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A redundant resurrection?
by Graeme J. Davidson,
13 February 2002

There may be no necessity for Jesus' resurrection as other aspects of Jesus and the disciples' lives cover the theological relevance of the resurrection. Yet the events of Easter Sunday do help reinforce the gospel message.

Were the events of Easter Sunday necessary?
For this discussion the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is not the issue. It is accepted as an historical event. The question raised is whether anything of unique theological significance occurred on Easter Sunday that isn't covered by other events described in the New Testament, especially Good Friday. It will be argued that there may be no necessity for Jesus' resurrection as other aspects of Jesus and the disciples' lives cover the theological relevance of the resurrection. Yet the events of Easter Sunday do help reinforce the gospel message.

Why the resurrection is redundant
The New Covenant with its new relationship with God for all who seek forgiveness of sin through faith was 'signed' into effect and validated at the crucifixion through God's sacrifice of his son's body and an offering for sin (see the Letter to the Hebrews) and his blood (through which the New Covenant is sealed). Because the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost and has remained with the Church ever since, we are assured of the Holy Spirit's presence. And as we do not rise from the grave in the same physical manner or in the kind of timeframe that Jesus did, then, unless any other reason can be given for why the resurrection occurred, the resurrection could be superfluous. It may serve as a dramatic parable or metaphor for how we die to sin and can live a new life with God, but this is implicit in the events of Good Friday.

Theological claims for the resurrection and rebuttals

Claim 1
The resurrection validates the nature of the sacrifice needed to bring in the New Covenant. Without the resurrection, Jesus could have been anyone making claims about himself and his mission. It is the ultimate confirmation of Jesus' claim to be 'one with the Father' — the Word incarnate that came to dwell among us — as only God has the power to raise people from the dead. Apart from the heavenly assumption of Moses and Elijah (whom the gospels report appeared with Jesus at the Transfiguration), it is a unique event and substantive proof of the divine nature of Jesus and of his ability to intercede with God on our behalf.

It was not the resurrection but God's sacrifice of himself on the cross that instigates the New Covenant of the forgiveness of sins (see Jeremiah 31-33ff). God has offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice to free us from our obsession with sin and estrangement from God. We are assured of our redemption by the grace of God's boundless love despite our continual human failings. The gospels tell us that Jesus chided the disbelieving Jews for not accepting what he taught about his relationship with the Father and implored them to believe because of the works that he did among them. These comments could also apply to us through our experience of how others are transformed through the advent of the New Covenant and the reconciling love that brings to their lives. In this sense Jesus' death acts to 'intercede' for us with God for it is through his sacrifice that we are able to come into a reconciling relationship with God.

Claim 2
The empty tomb and reappearance of Jesus reassured the disciples, especially Doubting Thomas, and turned their grief into triumph. Without this triumph they would not have had the impetus to continue with the gospel mission or may have idolatrously worshiped at the tomb where his body was laid.

The triumph of the enpowerment of the infant Church at Pentecost and the actions of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost overshadow the resurrection, raising the question of why the resurrection. Even after the resurrection the disciples feared reprisals because of their association with Jesus. It was the experience of Pentecost that changed that.

St. Paul found when he addressed the Athenians, many who would otherwise have embraced Christianity found the concept of Jesus' physical resurrection a stumbling block to belief. They considered they had been asked to swallow the proverbial intellectual camel. The ultimate proof of God's having come among us is not the empty tomb but the way in which followers ever since the crucifixion experience the effectiveness of the New Covenant through his forgiving love. That is the triumph of Jesus' death and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

With or without Jesus' body, there was and still is the potential for the idolatry of Christian relics — including the possible site of the empty tomb.

Claim 3
Jesus' resurrection is the archetype of our own resurrection. In the same way in which Jesus rose from the dead to be with the Father, we are assured of how we can in some way survive our physical death to be with him. Jesus said that he was the resurrection and the life and if someone dies they will have life if they have faith in him. It is the evidence of God's continual love for us and our own immortality. St Paul emphasises this when he affirms that nothing, including death, separates us from the love of God. He also maintains that if Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is in vain as his rising from the dead robs the grave of its victory and affirms our hope of meeting God face to face in all his glory.

