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What Can Progressive Christians Say About Resurrection?

[An excerpt from James Adams’ new book, From Literal to Literary.]

Each year, when Easter roles around, many people outside the church experience a kind of wistfulness. They love the festival, but they don’t think that they can maintain their intellectual integrity if they participate in a ritual that assumes belief in a phenomenon Christians call "resurrection". To make such people welcome, loyal church members must find new ways of talking about the tradition, ways that are faithful to our heritage but ways that can open up a conversation with skeptics. These are my thoughts on the subject.

By the time Jesus of Nazareth came on the scene, some Jews had apparently adopted a vision of the future that dealt with a nagging question, "How could a just God allow his people to suffer endlessly at the hands of their enemies and to be scattered over the face of the earth?" An emotionally satisfying answer was found in a fantasy expressed in one of the visions attributed to the prophet Ezekiel:

Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel." (Ezekiel 37:11-12)

The idea that God would one day raise up the dead was not particularly popular with the priestly party in Jerusalem, perhaps because they had come to terms with the occupation forces of Rome, but it appealed strongly to some Pharisees who insisted that God would see to it that ultimately justice would prevail. One of the many indications that Jesus and his friends were of the Pharisee persuasion appears in the way the gospels relate Jesus’s response to questions about the resurrection. For example, each of the first three gospels tells a story about how members of the priestly party, known as Sadducees, came to Jesus with a trick question that was intended to show the absurdity of the resurrection, but Jesus cleverly extricated himself from their trap. (Matthew 22:22-33, Luke 20:27-40, and Mark 12:18-27). That the editors of all three gospels chose to include the story, suggests that at least by the end of the first century resurrection imagery was important to the followers of Jesus, but exactly what they made of the symbol is not so clear.

In the Christian writings, two Greek nouns are translated "resurrection". Each evolved from a verb rendered in English as "raise". The first noun, anastasis, comes from the verb anistemi, which meant to stand up from a reclining or crouching position. The other noun, egersis, is from the verb egeiro, which originally had to do with collecting or gathering one’s faculties, especially in the act of rousing one’s self from rest or sleep.

When early Christian writers used such terms, they may have been thinking like Pharisees and insisting that God would prove to be just. Or they may have been using resurrection imagery to help them with their horror of physical death. They could die in peace with the confidence that they would someday get another life. Note, however, that for many of them this view of another life may have been quite different from the Greek notion of immortality. Instead of being granted by an arbitrary act of God, for Greeks life on the other side of the grave was assured by the persistence of personality, that is, the indestructibility of the soul.

Sometimes the resurrection metaphor was used to identify present realities, such as the possibility of being restored to health after an illness:

The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. (James 5:15)

In writing to the Christian community in Rome, Paul uses the metaphor in talking about living up to the best that is within each person. Sometimes Paul wrote about the followers of Jesus being raised to a new life in the here and now, a life free from the death-dealing tendency to avoid responsibility and accountability.

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Romans 6:4-11)

The mention of "Christ being raised from death" opens the question of what Paul and the other first century followers of Jesus might have meant by that familiar phrase. Some suppose that they were referring to a fact of history, a resuscitation of Jesus’s corpse. Others would say that God had intervened in history by giving the dead Jesus a new body, that looked something like the old one but was not easily recognized even by his closest friends. This new body had peculiar powers. It could appear and disappear in a moment, could pass through locked doors, and could be in two different places at once. Still others, those who read the final chapters of the gospels with a critical eye, have come to the conclusion that these stories about the risen Christ were originally understood as hymns of praise, poetic expressions of the faithful whose lives had been transformed by their encounter with the Jesus story. This latter view finds substantial support in the writings of Paul, who never mentions an empty tomb and who insists that his encounter with the risen Lord was no different from that the of the first disciples:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Note that in using the word "appeared", Paul has employed the language of vision and subjective experience rather than the language of objective reporting and facts. Still, if he had chosen to do so, he could have talked about his vision of Jesus without referring to anybody being "raised", but apparently that metaphor had already become a central part of the vocabulary Jesus followers used in describing their experiences. How they developed that vocabulary is largely a matter of conjecture, but the gospels and Paul’s letters do contain some tantalizing hints.

First, look at the gospels with the original meaning of the raised-resurrection metaphors in mind. Who was it that was lifted up from a crouching or cowering position and who boldly proclaimed what they had learned from Jesus? Who was it that finally got themselves together and got on with the business begun by Jesus? Then, think about the way the followers of Jesus talked about themselves:

We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Romans 12:5)

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
(1 Corinthians 12:27)

What we may have here is the merging of two powerful metaphors — "raised up" and "body of Christ". When Christians talk about the resurrection of Christ, they may be proclaiming that death did not have the last word in the Jesus story because his followers were raised up to be his new body. When they say that they believe in the resurrection of the dead, they may be proclaiming that no matter how much a person has given in to destructive tendencies, new life is always possible.

Review & Commentary