Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day when we remember the death of Jesus. It is, of course, followed by Easter Sunday, the day when we eat chocolate to celebrate the resurrection. There is no doubt that the resurrection is central to Christian faith, but what does it really mean? Renowned theologian N.T.Wright discusses this question in this excellent article. The text follows (or click on the link) and I encourage you to read it and ponder it this Easter. May God bless you as you seek him.
The meaning of the resurrection – then and now
I have argued persistently and at considerable length that we cannot understand the historical rise of the early Christian movement unless we take as basic their belief that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind him.
Of course, one might say that the earliest Christians were mistaken; but I have also argued that the best reason for the rise of that belief is that it really did happen. The other explanations – that the disciples were the victims of a delusion, that one or more of them saw a vision of Jesus such as has often been reported by people after someone they love has died, and so on – simply do not hold water historically. (To mention only the last of these: such visions were as well known in the ancient world as they are today, and the meaning of a vision like that was not that the person was suddenly alive again, but rather that they were indeed well and truly dead.)
But here I want to move on from that argument. This is not only because I and others have made the case at some length already. It is also because it is easy to be distracted by the question “But did it happen?” from the question “But what does it mean?”
The event of the resurrection remains vital but the meaning is all-important. We in the church have often downgraded the meaning into terms of private spirituality or the hope of heaven – but it goes far deeper and wider than that.
The question “But did it happen?” was, of course, the question asked by the Enlightenment, not only about the resurrection but about a great deal besides. Some devout Christians have shied away from this question, believing with Proverbs 26.4 that if you answer a fool according to his folly you will be a fool yourself. In this instance, I have taken the opposite view, based on Proverbs 26.5, that you must answer the fool according to his folly, otherwise he will be wise in his own eyes.
It remains enormously important that we investigate the historical origins of Christianity. As Pope Benedict XVI himself has insisted, what actually happened in the first century matters, precisely because we are not Gnostics: we believe in a God who came into the very stuff and substance of our flesh and blood and died a real death. Yes, and rose again three days later.
My argument, however, is not that we can somehow “prove” the resurrection of Jesus according to some neutral, objective canon of plausibility. That would be to capitulate to the folly of the Enlightenment. My argument, rather, is that we can, by historical investigation, reveal the folly of all the other explanations that are sometimes given for how Christianity got going in the first place.
This forces us back to the much larger question, which the Enlightenment did not want to face: might it after all be the case that the closed worldview of some modern science is incorrect, and that the world is after all created by and loved by a God who is not distant, detached and unable to act within the world, but rather by a creator who remains mysteriously present and active within the world in a thousand ways, some of them dramatic and unexpected?
Many Jews (not all) believed in bodily resurrection as the ultimate destiny of all God’s people, and perhaps of all people. They clearly meant bodily resurrection, as we see (for instance) in 2 Maccabees 7. But it won’t do simply to say that the early Christians, being devout Jews, reached for that category in their grief after the death of Jesus.
The early Christian view of resurrection is utterly Jewish, but significantly different from anything we find in pre-Christian Judaism. There, “resurrection” was something that was supposed to happen to everyone at the end of time, not to one person in the middle of history. Nor had anyone prior to the early Christians formulated the idea that resurrection might mean the transformation of a human body so that it was now still firmly a human body but also beyond the reach of corruption, decay and death.
One of the most striking differences between Christian belief and pre-Christian Jewish belief is that nobody expected the Messiah to be raised from the dead – for the obvious reason that nobody expected the Messiah to be killed in the first place.
We have evidence for plenty of messianic or would-be messianic movements in the century or so either side of Jesus. They routinely ended with the violent death of the founder. When that happened, his followers faced a choice: give up the movement, or find yourself a new leader. We have evidence of both. Going around saying your leader had been raised from the dead was not an option. Except in the case of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
We can only understand early Christianity as a movement that emerges from within first-century Judaism, but that it is so unlike anything else we know in first-century Judaism (and the unliknesses bear no resemblance to anything in the pagan world) that we are forced to ask what caused these mutations.
The only plausible answer is that they were caused by the actual bodily resurrection, into a transformed physicality, of Jesus himself. Put that in place, and everything is explained. Take it away, and everything remains puzzling and confused.
The meaning of the resurrection in the four Gospels
But as I have already stated, the question “But did it happen?” – though highly important and deserving of an answer – has also often functioned to prevent us thinking through the question of what the resurrection of Jesus meant, and still means.
The church has often been content to do two things side by side: first, to “prove” the resurrection by a more or less rationalistic argument; second, to say that, therefore, “Jesus is alive today, and we can get to know him” or even, “Jesus is therefore the second person of the Trinity.” One also frequently hears, especially around Easter, “Jesus has been raised, therefore we too are going to heaven.”
