On the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ: Revelation, Christology, Anthropology and Eschatology

 

“…when we hear the Easter story or are reminded by a worship song that Jesus rose from the dead, our default way of interpreting the story is through a secular imagination. In that vision, the resurrection is a great spiritual truth, a tremendous inspiration, and maybe forensic evidence of Christ’s divinity. But it’s not the firstfruit of the redemption of the world, it’s not an event transcending but yet not denying the immanent, it is not a supernatural event, and it is especially not a reality with spiritual results reverberating even to today.”           ~ Alan Noble, ‘The Resurrection in a Secular World’[1]

 

“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”         ~ The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:13-17[2]                         

 

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes–I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”  ~  Job from the Old Testament in Job 19:25-27

 

Thorwald Lorenzen describes four approaches to the resurrection and key theologians who are said to espouse these views.[3] The four are: the ‘traditional’ (typified by Carl F. H. Henry and Wolfhart Pannenberg); the ‘liberal’ (Rudolf Bultmann, John Knox et al); the ‘evangelical’ (Karl Barth, Walter Künneth et al); and the ‘liberation’ (Jürgen Moltmann, Jon Sobrino). The traditional, evangelical and liberation approaches, while each having widely varying underscores, largely accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus. For the most part, a denial of the bodily resurrection comes from within the liberal approach. This non-bodily view of the resurrection combines elements of dualism, Docetism and demythologising.  In terms of dualism, man is sharply divided between the physical and spiritual where the physical is demeaned and the spiritual is elevated. We see this dualism present today as we speak about people who have died, our speech betrays the liberal and dualistic view that the body is merely something to be escaped and that ‘floating in the ethereal’ is freedom for our souls. In terms of Docetism (from the Greek δοκεῖν – to seem) it is asserted by the liberal theologians that Jesus only appeared to have had a physical body at his resurrection.  Lastly, in terms of demythologising: that a man could rise bodily from the dead  is noted as neither normal nor historically viable, and so the resurrection comes to rest, not on an actual physical rising of Christ but rather a rising of the Saviour in our hearts as experience. Here the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus has little to no impact, again a view mirrored by contemporary culture.  So, what would be lost by denying that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was bodily? It would not be overdramatic to answer: everything! To limit the discussion we will focus on four areas that a denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus adversely impacts, namely: the authority and witness of Scripture; the person and work of Jesus for our salvation; our understanding of humanity; and lastly, the final plans of God.

 

  1. Revelation: the authority and historical witness of Scripture

Our starting point must be in asserting that to deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection rejects the witness of Scripture, God’s Word to us by his Holy Spirit concerning his Son. The primary issue is the authority of Scripture as God’s Word to us, and included are elements regarding the historicity of the gospel accounts. [4] Regardless of a dismal by the liberals, Scripture continues to proclaim the bodily resurrection, most notably in three key areas: Jesus’ own words about his resurrection, the implication of the empty tomb, and lastly the bodily appearances of Jesus to witnesses after his resurrection.

So firstly, on multiple occasions Jesus predicted that he would be betrayed and killed, but that after three days he would rise again (cf. Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10: 32-34). That his rising from the dead was no mere symbolism can be seen in John 2 where Jesus answers the Jews’ questioning of his authority with the following in v. 19: ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ Verse 21 adds: ‘But the temple he had spoken of was his body.’ After his rising from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said, ‘then they believed the Scripture and the words Jesus had spoken’ (v. 22). To deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to deny the truthfulness of ‘the words Jesus ha[s] spoken’.

