20th century biblical scholarship was pretty much unanimous in the discovery that the New Testament from beginning to end was written from the perspective of belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The entire motive for remembering Jesus and writing down the accounts of his life and teachings, decades after he was crucified, was the belief of his closest friends and followers that he was alive and present and anything but dead and gone. But there was no consensus among theologians and biblical scholars that Jesus did really rise from the dead, or that the resurrection remains an essential belief of the Christian faith today. The question was raised, “Can we still be Christians today without believing in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection?” Some theologians said “yes,” and some said “no.” The result is a huge controversy, one that has spilled beyond academic debate into the life of the churches, reflected in what is preached from the pulpits and believed in the pews.
Today I am going to talk about this controversy; it is Easter week, after all! I will try to show what difference it makes whether we believe or disbelieve that God raised Jesus from the dead. We have professors teaching in our seminaries that the resurrection is a dispensable belief, and that we can be good Christians without faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Well, I don’t believe that. In the fourth century the great controversy in the church was between trinitarian and unitarian theology. Was God one in three persons, or was God one without any personal distinctions in his being? In the fifth century the great controversy was whether Jesus was the divine Son of God or a mere human being. And the church said, He is both divine and human. In the 16th century the great controversy was whether salvation is solely God’s gift of grace received through faith alone, or whether we poor sinners are required to perform enough good works to merit salvation.
In this century the great controversy is which God to believe in, in a world of many religions and many putative deities. If we believe in the God of the New Testament, then we believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection God identified himself with the cause of Jesus. From that point on, when we think of God, we think of Jesus, and when we think of Jesus we think of God. The Nicene Creed coined some phrases to make this linkage stick: Speaking of Jesus, it says: “…God from God… true God from true God… of one Being with the Father.” We believe in God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” for Jesus’ sake. And I can see Luther slamming his fist down on the pulpit, shouting the words, “Und es gibt kein andrer Gott.” There is no other God, no other God than the One who raised Jesus from the dead. So, that is our first important point, something that goes to the heart of the Christian faith, surely as much as belief in the Trinity or the Divinity of Christ. The resurrection tells us who God is, which God is the true God among all the gods and idols in the universe of religions. Without faith in the resurrection of Jesus — let there be no mistake about it — Christianity will have morphed into a different religion.
Now I believe that in all humility we should acknowledge that we have no theory to explain the resurrection. Here humility is the better part of wisdom. We have no theory to explain the resurrection, and we need no theory. It would be silly to hold that an explanation is needed in order to receive the benefits of resurrection faith. That would be like refusing to watch television unless one could explain how electricity works, or like refusing to admit one had fallen in love before explaining how it happened. When the apostle Paul spoke to the Athenian philosophers in front of the Areopagus, he did not adjust his telling of the good news about Jesus and the resurrection to fit their metaphysical beliefs. If he had done that, he would have talked about immortality, not about resurrection. In Greek or Hellenistic metaphysics there could be no such thing as a resurrection. It just couldn’t happen. Why? Because the Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul; Jews believed in the resurrection of the body. Paul was a Jew. He told the Greeks something new, and to them it probably sounded like babbling nonsense. God will judge the world by Jesus, and this he guaranteed by raising him from the dead. Some scoffed, but some believed, same old story, now as then. Some scoff, and some believe. The only difference is that nowadays many of the scoffers are to be found inside the churches, among bishops, seminary professors, and parish pastors. I can imagine Paul commenting, “What a pitiful thing, what a bunch of fools to imagine that we can still be Christian without a resurrection faith.”
Resurrection as an Eschatological Event
The second important point is that the resurrection of Jesus is an eschatological event. That is a mouthful. The first witnesses who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion did not use the word “eschatological.” It is a theological word that refers to a whole nexus of things the early Christians believed in. They got it from Jesus and Jesus got it from the rabbis who taught him the Jewish faith. The central idea in eschatology is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was the oncoming power of God, inaugurating the reign of peace, righteousness, and justice, and putting an end to suffering, violence, and poverty. The Beatitudes are the best expression of this idea. Such a world we can only hope for; it does not now exist, and it cannot exist under the present conditions of life, under the tyranny of sin, death, and the power of the devil. Eschatology means that there is hope for a fundamental transformation of the conditions of life we now know, beckoning a new future of life beyond the certainty of death. In the end such a future can only be brought about by God. It cannot happen gradually by cosmic or natural evolution, nor suddenly by social or political revolution. It can only be brought about by a miraculous apocalyptic intervention of God.
