Jesus – his resurrection


For AO1 you need to know:

  • The views of Rudolf Bultmann on the historicity of the resurrection
  • The views of N.T. Wright on the historicity of the resurrection
  • Interpretation and application to the understanding of death, the soul, resurrected body and the afterlife.

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • The nature of the resurrected body
  • The historical reliability of the resurrection

After his death on the cross Jesus rose again and for 40 days he made appearances to many of his followers. When Jesus was arrested the disciples fled, a short time after his crucifixion they believed that he was alive. They preached that God raised him from the dead, that he was the Messiah, and that people could share in his resurrection. The Christian mission warned that they would be persecuted, but that persecutors could only ‘kill the body’.

Bultmann & Myth

Bultmann invented a theological approach to understanding the Bible called demythologisation. The Gospel stories are mythic because they contain supernatural elements, such as the resurrection of Jesus, which Bultmann thinks are ‘impossible’ for modern scientifically-minded audiences to believe. However, he thought literal belief in the Gospels was ‘pointless’ anyway, because the true meaning of Christianity could be found by figuring out what deeper truth the stories were attempting to convey. The Gospel writers had experiences which they captured in mythological language popular in ancient civilisation. What really matters are understanding those experiences so that Christians in the modern time can also be faced with the call to faith and an ethical way of life that the early Christians also faced. So the Gospel stories need to be ‘demythologised’, their supernatural language replaced with an account of the deeper truths they were trying to convey.

The resurrection, for Bultmann, was not a historical event as it cannot be believed by modern scientifically minded people. Bultmann proposes that Jesus was not literally the son of God but just an expression of God. Bultmann disagrees with St Paul that if Christ is not raised, then faith is useless. The resurrection of Christ’s physical body is not essential to faith for Bultmann. Instead, what is essential to faith is believing in the demythologized deeper truth that Bultmann thinks the myth of the resurrection was intended to express.

That is the realisation that the crucifixion was not a defeat but a victory, because the lord of life had given himself over to death and conquered it. So, the crucifixion of Jesus contained the resurrection within it. Victory over sin and thereby over death comes through faith in the saving efficacy of the cross. Easter, when demythologised, is not about the rising of Jesus but the raising the early church due to the raising of faith of the disciples which inspired them to preach. Successful preaching and spreading the message of Jesus causes resurrection to take place within individual people. 

Subjectivity issue: Aren’t the ‘deep truth’ Myths intend to convey down to interpretation and therefore subjective? How could we ever know we had ascertained the ‘true’ meaning?

Many parts of the bible seem to be literal – e.g saying Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Nor does the bible anywhere say you shouldn’t take it literally. So, is there really biblical support for this view?

Bultmann responds that parts of the bible are myth, whereas other parts are literal.

But then how do we know which parts are which?

N. T. Wright’s criticism of Bultmann. Wright claims that many of the theological methods that developed during the 20th century, including Bultmann’s, were thought to be “objective methods”, but Wright claims they were not objective nor neutral but actually designed “to further particular philosophical, cultural, social, political and theological agendas.”

Wright points out that Bultmann’s historical context was economically unstable post-world war one Germany. The culture then was against big leader figures like the Keizer and Bismarck who were thought responsible for the economic mess. What instead many Germans felt they needed was a sense of community. So there was a shift from focus on leaders to community.

Wright makes the point that it was during that exact cultural moment in Germany that Bultmann was articulating his view that the demythologised meaning of the Bible was focused, not on Jesus as a great leader, but on the “Christian community at worship, at prayer, in its witness and so forth. So that once we locate Bultmann and his methods within the world of his own day, we can say maybe that was what he had to say then, but please don’t imagine that that gives us neutral objective scholarship for all time, any more than mine or anyone else’s is going to be neutral or objective. We have to do what we have to do in our own day as best we can.”

E P Sanders commented that up until Bultmann, German scholarship on the New Testament was progressing well and contributing to an understanding of early Christianity. Sanders thinks that the influence of Bultmann and his movement was to put a stop to real history being done by theologians. Sanders and Wright think that it is time for theologians to start asserting the validity of history for theology again.

Wright claims that the sources we have for history, such as the Gospels, do not merely and simply tell us something about the gospel writers, but that through their writing we can actually learn something about historical events. So, Wright claims Bultmann goes too far when he reduces the meaning of the Gospels to mere expressions of deeper truths about how the writers felt. Wright acknowledges there is some truth to that but claims that the Gospels actually do also tell us something about what happened in the past.