Secondly, the empty tomb implies a bodily resurrection.  The traditionalist Carl F. H. Henry is right to assert that ‘without the empty tomb any claim for Jesus’ resurrection was meaningless.’[5] Specifically in terms of a bodily resurrection, the tomb must be empty of a body. Mainstream apologetic works sufficiently show that other options for the unoccupied tomb hold very little weight and that the empty tombs best fits the biblical claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.[6] Traditionalists at this point overextend themselves by seeing fact demanding faith by sheer reason.[7] Nevertheless the empty tomb is of great significance, at least implying the bodily resurrection of Jesus.[8] This is especially the case when coupled with the angelic witness recorded in Scripture: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen!’ (Luke 24: 5-6). Opposite to the traditionalists stand the liberals who in attempting to demythologise the resurrection will assert, not that an actual event took place, but rather that an experiential rising of Jesus in our hearts takes place. However if that was the case, then there is no reason for an empty tomb, and one must be given! Against this stands Scripture’s reason for the empty tomb, namely that Jesus was not abandoned to the tomb, nor did his body see decay (Acts 2:31).

Thirdly, Jesus’ multiple appearances testify to his bodily resurrection. When the disciples claim to have seen the risen Lord,  Thomas states that unless he sees the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, and puts his finger where the nail marks were, and his hand into Jesus’ side – he would not believe (John 20: 25). Thomas’ subsequent cry of faith is unlikely to have been brought about by a Docetist apparition of Jesus, but rather by the risen Lord standing bodily in front of him, as per his earlier demands.[9] Paul, when reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that they had received, stresses the resurrection of Jesus from the dead ‘according to the Scriptures’ and that Jesus appeared to Peter, the twelve, and after over five hundred of the ‘brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living.’ (1 Cor 15: 1-6). Again, the emphasis is on the physical (i.e. bodily) appearances of Jesus before multiple witnesses. On this, surely even the most sceptical cannot believe that 500 people could all have been under the same extreme influence of the sun or narcotics at the same time to create some kind of visionary state – to purport that must surely carry its own concern of writing ‘under the influence’. Rudolf Bultmann says that ‘both the legend of the empty tomb and the appearances insist on the physical reality of the risen body of the Lord (see especially Luke 24. 39-43).’[10] Except for his inclusion of ‘legend’ which betrays his understanding that ‘these are most certainly later embellishments of the primitive tradition’,[11] his conclusion is correct, namely that the empty tomb and the appearances do ‘insist on the physical reality of the risen body of the Lord.’

The words of Jesus, the empty tomb, and appearances of Jesus all fit into the historical nature of the preserved Christian message, not quite to the extent that the traditional approach supposes, but the fact remains that the Christian message arises from actual historical events. To instead deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus rejects the authoritative witness of God’s own Word about the matter.

 

  1. Christology: the person and work of Jesus for our salvation

To deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection adversely alters the very salvific person and work of Jesus that Scripture attests to. This is especially in regards to his lordship over death, as well as his continued mediation and intercession as the ascended Lord.

Firstly, ‘Jesus is Lord’ remains a succinct summary of the gospel and his lordship is intrinsically linked to his resurrection from the dead – in him death is defeated. So Romans 1:4 ends with the gospel summary of ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’, and it is both his Davidic humanity, and his ushering in of the Resurrection age, shown by his resurrection from the dead as the Spirit led Son of God that makes that declaration possible. Acts 17 likewise sets out Jesus’ lordship (here in judgment) as linked to his resurrection (v. 31). [12] To deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to maintain that Jesus is not Lord over death and that death has not been defeated.  It cannot be said as per 1 Cor 15:54, that ‘death has been swallowed up in victory’, for as N.T. Wright asserts, a non-bodily resurrection means that ‘death still rules – since that is a description not of the defeat of death but simply of death itself.’[13] For Jesus to have not been risen bodily is to allow death to have done its job. Instead, the bodily resurrection, ‘to be clad in the incorruptible garment of deathlessness’, is to declare that Jesus is Lord, even over death, the great enemy of humanity.[14]

