Chapter 5: The Resurrection as the Emergence of the Body of Christ

The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism
by Lewis S. Ford

Chapter 5: The Resurrection as the Emergence of the Body of Christ

In responding to the New Testament witness to the resurrection, much depends upon the interpretative categories we select to evaluate that testimony. Wolfhart Pannenberg urges us to adopt, in its essential outline, the anticipation of a general resurrection from the dead as the only adequate context within which to judge the evidence. "Only the traditional expectation of the end of history rooted in apocalyptic gave Paul the opportunity of designating the particular event that he experienced, as Jesus’ other disciples had experienced it previously, as an event belonging to the category of resurrection life. There, Paul called the expectation of a resurrection of the dead the presupposition for the recognition of Jesus’ resurrection: ‘If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised’ (1 Cor. 15:16)." 1

Commenting on this same text, Gordon D. Kaufman remarks: "If, now, we bring a different framework of interpretation from Jewish apocalypticism to this critical event in which Christian faith was born -- as we must -- we should not be overly surprised or dismayed when we find it necessary to understand the character of the event somewhat differently from the first Christians." 2 He goes on to argue that the resurrection appearances were essentially hallucinations that the disciples mistakenly interpreted as Jesus come back from the dead, but that God used these hallucinations and this misinterpretation to create his kingdom, his community of love and forgiveness, within human history. I agree with Kaufman that the emergence of this community embodies the reality of the resurrection here on earth, and that the apocalyptic expectation must be discarded. I disagree with him, however, on the one point where he makes common cause with Pannenberg: namely, that apart from the apocalyptic horizon, the disciples’ experiences can only be regarded as subjective hallucinations.

Consider, for the moment, Isaiah’s experience in the temple in the year that King Uzziah died. He reports, "I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple" (Isa. 6:1). Was this an hallucination? On the one hand, there are elements I take to be primarily subjective in Isaiah’s experience -- the bodily figure seated on the throne. On the other hand, I do not doubt Isaiah’s claim that he "saw" the Lord, that is, that he actually encountered the divine reality distinct from himself in a particularly vivid manner. I would not call this experience an hallucination, which I take to be purely subjective in all important respects, having no significant objective referent, but rather a vision, the encounter with a nonperceptual reality made manifest and perceptible by hallucinatory means. Thus a vision stands halfway between an hallucination and veridical experience, and is needed in this case because neither of these alternatives adequately accounts for Isaiah’s experience. To be sure, my judgment is dependent upon the interpretive framework I have adopted, which assumes that God is real independently of the believer and that God cannot be sensuously perceived. If we reject the first assumption, Isaiah’s experience can only be hallucinatory; if, on the other hand, we reject only the second, then his experience might be taken as completely veridical.

We take I Corinthians 15 to be our most reliable testimony to the resurrection appearances, as being the only eyewitness report we have. Was Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus a vision or an hallucination? We rule out the third possibility of veridical experience on the testimony of Luke in Acts, who reports a light from heaven and a voice, which we take to be hallucinatory accompaniments. Paul speaks of a ‘‘spiritual body" later on in that chapter, and it may well be that he took the Christ he encountered to be embodied in a perceptible spiritual body, but if so, it is remarkable that he never attempts to distinguish this spiritual body belonging solely to the resurrected Christ from the body of Christ which is the church. At any rate, we take the risen Christ to be living but not perceptible, and so the means whereby Christ became audible and (perhaps) visible to Paul were essentially hallucinatory. What we need at this point is an interpretive framework permitting us so to specify the possibility of the objective reality of the risen Christ that Paul’s experience may be approached as a vision rather than as an hallucination. Pannenberg claims that this can only be found in the apocalyptic expectation of a general resurrection, but I wish to propose an alternative to accomplish the same purpose.

Before proceeding to this task, however, let us pause to note that if the risen Christ is essentially nonperceptible, we should not expect testimony to certain appearances to be our primary witness to his resurrection. I take this to be the case. The earliest Christians did not believe in the resurrection primarily because they accepted the apostles’ reports, but because they experienced the Spirit of Christ alive and active in their midst. As John Knox argues, "The two facts -- he was known still and he was remembered -- constitute together the miracle of the Resurrection; and neither is more important than the other." 3 This nonperceptual yet real experience of Christ’s directing activity in and through their lives assured the early believers that he was alive. Since they also remembered that he had died, they could only infer that he must have risen from the dead. The resurrection appearances confirmed this conviction, to be sure, but these visions may have been originally understood as grants of apostolic authority to their recipients, as fuller manifestations of the risen Christ bestowed upon the privileged few chosen to be their leaders. Only when the sense of the immediate presence of Christ in their midst faded would these reports be reconceived primarily as testimony to the resurrection. Yet, as with the resurrection appearances, such nonperceptual experiences of the living Christ also depend upon an interpretive framework, one which permits the presence of the living Christ to be a real possibility for the believer. For if this possibility is excluded on a priori grounds, the experience must be interpreted another way: as an unwarranted enthusiasm, as the presence of human love in community, as the activity of God mediated through the community’s memory of Jesus, or what have you.

