On Easter Sunday the Church of England, like other Christian churches, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this post I am going to explore two questions. ‘What does it mean to say that Jesus Christ rose again from the dead?’ and ‘Why does the resurrection matter?’
What does it mean to say that Jesus Christ rose from again the dead ?
The answer given to this question by the Church of England in Article IV of the Thirty Nine Articles runs as follows:
‘Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.’
The understanding of the nature of the resurrection put forward in this article is helpfully explained by William Beveridge in his commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles. Using the term ‘hell’ to refer to the place of the dead rather than the final place of everlasting punishment, he writes:
‘…Christ did truly rise from death. As he did truly suffer, was truly crucified, truly dead, truly buried, and did truly descend into hell; so did he also truly rise again from death. The soul of Christ; being breathed from his body, went down to hell; the body of Christ, being deprived of its soul, was carried to the grave. And here they both continued, the one in the grave, and the other in hell, until the third day after the divorce was made: at which time the soul that went from the body down to hell, comes up again from hell unto the body. And, as it left the body upon the cross, it now finds it in the grave; even the self-same body that, three days before, was nailed to the cross; not any way broken, be-mangled or corrupted, but in the same condition the soul had left it in. This self-same body, which the soul before was forced from, is it now again united to. After which union of the soul to the body, immediately follows the return, or resurrection both of soul and body from the state of death. The separation of the soul from the body had brought (though not the soul, yet) the human nature into a state of death; the union of the soul to the body brings it back again to the state of life. So that Christ after his resurrection, as well as before his passion, had all things appertaining to the human nature; having the same soul and the same body, the same flesh and the same bones that he had before, and the same of everything that belongeth to the perfection of man’s nature.’
If we ask what the evidence is that Jesus rose from the dead in soul and body in the way summarised in Article IV and expounded by Beveridge the answer is twofold.
First, in the first century Jewish context belief in the resurrection meant precisely the re-embodiment of a disembodied soul in a resurrected body in the way described by Beveridge. As Tom Wright has argued in detail in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, what ‘resurrection’ meant for first century Jewish thinkers was ‘life after life after death.’ That is to say, they believed that when someone died their soul left their body, but continued to exist in a disembodied state in the place of the dead (referred to variously as ‘sheol,’ ‘hades’ or ‘hell’). This was ‘life after death.’ However at the end of time God would finally undo physical death, the bodies of the dead would be brought back to life and the souls of the dead would be re-united with them. This was ‘resurrection’ or ‘life after life after death.’
What this means is that when the New Testament talks about the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus its use of the term necessarily implies not that his soul continued to exist in some disembodied post-mortem state, or that his influence lived on in some vague fashion, but that in his case the resurrection of the dead expected at the end of time had already occurred with his soul being re-united with his resurrected body.
Secondly, the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection contained in the New Testament all point us in the same direction.
In the Gospels we find the view of the resurrection put forward by Article IV and by Beveridge supported by the accounts of the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-8, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-11, John n 20:1-18) The reason the tomb is empty is because the body of Jesus has been raised. It is also supported by the encounters of the disciples with the risen Jesus. Jesus is specifically said not to be a ‘ghost’ (i.e. a disembodied soul) but someone with a body who is capable of being seen, talking, walking, eating food and being touched (Luke 24:36-43, see also Luke 24:30, Matthew 28:9, and John 20:26-28, 21: 9-14). It is clear that his body could do things that normal bodies cannot, such as appear and disappear and go through locked doors (Luke 24:31, John 20:19 and 26). In context, however, it is clear that this does not mean that the body is any way unreal. It is simply that it is a body that through God’s power is able to do things that are not normally possible.
In Acts 2:22-34 St. Peter’s exposition of Psalm 16 on the day of Pentecost makes clear that what had not happened to King David had happened to Jesus. King David remained dead with his soul in hades and his body in a well-known Jerusalem tomb, but Jesus was alive with his soul liberated from hades and his body freed from the corruption of death.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 St. Paul repeats what Gordon Fee in his commentary on I Corinthians describes as: ‘…a very early creedal formulation that was common to the entire church.’ This formulation declares that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.’
