I have been talking a lot about the resurrection of Jesus in the past few weeks, including that the resurrection is a fact of history, not myth. The Gospels recount the resurrection; the apostles preached and wrote about the resurrection. But what do the Gospels and the apostles mean by “resurrection?”
I am exploring this topic in this manner:
- The negative definitions of resurrection – what it is not.
- Paul’s admonitions to the church in Corinth about the main meaning of Jesus’ resurrection,
- Paul’s explanation to the Corinthian church of the nature of resurrection.
A resuscitation is when the very same body that died is made to come alive again. Compare the resurrection of Jesus with the resuscitation of Lazarus in John 11. There, Jesus stood at the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb, wherein Lazarus has lain for four days. Jesus commanded, “Lazarus, come forth!”
The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go” (vv. 43-44).
That is what a resuscitated corpse was like. Compare to the Easter story:
- Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb on Friday but on Sunday the tomb was empty. The grave wrappings they had put on Jesus’ body were still in the tomb.
- Shortly, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus. He had been transformed from a broken, bloody, ravaged and shattered corpse into glorified Risen Lord. Yet she did recognize him, though it took some prompting on his part.
- The women had no idea what happened to the body. To this day we still cannot explain what happened to the corpse. Jesus was raised bodily from death, but it seems that the same fleshly body that went into the tomb was not the very same body of the risen Lord.
- When Mary talked with the risen Lord, she knew he was still Jesus. His identity continued from his life into his resurrection. But the embodiment of his resurrection, the Christ, was not the same as his embodiment as Jesus.
- In fact, it is not obvious why the tomb was opened. Was it to let Jesus out? The risen Jesus didn’t have any problem entering locked and shuttered rooms where the disciples had gathered. It’s just as likely that the tomb was opened to let the women and Peter and John in so they could confirm that death had no hold on him.
So resurrection is not simply the reanimation of a lifeless body. What happens to our earthly body seems to be unimportant. It would seem that identity, but not materiality carries over from this life to the resurrected life, but that is not easily grasped, as even Paul saw.
Jesus’ resurrection was not “life after death” as we conceive of it today.
Probably most Protestants in America think that at the moment of death, the soul leaves the body and immediately goes to heaven. This idea of “life after death” is a fairly recent development in Christian history. Martin Luther, for example, said (I think correctly, by the way) that such belief is not much supported by Scripture. Jesus was not resurrected as a disembodied soul. The risen Christ was still embodied, though not embodied in the same way that Jesus was embodied as a human being.
So: resurrection is not resuscitation of a corpse. Resurrection is not the liberation of the soul from the body but a different form of embodiment. Resurrection is, however, a continuation of personal identity.
Paul and the main meaning of Jesus resurrection
The earliest written reference to Jesus' resurrection occurs in the first letter of Paul to the church at Corinth, probably written about AD 54, only twenty or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus. In this letter, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the resurrection of Jesus had numerous witnesses, many of whom "are still alive," and he insists strongly that resurrection is the central doctrine of Christian faith. Here is a key passage:
1 Cor 15:12-2012 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 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.
16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
The problem Paul is addressing is that the Corinthian Christians did believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But they stopped there. To Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is not important in and of itself, all by itself. That Jesus was resurrected is important because his resurrection was the precursor of what God has promised for all of us.
“…if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
To Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is inseparable from the promised resurrection of all the dead when God rings down the curtain on human history. That’s why Paul called Jesus resurrection the “first fruits” of all those who have died. The resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all the dead are all the one and same event with an intermission between them.
So Paul understood that Jesus’ resurrection was proof positive that the promises of God are true and can be counted on. In fact, you can bet your life on them. As Paul put it in his second letter to that church, all the promises of God are answered “yes” in Christ.
That’s why Paul rebuts the idea that a Christian can sensibly affirm on the one hand that Jesus was raised and yet fail to affirm on the other that we will all be raised. It would be like saying that the Titans are a pro football team but there is no such thing as the NFL, or, “I drive a Chevrolet, but there is no such thing as General Motors.”
The significance of Jesus’ resurrection to Paul may be summarized thus:
- It confirms that “in Jesus dwelt the Godhead bodily,” co-identifying Jesus with God.
- It confirms that Jesus is an open door to eternal life with God for everyone who believes in him. To believe that Jesus was raised is to believe in who Jesus was personally.
- Jesus’ resurrection is proof that God will also raise us up and we will be glorified as Jesus was.
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
I mean, seriously, I could think of tougher standards than that. The hard part is not believing that Jesus rose from the dead. That is simply the most reasonable conclusion to draw strictly on the merits of the facts and circumstances. But “Jesus is Lord,” now, there’s the hard part. To declare that Jesus is Lord is to place under Jesus’ final authority how we spend our time and money. That is not so easy, is it?
Paul’s explanation of the nature of the resurrection.
Later in the same letter to the Corinthian church, Paul wrote about the nature of the resurrection yet to come:
1 Cor 15:35-36, 42, 4435 But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.The Abingdon Dictionary of Theology explains:
In the New Testament, Paul uses “body” as a collective noun for the unity of the flesh and soul. He never makes a hard and fast distinction between the two. The biblical view of human being is we are whole persons with no part detachable. We do not have bodies, we are bodies. We are flesh-in-unity-with-soul.
So what happens to us when we die? Paul uses an agrarian analogy: A seed sown does not sprout into a plant unless the seed passes away. We die in this life and that meant to Paul that each of us die in our entirety. Paul would have thought nonsensical our common belief that our souls leave our bodies at death and float away to heaven.
In this life we are perishable and subject to decay. When God raises us from the dead, we will be neither. You will still be you and I will still be me (sorry). We will still be embodied, but not fleshly. We will be embodied spiritually. Paul does not get more specific than that and neither can I.
So what does this all mean? Jesus taught that it is not human destiny to disappear into nothingness. He said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1). Paul is emphatic in Romans that, “Neither death, nor life, . . . nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We face death with certain confidence that God’s care endures beyond the grave. We die in God’s grace. Though dead, we are not abandoned. We are not forgotten by God to oblivion. The promise of resurrection is not that we continue to live after death, but that we will live again after we die. By the power of God we will live again in the resurrection yet to come. We know this because Jesus lived and died and was resurrected. Jesus Christ is proof that God will accomplish what God promises. But why the promise in the first place?
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3.16-17).
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3) We adults, we want to know, How does the soul work? How does God get it out of our bodies? What will heaven be like? Those are adult questions. Children don’t ask them. Children just ask things like, “Will Grandpa be there, too?”
Which is to say: Does love outlive this life? Will I again be with the people I love and who love me? If there is any way we survive between the grave and resurrection, it is because God's love never ends.
“How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” In dying we pass away, but we do not perish. We are assured of God’s eternal, gracious care by the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
After the casket is buried and the mourners are gone away, the love we have for father, mother, spouse or friend doesn't just stop. God knows our love lasts beyond the grave just as truly as his. We continue to love persons who were, but who also still are, because not even death can separate them from God. Let us be content to declare in faith that when we die we remain in God’s care, even if we cannot say exactly how.
“We believe,” wrote Paul, “that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1Thes 4:14).