by Julia Soleveva
Religions are bound by their own narratives of identity. very often they are challenged by different interpretations of social questions. Christianity nowadays, however, is debating one question, that defined and will define its very core of identity: did Jesus really rise from the dead?
Christianity, even in the modern world, is one of the fastest growing major religions. The numbers of followers, especially in the developing world, is increasing year on year. However, there have been many stories in recent years of Christians being persecuted in places like Kurdistan. One of the great controversies which have come to define the conflict between Christian and other faiths throughout history is the role of Jesus. At the core of the Christian faith lies the belief in Jesus’ life, death, teachings and most arguably most important of all – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Approaches towards such issues in the form of Theology can radically change the character of Christian Faith.
Before exploring the question at all, it is important to outline that there are two ways of looking into Jesus: the scientific approach (Jesus of Nazareth) and the religious approach (Jesus as Christ and Saviour). Jesus Christ is a figure as he is believed in, extolled as the Messiah in the scriptures. In the age when he was born, people were seeking the end of the Roman occupation of the Holy Land. As a result, many claimed to be the Messiah promised by the Jewish faith. The early Christian believers saw Jesus as the only one, and the others to be the conduit of false promise. After his death on the cross, framed as the great injustice of the Roman rule of Judea, they claimed that he rose from the dead three days after his ‘death’. The Resurrection is called “the Easter Event”, all that happened before in Jesus’ life is seen through the lens of his disciples in the form of the Gospels.
Oppositely, Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure with his own, evidence-based approach. Jesus of Nazareth shares similar qualities and has an overlap to the Messianic part, and the historical record can verify these overlaps. Although it may be that not all characteristics of Jesus Christ would fit Jesus of Nazareth, it is an absolute statement that Jesus has in fact lived. The life of Jesus of Nazareth is confirmed by valid sources such as in the history of Josephus Flavius, who refers to him. However, it can not be proven historically nor scientifically that Jesus of Nazareth was involved in a Resurrection event. Notwithstanding this, one of the articles of Christian Faith is the belief that the Resurrection took place. One of the most famous Christian teachings – The Apostle’s Creed- states “I believe in… Jesus Christ…on the third day he rose again”. Christians of all denominations have prayed this since the formulation of the creed in 4th century A.D. However, many different interpretations and opinions have been formed for the 16 centuries that followed.
Many people think that Jesus’ life started on 25th December (for Catholics and Protestants) or the 6th of January (Orthodox) of the year 1 A.D. However, many scholars now use the story of Herod the Great to prove that Jesus was born between 6 BC and 4 BC. Not long before Herod’s decease, which is believed to have occurred in 4 BC, he ordered the slaying of all male infants in Bethlehem under the age of two. The massacre was ordered in an attempt to kill Jesus, as Herod heard the news about the Messiah being born. Right from the beginning of his life, people were already aware of the impact that Jesus was going to have on the world. Later on in his life, he made many controversial statements, perhaps best encapsulated by “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one gets to the father except through Me”. The radical nature of this statement would drive an even deeper wedge between his supporters and his opponents. Furthermore, there appeared to be a bitter conflict between Jesus and money- changers at the Temple of Jerusalem. At the time, many were selling sacrificial animals and birds, along with money exchangers from Jerusalem coinage to the Tyrian one. Jesus claimed that the merchants turned a holy sacred temple into a place of profit-orientated greed, and had them evicted as a result. At the time this was seen as very controversial and unusual move. There are some who were very much in favour of the move, as it was said to refocus the purpose of the Temple back towards the worship of God and away from the worship of money. However, others were of the opinion that the merchants were trying to make an honest living and that Jesus had been very disrespectful towards them, breaking the commandment of ‘Love Thy Neighbour’.
Due to this controversy, and the fact that the coming of the Messiah was seen as undermining the authority of Roman Rule, during Jesus lifetime not many would regard themselves as his followers. For centuries, the Prophets of Israel have predicted and expected the coming of the Messiah. The prophets would declare “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever.” However, when the time for that government came around, the majority of Jewish people chose to reject Jesus as the Messiah alluded to in the Torah. After the death and supposed Resurrection of Jesus Christ, there would be no such problem finding support for his message. From the work of the Apostles in the establishment of the Early Church, the lessons of Christ are now (at least nominally) accepted by 2.2 billion people. Therefore, we can conclude that Resurrection is still of a great relevance today it, as it is still regarded as the definitive proof for Christianity being “the true religion”. St Paul supports this view in Corinthians 15:13-15 “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”, proving that Resurrection is crucial for the existence of Christianity.
