The Physical Resurrection

The Christian proclamation that God raised Jesus from the dead is the basis for the Christian faith and, at the same time, a huge stumbling block for many people. “When you’re dead you’re dead,” we say, and on the basis of that truism we conclude that the resurrection of Jesus cannot have happened. It is important to be clear about what we mean when we talk about the resurrection. One thing we can be certain of is that the Second Testament is not claiming that Jesus’ dead body was simply resuscitated. A resuscitated body, like Lazarus’s, will die again, and it is abundantly clear that the earliest Christian proclamation assumed that the risen Jesus would no longer be subject to death.

The Second Testament explicitly claims two things and implies a third, which taken together (I believe) constitute the basic meaning of the resurrection. First, the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid was found empty on the third day after the crucifixion. Second, on the third day and after, Jesus began appearing to his disciples, beginning with Mary Magdalene—all four Gospels agree that Mary is the first and primary witness—and did so for an indeterminate amount time and in a variety of places. These appearances were visual, aural, and tactile (he could be touched and he could eat food). The implied assertion of the Second Testament—the third claim—is that God had transformed Jesus’ dead body into a new kind of living reality, continuous with Jesus’ earthly body but with a new kind of life. Paul called this new reality a “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44). This transformation is what Paul says will happen to all of us at the end of time. As a Christian, this is what I believe.

This post originally appeared as Endnote 55 in “This is the Word of the Lord”: How the Bible Became Text and Why It Matters by Bill Thomason.

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