Sunday 12 April 2009

Easter: the Real Deal

There is no such thng as “Resurrection Lite.” It’s all or nothing. Be not fobbed off by anything less than the whole nine yards. I was impressed by a straightforward, historically founded, and challenging Easter piece in the Times by Tom Wright. He suggests that the simple truth is far more a resource than the pygmy, patronising versions we have sometimes contented outselves with in the past 150 years, scaled down to our own expectations, comfort zones, and sentimental ideas of probability.

“Resurrection” to 1st-century Jews wasn't about “going to Heaven”: it was about the physically dead being physically alive again. Some Jews (not all) believed that God would do this for all people in the end. Nobody, including Jesus's followers, was expecting one person to be bodily raised from the dead in the middle of history. The stories of the Resurrection are certainly not “wish-fulfilments” or the result of what dodgy social science calls “cognitive dissonance”. First-century Jews who followed would-be messiahs knew that if your leader got killed by the authorities, it meant you had backed the wrong man. You then had a choice: give up the revolution or get yourself a new leader. Going around saying that he'd been raised from the dead wasn't an option.

Unless he had been. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly dead by the Friday evening; Roman soldiers were professional killers and wouldn't have allowed a not-quite-dead rebel leader to stay that way for long. When the first Christians told the story of what happened next, they were not saying: “I think he's still with us in a spiritual sense” or “I think he's gone to heaven”. All these have been suggested by people who have lost their historical and theological nerve.

The historian must explain why Christianity got going in the first place, why it hailed Jesus as Messiah despite His execution (He hadn't defeated the pagans, or rebuilt the Temple, or brought justice and peace to the world, all of which a Messiah should have done), and why the early Christian movement took the shape that it did. The only explanation that will fit the evidence is the one the early Christians insisted upon - He really had been raised from the dead. His body was not just reanimated. It was transformed, so that it was no longer subject to sickness and death.

Let's be clear: the stories are not about someone coming back into the present mode of life. They are about someone going on into a new sort of existence, still emphatically bodily, if anything, more so. When St Paul speaks of a “spiritual” resurrection body, he doesn't mean “non-material”, like a ghost. “Spiritual” is the sort of Greek word that tells you,not what something is made of, but what is animating it. The risen Jesus had a physical body animated by God's life-giving Spirit. Yes, says St Paul, that same Spirit is at work in us, and will have the same effect - and in the whole world.

....The split between God and the “real” world has produced a public life that lurches between anarchy and tyranny, and an aesthetic that swings dramatically between sentimentalism and brutalism. But we still want to do things our own way, even though we laugh at politicians who claim to be saving the world, and artists who claim “inspiration” when they put cows in formaldehyde.

The world wants to hush up the real meaning of Easter. Death is the final weapon of the tyrant or, for that matter, the anarchist, and resurrection indicates that this weapon doesn't have the last word. When the Church begins to work with Easter energy on the twin tasks of justice and beauty, we may find that it can face down the sneers of sceptics, and speak once more of Jesus in a way that will be heard.


Steven Carr said...

I had a debate on the Resurrection yesterday at Premier Christian Radio

Basically, Paul knew perfectly well what happened to corpses. They were destroyed.

The Christian converts he was writing to also knew what happened to corpses. They believed Jesus was still alive, but were openly scoffing at the idea of their god choosing to raise corpses.

But you can hear Canon Michael Cole on the resurrection debate try to show there was a resurrection.

And there is nothing in 'The Resurrection of the Son of God' for sceptics to worry about.....

Steven Carr said...

Nobody, including Jesus's followers, was expecting one person to be bodily raised from the dead in the middle of history.

After all, they had only allegedly seen Moses return bodily from the grave, never to die again...

Tony Sidaway said...

The gospels at least present the post-resurrection Jesus as a physical being who could be touched.

But supposing literal bodily resurrection, there is a problem with a literal interpretation of the Ascension account in Acts, though. The account in Mark 16 is vague but Acts 1:9 is specific enough. He's taken up and a cloud receives him (King James version: "And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.")

Where did his physical body go?

The men in white of Acts 10-12 tell the apostles that Jesus "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven."

This seems to suppose a naive view of the world, in which "heaven" is equated with the sky.

I think this embodies the ongoing confusion in Christian doctrine about physical resurrection and the more spiritual notions of God. There is considerable doubt as to where the metaphors cease and the physical reality takes over. While these are questions that can be resolved by reasoning and deciding between likely interpretations, their answers are not in the bible.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Tony, thanks for your comment. There is a fascinating subtlety about the resurrection appearances — Jesus is not a ghost, but passes through doors. What really doesn't fit in any first century Palestinian context is dualism between physical/ non physical. There are fascinating strands in "jewish" thought, but the basic deal is that Naphesh animates bassar; not setting one against the other as in some Gentile philosophies. The cross fertilizaions induced by the spread of Early Christianity further complicated matters.

The effect of the Resurrection as experience can be clearly measured historically. Resurrection as dogma, however, is explosive but unfinished business, interpreting experience. New and creative work is still going on (e.g. Zizoulas/ Martelet). Interpretations have to account for this continuous creativity locked up in resurrection, as well as positing and analysing some notional mental doctrine.

Steven, tell us a bit more about Moses. It's a while since I went to Nebi Musa, but I haven't heard of the tradition to which you refer; and am not sure why it's relevant. What they didn't have that we have been increasingly imprisoned by since the 16th century is a standardizing scientism about knowledge and what could be — they just took what happened as it came.