Excuse me, I just used another big mind-stopper, apocalyptic. It is a technical theological word, and it has
little in common with its general Hollywood usage. It literally means “revelation.” The last book of the Bible is named “The Apocalypse,” because it is a revelation of the end times, dealing with the the last things and the final future of the world. The resurrection of Jesus can only be understood within the framework of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology. Put more simply, the resurrection of Jesus is the revelation of an event above and beyond the finality of death. It is the beginning of something really new. We have the revelation that God has raised Jesus from the dead, and that gives us sufficient reason to hope for life beyond the grave. In spite of the guillotine of death that is our inescapable universal human destiny, we have reason to
hope for eternal life with God and the angels and all the saints whom God chooses by his amazing grace to recruit for his everlasting kingdom. We know we have to die, yet on account of Christ and his resurrection from the dead, we hope and trust that life will ultimately prevail over death. Humanly speaking, death is the last word. But for Christ’s sake death becomes only the next to the last word, the penultimate word. And the last word is the great transformation of life, an everlasting future with God and all those whom God’s
love embraces. Without resurrection faith we would live as people who have no hope for life beyond death, despair, and annihilation. Who can deliver a death blow to death? Who can counter the deadliness of death, if not the God of hope, the God who raised Jesus from the dead?
Many moons ago I spent a sabbatical year at Oxford University, and that year Paul van Buren was invited to be a guest lecturer at the university. He had just written a book entitled, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel. The book was an attempt to adjust the Christian faith to the philosophy of logical positivism (e.g., A. J. Ayer and others). That philosophy taught that for a statement to be true it had to be empirically verifiable. That means it would need to stand the test of what you can prove by sensory data or by a laboratory experiment. Obviously, in that case most beliefs we confess in the Creed would have to go. I invited Paul van Buren to an evening of theological discussion with other American scholars also on sabbatical. We came around to the question of the resurrection of Jesus. For him it meant only the courage to die for what you believe. Like Socrates. And what about our having to die? He said, “Modern man is no longer afraid of death.” I will never forget that. I thought I was a modern man, and I am scared to death of death. Is it true that “modern man is no longer afraid of death”? My answer at the time was, all the evidence points to the fact that modern people as much as ancient and medieval people are afraid to die, otherwise why do they spend so much time and money trying to cover it up? Why do we drown out the voice of death by the clatter of noises? Why do we try to beautify death with garlands of roses? Why do we use euphemisms like “passing on” and “going home”? Why do we use cosmetics to make dead people look like they are only sleeping? Why are poor people willing to pay for expensive funerals when a family member dies? Why are people numbing themselves with deafening music, and why are they getting high on drugs?
Resurrection hope tells us something definitive about the nature of human being. The Psalmist asked, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” Philosophers have long pondered the question of
the essence of humanity, what distinguishes humans from their animal friends. Immanuel Kant, perhaps the greatest of German philosophers, stated in his magnum opus, The Critique of Pure Reason, that there are three great questions that concern a rational and reflective human being: 1) “What can I know?” 2)
“What ought I to do? 3) “What may I hope?” The answer to the first question has to do with science. The answer to the second question has to do with ethics and morality. And the answer to the third question has to do with religion.
Hope lies at the heart of human existence. Where there is life there is hope, and where there is hope, there is religion. The religion that best responds to the universal human quest for a total hope founded on truth is what we claim for Christianity. It is up to Christian theology to show — I would even like to say “prove” — that this is so, and why it is so. Here and now we can only scratch the surface. This has to do with what we call apologetics in theology. Apologetics is giving reasons for what you believe. I Peter 3:15 puts it this way: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.”
Some people seem satisfied to deal only with the first two questions. They study hard and learn a lot, and that is an important aspect of being human. And they pride themselves on living a decent moral life, being good to others, and practicing the Golden Rule. Knowledge and morality. But are they enough? We believe that hope reaches down to an even deeper level. Hope is not something added on to knowledge and morality. Hope is something people express in symbols and myths, legends and sagas, liturgies and songs, chronicles and stories. Not all of these present a single coherent message, but they do express the deepest longings and fears of human beings.
