“Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Ephesians 5:14).
From time to time over the last couple of years, I have enjoyed reading and listening to N.T. Wright–a New Testament theologian who is admittedly brilliant and from whom I have learned a great deal. But I wonder sometimes whether he and some of his most loyal readers are being a bit too easy on themselves when they seem to insist that the only plausible explanation for the historical events that followed Jesus’ purported resurrection is that– following his crucifixion –he must in fact have walked out of an empty tomb (more or less as reported) and physically appeared to his disciples before finally ascending to the Father.
For my part, I cannot demonstrate that this didn’t happen–that, rather, Jesus’ body did go back to dust like every other body that we have any experience of –nor, for that matter, do I really wish to. Indeed, I do not deny for a moment that he lives–quite the opposite! But there is something not quite right about an understanding that brooks no opposition — often insisting, as they do, “that if Christ be not raised, [our] faith is in vain” (as if this requires an empty tomb) — especially when we consider Paul’s remarks concerning resurrection, in general, that we “do not sow the body that shall be” but that “it is raised a spiritual body” (I Corinthians 15:17, 37, 44). Just what, after all, is the point of continuity between the new life and the old that requires the physical transformation of these earthen vessels once the life has been snuffed out of them? And while one may certainly argue that something of the sort is implied in Paul’s writings, is it not strange that he seems to have no knowledge of the women at the tomb and other rather important details found in the Easter narratives? Indeed, one can only laugh at the outrageous suggestion that he would intentionally “air-brush” the women out of the story (as has been suggested by Wright and/or some of his followers).
But regarding these purported events of 2000 years ago, many of Wright’s readers– diligently following their leader –often dismiss alternative theories out of hand, depending a priori on the presumed cogency of Wright’s energetic assertions that only a literal, bodily resurrection (complete with an empty tomb and postmortem, physical appearances) can adequately account for the transformation of the disciples and the growth of the early church (as if the belief in his resurrection, whatever the details, would not have had a similarly profound effect– with or without the historicity of the Easter narratives –provided that this belief was also accompanied by the REALITY that is the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit). Indeed, it seems to me that, together, these latter factors are more than sufficient to account for both the transformation of the disciples, the growth of the early church, and the evolution of the Easter narratives themselves–and that (apart from any dogmatic professions of faith) some such scenario is much more plausible than the rather narrow range of options that N.T. Wright would have us consider. One need not imagine that all of the early disciples experienced the presence of their risen Lord in precisely the same way for the legends of the empty tomb and the physical, postmortem appearances to arise therefrom. And once the ball got rolling, it would have been difficult for any of the faithful to discourage the process even if they were so inclined.
In addition, it is worth noting (for future reference, perhaps, as we continue to study N.T. Wright’s admittedly brilliant and valuable body of work) that the real growth in the early church took place among gentiles–not among Jews. As such, however much Jewish culture and categories may have influenced the initial Christian message and the way in which it was initially understood by the first Jewish believers, we must keep in mind that the Jews by and large rejected that message and that Greek and Roman categories most certainly (and rather significantly) influenced its reception among the gentiles–and very quickly began to influence its further theological development, as well (all of which is just to say that the emphasis on the essentially Jewish roots of the Christian gospel is not the only thing to consider as we attempt to understand its reception and rapid promulgation throughout the Roman world).
So what’s my point? If I am not trying to disabuse people of their belief in a literal, historical (“bodily”) resurrection (complete with “empty tomb” and subsequent “ascension”) — and I’m not, assuming it is an honestly held belief — why am I writing this? My intention, I assure you, is merely to illustrate that, from the beginning, the resurrection was often spoken of in metaphorical, symbolic, and Spiritual terms– as well as literal, historical, and bodily terms –and that to be honestly skeptical of the latter, does not prevent one from experiencing the Spiritual REALITY that is also expressed in terms of the former. As the old song says, you ask me how I know he lives . . . he lives within my heart . . .
So in the final analysis, it seems to me that we should teach the historical narrative without apology, while at the same time taking care not to discount the possibility that those who are skeptical of its historicity may nonetheless come to a saving knowledge of the truth–i.e., that they may come, indeed, to know the living Christ; the One who IS before Abraham was; the One who IS the resurrection and the life; the One who, as such, must be sought among the living and not among the dead:
Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I Am.” (John 8:56-58).
Have you not read what was said to you by God, “I Am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32).
“I Am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Indeed, let us acknowledge that while the historical narrative preserves the gospel in symbolic form, it is the living Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life — the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end — whether or not the body of Jesus of Nazareth went back to dust sooner or later (like the body of John the Baptist, say–or that of Lazarus); or whether in fact it did not go back to dust at all (as traditionally imagined). For if we can allow for just a bit of ambiguity in this regard, we will not only find ourselves ministering to a larger pool of potential disciples of Christ (including many who currently think of themselves as atheists or agnostics), we will simultaneously gain a great deal of sympathy and support for the teaching of the historical narrative, as well–even among those who remain honestly skeptical. Christ is Risen! Glory be to God for all things! Sounds like a win, win proposition to me!