Interestingly, however, we find that the New Testament does not make those connections in the same way. There is a real danger that we will simply short-circuit the process and force the resurrection to mean what we want it to mean, without paying close attention to what the first Christians actually said.
In the closing chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and in the opening chapter of Acts, we do not find anyone saying that because Jesus is alive again we can now get to know him, or that he is the second person of the Trinity (though Thomas does say “My Lord and my God”). We do not, in particular, hear anyone in the gospels saying that because Jesus has been raised we are assured of our place in heaven. What we do hear, loud and clear in the resurrection narratives and in the early theology of Paul, is something like this.
To begin with, Jesus was crucified as a messianic pretender – all the gospels say that the words “King of the Jews” were stuck up above his head. The resurrection appears, then, to reverse the verdict of the Jewish court and the Roman trial: Jesus really was God’s Messiah.
But at this point hardly any modern Christians have realised the significance of the Jewish vision of the Messiah, going back to passages like Isaiah 11 and Psalms 2 and 72. The point about Israel’s Messiah is that when he appears he will be king, not of Israel only, but of the whole world. Paul’s vision – that “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow” – is an essentially messianic vision before it is even a vision of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity (though it is that as well, and Paul believed the two were made to fit together).
But unless we grasp the essentially Jewish vision of messiahship, and the early Christian belief that Jesus was the Messiah based on his resurrection, we won’t get to the heart of it. The gospels build on the ancient Jewish belief that God’s call to Abraham was the call of a people through whom he would rescue humans and the world from their plight. The long history of that people often seemed to have lost its way, but the four gospels tell the story of Jesus, climaxing in his death and resurrection, as the story of how God’s plan for Israel, and his plan through Israel for the world, was fulfilled at last.
The resurrection of Jesus means what it means in the four gospels because it is the fulfilment of that vision and hope. It is the moment when, as Jesus himself explains to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, all that the prophets had spoken was now fulfilled. “We had hoped,” said the sad and puzzled pair, “that he was the one to redeem Israel” – and now the risen Jesus explains that he has not only redeemed Israel but is sending this redeemed Israel (his Spirit-equipped and scripturally-taught followers) out into the world with the message that Israel’s God is its true and rescuing lord and king.
So if Jesus’s resurrection, in the gospels, is the point where Israel’s story and even God’s story come to their final climax, it is also of necessity the moment when the church is truly born. Of course, there is a sense in which the church is born with the call of Abraham; another sense in which the key moment is the call of the first disciples; another again in which Pentecost is all-important.
But we cannot read the stories of the resurrection without realising that this is the great turning-point, when a bunch of frightened and muddled men and women stumbled despite themselves on the truth that world history had turned its greatest corner, that a new power was let loose in the world, that a door had been opened which no-one could shut.
The church was born in that moment, not as an institution, not as an inward-looking safe group, but precisely as a surprised gaggle of people coming to terms with something far bigger than they had dared or wanted to imagine. The church was born as Mary, Peter and John ran to and fro in the half-light, half-believing and with tears and questions. The church was born at the moment when the two disciples at Emmaus recognised the stranger as he broke the loaf. The church was born as the angel told Jesus’s followers to hurry to Galilee because he was already on his way there. The church was born as he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. And all of this is in service of the mission of the kingdom.
Finally, therefore, the resurrection stories bring to a head – by implication, but when we learn to read the gospels properly the implication is very clear – the challenge of the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the world. Here I must, with the greatest respect and admiration, take issue with the Holy Father in his suggestion that the achievement of Jesus was to separate the religious from the political.
Of course there is a sense in which that is true, as the limitless depths of divine love invite us to a lifetime of exploration which utterly transcends all human life and national and international organisation. But each of the evangelists, in their own ways, tells the story of Jesus as the story of confrontation between Jesus and the Herod family, between Jesus and Caesar or his representatives, and behind them between Jesus and the dark satanic powers who shriek at him or plot against him.
It was the powers of the world – spiritual but also political – that put Jesus on the cross, and the resurrection of Jesus is therefore the victory of Jesus over all the powers of the world. On Good Friday morning, in John 18 and 19, he argued with Pontius Pilate about kingdom, truth and power, and when John goes on to tell the story of the resurrection he wants us to see that kingdom, truth and power are reborn in Jesus in a new form. It is then part of the church’s task to work out what that will mean.