The utterances of hope are signals that send out messages concerning the human condition. They tell us that we humans are on our way, like a ship suffering distress at sea on its way to some destination: Now, the symbols of the different religions clash with each other as to the nature of the distress and the destination ahead. So, what’s new? We all know that religions profoundly disagree with each other, and the proof is all the wars of religion, not only in the past but in today’s world. There are modern secular and naturalistic theories that claim there is no distress and no destination. Forget them. They are shallow and superficial, and I would even say “stupid” for blinding themselves to the meaning inherent in things that concern human beings in an ultimate way, things that bear on the existential issues of life and death, to be or not to be.
Religion as an organized system of hope is an SOS signal. A person does not hope if there is nothing wrong or lacking, for it is meaningless to talk of hoping for something you already have. So hope sends a dual message: first, that something essential is lacking, and second, that there is possibility of rescue and help. The one brings into view the human limitation, and the other the possibility of overcoming it. Poets and prophets, mystics and saints are remembered because they explored the depths of the human condition from which hope seeks deliverance. So they delve into such negative aspects of the human condition as mortality, guilt, evil, fallibility, and fault. If we sit in darkness, we long for the break of day; if life is a tribulation, we long for relief; if we are stricken by illness, health is on our minds; if we are in slavery, we yearn for freedom; if we are exiled, our thoughts turn to the homeland.
Hope points in two directions; it points to the present, whatever the state of our predicament; and it points to the future, on the lookout for something really new that will deliver us from whatever ails us, whether doubt, despair or death. Here is where the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection comes rightfully into play. The Bible reveals the God of Israel as the God of history, the God of hope, the God who is the world’s future. Abraham is the father of many nations; he went on hoping “when hope seemed hopeless.” Abraham lived by promise, and promise is always oriented to the future. With Moses the religion of Israel becomes the story of exodus from slavery and oppression. And when the Israelites were wandering around in the wilderness, they looked forward in hope for the land of promise flowing with milk and honey.
The whole Old Testament is a book of hope. As the history of Israel moved forward, its hope got wider and wider, not hope only for itself, but hope for all the nations, and not only for the nations here and now, but for all things and the entire world. The widening of hope continued for Israel, not only for a better future in history on this side of death, but for a glorious future of history on the other side of death. There is more to hope for than milk and honey. And it was precisely this widening of hope for fulfillment beyond death that gave rise to the apocalyptic vision and promise of resurrection. Hope took a major leap forward from the Old Testament to the New Testament in the story of Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection is the Christian answer to the deeply embedded question of hope and to the forward- looking quest of Israel for a fulfillment of God’s promises to the patriarchs and prophets. As Paul stood before King Agrippa, he testified: “I stand here on trial for hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it
thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” This is a hope based on the solid foundation of what God did in raising Jesus from the dead, a sure and certain hope.
Resurrection or Immortality
We have already said a word about the contrast between the Jewish-Christian hope for resurrection of the body in contrast to the Greek-Hellenistic belief in the immortality of the soul. In this respect American religion is akin to the religion of the ancient Greeks. Most religious Americans profess that they believe that humans have souls and that the souls are immortal. The body dies, but not the soul. In the Bible there is no such dichotomy; instead, the dominant biblical picture involves a psychosomatic unity of body and soul. They are not two forms of existence that just happen to get mixed up with each other for a brief spell on earth, and when death comes, they separate. In the Greek Hellenistic view salvation is thought of as salvaging the soul from its dungeon in the body. For the Hebrews a person’s soul is in his flesh, in his eyes and ears, hands and feet, liver and heart, blood and breath, in short, in all his members and senses.
We Christians believe in the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul. God created us
humans as bodily creatures. So the body is good. The Genesis story of the fall is not about an immortal soul falling into a mortal body; it is about a whole person falling into sin and alienation from God, affecting and, indeed, infecting the whole of humanity. Paul said, “So all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) He also said, “You glorify God in your body.” In the early church there were people bringing the Hellenistic spirit into the church — they were called gnostics. They taught that the soul is homesick because it has descended into a material body. They believed we must struggle to get free of our flesh and this world of matter. The orthodox fathers answered that the body is good, not evil. And there is nothing the matter with matter, because God created it, and he doesn’t create junk.