Secondly, a denial of the bodily resurrection adversely impacts the continued incarnation of Jesus in the accession, notably in regards to his mediatorial intercession for us. The incarnation is God working to save man, God coming in the flesh to save us from our sins (Matt 1: 21, 23) and to destroy man’s enemies of satan and death (Heb 2: 14-17). Jesus, fully God and fully man is the perfect mediator, who even now is seated at the right hand of God (Heb 1:3, 1 Peter 3:22) interceding (Heb 7:23-25) for those he died to save. Gerrit Scott Dawson asserts that Jesus retaining his humanity ‘is essential for our salvation’:[15]

‘For any view of the ascension as Jesus slipping off his humanity is a sentence of condemnation. We cannot be united to him in the Holy Spirit if he is no longer flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. If the one who sits at the right hand of God is not fully human as well as fully God, then we will never enter within the veil.’[16]

Similarly Paul Molnar encapsulates T. F. Torrance’s assessment when he says:

‘In the incarnation we have the meeting of man and God in man’s place, but in the ascension we have the meeting of man and God in God’s place, but through the Spirit these are not separated from one another.’[17]

Just as a Jesus whose resurrection was not bodily is not Lord over death, neither can the ascended Jesus truly be the ‘man’ of 1 Tim 2:5 who sufficiently mediates and continues to intercede between God and man if he did not rise bodily. Salvation is thus brought into question.

 

  1. Anthropology: understanding our humanity

To deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection likewise impacts a number of issues regarding us and our humanity. In particular it misconstrues the nature of humanity, the hope of our resurrection bodies, as well as the implications of the bodily resurrection for life now.

Firstly, in regards to the nature of humanity, the bible shows that from the beginning, humanity before sin was created as physical beings – Adam was of the ‘dust of the ground’ and a ‘living being’ (Gen 2:7). In other words there is a physicality that forms part of what it means to be human. Dualists tend to make a sharp distinction between the flesh and spirit/soul, with a depreciating of the physical. Dr. Claudia Setzer maintains that the ‘earliest Jewish anthropology sees a distinction between body and soul as a soft distinction only.’ [18] The two aspects function as a unit,[19] there is no absolute dualism.[20] Hellenistic dualism has had too much of an impact: there is more to man than just being a physical creature, but the majority of these factors flow out of the uniqueness of our relationship to the God who created us in his image, something that the other creatures cannot lay claim to. Having failed to carry out what we were created for, in order to redeem humanity, Jesus entered into our humanity as a man. He lived, suffered and died in the body, and then rose bodily as a man. To deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to misunderstand the nature of man and Jesus’ interest in redeeming physical humanity.

Secondly, part of the Christian hope is for ‘the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom 8:23). Again, this is tied to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. We await his return when he will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Phil 3:21). The key text in regard to our resurrection bodies is 1 Cor 15. ‘But,’ some might say, ‘the text is clear: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (v. 50) and our resurrection bodies will be spiritual rather than natural (v. 44).’  The problem with our bodies is that they are naturally, as a result of sin, perishing. This natural and sinful ‘flesh and blood’ is ill-suited to inherit a kingdom that is everlasting. What is needed is a spiritual body. However, contra a dualist demeaning of the physical, these bodies are physical. Two points help clarify the confusion over the use of the word ‘spiritual’. Firstly, as T. F. Torrance says so succinctly: ‘To be a spiritual man is to be not less than man but more fully and truly man.’[21] Thus it is not less than what we have, it is more – at the very least non-sinful and hence not prone to perishability.  Secondly, spiritual should be related to the supernatural act of the life giving Spirit of God at work – this being the same Spirit who raised Christ Jesus from the dead and who gives life to our mortal bodies (Rom 8:11). Language has its limits, as does the amount of detailed knowledge we have of the future. However when it comes to our resurrection bodies, as with Jesus’ body, there will be an amount of continuity (remaining our bodies!) but also discontinuity (being more than we know). The tension must remain between this sense of continuity and discontinuity that Scripture gives us. They will be physical bodies, albeit glorious!

