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The Importance and Nature of the Resurrection

Christians universally agree that the resurrection of Jesus is central to their faith. Popular apologist Josh McDowell wrote, "The resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christianity stand or fall together" (1982, p. 179). Terry Miethe, a Christian professor of philosophy at Oxford, has maintained that "`Did Jesus rise from the dead?' is the most important question regarding the claims of the Christian faith?" (p. xi, emphasis in original). Indeed, one cannot be a Christian unless one believes that God raised Jesus from the dead. For Paul, the earliest of the New Testament writers, the resurrection was central to his message. In a passage that is arguably the most important passage in the entire New Testament concerning the resurrection, he wrote,

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God.... If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (1 Cor. 15:14-17).

However, while Christians may agree on the importance of the resurrection, they do not agree on the meaning of the resurrection. For example, was the resurrection an event in space and time? Could it have been captured on videotape? Was it bodily in nature? Must it be a bodily, physical resurrection in order to retain its importance? The Christian community is divided. By briefly considering the debate within the Christian community over the nature of the resurrection, we will be able to put into proper perspective the twentieth-century debate between skeptics and Christians over the resurrection.

Resurrection vs. Resuscitation

However, before I discuss the alternative interpretations of the resurrection, I want to make it very clear that resurrection does not mean resuscitation, the reanimation of a corpse that will die again someday. As Marcus Borg wrote (p. 15),

Whatever happened at Easter, it was not resuscitation. Easter does not mean that Jesus resumed his previous life as a finite person. Rather, resurrection means that he entered another kind and level of existence, "raised to the right hand of God."

It is important to note that while there are other individuals in the Bible who "came back to life," so to speak, there is a fundamental difference between their experiences and that of Jesus. With the exception of Enoch and Elijah (who were translated), the rest of those people died again. In contrast, Jesus was raised from the dead, never to die again. The New Testament makes a clear distinction between Jesus' pre-resurrection body and his post-resurrection body. Jesus' pre-resurrection body was ordinary: fully human and therefore completely mortal. However, after the resurrection, his body was transformed and made immortal.

If resurrection does not mean resuscitation, then what does it mean? Two types of answers are possible. The first view, which I shall refer to as non-material resurrection, is the belief that Jesus' corpse need not come back to life in order for the resurrection to be significant. The second and opposing view, material resurrection, is the doctrine that the resurrection body must be a material body, if the resurrection is to have any meaning whatsoever. Let us consider each understanding of the resurrection in turn.

Non-Material Resurrection

I must confess that, prior to investigating the resurrection for myself, I had not considered the possibility that one could deny the material nature of Jesus' resurrection yet still be a Christian. However, since beginning my investigation, I have become acquainted with several scholars (Küng, Rahner, Borg, et al) who deny (or at least do not feel they must affirm) the material nature of Jesus' resurrection, but claim to be Christians. A careful description and consideration of their views is therefore in order.

       Not in History (Not in Space and Time)         
                  A Different Body                    
                 An Immaterial Body                   
          Does Not Depend on the Empty Tomb           
                  Not in the Flesh                    

First, non-materialists emphasize that the resurrection was not a historical event. As Borg writes, "Speaking as a Christian, I regard these stories not as straightforward events that you could capture on video" (Ibid., p. 49.). The Jesuit Karl Rahner once wrote, "it is obvious that the resurrection of Jesus neither can be nor intends to be a `historical' event" (p. 277). Hans Küng makes essentially the same point, but in greater detail (p. 349-350):

Since according to New Testament faith the raising is an act of God within God's dimensions, it can not be a historical event in the strict sense: it is not an event which can be verified by historical science with the aid of historical methods. For the raising of Jesus is not a miracle violating the laws of nature, verifiable within the present world, not a supernatural intervention which can be located and dated in space and time. There was nothing to photograph or record.... But neither the raising itself nor the person raised can be apprehended, objectified, by historical methods. In this respect the question would demand too much of historical science - which, like the sciences of chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology or theology, never sees more than one aspect of the complex reality - since, on the basis of its own premises, it deliberately excludes the very reality which alone comes into question for a resurrection as also for creation and consummation: the reality of God.

This is a very significant passage, because if Küng is correct, then much of the debate between skeptics and Christians is irrelevant to the Easter message. If the Easter event did not occur in space and time, then historical questions about the empty tomb and Jesus' appearances after his death are at best peripheral issues.

I should make it clear however, that when Küng says that the resurrection is not a "historical event," he does not mean in any way that the resurrection is not real. For example, I think that Küng, Rahner, Borg, et al would agree that the early Christians' experiences of the risen Lord are events in space and time. For these Christians, though, the question, "so what happened to Jesus' body after his death?" is ultimately not that important.