The incarnation of the Son of God in a human body underscores the belief that the body is good. The body is therefore called by Paul “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” The Hellenistic philosopher Plotinus confessed that he was ashamed of having a body. Plotinus was a disciple of Plato who remarked, “the true philosopher is entirely concerned with the soul and not the body. He would like, as far as he can, to get away
from the body. . .to dissever the soul from communion of the body. … True philosophers despise the body.”
And now a bit of bad news. In spite of the triumph of Christian orthodoxy over the gnostic heresy, some of the gnostic spirit seeped into the thinking of many Christians, lay folks and clergy. I call this popular dualistic thinking about body and soul a gnostic hangover, whereby the soul is thought to be the noble part, the higher spiritual part, and the body the inferior side. When the early Christians preached the resurrection of the body in a Greek speaking world, the message was counter-cultural, and it seemed unbelievable. Would God appear in human flesh? The Gospel of John says yes, “The Word became flesh,” the Word who was very God of very God.
Because Jesus was resurrected, not as an immortal soul but as a spiritual body, there are many implications that follow. Paul said, believers are united with Christ in a new body alive with the Spirit. And this makes all the difference in how they live. Anything that competes with this new orientation of the body in unity with Christ is a sin — a sickness unto death — like having sex with a prostitute, or engaging in sexual
relations with a person of the same gender, or like eating meat in heathen temples. For such things make the body a partner of deeds that do not spring from the new life in Christ.
Proclaiming the Resurrection in the Eucharist
On another front, consider this, every time you come to the Table of the Lord, you hear these words, “This is my body.” We partake of the body of Christ in the sacrament of eating bread and drinking wine. It is the most important thing a believer can do at least every week. Martin Luther would have said, preferably every day, but modern Lutherans have become lazy. Once a week is felt to be enough. Hey, many Lutherans say, once a month is just about right. In Northfield, Minnesota, our congregation, St. John’s Lutheran, held a series of Sunday morning forums to discuss whether to go from two times a month to celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday. The pastor wanted to do it every Sunday, but he did not want the issue to split the congregation. In one of the forums he asked me to stand and give my opinion. The opposition staked its argument on the proposition that if we did it every Sunday, it would become routine and boring, something you just take for granted. So when I rose to my feet to address the issue, I asked a series of rhetorical questions: Should I give up having breakfast every morning because it is so routine? Should I give up brushing my teeth three times a day because it’s so boring? Should I give up sleeping with my wife every night, because it might become something we just take for granted? But, more importantly, consider this: there were no Christians in the early centuries who gathered for worship on the Lord’s Day without communing with Christ and with each other in sharing the meal of bread and wine. A lady stood up in a row behind me, after I sat down, quite beside herself and quivering with anger. She said, “All right, if we do it every Sunday, then you come and wash the communion cups. It’s a lot of work.” The congregation now has the Eucharist every Lord’s Day. And I would say, what is at stake in such a decision is whether or not we take seriously the greatest miracle that has ever happened, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It’s the most eloquent way, almost the only way, we can proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus until he returns in glory. Eating
and drinking are bodily events, and they are the most spiritual transactions in a believer’s life and in the common life of a whole people.
Belief in the resurrection of the body, on another ethical front, has everything to do with our political choices. We have dealt a bit with sex and liturgy, and now a word about politics. Is there such a thing as resurrection politics? In the early Corinthian church Paul accused the spiritual enthusiasts of not discerning the body. They were practicing a class distinction between the rich and the poor, between first-and second-class members in the communal body. The rich would eat first, and then the others. A negative attitude to the body leads to the breakdown of the social order. Bodily relationships have to do with food, water, shelter, clothes, and medicine, especially underscored by the one who said, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me?” (Math. 25:34-36) The seed of this concern for justice and mercy is respect for the body.
The resurrection of Jesus is the ground of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, in contrast to the gnostic belief in the immortality of the soul. Jesus was raised a spiritual body, a soma pneumatikos. This means the resurrection was not an event of Jesus coming back to life, like Lazarus. Lazarus was raised from the dead, but he had to die again. Jesus ascended into heaven in a spiritual body, never
to have to die again.
Although our resurrection belief is an object of faith, it is not an arbitrary belief without reason. The English New Testament theologian, N. T Wright, says that although the resurrection is not something we can prove by historical scholarship, yet the best historical explanation we have for the birth of the Christian church is that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Faith opens the eyes of reason. It is not irrational to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
True Christianity stands or falls with belief in the resurrection. David Griffin, a process theologian, offers his opinion that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is purely optional. He writes: “Christian faith is possible apart from belief in Jesus’ resurrection in particular and life beyond bodily death in general.” We have said that the resurrection is a defining belief, that Christianity without the resurrection is a different religion.
