationship in which the soul (or do we mean mind here?) is the carrier of the rationality, conation, and capacity for emotional or sensible response. Or are these now to be taken as the essential functioning of the animated, directive, and feeling aspect of experience inembodiment?

These are but a few of the many issues which may be faced if we take the more conventional, and for centuries the popular, view. Obviously with Tillich they are not raised; probably they are not raised for Bultmann. But we should now ask if there is a way in which we can speak intelligibly of ‘resurrection’ without having such questions to plague us. Of course it is possible to say that such questions and many more like them are of the sort that the limited human mind cannot properly discuss; we must accept the reality of the rising of Jesus and simply leave it there. We can say that this is of faith; and that it is presumptuous and absurd, perhaps sinful, for finite human minds to try to understand how this rising took place. This may seem to many a suitably reverent attitude. To me it appears to be a sub-human one, for it is based on the notion that human enquiry about the implications of what is proposed in faith, as well as the honest effort to see what is really being asserted, is to be replaced by little more than pious credulity.

Having thus posed all sorts of questions, legitimate enough if we grant the usual position about resurrection, it is now our task to set forth what may be a more coherent and credible way of thinking about ‘Jesus risen from the dead’.

First of all, it should be acknowledged, indeed gladly asserted, that for St. Paul at least, and probably for most primitive Christians too, the resurrection of Christ is central. For St Paul, it is by his resurrection (however we may interpret it) that Jesus is ‘declared to be the Son of God’. St. Paul does not regard Christian discipleship as the following of the teaching of a human Rabbi, neither does he believe that in such discipleship we have to do with a ‘dead’ Lord and Master. For him Jesus is the ‘living Lord’; he is the Christ of Christian faith quite as much as, probably even more than, the Jesus of history. I am using here two well-known ways of pointing to Jesus Christ. One of these stresses the risen Lord as somehow known within the life of the Christian church, the other puts its main emphasis on the historical figure about whom we read in the Gospels and concerning whom it is taken to be possible to speak with a high degree of historical accuracy.

But to the apostle, such a dichotomy would have made little sense. He apparently has no doubt that there was a Jesus of history; at the same time it is not in that figure that he reposes his ultimate trust. On the contrary, he can even go so far as to say on one occasion that ‘knowledge of Jesus after the flesh’ is not the point of Christian faith; that point is the risen Lord who is ‘at the right hand of God’ and with whom in some way believers may still be in touch. To be a Christian is for St. Paul to be ‘in Christ’, so that while we still remain here in this world we are also able to be ‘with’ that Christ ‘in the heavenly places.’

St. Paul and the first Christians did not think in terms of any natural ‘immortality of the soul’. Their way of thinking was in terms of the older Jewish belief in ‘resurrection of the body’ -- and hence the only manner in which they could proclaim that Jesus had not been put out of the way through death was to say that he had indeed been ‘raised from the dead’, that he was in and with God, and that those who belonged to him were granted a share in the risen life which was properly his own. Present relationship with Christ was the point of it all; what had happened to Jesus was, to be sure, important but it was not the heart of the matter. In our next chapter we shall return to this and its significance so far as our own ‘resurrection’ is accepted in some meaningful sense. For the present, we must emphasize that for St. Paul certainly, and doubtless for other primitive Christian believers, relationship with Christ seems to have meant basically relationship with something in or something about God in his inner life and in his unfailing activity in the created order. One way in which this was stated was through St. Paul’s assertion that Jesus as Christ was in a profound sense one with (even identified with) the ‘Wisdom of God’ -- or in St. John’s idiom, with the ‘Word of God’. Just how we are to understand this language is not entirely clear, but one thing at least is certainly plain. There was that in God which had been active in the historical event of Jesus, in the full reality of his human existence; and the that was now a continuing and integral reality in God’s very existence. What is more, this ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Word’ was the divine agency by which God was actively at work in the world, in creation as well as in redemption.

We are not concerned here to consider the eventual result of this Pauline and early Christian interpretation of Jesus -- the development of the doctrine of the triunity of God, with distinctions made between the eternal Father, the Word (or Son) as the ‘outgoing’ of God in creation and redemption, and the Holy Spirit somewhat uncertainly added to round out the three-fold pattern in unity. In another book, The Divine Triunity (Pilgrim Press 1977), I have discussed this topic and have sought to make a case for the retention of the triunitarian symbol as precisely that, a symbol which has the virtue of safeguarding much that is important in the enduring Christian way of seeing God, the world, and human experience. The point for us in this context, however, is that the New Testament material as a whole enables us to see that the first Christians, or their immediate successors, did not rest content with affirming that Jesus, in himself, was risen; they went on to say that the activity of God in his self-expression, above all in that self-expression in Jesus, was an abiding reality in the creation. What is more that abiding reality was taken to include for ever all that Jesus did and was, all that was effected in and through Jesus -- historic teacher, last of the great Jewish prophets, one who ‘went about doing good’, the crucified and risen Lord, all of these united in the inclusive reality which is named when we use the phrase ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’.

