Reflections on the Resurrection of Jesus
By Bryan Owen
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!
We’ve all heard and perhaps used that phrase. It can express not only skepticism, but also prudent caution. A daughter telling her mother about her wonderful new boyfriend might hear it in her mom’s response: “Be careful, dear. He sounds just a little too perfect.” And if you receive an email promising a cash reward if you just click on a link, don’t do it. It’s definitely too good to be true.
Even in the New Testament we can find skepticism and prudent caution. It pops up several times in response to hearing the news of Jesus’s resurrection and even to seeing the risen Jesus in person. We encounter it in John’s Gospel when Thomas refuses to believe when his cohorts tell him “We have seen the Lord!” (John 20:25). We read it in Matthew’s Gospel, when the risen Jesus claims all authority in heaven and on earth and commissions his followers to baptize and make disciples of all nations, only to be told that “some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). And when the women who discover the empty tomb tell the other male disciples that Jesus has been raised, Luke tells us that “this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).
Skepticism and disbelief: we see it yet again in Luke’s Gospel as Jesus appears to the eleven and their companions. Initially, Luke tells us that they were “startled and terrified” to see Jesus (Luke 24:37). Who wouldn’t be rattled to encounter someone that they knew had died? This simply cannot be. It must be a ghost! Despite Jesus’ efforts to reassure them that he’s a real, flesh-and-bones person, skepticism remains. I’m struck by how the Revised English Bible translates the disciples’ response: “They were still incredulous, still astounded, for it seemed too good to be true” (Luke 24:41).
That response becomes all the more understandable when we consider what resurrection is really all about. Resurrection is not about the resuscitation of an almost-dead person (as though Jesus didn’t really die on the cross). Resurrection does not refer to an apparition or a vision of someone who has died, as though, in their grief, the disciples thought they saw someone who’s not really there. Nor is resurrection a merely “spiritual” or “experiential” phenomenon, as though it means that an otherwise dead Jesus lives on in the hearts and minds of the disciples as an empowering memory.
Taken in its biblical and historical context, resurrection means bodily life after bodily death. As N. T. Wright puts it in his reflections on early Christian writings: “Resurrection… did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble postmortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily death.”
That challenges everything we think we know about the world and how it works. Just as the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun displaces humanity from the center of the universe, Jesus raised from the dead displaces human reason as the supreme authority and sufficient arbiter of truth. That was true even in the pre-modern, pre-scientific world of first century Palestine. Nobody, including especially Jesus’ disciples, was expecting anything like this to happen. Dead people stay dead. Dead bodies decay. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and that’s it. End of story. And everyone has always known this.
Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, for instance, death was considered all-powerful, Wright explains. There was no answer to death. Whether you were one of Homer’s shades who wished you could have a new body but couldn’t, or a philosopher like Plato who thought being a disembodied soul was the best way to spend eternity, the route to the underworld was a one-way street. Nobody came back to life with a body. And so, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the very idea of resurrection was ridiculous.
Even within the spectrum of Jewish belief available in Jesus’s day, resurrection — bodily life again after bodily death — was believed to be a future event, something that would happen at the end of time on the last great day when God raised the dead for judgment, giving them new bodies and renewing the world. It’s not something that happens to anybody before then. To say otherwise — and especially about a Jewish peasant crucified as a criminal by the state — was preposterous at best, and a blasphemy against orthodox teaching at worst.
And yet, that’s precisely what the earliest Christians said had happened to Jesus. It was no mere metaphor. On the contrary, they claimed that it had really happened. God had raised Jesus from the dead as a whole, embodied person. Not only was the tomb empty, but people had also seen Jesus alive after his death. And so we get the New Testament’s insistence on the physical, bodily reality of the risen Jesus.
Viewed through this New Testament lens, the resurrection of Jesus is a divine revolution that overturns common sense and explodes the myth of the omnicompetence of human reason. But the fact that the resurrection so deeply conflicts with basic human experience has also made it difficult for many who are otherwise sympathetic to accept it. Construing the significance of Jesus within the limits of reason alone remains a tantalizing temptation.
But the claim that Jesus was bodily raised to life from the dead and that this really happened in history — that it wasn’t just a subjective experience or grief-driven mistake — is not an optional addition to the Christian faith. On the contrary, it’s the claim that lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.
Christ is risen: that’s the claim that ties the diverse writings of the New Testament together into a unified whole.
Christ is risen: that’s the claim that inspired the early Christians to challenge the Lordship of Caesar with the Lordship of Jesus, even when it meant facing down lions and gladiators, armed with nothing more than love.
Christ is risen: that’s the claim that has fed the Church with hope, keeping her alive during times of hardship and persecution, empowering otherwise ordinary men, women, and children to choose imprisonment, torture, and even death rather than renounce Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Christ is risen: that’s the claim we celebrate during the Great 50 Days of Easter and in the liturgy for Holy Eucharist on every Sunday of the year.
Christ is risen: that’s the claim on which the truth of the Christian faith stands or falls.
And if it’s really true, if God really did raise Jesus to bodily life again after bodily death, then death is no longer a one-way street and the ancient Jewish hope for God’s restoration of a broken world is unfolding to fulfillment.
Writing about the significance of our Lord’s resurrection, Rowan Williams says:
When we celebrate Easter, we are really standing in the middle of a second ‘Big Bang’, a tumultuous surge of divine energy as fiery and intense as the very beginning of the universe.
The resurrection unleashes the power of God’s divine energy into a broken world to heal and restore, putting things right and making all things new. This is why the apostle Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) and the risen Jesus as the “first fruits” of this new creation (1 Cor. 15:20). It’s a creation continuous in many ways with the world as we now know it. That’s why, in the post-resurrection gospel accounts, Jesus walks, talks, and eats. You can reach out and touch him. He’s not a ghost. He’s a real flesh-and-bones person.
But this new creation God has started by raising Jesus also differs from the world as we now know it, sometimes in unexpected and startling ways. And so the gospel writers portray Jesus’ resurrected body as a transformed body. It’s a body no longer subject to sickness, death, and decay. And it’s a body that serves as a harbinger of God’s intention to ultimately redeem all of creation.
The resurrection is not pie-in-the-sky escapism, nor is it about going to heaven when we die for an eternity of disembodied bliss. The resurrection of Jesus Christ as a fully embodied person is just as much about this world as the next. It’s about justice and transformation. It’s about “the reaffirmation of the universe of space, time and matter.” The resurrection is a sign of just how much God loves, not just our souls, but also our bodies, and also trees, animals, sun, moon, and stars, and all of creation. The resurrection gives us the assurance that not even the power of death can thwart God’s desire that there be life in abundance. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a reality that opens “every moment of our history… to a future of healing and promise.”
The resurrection of Jesus may sound too good to be true. But the same God who is greater than death and decay is greater than our doubts and skepticism, and also a God who invites us to trust a truth so incredibly good that it quite literally changes everything.
And so we are bold to say:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.