“Of course, in principle, writers who intend to write about other things than themselves will give you quite a lot of themselves en route, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t telling you about things that actually happened. Yes, you have to read them critically, but you have to be a realist as well. So critical realism.”

Wright thinks that unless a Christian has a sense of the historical Jesus, then they are in danger of just believing in a fantasy, fooling themselves or having wishful thinking. The Jesus of whom Christians are aware of in their prayer, who they meet when working with the poorest of the poor, who they recognize in the breaking of the bread is recognizably the Jesus who walked and talked and lived and died and rose again in the 1st century.

 Wright argues there is a danger of having a sense of Jesus which is uprooted from history, which is that such an understanding of Jesus would be susceptible to being influenced to serve the politics of the time. Wright gives the example of how the Nazis were able to spread their own version of Jesus, including emphasizing Jesus’ non-Jewishness. Wright claims that anchoring our understanding of Jesus in the actual historical Jesus can protect against this danger.

N. T. Wright on the resurrection

Wright believes that the resurrection was an actual event in history. Wright claims that a proper understanding of gospels tells us that Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration of creation that he will complete on the second coming. Wright claims this is an idea found in Revelations, that there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth and that, as it says in the Lord’s prayer; “thy kingdom come”, God’s kingdom is coming to earth to restore creation back into a perfect state.

Wright’s argument for the resurrection as a historical event is that the Jewish theological beliefs on the Messiah and resurrection of the early Christians underwent radical “mutations” that were completely contrary to and thus could not have been derived from traditional Jewish thought. Wright claims that these astonishing transformations in what was a very conservative religion must “force the historian … to ask, why did they occur”. Wright’s proposal is that they occurred because the bodily resurrection of Jesus really happened and the Gospel authors simply wrote down what happened.

The view of resurrection in the Judaism of the time

Wright points out that there is no evidence in ancient Greek philosophy for bodily resurrection. Homer mentions Hades, the abode of the dead, place of shadows. Plato argues for an afterlife of the soul, not a bodily resurrection.

In ancient Jewish thought there is a ‘vague and unfocused’ belief in resurrection which is about the restoring of Israel and all of its people. E.g. Hosea 6 talks of ‘reviving’ and ‘restoring’ the dead. The Messiah was seen as a king of Israel who would defeat Israel’s enemies.

What it means for Jesus to be Messiah

Wright claims that Jesus saw himself as the Messiah, it wasn’t an invention of the early church. However, Jesus did not see himself as the Messiah of Jewish tradition, but as a suffering Messiah whose self-sacrifice would atone for the sins of all humanity. Jesus’ death on the cross would have been seen by Jews as confirmation that he was not the Messiah and the end of the Jesus movement, but Jesus’ followers instead acted and thought that in fact it was the confirmation that he was the Messiah.

The remarkable rise of Christian Messianism

The preaching of Jesus as risen from the dead by his followers began immediately. They acted like the new age of restoration had come. The best explanation of their behaviour was that they really believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

The empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances

The empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances are also part of Wright’s case for the resurrection. The empty tomb being discovered by women followers in what was a patriarchal society where women’s testimony was not valued in court suggests it was not made up. If it were made up, the authors would have made it men who discovered the empty tomb.

Wright concludes “that is why as a historian I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”

The hallucination hypothesis. Some argue that Jesus’ post-mortem appearances to the disciples could have been some kind of visionary/religious hallucination and therefore not credible as historical evidence.

Wright responds that visions of the dead was a well-known idea in ancient Judaism, so if the disciples were simply having some kind of hallucinatory vision then they would have viewed and understood him as being taken up into heaven by God to the bosom of Abraham and glorified. They would not have come to the conclusion that Jesus had been raised from the dead and was in fact alive. So, Wight responds to attempts to explain away these experiences as susceptible to a naturalistic explanation by pointing to the understanding of resurrection the disciples came to as not one which would follow from a naturalistic event.

William Lane Craig responds to the hallucination hypothesis that the diversity of appearances attested to in multiple sources, including the disciples, Paul and James, and the fact that multiple people were present in the cases of the disciples, shows that the appearances being real is a better explanation.

