The word “actual” here is, of course, quite loaded. There is in it an implicit accusation directed against those who may affirm the resurrection of Jesus, but in such a wispily figurative sense that it seems mere fantasy, an imaginative moment in the consciousness of the devotee or a historically extended collection of devotees.
To speak instead of “the actual resurrection of Jesus” is to speak of an event with considerably more heft than an imagined wish or fantasy.
Whatever confronting the resurrected Jesus might have entailed long ago in first century Palestine, the gospel maintains that it was a confrontation of him.
The gospel maintains that what engaged his disciples on Easter Sunday was the body that—on the way to Golgotha and above all on the cross of Golgotha—had been entangled in the flesh and blood lives of broken people who in any ordinary sense of the term will never be made whole. It is because his life of three decades or so came to be utterly inseparable from their lives that it had to be him, the body without which he was nobody at all, the body without which there was hope for nobody at all.
Were they (and we) merely inherently immortal spirits housed for a time in mortal bodies, then there would be no need of a bodily resurrection.
That is, were they (and we) merely inherently immortal spirits housed for a time in mortal bodies, then there would be no need of a bodily resurrection. Postmortem appearances of Jesus could just as well have been ghost-like apparitions of one whose afterlife was reported to be a happy one—with an accompanying promise that our afterlives will also be happy ones. But this, too, lacks the heft of the gospel accounts of the resurrected Jesus. The resurrected Jesus of the gospel is still an earthy Jesus.
Resurrection talk inevitably leans upon the texts of the New Testament. Certainly the New Testament also leans on other texts, some of which speak already of resurrection.
However, until the time of the people of the New Testament resurrection was thought not yet to have taken place on this hard earth. Of course, there had been resuscitations and stories of resuscitations—perhaps of heroes whose able lives had been snatched out of the closing fist of defeat and certain death. That is the way screenplays of action films are often still written. The hero, wounded, feared dead, pulls himself up with a strength no one could have expected him to muster and, throwing himself on a malignant power poised to wreak havoc on the defenseless, conquers it—against all odds.
This, however, is not resurrection; certainly not the resurrection of the Jesus of the New Testament—the savior who is no hero.
Even in resurrection he remains humiliated.
The Jesus of the New Testament is not resuscitated. Even in resurrection he remains the crucified one, the one mutilated by scourging and pierced by spikes and spear. Even in resurrection he remains humiliated, the one with every drop of his power and dignity drained from his peasant body, the one made the object of ridicule in a public demonstration of the might and glory of Rome.
The resurrection of Jesus is not the revival of his corpse, the re-ignition of the electrical activity of his heart and brain. It is the glorification of his humiliated body, of his humiliated history, from birth to death—without the erasure of its humiliation.
The stories of this resurrection in the New Testament are wonderfully diverse. In fact they are so different from one another that it may be impossible to understand them as simply one coherent discourse.
- The resurrected Jesus appears to Mary near his tomb and she fails to recognize him . . . until he calls her name.
- The resurrected Jesus appears at the lakeside to Peter and other disciples as they are fishing, prepares for them a meal of fish and bread, and eats it with them.
- The resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples in the “upper room,” even though the door is closed and locked.
- The resurrected Jesus appears in both Luke and John as a still slaughtered (i.e., defiled) body whose wounds remain open and vulnerable.
- The resurrected Jesus appears on the Emmaus Road to his disciples—persons who lived and worked with him for years—he walks and talks with them explaining the significance of his death . . . and they do not recognize him, not until they step aside from their journey, and he at table, breaking bread with them, vanishes.
- And the resurrected Jesus appears on the Damascus Road to Saul/Paul, the persecutor of the church, startles him to such a degree that he falls to the ground—seeing not a humanoid shape, but a bright light, at the same time hearing an accusing voice.
In each narrative the one engaging those confronted is unquestionably the resurrected Jesus—variously depicted and not depicted.
In the light of these incongruous stories, the question, then, of course, is: what might be entailed in the declaration that Jesus is actually resurrected?
From New Testament accounts the answer does not seem to be that neurological and musculoskeletal function resumed on the slab of the tomb on which his body had been dumped two days earlier. To understand what actually happens on Easter Sunday requires one to think and especially to think theologically of resurrection.