As a clue to an alternative interpretive framework, I wish to suggest a different way of understanding the "spiritual body," one which Paul may have been groping for but was prevented from reaching by his preconceptions about the general resurrection. Usually this is taken to mean a body which is no longer "corporeal" or material but composed rather of some more ethereal substance. The adjective "spiritual" then signifies the material cause of that body, to use Aristotelian language. In contrast I understand the adjective to refer to that which permeates, vivifies, and directs the body for its own purposes. Here it is important to note that the contrasting term, "physical body" (RSV), is not soma phusikon but soma psuchikon, a "psychical body." This does not mean that ordinary human body is composed of some psychical material, but that this physcal body is animated by a soul or mind or psyche which organizes an directs its activity. The New English Bible translation is to be preferred: "If there is such a thing as an animal body [cf. Vulgate: corpus animale], there is also a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:44). Or perhaps we should say, the human body is animate because of the presence of the anima or soul. Thus Paul continues: "It is in this sense that Scripture says, ‘The first man, Adam, became an animate being,’ whereas the last Adam has become a life-giving spirit" (1 Cor. 15:45 NEB). The actions of the spiritual body are animated and directed by that life-giving spirit of the last Adam, that man who stands on the threshold of a new emergent reality, the body of Christ. This body here and now is composed of many human members, of flesh and blood, but it is a spiritual body because it is animated by the spirit of Christ.

This transformed human community forms a living organism, a biological phenomenon which we conceive to be the next stage in the emergent evolution of the world, and the incarnation of the divine Word. As long as we think of this Word as the expression of God’s underlying character or eternal purpose, we overlook its contingent relatedness to the evolving world. It does express God’s creative character and his fundamental purpose in bringing the world into fullness of being, but that is only its abstract essence. The creative Word embodies God’s general power of the future acting on all creatures, but the concrete character of the creative Word must be found in the specific way in which it addresses each species to evolve beyond itself. If by the Christ-event we mean the human actualization of this creative Word, we must bear in mind the contingent aspects of God’s address to man, for this address must be so coordinated with the human situation as to provide the means for a new creation transforming man. God’s purpose in Christ is not merely to manifest his love to all mankind (though it intends that as well), but to establish a new organic unity transcending human fragmentariness. Such action requires a means growing out of our particular conditions and opportunities. That purpose in Christ embodies God’s general aim for all creation in the specific way appropriate to man, and both foci must be considered in any full account.

God has purposes for us in every moment of our existence, some rather trivial, others quite profound. His underlying aim is always the same, for he seeks our welfare both for our sakes and as the condition for his own welfare. This basic aim, however, is expressed in specific purposes appropriate to the particular conditions and opportunities confronting us at particular times. We may respond wholly or partially to these particular purposes by actualizing them in concrete fact; to that extent God’s purposes become incarnate in the world. As we have seen, some argue that the Christ was the incarnation of the Word of God because he fully realized the divine purpose. While this may well be necessary, it is not a sufficient condition to designate the particular character of the Christ. This is not adequate grounds for distinguishing between Jesus and Socrates and Gautama, let alone any number of other wise or saintly or good people, unless one resorts to a dogmatic insistence upon Jesus’ "sinlessness" or "absolute perfection" about which we have no final way of knowing, and which Jesus is reported as denying with respect to himself (Mark 10:18). Not all divine aims are (or could be) christological aims, for it is only under very special circumstances within human life that God could introduce, as relevant to those conditions and opportunities, that aim capable of transforming man beyond himself. We define this christological aim -- God’s purpose in Christ -- to be the creative emergence of a new organic unity incorporating man, and confess that this aim was realized in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Both the granting of this christological aim and its receptive realization required prior preparation. To be relevant and usefully significant, God’s particular purpose must be realizable under the existent conditions. Sometimes these conditions only permit meager results. In other circumstances the concrete realization of God’s preliminary aims may create the conditions for a further intensification of divine aim. We may see in the life of Israel and in the personal life of Jesus just such an intensification, creating the conditions such that God’s culminating aims for man could become relevant for realization. God calls every man, but some like Abraham respond more fully to that call. In the light of the patriarch’s wandering with God in the land of Canaan, Moses could be called to lead the children of Israel into the promised land. Because of Israel’s covenant with God in the wilderness, the prophets could call upon the people to return to that covenant, proclaiming to them the divine intent in their historical situation. Through this process Israel could become a special locus of God’s creative purposes for mankind, purposes it might realize or bequeath to another to realize. God has no fixed, inalterable plan here, but everywhere seeks inexorably to urge creation beyond itself. We may interpret the biblical record as God seeking to further this aim first with all mankind, then with his chosen people Israel, then with the faithful remnant, finally with that individual person willing to embody in his own life the meaning, hopes, and mission God has entrusted to Israel.