However, most religions have miracle stories which are claimed to be attested to by eyewitnesses. If we should believe in the historicity of the Christian miracles, then we would have to believe in the miracles stories from many religions which can’t all be true and so we would be inconsistent.

Link with Hume’s multiple claims argument against miracles.

Keith Parsons responds to the argument that the radical transformation of Jewish theology is best explained by an actual historical resurrection. He points out that according to the gospels “Jesus’ ministry contained many heretical elements” e.g. Mark 2, Jesus is condemned as blasphemous for claiming authority to forgive sins. In Mark 2:28 Jesus claims to dictate on the rules concerning the sabbath. Parsons concludes that since Jesus’ teaching was so heretical, the arising of radical beliefs about resurrection and Messianism in the disciple’s minds “hardly seems to require supernatural explanation”. Parsons goes on to suggest the difficulty of deciding on the criteria by which we could determine whether a change in theological thinking was too great to have been of human origin.

Bart Ehrman points out that there are inconsistencies in the biblical accounts of the resurrection. For example, John says Jesus died on the day before the Passover meal was eaten but Mark says it was after. John says he died at noon but Mark says 9am. The gospels differ on whether it was Mary alone who went to the tomb, whether she went with other women, and if with other women what their names were. They differ as to whether the stone was rolled away before they got there, and as to whether they saw a man, two men or an angel in the tomb. They differ as to what message the women were to give to the disciples, whether to go to Jerusalem or to Galilee. Ehrman concludes “these are not historically reliable accounts. The authors were not eyewitnesses, they were Greek speaking Christians living 35-65 years after the events they narrate … based on oral tradition that had been in circulation for decades”.

William Lane Craig responds that the inconsistencies in the resurrection account are not at the heart of the story but are peripheral details, and also that inconsistent details from a later source do nothing to undermine the credibility of an earlier and therefore more reliable source. The central facts on which the resurrection really depends are not affected by the inconsistencies.

Death, the soul, the resurrected body & the afterlife

There are different Christian views on the afterlife. A common view amongst Christians today is that when we die, we are judged immediately by God (particular judgement) and our soul goes straight to heaven or hell for eternity.

N. T. Wright thinks this is not correct. He claims that this view comes from the influence of paganism during the middle ages. The Bible, Wright argues, tells us that immediately after death our souls will have a temporary presence with Christ but only until judgement day and the second coming where our souls will be united with our body, but our resurrected body will be immortal and the righteous will then have eternal life in a new heaven and new earth. The unrighteous who rejected God’s love will have eternal separation from God. So, Wright calls resurrection “life after life after death”.

Wright cites the book of revelation, where God shows John the future where there is the ‘new heavens and the New Earth” where there will be “no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain.” Wright also points to the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus suggests people pray to God that “Your kingdom come”. Wright argues this means the kingdom of heaven is not a place called heaven where you go after life on earth. The kingdom of heaven means the sovereign rule of heaven which is coming to earth. God’s plan is to bring heaven and earth together during the second coming of Jesus where the immortal resurrected bodies of the righteous will have eternal life. So, the afterlife will not be a simple return to the same sort of body as before nor will it be disembodied bliss. Jesus’ body had transformed, the disciples had to touch him to make sure he was real, he appears in locked rooms and disappears, so his body now significantly different. This shows that the resurrection body is an upgrade, as St Paul says, and as the book of revelations suggests when it indicates that our resurrected bodies in the new earth cannot die or feel pain.

Physical resurrection: St Paul and Augustine on resurrection of the flesh

Resurrection of the flesh is the position that the afterlife is physical because it involves our resurrection and that resurrection is physical, i.e. of our bodies. Spiritual resurrection is an opposing view, that our resurrection is non-physical and thus the afterlife is non-physical.

Paul calls the resurrection of Jesus “the firstfruits”, indicating that it was the first resurrection after which ours will follow. Paul claims that Jesus saved us from our sinful state which Adam caused “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”.

When we are raised from the dead, we will have a different and improved body. This seems to be what happened to Jesus. When he rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, they did not recognize him at first. The Gospels also emphasise that the risen Jesus had the power to appear and disappear. Paul differentiates the earthly body from the resurrected body thus: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body”. The resurrected bodies will not be mere flesh and blood, since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God … we will all be changed”. Paul made an analogy that mortal ‘natural’ bodies are like tents which are a heavy burden but when Jesus returns God will resurrect the dead and give them immortal ‘spiritual’ bodies. Immortality implies heaven and hell are eternal.