Lastly, for those saved through faith in the Lord Jesus who was resurrected (Rom 10:9), his bodily resurrection means a hope-fuelled living and complete reorientation of life in the moral body now. A non-bodily resurrection destroys this New Testament emphasis on a new life in the body now (Rom 6:4), lived for God our Saviour in the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies (Rom 6:12), we are not to offer our bodies to sin but instead to God (v. 13), and we are to especially flee sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18) – because what is done in the body redeemed by God and indwelt by the Holy Spirit matters. Jürgen Moltmann, espousing the liberation approach, stresses that a life lived through faith in the bodily resurrected Jesus will impact to the point of the ‘realization of the eschatological hope of justice, the humanizing of man, the socializing of humanity, peace for all creation.’[22] The dangers of a type of ‘heaven on earth’ mentality via Moltmann are plain, nevertheless the NT is crystal clear that the bodily resurrection of Jesus shows a complete reorientation of man as a whole where we use our bodies, not for sin, but instead for God our Saviour and for the good of others. To deny the bodily resurrection jettisons the redemption of physical man in Jesus, the hope of resurrection bodies, and the directive for godly living now in this new life that we have been given.

 

  1. Eschatology: the final plans of God

Finally, to deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection is to reject the cosmic and ultimate plans of God. The anchor for these plans is Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and to deny that is to lose the magnificent scope and physicality of what God is doing. From the onset, God is revealed as the creator. What God creates is physical and good. Salvation itself is a work of creation (or recreation, παλιγγενεσία – cf. Titus 3:5), again by the very Spirit of God, where those alienated from God and thus dead, are made alive. Through faith in the risen Jesus, men and women become new creations reborn to know God (2 Cor 5:17). However this process of transformation does not stop with humanity. It begins in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and flows to us as the church. But we are in Christ, the first-fruits of what is to come because this transformation likewise encompasses the whole of creation. The culmination of God’s salvation plans, based on Jesus’ bodily resurrection, is where those made alive in Christ will be given new bodies to live with God as their God in the transformed creation to serve him as originally intended. This cosmic dimension is rejected if the Jesus’ bodily resurrection is rejected.

Colossians shows the centrality of the resurrected Jesus to God’s cosmic plans where 1: 15-20 portrays the move from creation (vv. 15-17) to a reconciliation of all things (vv. 18-20) – creation to new creation. Jesus stands as Lord over the original creation – it is both by and for Jesus that all things are created (v. 16). There appears to be a very real way in which Jesus is committed to what he has created and what was made for him. Thus the shift in vv. 18-20 portrays reconciliation enacted by and in Jesus. It is his blood shed which brings all things together again: us (v. 22) but also all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven (v. 20).  Jesus through his resurrection, the firstborn from among the dead, is Lord (v. 18) of this grand movement of reconciliation. The church, those being made alive to God through Jesus, is evidence of God’s work of renewal with the end design of transforming this fallen world. This is why in the meantime creation is said to be groaning as it waits for the day when it will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:21-22). It is not safe to speculate regarding the exact specifics of the new creation. However similar to our bodies, there appear to be elements of both continuity and discontinuity. What is clear is that, as with our bodies, creation will be transformed in such a way that it fits, fulfilling God’s purposes. What are those purposes? Right now the bodily resurrected Jesus sits in heaven, ‘where he must remain until the time comes for God to restore all things’ (Acts 3:21). But when he returns, history as we know it will come to an end and those found in Christ will be endowed with glorified bodies to live with their glorious Lord in the glorious new creation. To deny the bodily resurrection denies this reality which God stands behind.