As Fee goes on to say, the clause ‘that he was buried’:
‘…functions to verify the reality of the death. In the present context it emphasizes the fact that a dead corpse was laid in the grave, so that the resurrection that follows will be recognized as an objective reality, not merely a ‘spiritual’ phenomenon. Therefore, even though the point is incidental to Paul’s own concern, this very early expression of Christian faith also verifies the reality of the empty tomb stories. It is common in some quarters of NT scholarship to deny this latter, but that seems to be a case of special pleading. The combined emphasis on death, burial and third day resurrection would have had an empty tomb as its natural concomitant, even if not expressed in that way. Given this language, embedded in the heart of the earliest tradition, the early Christians and Paul would find it unthinkable that some would deny that they believed that the tomb was also empty, or that those stories were the creation of a later generation that needed ‘objective verification’ of the resurrection. One may not believe that Jesus rose and that the tomb was therefore empty; but one may scarcely on good historical grounds deny that they so believed.’
The statement in 1 Corinthians that Christ was raised ‘on the third day’ also points us in the same direction. To quote Wright again:
‘The phrase ‘after three days’, looking back mainly to Hosea 6:2 is frequently referred to in rabbinic mentions of the resurrection. This does not mean that Paul or anyone else in early Christianity supposed that it was a purely metaphorical statement, a vivid way of saying ‘the biblical hope has been fulfilled’. In fact, the mention of any time-lag at all between Jesus’ death and his resurrection is a further strong indication of what is meant by the latter: not only was Jesus’ resurrection in principle a dateable event for the early Christians, but it was always something that took place, not immediately upon his death, but a short period thereafter. If by Jesus ‘resurrection’ the early church had meant that they believed he had attained a new state of glory with God, a special kind of non-bodily post-mortem existence, it is difficult to see why there should have been any interval at all; why should he have had to wait? If, however, the early church knew from the first that something dramatic had happened on the third day (counting inclusively) after the Friday when Jesus died, then not only the appeal to Hos. 6.2 and the wider tradition thereby represented, but also the shift represented by the Christian use of Sunday as ‘the lord’s day’, is fully explained. ‘
What all this means is that when St. Paul goes on to mention the list of the earliest witnesses to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:5, and then goes on to add some more witnesses of his own in verses 6-8, he is telling us about is people who did not simply have subjective visionary experiences, but people who had an actual historical encounter with the Jesus who was able to appear to them because he was no longer dead but had on the third day been raised from the grave in body and in soul, with his tomb being empty as a result.
Why the resurrection matters
Acceptance of the reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ still leaves us with the question of why this event matters. Within the Bible Jesus is not the only person who is described as returning from the dead. This is also true, for example, of the son of the widow of Zarephath (1Kings 17:17-24), of Lazarus (John 11:1-44) and of the dead saints in Jerusalem mentioned by St. Matthew (Matthew 27: 51-53). What, then, is it about the resurrection of Jesus that makes it uniquely important?
Article IV itself does not answer this question, but the answer given to it by the Elizabethan Church of England and presupposed by the Article is contained in the homily ‘Of the Resurrection of Our Saviour Jesus Christ’ in the Second Book of Homilies.
This homily tells us that Jesus’ resurrection was uniquely significant because by it, as the completion of what he achieved on the cross, Jesus defeated sin, death and the devil and achieved new life and righteousness for all believers. The homily declares:
‘If death could not keep Christ under his dominion and power, but that he arose again, it is manifest that his power was overcome. If death be conquered, then must it follow that sin, wherefore death was appointed as the wages (Romans 6:23), must be also destroyed. If death and sin be vanished away, then is the devil’s tyranny vanished, which had the power of death, and was the author and brewer of sin, and the ruler of hell. If Christ had the victory of them all by the power of his death, and openly proved it by his most victorious and valiant resurrection (as it was not possible for his great might to be subdued of them) and it is true, that Christ died for our sins, and rose again for our justification; why may not we, that be his members by true faith, rejoice and boldly say with the Prophet Osee, and the Apostle Paul, Where is thy dart, O death? Where is thy victory, O hell? Thanks be unto God, say they, which hath given us the victory by our Lord Christ Jesus (Hosea 13:14, 1 Corinthians 15:55, 57).’
