Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why the Resurrection?

I have been pushing on the question of resurrection, including its physicality, in a number of recent posts, including a guest post last week by Bruce Epperly.  I realize that this is a question that troubles many in the church and outside the church.  Many progressive or liberal Christians find the resurrection a distraction, or as a commenter put on a previous post, akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  But, is it simply an outdated and distracting doctrine that we are better off leaving behind?  Is Easter, for that matter, a quaint holiday, better served by highlighting Easter Egg hunts and chocolate bunnies?  Is it simply just the sign that spring is at hand?  Or, is it, as it always has been through Christian history, the center piece of the Christian faith?  As theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it: 
The Christian faith stands or falls with Christ's resurrection, because it was by raising him from the dead that God made Jesus the Christ and revealed himself as the "Father of Jesus Christ."  At this point belief in God and the acknowledgment of Christ coincide; and ever since, for Christian faith the two have been inseparable. (Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today's World, p. 71). 
As I ask these questions, I want to throw into the discussion another lengthy quotation from N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope.   Wright is likely more conservative than some of my conversation partners, and as has been stated in comments, he may seem to some stuck in the first century.  Be that as it may, I think that the Resurrection merits careful consideration, because I do believe it has important implications about the way we live in the here and now.    So consider this:

The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout [1 Corinthians], is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die.  God will raise it to new life.  What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it.  And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which Gods' people are called.  What you do  in the present  -- by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself -- will last into God's future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it, "Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away").  They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom.  (Surprised by Hope, p. 193). 
If we think of God's judgment as a sorting out, a refining fire, then what will be the lasting legacy of our lives here in this world?  Is that not the question that resurrection raises?   Resurrection isn't about escaping this life for a better life, it's about engaging in the work of God here in anticipation of an embodied life after life after death.  Can progressive Christians, who willingly bring science into the conversation, embrace the idea of an embodied resurrection?  Again, I invite your thoughts. 

18 comments:

Allan R. Bevere said...

Bob,

A good post. I have said before on my blog that when "progressive" Christians deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus they rob themselves of the most powerful argument in favor of acts of social justice. It is the bodily resurrection that demonstrates that this world and this current existence matter to God-- and therefore we need to be about feeding the poor and clothing the naked, etc. in this present existence.

Richard said...

I absolutely think the resurrection is essential to Christian faith. I pastored a church in Toledo, Ohio that had a post and beam structure put together with wooden pegs. One Easter Sunday I suggested that numerous pegs could be taken out and the building wouldn't collapse. Then I asked them to imagine one main peg that actually kept the whole thing together and if that peg were removed the building would collapse, likening it to resurrection in the Christian faith. Of course we can have arguments about the nature of Jesus' resurrection body (and ours). On that, I prefer not to use words like physical or physicality, but rather somatic/bodily, which I think is more faithful to Paul's anthropology and teaching on resurrection.

Doug Sloan said...

What is important is not the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of the disciples is critically important. Something did happen on Easter morning – and just to put a label on it, we will call it the resurrection of Jesus. If a burial box is found that contains the bones of Jesus, what is the ramification for the Good News message? Nothing – it changes nothing. The Good News remains the same.

Whatever happened on Easter morning is nothing compared to the miracle of the resurrected lives of the disciples. They too, as faithful followers of Jesus, had become, because of the crucifixion, as though dead and buried. Crucifixion was more than an execution; it was the obliteration of an entire life. It was as if the crucified person had never existed. The disciples were not just grievous or depressed, they felt obliterated – their life with Jesus no longer existed, it never happened.

On Easter morning, something happened that resurrected for the disciples, the life and teaching of Jesus. Within 40 days, not only were they resurrected, they were transformed. The Good News that resurrected and transformed their lives (and the thousands of other lives transformed by that same Good News) had nothing to do with sacrificial death, empty tombs, ascensions, virgin births, or miracles. The Good News is neither concerned with nor does it require the miracle of divine intervention. In any biblical story that involves such a miracle; to focus on the miraculous event is to miss the purpose and message of the story. To depend on or expect or require miracles is to worship at the altar of the false god of spiritual certainty.

The Good News did not and does not succeed because of miracles. The initial success of the Good News was in how it demonstrated that anyone could live a resurrected and transformed life even in a world where death, cruelty, corruption, crime, war, systemic injustice, slavery, and extreme poverty were so rampant as to be the norm. The Good News is that a life of resurrection and transformation does not have to be preceded by death. The Good News is that the kingdom of God is not a future event or a distant place or a strictly post-mortal existence. The Good News is that the kingdom of God has arrived, it is here and now and available to anyone – without exception, without qualification, and without sacrifice.