It is also essential to understand the relationship between the Resurrection and what that means for how we perceive God. The bringing back to life of human flesh and blood (even that of the Messiah) is something that could only happen with the support of a God which is not subject to the usual rules and restrictions of physical laws. It also allows us a window of insight into the nature of the Christian God. The Resurrection shows that God, ultimately, does not tolerate injustice and cares for the suffering which takes place in his Kingdom. Christians often look to this event to provide a powerful example of God’s core characteristics: Omnibenevolence, Omnipresence and Omniscience. All the suffering that Jesus experienced during his time on the cross (humiliated and patronised in the process) is believed to had occurred for the relationship between God and his people to be restored. Jesus’ suffering was in no way meaningless or unnecessary, as he suffered and “died for our sins”, as the Corinthians 15:3-4 state in the New Testament of the Christian bible. Resurrection is believed to be the truth at the heart of Christianity. Without it, the Christian faith would lack a significant divine component that the Resurrection afforded. However, is it still as important to Christians nowadays?
It is essential to recognise the critical terms that have been set out in the question. The term of Resurrection in the Cambridge dictionary refers to “the act of bringing something that has disappeared or ended back into existence”. In the Christian context, it explicitly refers to Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, rising back to life after being tortured, sentenced and crucified under the order of Pontius Pilate. The scriptures and the gospels help to describe the event of Resurrection by giving the accounts of the disciples.
The event of Resurrection is described in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20-21. All these gospels tell the stories of Resurrection in great detail, but whether the differing accounts match up with one another is an entirely different matter. For instance, one of the disciples tells us the story of “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb” (Matthew 28:2), where they saw an angel as a violent earthquake struck them. The angel told them to declare to the disciples that they shall see Jesus Galilee. The Gospel of Mark (16:1), by contrast, tells us that the women were taking the spices down to the tomb, where they discovered that the stone had been moved away from the tomb. Instead of angels, as described in Matthew, they saw two men. They remembered what Jesus has told them when he was in Galilee. The two gospels aforementioned are not the only ones that differ in their account of events. A possible reason for these variations could be the fact that all the Gospels were written after a minimum of around 40 years after the Resurrection of Jesus took place. Moreover, their composition was by the people who not only spoke different languages and lived in different times but who were also not necessarily present when the Resurrection took place. It is important to take this into account when thinking about the accuracy and the precision of the Bible.
This doubt has reflected itself in the approach that many Christians take towards the nature of the Resurrection. A Poll conducted by the BBC and reported in the Daily Telegraph found that almost a quarter of those who identified as Christians in the United Kingdom (23%) do not recognise the Resurrection as a miracle which took place. Even amongst the active church-going community, 5% of those polled said that they do not believe that the Resurrection happened. So does this mean that the event that gives Christians the validity of their faith and solidifies their belief in the afterlife is no longer as important as it once was?
Maybe it is worth noting that even the early versions of the Gospel did not necessarily think deeply about the Resurrection event. At the start, the oldest gospel of Mark did not have an Easter tiding in its end. Its finale consisted of Jesus’ passion, with the story of Resurrection only added in later editions of the Gospel. One possible explanation for this amendment is owing to the Christian belief in the Parousia of the Lord. The term ‘Parousia’ is synonymous with the idea of ‘The Second Coming’. The early Christians thought that they would be able to see and experience this day in their lifetimes, thus diminishing the importance of writing down Jesus’ teaching and proclamations. Instead, the focus was one the telling of stories surrounding Jesus’ life and the miracles that he managed to perform on the sick and needy. The storytelling was done in a similar way to the telling of the great Classical texts such as Homer’s Illiad.
The early approach to the Parousia is the exact reason why the first known record of the importance of Resurrection is in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which is the oldest document of the today’s text of the New Testament. These letters have been read to Christian communities all over the world. Here, the apostle outlines the necessity for Christians to believe in the Resurrection, and the exact wording of the text has already been detailed.