To work this stuff out you have to decide and distinguish what your operating anthropology makes of concepts like physicality / corporeality/ materiality. They are not simply the same thing.

Steven Carr said...

Moses and Elijah allegedly appeared at the Transfiguration.

Moses was dead.

So how did he appear at the Transfiguration unless he was raised from the grave?

Wright just does not discuss this in his Resurrection book.

In Acts , Philip disappears from the sight of the eunuch, is caught up and reappears on the road to Azotus.

Can a physical body do that?

The Gospel of Luke alleges that the disciples believed the resurrected body of Jesus was made of a material that by its nature could pass through doors.

The Jesus in Luke's Gospel takes pains to show that this is not true, by having them examine the body to show that it was solid.

Jesus entered the room, not because his body was now made of a material that could pass through walls by is nature, but because a supernatural miracle had happened.

The proof being the way Jesus had the disciples examine the body to see that it was still made of the flesh and bone they were familiar with.

A magician does exactly the same thing to rpove he has worked magic when he has the audience examine the steel rings he has just made pass through each other.

The magician 'proves' that magic has occurred in the same way Jesus dispelled the disciples mistaken belief that the resurrected body of Jesus was made of a material that could pass through walls.

NT Wright shares the disciples mistaken belief that a resurrected body is made of a material that can pass through walls by its nature.

Mistaken according to Luke's Gospel, of course.

Paul has no problem with the idea that the second Adam 'became a life-giving spirit'

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Aha! I've never heard this way of treating this material before. If you apply a crude single materialist hermeneutic to the text, then stack everything up against everything else in such a way as to make them contradict each other, surprise surprise, they contradict each other. But it's all in your mind, mate. For the rest of the human race, Material, physical and corporeal dimensions of life have their own ontological consequences, rather than a single crude meaning. That's the basis of poetry, art, mysticism, all kinds of basic human experience. If you discount the lot, that's where you end up. Without wanting to encourage you further down this absurd track, you could also prove this way that all Christians believe in flying pigs because when St Peter went to sleep on the roof in Joppa a sailcloth came down containing a pork pie.

Your conclusions are entirely implicit in your ludicrous premises; which is why pretty much nobody else has ever given the serious attention you do to either...

Steven Carr said...

'Ludicrous' , 'absurd'?

I guess ridicule is now being substituted for argument by the Church of England.

This is why sceptics have nothing to fear from the arguments of Christians.

That is why I could go on Premier Christian Radio and wipe the floor with Canon Michael Cole, using closely argued logic, based on primary sources, historical principles and sound reasoning.

And I never had occasion to resort to ridiculing my debating partner....

Steven Carr said...

'Without wanting to encourage you further down this absurd track, you could also prove this way that all Christians believe in flying pigs because when St Peter went to sleep on the roof in Joppa a sailcloth came down containing a pork pie.'

You mean Peter had visions of things that were not actually there?

Gosh! I wonder if he saw a resurrected Jesus, and Jesus was not actually there.

When Peter was invited to eat some of this unclean food, why did he not decline the invitation on the grounds that the food was not really there?

I would have pointed out that I could not eat food that did not exist.

But I know the difference between reality and appearance, which the New Testament itself, and Bishop Alan also, claim was not something Peter could do.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Reality is much more complex, but also subtle, than your simple fantasy world view allows.

But I suspect this particular orange is now well and truly sucked dry.

Steven Carr said...


You mean, it is not a fantasy that Moses rose bodily from the dead, appeared to the disciples, who still, a la Wright, had no conception that people could return from the dead?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Steven, dear bloke, of course what you have suggested is a fantasy. It is, in fact, your personal fantasy. You are indeed the only person in 2,000 years to suggest such a thing was either possible or necessary. If I wished to perpetuate this silly interlocution further, I would ask the key critical question "What about Elijah?" But I won't, because this particular seam of idiocy is now well and truly mined to death. Nobody else is interested in it — not even me!

Galactor said...

"That's the basis of poetry, art, mysticism, all kinds of basic human experience"

It reminds me of those tests where you have to guess which word doesn't belong in a given series: giraffe, lion, zebra, football. Poetry, art, human experience ...

"crude single materialist hermeneutic"

Not just a single materialist hermeneutic but a *crude* one at that. Perhaps if we applied a sophisticated single materialist hermeneutic, we could get to the bottom of the resurrection to everyone's satisfaction.

"But it's all in your mind, mate"

No truer a word spoken. No doubt the resurrection can find its reality when Christians are capable of bending reality to encompass it.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

The reality of the Resurrection has claimed and inspired all sorts of surprising people throughout the past two thousand years, and continues to do so. That ongoing experience of Christ makes it far more than the kind of intellectual puzzle it could otherwise be taken for.

Count Otto said...

"The reality of the Resurrection has claimed and inspired all sorts of surprising people throughout the past two thousand years, and continues to do so."

A claim that can also be made by the Quran, Upanishads and the Tao Te Ching to name but three. The fact that people find these things inspiring says nothing of their truth content.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

None of these other texts assert the Christian experience of resurrection.

Count Otto said...

"None of these other texts assert the Christian experience of resurrection."

No, but they all make implausible claims believed by millions on the most meagre evidence.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Lumping everything together and ignoring particularity just makes it look as though you don't understand any of the stuff that you sneer at so loudly out of your ignorance.

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