The resurrection of Jesus defines who God is. God is the one who raised Jesus from dead. If we let go of the God who gives life to the dead, we will meet only the God of wrath and we will be left in our sins. Lutherans like to say that the doctrine of justification by faith is the article by which the church stands or falls. That was Luther’s stand against Rome in the 16th century. But at that time no one doubted the resurrection. The article of justification would be groundless without the prior belief in the resurrection. It’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that puts money in the bank that God spends in declaring sinners to be righteous.
The incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus brought about a revolution in the definition of being human, because the body becomes an essential dimension of the human being. Souls don’t walk around and say, we are somebody. Souls don’t get married and have babies. Souls don’t eat and drink at the Lord’s Table. Souls don’t vote. We believe in the resurrection of the body, and not the immortality of the soul. Deeply embedded in the human heart is the longing for life beyond death. As Christians we believe God will raise us up as spiritual bodies to live in everlasting communion with Jesus and all the saints.
Without belief in the resurrection of Jesus the Christian church would never have been born. There would have been no mission to the gentiles. Some years ago an orthodox Jew wrote a book on the resurrection. His name was Pinchas Lapide. The title of his book is The Resurrection of Jesus, A Jewish Perspective. It is a marvelous little book. His thesis is shocking. After a critical examination of all the documentary evidences, he concludes in favor of the historical facticity of the resurrection of Jesus. He says, Jesus really did rise from the dead. In his own words, he says, “I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event.” But then comes the twist: that does not prove Jesus is the Messiah that all believing Jews were expecting. Jesus really did rise from the dead, yes, but does that prove he is the Messiah? No! Why not? Because when the Messiah comes, he will bring in the kingdom of God, and that will change everything. But, he says, look out the window, read the morning newspaper, nothing has changed. The world remains the same. Jewish rabbis of old never tired of saying, “if it is true that the Messiah of which our ancient prophets spoke has already come, how then do you explain the present state of the world?” But Lapide understands that the resurrection of Jesus is foundational for Christians. It is a core belief. But for faith in the resurrection of Jesus as a real historical occurrence, Christianity would never have left Jerusalem. As Lapide put it to a Bultmannian skeptic, “You, my dear friend, would today still be offering horse meat to Wotan on the Godesberg.”
The Jewish rabbis are right, the messianic kingdom that the prophets foretold has not arrived in the way they expected. The expectations were transformed by Jesus and his death on the cross. So, while Jews preached the kingdom of God, and Jesus, being a Jewish rabbi, also preached the kingdom of God, the apostles preached Jesus Christ. Our only viable Christian answer to the paradoxical position of Lapide is the apostolic one: the kingdom is present but hidden in the person of the Messiah Jesus and the good news of this event can be received only through faith. Meanwhile, we live as Christians between the times. The kingdom has come in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, the bringer of the kingdom. He is the King of the Kingdom. But the arrival of the final kingdom in all its fullness and glory to transfigure the world in a fundamental way — that has not yet happened. Thus the kingdom is split chronologically into an already and a not yet. What has already happened is only the first fruits — preliminary, provisional, proleptic. The fulfillment, the parousia, is still to come.
Our Easter celebration centers on the person of Jesus, on Christ the King, in spite of the fact that the kingdom of God in its fullness remains still outstanding, as long as the world is subject to so much pain and suffering, poverty and oppression, hunger and death. Without Easter we would be people without hope. Alfred Loisy, the French historian, said, “Jesus preached the kingdom of God, but what came was the church.” He meant it cynically. What a let-down! What a disappointment! The church doesn’t look much like the kingdom of God. But from a eucharistic perspective we can say: In spite of all the failures and scandals and shortcomings of the church down through the ages and around the world, in spite of the fact that the church is not the kingdom in its fullness, we do have the down payment of the kingdom in the body of Christ, the real presence of Christ in the Word and the Sacraments; we do have the Scriptures; we do have the memories of the saints and the martyrs who have given us their unforgettable witness to the transforming power of the Spirit in their lives, and we do have the baptismal gift of participation in the universal mission of the gospel to the ends of the earth and to the close of the age.