If we survive our own deaths, we do not do so in the same manner of Jesus. Even, Lazarus, who was dead four days and caused a stench, was resurrected by Jesus to die again. The gospels describe how Jesus survived his death and entombment in the same physical form in which he died — complete with the recent wounds of his crucifixion. His tomb was empty whereas our tombs and cremated bodies degenerate into dust and ashes.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, St. Paul argues that we receive new bodies when we die. This emphasises that we do not rise from the dead as Jesus did. It also raises serious logical difficulties as to how we can maintain our personal identities if we do not exist in something akin to our present form. Even if the contentious notion of an immortal soul is accepted, the flight of the soul (our spiritual 'essence') from our bodies at the moment of death is an incomplete resurrection when compared with that of Jesus. His resurrection was of the complete person — body and soul.

Another form of Christian belief in life after death, is of our bodily resurrection and accountability to God at a future cataclysmic Armageddon. This view is supported by biblical warnings of an Armageddon, the resurrection on the 'last day', the parable in Matthew's Gospel of the separation between the righteous sheep and unrighteous goats, and the disciples' expectation of Jesus' eminent return after his ascension (parousia).

This raises questions of how, why and when the Armageddon will happen and why the Disciples were mistaken in their expectation of Jesus' imminent eschatological return. It is possible that the parousia happened at Pentecost and that the Armageddon was the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD. Whatever the explanation, it is logically conceivable that we could be resurrected in bodily form at a future time. Yet it is difficult to see how this relates to Jesus' resurrection and divine judgment as he did not divide people into the righteous or non-righteous after his resurrection. When Jesus said that he was the resurrection and the life before resuscitating the dead Lazarus, he was referring to how he was offering a new relationship and life with God and the resurrection of Lazarus demonstrates that he has the power to bring about that new relationship.

It is often claimed that if the resurrection isn't a pointer to our own post-physical life with God, or of divine justice in the after life, then there is no future hope and Christianity loses its appeal. This is a question of Christian motivation and this should be for the love of God and a desire to do his will, rather than looking towards a life after death or of accruing bonus rewards for that future state of existence.

Claim 4
The resurrection is the definitive metaphor of how our sins are dead and buried with Jesus' death and burial. As God resurrected Jesus to a new life we too are redeemed and 'resurrected' to a new life in God. Jesus' dying and rising from the dead is an essential paradigm for our own relationship with God. It is analogous to the experience we can have of dying to the old life of sin and rising to a new life of love with God. According to St. Paul, our sins are dead and buried with Christ and through him we are raised to a new life of faith.

Wiping the whiteboard clean and starting a new life with God through his grace is portrayed in many ways throughout the New Testament: John's baptising the repentant as a sign of God's washing away their sins, Jesus' comment to Nicodemus about being born again in the spirit, the parable of the Prodigal Son and Jesus' association with and parables and miracles aimed at giving new life and hope to the recognised 'sinners' of the time, such as the blind, lame and those of ill repute. Jesus' death during Passover, which celebrates the Jews escape from bondage and death in Egypt to return to a better life in the Promised Land, is also a powerful symbol of how Jesus' sacrifice on the cross enables all who have faith to escape from the bondage of sin and have a free and better relationship with God.

Claim 5
The Godhead would be incomplete and imperfect if one person of the Trinity was left in a tomb in Palestine. Jesus needed to be raised from the dead so that he could 'ascend' to the 'right hand' of the Father and then 'descend' in the form of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to inspire and direct his Church. Jesus also needed the time between the resurrection and Pentecost to issue instructions to the disciples.

Jesus' mission was complete when he uttered, 'It is finished', and gave his 'spirit' to God on the cross. Most of Jesus' instructions are given prior to his death and there are few instructions after the resurrection that are not a reiteration of his earlier teachings. The uncertain infant Church receives its strength and revitalisation through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. A resurrection and ascension are not necessary for the Holy Spirit to descend. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism before there was any prior ascension. The same could have equally been the case at Pentecost.

Jesus warned his bewildered disciples of his upcoming death and resurrection. If he had remained in the tomb, his credibility would have been impaired. But this begs the question of why the resurrection was needed — especially as Jesus alludes to how those who do not listen are unlikely to be convinced if someone were to rise from the dead.

The theological import of the New Covenant is repeatedly emphasised through Jesus' life and works. Old Testament expectations are fulfilled — the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. The parables and miracles all point to the gospel message of the New Covenant — salvation through God's forgiving love. The dramatic events of the resurrection are a further reinforcement of this gospel message.

What is it that preachers say on Easter Sunday that they couldn't have said about the events of Good Friday? The answer is that they are offering much the same sermon, only with more enthusiasm and joy.

Easter is about salvation and that can be explained without reference to a resurrected Jesus. The Letter to the Hebrews, for example, discusses the theological implications of Jesus' death, but not his resurrection. However, the resurrection does provide another metaphor of our rising to a new life in God and in that way the Easter Lily becomes a gilded lily.



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