That is why Paul, our earliest written witness, links the resurrection directly and messianically to the world sovereignty that is now claimed by Jesus. At the climax of the theological argument of the letter to the Romans, he quotes Isaiah 11: the root of Jesse rises to rule the nations, and in him the nations shall hope. And that looks back to, and confirms the interpretation of, the very opening of Romans, in which the resurrection has publicly established Jesus, the Davidic Messiah, as “son of God in power” – in a world where “son of God” meant, unambiguously, Caesar himself.
The political meaning of the resurrection is, I think, one of the most profound reasons why, in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the question was pushed back, sneeringly, at the church: but did it happen? Enlightenment rationality insisted that world history had turned its great corner in Europe and America in the eighteenth century. It was, say the American dollar bills to this day, “a new saeculum.” But if it is true that Jesus was raised from the dead, then it is Easter that is the great turning-point of world history. World history cannot have two fulcrum moments.
The Enlightenment’s own agenda was to banish God upstairs out of sight, so that enlightened modern man could run the world in his own way – and we have seen what a mess that has produced, precisely where the Enlightenment was most at home.
The church has gone along for the ride, content to play out its private spirituality with a contemporary Jesus who has been only a shadow of his true self. But the truly contemporary Jesus is the one who confronts all the pretensions of today’s power just as he confronted Pontius Pilate that first Good Friday; and the resurrection is the sign that his kingdom, his truth and his power were the right kind.
As the grandiose ambitions of the European and American Enlightenment look increasingly threadbare, it is incumbent on the church to explore afresh the social, cultural and political tasks to which we are committed by the resurrection of Jesus our contemporary.
The apostle Paul and the meaning of the resurrection
I turn now to Paul’s famous passage about the resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15: “The Messiah has been raised from the dead, as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The first fruits are offered, at the beginning of the harvest, as the sign that there is much more to come. So it is with the Messiah, as we have already seen: he has gone on ahead, and the rest of us will follow.
This is one of the great Christian innovations in eschatology: the notion of “resurrection” has split in two, and we live in between those two – Jesus’s resurrection and our own – not indeed as passive spectators of an apocalyptic drama, but as active participants. Jesus our contemporary enlists those who believe in him in what we might call his resurrection project, his task of bringing his sovereign and saving rule to bear on the whole world.
The point of 1 Corinthians 15 is, after all, to locate the future resurrection of believers within the larger worldview of God’s kingdom. Verses 20-28 are Paul’s classic statement of the kingdom of God, carefully nuanced: at the moment Jesus is reigning, is ruling the world, and when he has finished by overcoming death itself he will then hand the kingdom over to the Father, so that God may be “all in all.” To be grasped by the risen Jesus as our contemporary must mean being grasped by this kingdom-vision, from which the western church, both Catholic and Protestant, has so often and so sadly retreated.
Of course, to our secular contemporaries it makes no sense to suggest that Jesus is in charge of the world, and has been since Easter. Most people look at the continuation of violence, deceit and chaos over the last two thousand years and say it’s ridiculous to say that Jesus is in charge. But when we read the gospels we get a different sense.
Think of the Beatitudes, not primarily as offering a blessing to those who are described, but through them to the world. This is how Jesus wants to run the world: by calling people to be peacemakers, gentle, lowly, hungry for justice. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks; he sends in the meek, the pure in heart, those who weep for the world’s sorrows and ache for its wrongs.
And by the time the power-brokers notice what’s going on, Jesus’s followers have set up schools and hospitals, they have fed the hungry and cared for the orphans and the widows. That’s what the early church was known for, and it’s why they turned the world upside down. In the early centuries the main thing that emperors knew about bishops was that they were always taking the side of the poor. Wouldn’t it be good if it were the same today?
Death is the last enemy, according to Paul in this chapter, and we live in a world that still deals in death as its main currency. If we claim Jesus as our contemporary, we claim to know and love the one who has defeated death itself, not with more death, not with superior killing power, but with the power of love and new creation.
For Paul, Christ is risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who sleep; and we who celebrate him as our contemporary are charged to work with him on his kingdom-project in the present time. 1 Corinthians 15 is a spectacular chapter, but one of the most remarkable verses in it is the last (verse 58), where Paul says, “therefore get on with your work in the present, because in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” That is at the heart of the meaning of the resurrection. Because God is already making his new creation, all that you do in Christ and by the Spirit is part of that new world.
Resurrection is thus not merely about a glorious future. It is about a meaningful present. That is what it means that Jesus is raised from the dead as the first fruits of those who slept.
The Rt Revd Dr N.T. Wright occupies the Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity in the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is one of the world’s most distinguished and influential New Testament scholars. Among his many books are Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God and Surprised by Hope.