In order to see the particular character of the divine aim actualized in the Christ-event, we may speculate a bit upon the evolutionary advance of the world by considering its possible future development. Heretofore, this earth has witnessed the emergence of single-celled living organisms, the growth of multicelled plant organisms, the advent of animals with centralized nervous systems making self-directed activity possible, and the flowering of humanity with its far-flung culture. In this evolutionary process we may discern an unfolding spiral development whereby later phases recapitulate earlier ones on a higher level. Thus animals for the most part have little or no social organization, and in this respect may be likened to single-celled organisms. With the emergence of symbolic communication permitting the transmission of cultural traditions from generation to generation, man has been able to develop a highly complex social life allowing for a high degree of specialization and interdependence among its members. Such human social organization may be compared with the life of plants, whose individual cells may be highly specialized and interdependent. In both cases the focus of life remains on the individual level, for there is no coordinating agency directing the life of the plant or the activities of an ordinary human society as a whole. A tree is a democracy of cells, Whitehead wrote. In both cases individual members may exercise some dominance over others, in particular by altering the patterns guiding further growth and development, but the social coordination stems from basic patterns embodied in the genetic makeup of the plant cells and in the laws and traditions of human culture. Mankind has grown together into ever more involuted social patterns dead -- ending in the unfeeling excesses of bureaucracy, and longs for liberation from this kind of bondage to the law. The law killeth, for these social traditions which made human community possible are increasingly restrictive of human initiative along novel lines, affording maximum freedom only to those content to develop along established patterns.

Some humans romantically yearn for a regression back to social anarchy, which might be likened -- rather fancifully, to be sure -- to the cells of a plant longing for the mobility of single-celled organisms. A more viable option may lie in the emergence of dynamic human societies more nearly analogous to animals possessing minds coordinating the activities of the body. It is not essential to bodies that their individual components be spatially contiguous if we see that the basic relationship involved connects an active coordinating agency with the subordinate instrumentality providing it with expression. The eleventh-century Hindu theologian Ramanuja defined a body as any substance or actuality "which a sentient soul is capable of controlling and supporting for its own purposes, and which stands to that soul in an entirely subordinate relation." 4 We adopt this broad definition, which does not entail spatial contiguity. Plant and animal cells must be spatially contiguous in order to permit the interchange of material necessary to sustain life, but mankind has been able to organize commerce and economic interdependence by other means. The transformation of human society, or some part of it, into a living body does not require greater proximity or necessarily more complex organization -- we’re crowded enough as it is. More importantly, it awaits the emergence of a dynamic, responsive agency capable of coordinating the activities of a human society as a whole, within which human individuals might find themselves to be the willing, freely responsive instrumentalities of a higher will. This the early church found in the risen Christ, whom to serve is perfect freedom. Now, Paul exults, life in the Spirit sets us free from the necessity of the law.5

Within the body of Christ the early Christians experienced God’s Spirit, the presence of divine purposing in their lives to which they could respond. They also experienced the Spirit of Christ as a living agency providing aims and directions for their corporate existence. The Spirit of Christ must have had its own distinctive personality, for they recognized that it bore unmistakable continuity with their master Jesus whom they remembered. Paul’s letters show the difficulty they had in relating the Spirit of Christ to the Spirit of God, since the aims they received from Christ were first derived from God. As the directing mind of his body, the risen Christ serves as the channel for the intensification of divine aims. The cells in my index finger are quite limited in terms of what they may achieve on their own, for their individual activity is restricted to processes of growth, oxygen exchange, homeostatic adjustment, and the like. Their individual capacity to serve God’s purposes is rather small. These same cells as part of my hand, however, can serve as instrumentalities accomplishing the aims of my mind, such as the typing of this chapter. Likewise as members of the body of Christ, humans may be achieving aims which far transcend human imagination. God can work through us directly by means of his aims actualized by us individually, but much more powerfully through the mediating agency of Christ.