It then goes on to say:
‘This is the mighty power of the Lord, whom we believe on. By his death, hath he wrought for us this victory, and by his resurrection, hath he purchased everlasting life and righteousness for us. It had not been enough to be delivered by his death from sin, except by his resurrection we had been endowed with righteousness. And it should not avail us, to be delivered from death, except he had risen again, to open for us the gates of heaven, to enter into life everlasting. And therefore St Peter thanketh God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for his abundant mercy, because he hath begotten us saith he unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death, to enjoy an inheritance immortal, that never shall perish, which is laid up in heaven for them that be kept by the power of God through faith (1 Peter 1:3-5). Thus hath his resurrection wrought for us life and righteousness. He passed through death and hell, to the intent to put us in good hope, that by his strength we shall do the same. He paid the ransom of sin, that it should not be laid to our charge. He destroyed the devil and all his tyranny, and openly triumphed over him, and took away from him all his captives, and hath raised and set them with himself, among the heavenly citizens above (Ephesians 2.6). He died, to destroy the rule of the devil in us: and he rose again, to send down his Holy Spirit to rule in our hearts, to endow us with perfect righteousness.’
The homily also follows St. Paul in declaring that the resurrection has consequences for Christian behaviour. It is not only something to believe in intellectually as a historical fact, but also a summons to a new way of life:
‘…as Christ was raised up from death by the glory of the Father, so let us rise to a new life, and walk continually therein (Romans 6:2-4) that we may likewise as natural children live a conversation to move men to glorify our Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5.16). If we then we be risen with Christ by our faith to the hope of everlasting life: let us rise also with Christ, after his example, to a new life, & leave our old. We shall then be truly risen, if we seek for things that be heavenly, if we have our affection on things that be above, and not on things that be on the earth. If ye desire to know what these earthly things be which ye should put off, and what be the heavenly things above, that ye should seek and ensue, St Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians declareth, when he exhorteth us thus. Mortify your earthly members and old affections of sin, as fornication, uncleanness, unnatural lust, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is worshipping of idols, for the which things, the wrath of God is wont to fall on the children of unbelief, in which things once ye walked, when ye lived in them But now put ye also away from you, wrath, fierceness, maliciousness, cursed speaking, filthy speaking, out of your mouths. Lie not one to another, that the old man with his works be put off, and the new be put on (Colossians 3.1-2, 5-9). These be the earthly things which Saint Paul moved you to cast from you, and to pluck your hearts from them. For in following these, ye declare yourselves earthly and worldly. These be the fruits of the earthly Adam. These should ye daily kill, by good diligence, in withstanding the desires of them, that ye might rise to righteousness. Let your affection from henceforth be set on heavenly things, sue and search for mercy, kindness, meekness, patience, forbearing one another, and forgiving one another. If any man have a quarrel to another, as Christ forgave you, even so do ye (Colossians 3:12-13) If these and such other heavenly virtues ye ensue in the residue of your life, ye shall show plainly that ye be risen with Christ, and that ye be the heavenly children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:45), from whom, as from the giver, cometh these graces and gifts (James 1.17). Ye shall prove by this manner, that your conversation is in heaven, where your hope is: and not on earth, following the beastly appetites of the flesh (Philippians 3.20).’
In conclusion, therefore, we can say that what the resurrection means is that on the third day after Jesus died his soul was re-united with his resurrected body. This event matters because as the completion of the act of salvation which Jesus began when he died on the cross it means the defeat of sin, death and the devil and the beginning of a new life of righteousness for all who believe. This event also matters because it is a summons to a new way of living. If we have been given new life through Jesus’ resurrection then we have to start living this new life and we do this by turning away from our old life of sin and embracing the new life of holiness which Jesus resurrection has made possible. To quote a Michael Green book title ‘new life, new lifestyle.’