 

Jesus’ bodily resurrection points to the fact that we are living in the last days – days of salvation as well as of judgment. Scripture is clear that the only hope for mankind is to trust in the risen Jesus who rose bodily from the dead after dying in our place. But,

‘[i]f Christ is risen only in spirit – whatever that means then he is, so to speak, only a ghost with no relevance to men and women of flesh and blood, to human beings who belong to this world of space and time. If Jesus exists no longer as man, then we have little hope in this life, not to speak of the hereafter. It is the risen humanity of Christ that is the very centre of the Christian’s hope in life and death’ [23]

It is not too much to say that everything is affected if the bodily resurrection is denied. Scripture, God’s revelation to us, is no longer given its proper place of authority over us as a record and witness to reality. Jesus is not the Lord who can save us or intercede for us – the proposed replacement Christology is anaemic to the core. In terms of anthropology, the very nature of what it means to be human, the hope of resurrection bodies and what life should look like now are lost. Finally, God’s cosmic eschatological plans cable-tied to the bodily resurrected Jesus, where redeemed man in resurrection bodies like their Lord will serve God in the new creation – even these are destroyed. Against a denial of Jesus’ bodily resurrection it must be asserted that:

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again His body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherefore He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until He returns to judge all men at the last day.[24]

******************************

[1] Alan Noble, The Resurrection in a Secular World in “The Resurrection” March/April 2016 Vol. 25 No. 2 Page number(s): 36-45. For the full article please visit “Modern Reformation” here.

[2] All Scripture taken from the NIV (1984)

[3] Thorwald Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections, Theological Consequences (New York: Orbis Books, 1995).

[4] Sir Lloyd Geering, a liberal New Zealand theologian, provides a clear example of the dismissal of both as archaic with the first part of one of his books entitled ‘The collapse of an old tradition’ in Lloyd Geering, Resurrection : A Symbol of Hope (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971). See for instance pp. 20–42.

[5] Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (vol. 3; Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1976), 149.

[6] For instance, Josh McDowell, Evidence that demands a verdict : Historical evidences for the Christian faith (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1972).

[7] ‘If by rational inquiry it can be proved that Jesus rose from the dead, then no faith is needed to confess that Jesus is risen.’ Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship, 29. Martin Davie notes ‘three unfortunate consequences’ from failing to recognise the necessity of God given faith over simple reason: Faith becomes a work; Faith becomes dependent on historical proof and thus uncertain; Faith is closed off from those lacking intellectual ability (in The Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Theology of Karl Barth (Peter M Head, ed., Proclaiming the resurrection: Papers from the first Oak Hill College Annual School of Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998), 126.)

[8] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Abridged in One Volume (ed. John Bolt; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), 456.

[9] Cf. John 20:20 (showed hands and feet); Luke 24:43 (eats food).

[10] Italics mine. Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in:  Hans Werner Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (trans. Reginald H. Fuller; vol. 1; S.P.C.K., 1962), 39.

[11] Ibid; cf. Peter Frederick Carnley, The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 234–49.

[12] N. T. Wright dismisses any claims that a bodily resurrection is not implied in ‘resurrection’ and ‘resurrection from the dead’.  Wright in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008) shows that within the worlds of both ancient paganism and Judaism ‘[r]esurrection was used to denote new bodily resurrection’,  ‘[r]esurrection meant bodies.’ (p. 36). The importance in this is to understand that when the NT speaks of the ‘resurrection’ or ‘resurrection from the dead’, what is meant is a bodily resurrection.

[13] Wright, Surprised by Hope, 15. Cf. p. 194.

[14] Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 83. Cf. Acts 2:31.

[15] Gerrit Dawson, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 73.

[16] Dawson, Jesus Ascended, 6.

[17] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity (Farnham, England: Burlington, VT : Ashgate Pub. Ltd., 2009), 252.

[18] Claudia Setzer, Resurrection of the Body in early Judaism and early Christianity : Doctrine, Community, and Self-definition (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004), 151.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Setzer, Resurrection of the Body in early Judaism and early Christianity, 152.

[21] Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, 141.

[22] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (London: SCM, 1967), 329.

[23] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990), 22.

[24] The Thirty-Nine Articles, 4.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s