According to the tradition reported by Paul and the Gospel writers, Peter encountered Jesus as Lord and Christ on the third day after his death. In what form Christ appeared to Peter we do not know; nor is it important, for we regard it as an hallucinatory accompaniment to the actual encounter. Peter experienced the Spirit of Christ, a nonperceptible reality proposing aims for guiding the actions of Peter directly analogous to the nonperceptible reality of the human mind as guiding the actions of the body. Peter encountered a Spirit he knew to be one with the extraordinary life of the Master he had followed, a Spirit to whom he could now fully dedicate himself in the confidence that the aims and directives it mediated served God’s purposes, just as Jesus had served those purposes during his lifetime. Moreover, this Spirit was living, dynamic, responsive to growing circumstance. As others encountered this same reality, they too became the instrumentalities of its will, as they became knit together into that common life we know as the body of Christ. Peter and the others experienced this dynamic presence in their midst as shaping their common activities; they remembered Jesus’ life and death and could interpret this phenomenon in only one way, proclaimed by Peter at Pentecost: This Jesus, whom you crucified, God has raised up and made both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:23-24, 36).

We argue for the bodily resurrection of Christ, but the body of Christ’s resurrection is none other than the body of Christ which is the church, understood as that emergent community of love guided by the dynamic activity of Christ’s Spirit. According to Luke and Paul, Simon Peter was the first person to form that body whose mind is the risen Christ, thereby effecting the bodily resurrection. If the critics are correct in associating Peter’s confession, placed by Mark at Caesarea Philippi, with this resurrection encounter, we may be permitted an additional insight into the appended saying recorded by Matthew (16:17-19). As the first member of the body of Christ, Peter is the rock or foundation for the building up of the church, the cell to which all other cells are attached in the growth of that body.

This resurrection is thus the incarnation of the divine Word addressed to the human situation. The incarnation is not located solely or even primarily in the life of Jesus, although without that life it could not have occurred then. The incarnation was the total event of the emergence of the body of Christ. It required a human life totally open to divine purposing, a life others could completely trust as from God. Yet it also requires the emergence of a new community knit together by the power of God. Initially the continued identity of Jesus was objectively sustained in the memory of his disciples. As these disciples responded to the desires and aims of God as concentrated through this memory by the interpenetration of their concerns for one another in love, the organic life they knit together was able to support the renewed subjectivity of the risen Christ, in the same way a living body can support a living mind.

In Christ we become a new creation; old things have passed away. It began with the human life of Jesus, but culminates in his being "raised up," both as the living Head of the body and as "seated in heavenly place" at the right hand of God, thus becoming a privileged means of interaction and mediation between God and man.

For this process Christology, then, the resurrection of Jesus is hardly an optional belief.6 It is its very heart. It forms the basis of our understanding of what God effected in the Christ-event.


I. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus -- God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), p. 81.

2. Gordon D. Kaufman, Systematic Theology. A Historicist Perspective (New York: Scribner’s, 1968), p. 422, n. 22.

3. John Knox, The Early Church and the Coming Great Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955), pp. 52-53.

4. As quoted by James S. Helfer in "The Body of Brahman According to Ramanuja," Journal of Bible and Religion 32 (1964), 44.

5. Although there are obvious affinities between my reasoning and the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, his discussion of the body of Christ focuses rather upon the individual Christian’s incorporation within Christ as the Omega point toward which all creation moves. Teilhard makes reference to the Pauline texts concerning the body of Christ, but he is primarily intent upon showing how the Christian is related to Christ’s cosmic role as the hope of all creation. See Christopher F. Mooney. Teilhard de Chardin and the Mystery of Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 83-103, esp. pp. 87-94. Mooney provides a useful summary of Paul’s teaching concerning the body of Christ which comes very close to my interpretation, were it not for the unwarranted introduction of the notion of the "Body-Person of Christ" (pp. 94, 100).

Unlike Teilhard’s, my analysis does not require us to accord mankind some privileged centrality in God’s creative design. The body of Christ need not be the final culmination of the creative process. It is rather the next stage in the evolutionary advance on the planet Earth of overwhelming importance to us humans at this time, but perhaps only one among myriads given God’s creative activity on other worlds. The resurrected Christ is the incarnation of the Word of God, but only of that Word as specifically addressed to the particular situation of mankind.

6. PC, p. 12. Clark Williamson challenges Griffin’s claim in his review, Process Studies 4/3 (Fall 1974), 212-17.