The second important feature of non-materialists is that they do not think Jesus' resurrected body is the same body. Küng (p. 351) argues that there is "no continuity of the body: questions of natural science, like that of the persistence of molecules, do not arise." Likewise, they do not necessarily consider the resurrection body a material body. Rahner once said, "We miss the meaning of `resurrection' in general and also of the resurrection of Jesus to begin with if our original preconception is the notion of a resuscitation of a physical, material body" (p. 266). And Borg writes, "Resurrection could, but need not mean that the corpse had been affected; a corpse coming to life is not the point" (p. 15, emphasis added). This distinction is also significant because it is hardly ever even considered by skeptics who argue about the resurrection. As we will see in chapter 4, both sides tacitly assume that resurrection involves a material body, which is interesting when scholars like Borg claim that "the point" does not depend on the the raising of a corpse. (Of course, materialists would respond that "the point" may depend on the raising of a corpse.) But more about that later.

If the resurrection body need not be material, then what do non-materialists make of the empty tomb? They clearly do not regard it as necessary for Easter faith. For example, the Late Revd Dr. David Walker wrote that, "The corporality of the resurrection does not require the tomb to be empty" (p.173). Rahner says, "An empty tomb as such and by itself can never testify to the meaning and to the existence of a resurrection" (p. 267). Küng argues that if the empty tomb story is true, "faith in the risen Christ would not be made any easier and for some people today it would even become more difficult" (p. 365). Conversely, if the empty tomb story is unhistorical, that in no way would discredit the resurrection. As Walker states (Ibid.), "It is quite possible to affirm unambiguously that Christ rose from the dead while either denying the historicity of the empty tomb or being agnostic about the precise connection between it and Jesus' `rising.'"

Walker outlines at least two ways in which the Easter tomb story is theologically significant, even if it is not historical. First, he says, "belief in the empty tomb reinforces significance of Easter for a holistic view of human salvation" (Ibid.). Every aspect of human nature is redeemed by Jesus in the resurrection. Second, "belief in the empty tomb reinforces the significance of Easter for a cosmic view of salvation" (p. 366). According to this view, then, the empty tomb story is significant because it affirms the risen Christ as "the supreme instance of natural order as God intends it to be" (Ibid.)

Material Resurrection

However, there is another group of Christians who claim that Jesus' resurrection body was - and had to be - a material body. According to leading inerrantist Norman L. Geisler, "The logic is clear: If Jesus rose bodily from the dead in the same body in which He died, and if this body was a physical, material body, then it follows that the resurrection body was a physical, material body" (p. 27). (Of course, the physical body might have been transformed in some way, but nevertheless, according to this view, it was still a physical body.) This view, it seems, is the belief held by virtually all of Christian apologists who are in dialogue with the skeptical community.

          In History (In Space and Time)           
                  The Same Body                    
                 A Material Body                   
           Dependence on the Empty Tomb            

A fundamental concept for this understanding of the resurrection is that the resurrection occurred in history. That is to say, when Jesus rose from the dead, he did so in space and time. Concerning this, Josh McDowell claims that "the resurrection of Christ is an event in history wherein God acted in a definite time-space dimension" (1972, p. 185). Likewise, the theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg says, "Whether the resurrection of Jesus took place or not is a historical question, and the historical question at this point is inescapable. And so the question has to be decided on the level of historical argument" (quoted in McDowell 1972, p. 188). Or consider the words of Norman Geisler (p. 26), who said the resurrection "was a chronologically datable event in history. It was not a super-historical event beyond space and time. Rather, it was an empirical event in real history."

They also contend that Jesus' post-resurrection body was the same body as his pre-resurrection body, and therefore that it was a material body. Geisler writes, "the Bible declares that the same body placed in Jesus' tomb on Good Friday emerged from it on Easter Sunday" (p. 26). Furthermore, "the resurrection body is described as a material body" (Ibid.). According to this view, "flesh and bones" (Luke 24:39), the crucifixion scars (John 20:27), eating (Luke 24:42-43), and touching the risen Jesus (Matt. 28:9) are all understood as material phenomenon.

What about the empty tomb? Proponents of a material resurrection consider a historical empty tomb essential to their understanding of Easter. If the empty tomb story is historically reliable, they contend this is strong evidence for the truth of the resurrection; but if the empty tomb tradition is not trustworthy, this casts enormous doubt on their whole superstructure of belief.


My goal here has not been to take sides and say that one understanding of the resurrection is right and the other is wrong; rather, my purpose is simply to acknowledge that such differences exist. I think this is important to understand when talking about the resurrection debate between skeptics and Christians, so that we can place the debate in its proper perspective. As we shall see, the debate has almost exclusively assumed that the material view of the resurrection is a proper understanding of what the isses are, without even acknowledging the non-material position. But before we can examine the arguments advanced by both sides, we need also to consider one other crucial issue: the problem of miracles. In the next chapter, I will consider the whole question of whether miracles are possible and, if so, what would constitute reasonable for them.