The Reformation period in the 16th century came and left, leaving behind its mark in the form of new ways of viewing the Resurrection. The Reformation created a variety of the beliefs, each one being held by a different Christian denomination with a slightly different theological agenda. For example, Catholics believe in the literal Resurrection of the body, seeing the miraculous interpretation as the only one who could capture the majesty of this miracle. Similarly, Anglicans believe that to be a Christian; it is necessary to believe in the Resurrection as it shows an “inexplicable triumph of life over death”. To Anglicans, this interpretation is essential to being Christian as “it reminds us that there is continuity between the old and new. Jesus’ risen body did not replace his old one; the risen Christ still bore the scars of his former life. However, neither was the old body simply restored, as when Lazarus returned to life.” It is interesting to note the similarity between the continuous nature of the Anglican Resurrection and the approach that many traditional conservatives have to the lessons of history.
By contrast, many agree that though the Resurrection was a significant symbolic event in the course of the Bible, the portrayal of the even shouldn’t be taken literally. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the absurdity of taking the accounts too seriously. In a literal sense, it means that Jesus rose back from the dead and ascended to Heaven to be “sat by the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19), which is a quite extraordinary miracle, representing how Jesus and God are infinite and are always watching over us. The most accepted definition of a miracle is an event, which is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to divine agency. Rising from the dead is not in the everyday practice of human lifespans, neither can it be explained by any tool of scientific reasoning that we have available at the moment. Perhaps this disregard for natural laws contributes to the fact that not all Christians (many of whom were raised in secular environments) believe in the Resurrection today.
However, another way to approach the issue of the Resurrection is to cast it in a metaphorical light. The assumption is that Jesus did indeed die on the cross, but the disciples and his followers, limited in numbers, spread his message across the world, carried out pilgrimages and went on to evangelise millions of people. The success of Early Christianity shows that, although Jesus did not survive physically, his legacy is very much alive and well in the Christian faith. It is even possible to consider the spread of Christianity as a metaphorical miracle. On the other hand, there are some empiricist philosophers like David Hume who believe that miracles should not reasonably form the basis of a religious belief. They see miracles as of little purpose. They justify this by saying that the belief in miracles is irrational and no one has any evidence, apart from misplaced trust, that the miracle happened. Furthermore, it would never be possible to know how the miracle happened, as the description of the event will highly depend on the person’s perception of reality. Therefore, some argue that the core idea of Resurrection should be taken metaphorically, and the variety of details and nuances in attempting to justify the apparent miracle of coming back from the dead should be put to one side.
There is another reason why we should see the metaphorical importance of the Resurrection event. The Resurrection presents the possibility of life after death. Jesus dying and resurrecting offers us an idea that although it may not be literal, there may be life after death. Him ascending to Heaven and sitting by God’s right hand has a similarity with Christian belief in Heaven after death. Heaven is the destination to those who deserved a reward for leading a virtuous life on earth, who can find supreme fulfilment. The Bible describes Heaven as, “small is the gate, and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-15), which “if you want to enter, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17-19). This room seems to have great promise, being compared to a “house [with] many rooms”, where the people “never again hunger; never again will they thirst”. The Bible is reluctant to describe what Heaven is indeed like and what kind of experiences it brings to its habitats, rather than saying that God will eliminate any suffering, mourning, pain and everyone there will be of good courage. The lack of detail in the Bible about Heaven makes it a mysterious destination, motivating people to follow the commandments and teachings to be able to enter God’s kingdom of Heaven and experience it for themselves.
The Opposite destination for Christians after their death is believed to be Hell. It is a place of suffering as a punishment in the afterlife, where sinners go as a result of their behaviour on earth. Hell is described as a place of fire, yet it is not clear whether the fire is meant in a literal or metaphorical sense. People there go into “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), where “all nations forget God” (Psalm 9:17). The last quote has to be noticed, as it highlights that when people go to Hell, they forget God, Jesus and the story of his Resurrection. People who go to Hell are all there to be punished, therefore forgetting God and the story of Resurrection could be seen as punishment, as it would make people non-believers. This distance makes having a relationship with God impossible, meaning God’s salvation will under no circumstance afforded to them. Though there are no guarantees that deeply flawed humans, far from the perfection of Jesus can go to Heaven, it still brings hope to humans that they can do the same if they properly adhere to the teaching of Jesus and the Bible. This highlights how important Resurrection is for not only encouraging Christians to believe in any forms of an afterlife, but also the belief in Resurrection opens them up to Jesus’ salvation, therefore an ability to enjoy all privileges of God’s kingdom. Here it can be seen that Resurrection (literal or not) is of high importance as the belief in it lets you enter either eternal happiness in Heaven or burn down in the fire of Hell (literal or not).