The fact of Jesus Christ, therefore, is a total fact, with a unitary quality which makes it include and express (a) a human life which was remembered, (b) a vital experience of salvation which was enjoyed, and (c) the activity of God that was in, through, with, and behind this totality. Or, to put it in another way, the event which is this total fact has not come to an absolute end with the crucifixion. On the contrary, God has received Jesus so that now he ‘lives unto God’, as the Easter canticle puts it. In God’s receiving Jesus into his own life, ‘all that appertains to the perfection’ of human nature (in a phrase from one of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England) has also been received and accepted. Thus the notion of resurrection is a way of saying that first in respect to Jesus, and then (as we shall see) in a more general sense, all materiality, all history, and all relationships which have been known and experienced, have been received by God into the divine life. All this, finding focus in the event of Jesus Christ, has been made part of God in his ‘consequent aspect’ -- that is to say, in the concrete sense of God as One who is affected by that which has taken place in the world where he is ceaselessly at work.

Furthermore, this divine reception has been of Jesus as actually and concretely he was, in terms of what actually and concretely he did. Nor is this simply a matter of what could be called ‘the dead past’. Far from that, since there could be nothing more vital and living than to be a participant in God’s own existence. In what fashion that living quality is preserved and guaranteed is not so important as is the fact itself. But for God to remember, to make part of the divine reality (in the serious sense in which we have already spoken and about which more must be said in the sequel), is to bring the past into the immediacy of the present divine awareness, from which nothing can be lost save that which is utterly alien to the divine nature of love -- and even then, the divine alchemy can transform that evil into an opportunity and occasion for further good.

The creative movement in the world, in its every detail and its varying degrees of importance, with whatever it has contributed to furthering God’s love and his activity in love, is continuously experienced by God, known to him, cherished by him, and used in the furthering of his objective -- which is the wider and wider sharing of love, with its related righteousness and truth and in its enduring beauty, in the ongoing of the creative process. Since in Jesus Christ there has been brought to a focal point the significance given by God to the human creation, it is precisely this which is ‘raised from the dead’ and now abides in God for ever. By the italicized this in the last sentence I mean to indicate Jesus Christ himself in the integrity of the event which we designate when we name him. But to speak of any event is also to speak of the prior occasions which exerted their causal efficacy upon it, as well as of the future consequences which it has brought about -- these two quite as much as the particular circumstances of that event’s present moment when and as it took place. This will have its relevance to what must be said in the next chapter, when we come to speak of how one may understand the resurrection of those who are ‘in Christ’.

As the present chapter comes to an end, I repeat that what has been attempted here is a ‘de-mythologizing’ of our inherited conviction about Jesus’ own resurrection. There have seemed to be only two final possibilities which may be followed in our approach to that resurrection; it has been assumed that choice must be made between them. Either we must accept the stories more or less as they stand, with whatever subtle changes may appear required once we have rejected a literal physical miracle. In that case we are to believe in a transformation of the physical body into a ‘spiritual body’ or to talk about the persistence through death of either the soul or the ‘personality’ of Jesus. Or, if we do not take this way, we must accept (so it is thought) that there is no such thing as resurrection at all, save in Tillich’s attenuated sense of ‘restitution’ or Bultmann’s even more attenuated sense of ‘risen in the kerygma. But I have been urging a third way or possibility.

To repeat in substance what has been urged, that third way or possibility is to take very seriously indeed what the stories in the Gospels and in the earliest Christian writing and preaching were concerned to proclaim: that Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of the matter, but that, on the contrary, Jesus was somehow seen after that death to ‘live unto God’. At the same time, however, we may most satisfactorily grasp the meaning of that life ‘unto God’ when our model of God is such that God can be believed to receive into himself and to cherish for ever all that Jesus was and did and all that was effected through him. In other words, it is by centering our thought on God and how God has been enriched in his experience of relationship with the human creation, how God now has the possibility through what he has received of being related with that creation at its human level in a new way; it is in this fashion that we can give to Jesus ‘the highest place that heaven affords’.

This does not mean that God is changed, if by that verb ‘changed’ it is suggested that the divine nature if altered or becomes something essentially different from what it was before Christ’s death and thus moves in and towards the world in a fashion totally at variance with the prior mode of divine concern. This will not do, since God’s nature and activity are always and everywhere identically Love-in-act. But new occasions make a difference of another sort. They open up the possibility for God to be related to the creation, and in this instance at the level of human existence, in the light of the new occasion, by the responsiveness of God to that event and by his employment of that event to bestow upon his human children still further ‘graces and mercies’. These do not contradict nor deny the graces and mercies’ which God always bestows upon the world. What they do, however, is to bring them to a vivid and vital focus -- to use again the term we have found so helpful -- and thus to make them more poignantly available and more decisively effective for God’s children.

In principle, such a completely open and enriching relationship has always been possible, and something of it has been realized in the great saints and seers and prophets and sages, even when they would not have used just these words to describe what they knew in the depths of their own experience. But principles need to be given statement in concrete terms, general truths need to have particular illustrations, the divine Lover must be seen in a specially clear instance to be such a divine Lover. This, I urge, is what is being affirmed when we speak of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, ‘raised from the dead’ and ‘living unto God’.