Our earthly bodies are so associated with sin and earthliness that some found it hard to believe that they could be raised in a form that would be heavenly. However, Augustine points out that our earthly body being raised in the flesh in an exalted form is far more believable than that our spirit could be joined with those sinful earthly bodies in the first place, which no one doubts.

St Augustine further argued that our resurrected body must be physical since Christ’s resurrection was of a physical body and since that represented the hope for all Christians that they would be resurrected.

Spiritual resurrection is argued to make more sense of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances. Jesus appeared to his disciples after he rose from the dead, he appeared to be able to disappear and reappear at will, which proponents of spiritual resurrection interpret as indicating a non-physical form. It could also make sense of the fact that he wasn’t initially recognised. This could suggest that our resurrection will be non-physical too, and thus the after life is a non-physical state. St Paul even called our future resurrected bodies ‘spiritual’ bodies.

What about the empty tomb? Jesus’ physical body had disappeared upon his resurrection, which seems to show that he was raised physically. It suggests it was his physical body that was resurrected in a physical but perfected form.

Furthermore, it might seem that Paul’s description of the resurrected body as “spiritual” and his distinguishing of spiritual from “earthly” suggests that the resurrected body is non-physical. However, in Paul’s time, the idea of spirit was not necessarily contrasted with physical in the way it is today. In fact a belief in Paul’s time was that ‘spirit’ was a kind of material thing, but a refined and perfected form of matter not subject to decay or death.

N. T. Wright argues that when Paul and the gospels use the word ‘soul’, the meaning is much closer to the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’, meaning living God-breathed creature than it is to the dualist notion of soul found in Plato.

The cannibal problem. What happens to our earthly body seems incompatible with physical resurrection. It rots away in the grave or is destroyed by fire in cremation, upon which its elements are returned to nature. What if one person cannibalised another person so that their dead body became part of the cannibal’s body? Such cases generate the puzzle of how both bodies, that of the cannibal and the cannibalised, could possibly both be raised, if there are parts of one which belong to both? The issue is far more extensive when you consider that many people are cannibals in a more indirect way. Decomposing bodies are used as nutrients for plants, which might then be eaten by another person, or by an animal who dies and is then eaten by a person. This issue was much debated in the 2nd century.

God’s omnipotence could be argued to solve this. “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

However, it might be logically impossible for God to resurrect two people from the diffused parts of their earthly body if some parts of each of their bodies belong to both of them.

St Paul on presence with Christ after death

Some have interpreted St Paul’s letter to the Philippians as suggesting that something happens to us before resurrection at the end of time.

Paul says that “to die is gain” but continuing to live “in the body” will mean “fruitful labour”. Paul says this is a difficult choice and he is “torn between the two … I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ … yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” Paul is saying it is better to die and be with Christ, but the “more necessary” task is to keep living in order to help spread Christianity. (Philippians 1:21-24).

Paul seems to indicate here that immediately after death there will be a presence with Christ (particular judgement). This influenced the commonly believed Christian idea today that immediately after death there is particular judgement and then a non-physical existence in Heaven (as a state, since he won’t be in the flesh anymore).

However, St Paul spoke so clearly of the resurrection of the dead that arguably here he is not trying to replace general judgement with particular judgement, but just suggesting that there is particular judgement in addition to general judgement.

N. T. Wright argues that the New Testament is “largely uninterested” in the question of what happens to us after death but before the resurrection. He accepts that there are passages like this one in Philippians, the many dwelling-places of John 14 and the “with me in paradise” of Luke 23.43, but points out that “in none of these passages is there any mention of the psyche [soul]).” Wright concludes that if the early Christians had wanted to teach that what they mean by ‘soul’ is the “part of us which survives death and carries our real selves until the day of resurrection, they could have said so”. So, Wright is arguing that deriving the current popular understanding of the soul from these passages is unwarranted. He thinks that western Christian culture has been too heavily influenced by Plato’s view of the soul despite it having been rejected by Jewish tradition. This Platonic influence has caused Christians to misunderstand what the soul means in Christianity which causes the popular belief that our souls go to heaven/hell straight after death, which Wright points out has the unfortunate effect of eclipsing belief in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.