From all that said above, another question arises: How literally should the story of Resurrection be taken? Some may argue that the purpose of the story of Resurrection is only fulfilled when taken literally, as it is the only way that God can communicate ideas to us. Besides, Jesus always took the old testament teachings and stories in their literal interpretation. For example, when Satan tempted Jesus during his forty days in the wilderness to give him all kingdoms of the world, in return for his worship, Jesus quoted one of teachings “you shall worship The Lord your God, and him only you shall serve”. The principle is derived from one of the ten commandments “Thou shall not have any gods before me”. From this example, we can see how literally Jesus took the teachings and applied them wisely to given situations. In addition, In Corinthians 15: 12-19 St. Paul teaches us that Resurrection is to be believed literally, as he comes up with a sequence which proves his argument. He says “If there is no Resurrection of the dead then not even Christ has been raised. Moreover, if not even Christ has been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” This is due to Resurrection being a reason that St Paul believed that Jesus is proven to be the son of God and what makes our religion valid to this day. From this, we can see that there are many that are in consensus in the view of Resurrection being taken literally. However, we shall not neglect the counter-argument, which disputes for Resurrection not to be taken literally. Firstly, they have this belief as they hold the same view as David Hume, as I mentioned above, saying they do not know if the event occurred for sure, therefore being reluctant to believe in it wholeheartedly and literally. Moreover, in 30,000 Bible verses, it never says that bible is faultless and is accurate concerning history and science. By the explanation of science, a dead body could never have risen, and therefore maybe the bible was not meant to tell us otherwise, wanting us to understand the event of Resurrection in a metaphorical sense. From the arguments above, we can conclude that the bible and the event of Resurrection are to be believed literally to an extent to which your faith in religion goes, as if you tend to be more on a scientific side, you are most likely to reject the ideas presented.
Through time, the Resurrection has always remained significant, but it was safe to say that the most captivating theological topic in the 20th century was historical Jesus and events surrounding his life. The theologians were majorly alined and split into two- believers who took Resurrection metaphorically and literally. One of the theologians that take the more literal side of the argument is Rudolf Bultmann. He suggested that Jesus Christ could only exist along the concept of Resurrection, as it is the only miracle that could separate him from Jesus as a historical figure and Jesus Christ- one that makes up a third of the Holy Trinity. Bultmann highlighted the fact that there were other people to be involved in other types of miracles, for example, the parting of the Red Sea. Therefore the value of those was lowered. However, Jesus was the only prophet mentioned in the Bible who was able to have absolute command over life, death, and the most potent ailments which could plague a human being.
On the other side of the argument, with a more metaphorical view was Paul Tillich. The argument that Tillich was making about the nature of the Resurrection is that it was purposefully fabricated in order to reinforce the arguments being made by the Apostles. Some might see this to be an unholy act designed to trap people into a religious cycle which does not have a Godly basis. Tillich thinks the issue is a lot more nuanced than that. He suggests that the focus of theological teaching should be an association with the concept of ‘Ultimate Purpose’. The ultimate purpose of the Gospels was to spread the message of Jesus as a man of God. Therefore, it was functionally useful to use the end of Jesus’ life as an opportunity to proclaim the immortality of the flesh, and so the immortality of his image. This is the approach which most strongly chimes with the views of the author. One cannot help but be sceptical about the nature of the Resurrection. This scepticism is especially true given the fact that God the Holy Father permitted (if you accept Biblical accounts) his only Son to suffer disproportionately to absolve humanity of sins which it was already in the remit of God to grant. It is perhaps better to think about the Bible as contextual teaching as to what the good life is and to revise the principles accordingly in the face of social change and a new understanding of the world. The Bible is perhaps less useful as a sacred text, but better as a guiding light through which other acts of good can stem. The Resurrection is less about a miracle and more about the importance of human renewal.
Julia is a high school student about to enter her final year of secondary education. She is hoping to study Philosophy and Theology at university. She will be an attendant at the well-regarded Pusey House Theological Conference in Oxford alongside former Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior position in the UK clergy, Rowan Williams.