Here is the theology of resurrection I would suggest:
The one Jesus addresses as “Father” is the God of Israel and through Israel of all of creation. This is “the living God,” the one in and about whom is life and life alone, the one in whom there is not even a whispered intimation of death. The demand in ancient Israel that purity be maintained is directly connected to the fact that impurity is the rupture of integrity and thus the disruption of viability. Only the pure, the whole, are in a position to be made holy, i.e., to be “saved.” That is, only the viable may be saved—even if viability is from time to time the gift of this holy God, as was the case in the story of Yahweh’s liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage.
Priests examined those who would enter the temple precincts, to make sure only those with bodily integrity would approach the holy God—hoping thereby through certain ritual procedures to be made holy. Integrity does not equal holiness. It is rather the condition that must be met in order for holiness to be a live possibility. Whenever the holy God is disclosed, holiness radiates and (if all goes well) hallows the site of its appearance.
And so, to be touched by the holy God is either to be destroyed (if one has not met the condition of purity, of integrity) or to be given to participate in God’s holiness. The term for the disclosure of God’s holiness is “glory.” When God’s holiness is manifested, God is glorified. Those who come to participate in the holiness of the event are also said to be glorified.
The gospel is the good news that it is no longer necessary to meet the condition of purity in order to be made holy.
When Jesus is crucified, he is thrust into a death that is unqualifiedly debased, damned, and hopeless.
When Jesus is crucified, his body—i.e., he—is utterly defiled, he loses all integrity, he is thrust into an acute vulnerability and finally into a death that is unqualifiedly debased, damned, and hopeless. The God of Israel—i.e., the God whom Jesus calls “Father”—by definition could not dwell in death or in any liability to death. And yet this very God is made manifest as the one who freely embraces the crucified Jesus and thus enters into all those “tax collectors and sinners” with whom Jesus was inextricably entangled on his long pilgrimage to Golgotha.
That is, the God of the clean becomes the God of the unclean, but in such a way that the holiness that is made manifest right where they live and die becomes a mighty “nevertheless!” The unclean become holy without first being made clean and by being made holy they subsequently become clean, but clean in a way that surpasses any calculable system of purity.
Peace—shalom!—dwells among them, but as a radical peace, a peace that surpasses understanding.
Were Jesus simply a soul or disembodied spirit, were Jesus’s embodiment not everything that Jesus was and is, were his friendships and his work and his communion with those he met merely accidental to his life, then an actual resurrection of his crucified body would not matter in the least.
It does matter, however, because not only he, but also we . . . are these muscles, blood, skin, and bones, this fleshy pilgrimage from birth to death.
He so mingled his body with theirs that his resurrection marked their resurrection.
We are the people we meet, the people we touch and who touch us. And Jesus was the people he met, the people he touched and who touched him—i.e., Jesus loved his neighbors as himself. He so mingled his body with theirs that his resurrection marked their resurrection. The hopeless—his sisters and brothers—have been given hope. The resurrection of Jesus is actual, i.e., the resurrection of his body, because bodies are what we are, we who pray to be saved, i.e., to be sanctified, i.e., to be glorified, i.e., to be holy, to be children of the holy God of Israel and through Israel the holy God of all that live on this hard earth.
Finally, since Jesus is not just the tissue which was dumped into his tomb, but all the minutes, hours, days, and years of his life, resurrection is not to be imagined as glorification simply of a corpse, occupying a postmortem time and space.
On the cross the bodily life of Jesus is finished. No new moments could be added to this life. The resurrected Jesus is not given more time. Rather the time that he was—from that first moment in that stable in Bethlehem to that last moment on that cross in Jerusalem—is gathered together by the Spirit of God, saturated by the Spirit of God, glorified by the Spirit of God.
In this time, in this history, in this life and death the whole fullness of deity is pleased to dwell and it is this life and death, this whole mutilated Jesus, who is raised from the dead and appears to Mary, Paul, Peter, and all the disciples. God, the God of Israel and of Jesus and through them of all creation, is the living God who has sovereignty even over what he is not and cannot be and in dwelling there . . . is there above all.
Craig is Professor of Systematic Theology emeritus at Azusa Pacific University. He is the author of The Transgression of the Integrity of God: Essays & Addresses and After Crucifixion: The Promise of Theology and is the subject of the forthcoming Whistling in the Dark: Of the Theology of Craig Keen, all published by Cascade Books.