To have a loving intimate relationship with God; to serve others by practicing generosity and hospitality; to seek justice, mercy, healing, reconciliation, rehabilitation, inclusion, and participation; and then to live non-violently without vengeance and with a cheerful fearlessness of death and worldly powers – that is the radical and the defiant message and the transformational spirit of the universal and timeless Good News.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Doug,

I respectfully wish to differ with you. If tomorrow they find the bones of Jesus on the outskirts of Jerusalem, St. Paul's words will have indeed come true-- we who have believed in Jesus are the most to be pitied.

This is more than a matter of simply labeling something. At some point for the Christian faith to be credible, to be true, it must be rooted in history. If we do not have a bodily raised Jesus rooted in history, that is tied to the narrative we live each and every day, then it is silly for us even to carry on this conversation.

I would also hasten to add that a proclamation of resurrection without a bodily raised Jesus is not only counter-intuitive, but such proclamation would never have begun in the first place.

It is somewhat nonsensical to grasp onto the response of the witnesses as somehow significant while denying the significance of what they actually witnessed that led to the change.

Doug Sloan said...

Allan,

Truely, thank you for your kind reply.

I venture that our difference lies in how we define the nature and content of the Good News.

For me, the focus and purpose of the Good News is on our lives here and now, not on a post-mortal existence.

Consequently, I am more concerned with and place greater importance on the results of the resurrection of Jesus rather than the specifics of what happened. I am not denying or arguing against the resurrection of Jesus. I am saying that it has less importance than what happened to the disciples.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Doug,

Thanks for your helpful thoughts.

I guess the issue for me is how would a judge evaluate the evidence given your view. In other words, would the judge declare the defendant guilty based on not really happened, but upon what the witnesses mistakenly think what happened?

CR said...

I wonder, when progressives 'willingly bring science into the conversation', what they actually bring is an older scientific worldview with fixed laws of nature, rather than the newer scientific worldview, shown in relativity and quantum physics, where reality is fundamentally open, free and unpredictable. In this newer scientific worldview, resurrection doesn't seem like such a stretch to me. In the worldview shown by contemporary physics, reality is strange.

Peace to you,

Chris

John said...

I always come back to my perception that miracles are signs more than events. To me it isn't so much about the EVENT which unfolded in the miracle but what God was trying to communicate by miraculously deviating from the natural order which God put into place at the beginning.

I don't think Jesus' resurrection was about his identical cells being brought back to life to survive forever on into eternity. I think the message was that what happened to the person of Jesus will be born by God forever, the wounds, and the joys.

And part of that message was that when we join in Jesus resurrection, we too will bear our wounds and our joys. And when we reach the New Jerusalem, there will be leaves on trees which will be for the healing of all the nations, as they enter, wounded and all.

In addition to the wounds, there will be the joys and the celebrations of lives lived well and of the good things done in the Lord's name - those too will be born into eternity.

I think the the bodily appearance of Jesus, who invited Thomas to touch his wounds, was meant to say that while all is forgiven, not all is forgotten. The scars will remain, but in our glorified state, they will remain as memories of lessons learned in the process of spiritual maturation and/or in the service of the Lord, but no longer as wounds, clouding our lives with anguish and covering our cheeks with tears.

John

David Mc said...

"would the judge declare the defendant guilty based on not (what?) really happened, but upon what the witnesses mistakenly think what happened?"

Come on Allan, you have a more convincing example don't you?

Isn't this what P Pilate did for example? In our system, one "eye witness" and you're cooked.

John said...

I also agree with Doug, it is not about the actual cells of Jesus's pre-death body, nor about the actual cells of our pre-death bodies that will be resurrected. The resurrection is of the essence of who we are as discrete individuals, children of God, loved by God, cherished by God.

What happened to Jesus' flesh is not really all that important in the long view of things, nor what happens to our flesh.

John

Allan R. Bevere said...

David,

You obviously missed my point. I am suggesting that to place the significance of Easter on the disciples' testimony without regard as to whether what they reported was accurate, and to insist that it doesn't matter what really happened, but it is still important in some ultimate way, is to push the gospel out of the reality we and in live in every day. If that is the case then the Easter message is irrelevant.

John,

And what happened to Jesus' flesh is of vital importance. That doesn't mean we understand all the mystery of resurrection, nor should we attempt to explain it in detail, if that were possible. But when what actually happened to Jesus' body is declared to be unimportant, you end up with a Platonic dualism that is unbiblical and does not speak to the full redemption of creation.

John said...

Allan,

I too embrace the profound value of the miraculous. I am very suspicious of attempts to rationalize away the miraculous with science or logic.

With that caution, I must ask the question of what possible importance could the preservation of Jesus' human flesh be to God? God is certainly not bound in any way to Jesus' flesh, nor to the wounds touched by Thomas.

I am loath to box God in with human logic, but, given assumed truth of Ezekiel's "dry bones" vision, there simply is no reason to think this particular piece of flesh (Jesus' human body) has eternal importance to God.

But as a sign and symbol to humanity as exhibited to Jesus' first followers, it may indeed have had importance continuing through the occurrence Ascension event. As we do not experience that flesh today, the need for preserving the integrity of its continued existence seems to have passed away. Today we experience Jesus flesh in the Eucharist, which does not require Jesus cellular presence.

But all we know of God is mystery, and I accept the fact that such logical explorations are undertaken at the risk of impertinence.

John

Anonymous said...

I am always astounded that this is a debate. If you have no bodily resurrection, you have no Christian faith. That means Jesus was a nice guy like everyone else with some nice things to say. If a "changed" mindset of the disciples was the goal, then Oprah could likely qualify as a Messiah.

As for the number of "angels on a pinhead" thought.. I would argue that the whole resurrection is not being taken into account to the great story. The fact is.. there is sin.. we all sin, we are bent towards sin, left to our devices we sin. There is a price to be paid for sin... (see Old Testament) Christ's death is the ultimate sacrifice paid for sin. Christ was without sin and therefore would not die b/c death is the punishment of sin. But by taking on sin, Jesus "died" but was raised as the eternal sacrifice. To miss this whole theology is like walking into church and saying "whats the big deal about Jesus". If "good works" is our goal, then we are a religion of moralism. We worship being good, however we define that, versus worshiping God.

Sorry to go on.. I just find this all head scratching.

Chuck

Doug Sloan said...

Chuck,

Personally, I find it impossible to believe in a God of love who requires a tortuous execution as an atoning sacrifice. Those two views are oppositional and irreconcilable.

Anonymous said...

Doug,
My concern is that you have made God in your image. God is loving and kind, and if he isn't, then I won't worship him. The other issue is the God you describe lacks justice and doesn't align with the Biblical description of God. Jesus told people to stop sinning while having compassion on them. He cried out to God to have mercy on them, for they know not what they do. He saw the sin, he agonized for it, but he gave a way for them to be redeemed. THAT is what we worship. Like the alcoholic who is now dry.. we celebrate this new life that forgives us from sin.

If God were to simply say.. "don't worry about it.. no big deal".. is that a God worthy of worship? Why did he even send Jesus? Why did Jesus have to die? Remember, he did not require a sacrifice.. but rather gave himself up to be a one time sacrifice.

Chuck

Doug Sloan said...

Anonymous - I invite you and your real name to continue to participate at this site and with this community.

I do not accept the interpretation that the Garden of Eden parable in Genesis tells of our failure and eternal condemnation - an interpretation that was first seriously promoted around 1000 CE.

I accept the much older and longer-lived interpretation that the Garden of Eden parable is about the success of the human creation in gaining independence as was desired by the creator.

I also reject the notion that I create God in my own likeness. Here is a partial sharing of my view of God - and, if I had the space to share my entire view of God, it would be obvious it ain't me.

The “will of God” – what God wants for us – is for us to:
* Be Free and Independent
* Think
* Be Curious
* Be Intelligent and Wise
* Value Knowledge over Ignorance and Compassion over Knowledge
* Grow
* Live Long Healthy Satisfying Lives
* Live Non-Violently Without Vengeance
* Be Hospitable
* Be Generous
* Heal and Reconcile and Rehabilitate
* Be Good Stewards of all Resources
* Live Here as One Family
* Live in Relationship with God
* Be Transformed through Resurrection

Doug Sloan said...

Chuck,

My apology - I keep missing your name at the bottom of your post.

Doug

Scott F said...

I always find the insistence on a flesh-and-blood resurrection perplexing. If we are forced to accept a 100% physical body of Jesus (i.e., John's original cells) then we are left trying to explain the fact that this same body could appear inside locked rooms and hide its identity at will. Once these events are factored in, we have left any meaningful resemblance to a physical body back in Albuquerque. Any body that can do those things is so far beyond normal that it is no longer honest to insist that it is just like any other lump of flesh left in a tomb.

"But those other events were miracles of God," you protest. It seems to me that if God can pull off those miracles then he is not going to be bothered by doing a miracle involving a new body for Jesus. Once you violate the laws of nature, you cannot but the genie back in the bottle.

My major beef with so many arguments in favor of the bodily resurrection, the Trinity, etc, is that they start with the desired result and reason backwards. "If Jesus were not bodily raised, than what hope have we?" The answer might be "none" or "to trust in God" but your feelings are not the criteria for historic fact. I read our first theologian, St Paul, as stumbling on this very point: some other things must be true if the things I believe are to stand up.

Ironically, we are often told that God's ways are not man's ways and yet we insist that our conclusions about God and his ways are precisely true and necessary. I think Borg et al are struggling to find I way to live in God without the certainty that orthodoxy demands.