Spirit, Learning and Life

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Beyond Ghosts and Ghouls

Resurrection: Beyond Ghosts and Ghouls

by Arthur Paul Patterson

MORE THAN A fact or doctrine, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth embodies personal and historical hope. While reading a variety of viewpoints on the resurrection, I have been alternatively confused, comforted, restored and unexpectedly devastated by this theme. Internally and subjectively the resurrection is an encounter with the epicenter of meaning and significance. Without a living encounter and reliance on the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, spirituality amounts to little more than armchair speculation. This strikes at the root of my fears because my intellect hesitates to believe that a person whose bodily functions had ceased, whose tether to the organ of consciousness, the brain, had snapped could ever become not only animated but, miraculously, to exemplify all vitality. Resurrection has to be a reverie too optimistic to be factual.

I recall a dream I had when I was about six years old. I was at Aunt Naomi’s cottage at Winnipeg Beach when I dreamed that my dad had died and returned from the dead several years later. The mechanism by which he managed this was totally unknown; he walked into my mother’s and my life after a five-year hiatus. Instead of being elated at his resurrection, I was horrified by its abnormality. As I encountered my returned father, I recognized all the familiar benchmarks of Donald Morley Patterson: his wavy red-brown hair was the same, and his skin gave off that smoky fireman’s smell that lingered even when he was off shift. He was friendly and approachable, in fact, more himself than ever.

My natural instinct to enthusiastically welcome Dad back was replaced by a repellant fear. Somehow something was profoundly wrong. As far as I was concerned the only dead that came back to life were the zombies who ambled across my black-and-white TV screen late at night or the pod people who were only soggy imitations of their former selves. As much as I loved my dad, and it was my fondest dream that he had never died, I could not get used to the idea of a reconstituted dad — the idea left me trembling.

What is it that we are asked to believe: a historical event, an existential hope, a shared life or a new cosmology?

Trembling may not be an odd response when meeting a resurrected being. The mere possibility of resurrection was enough to leave Jesus of Nazareth’s first disciples scared and running for their lives. Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8). Time would be needed to adjust to this utterly unprecedented event of eschatological proportions. Their imaginations would need to be finely honed to avoid the inevitable suggestion of ghosts and ghouls.

Ignoring the resurrection isn’t an option. Early Christian communities and Paul the Apostle assert that our personal and cosmic destiny depends upon Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection. “If Christ is not risen then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14) How is it possible for me to believe, trust in, and live out of the energy of the resurrection?

Quickened imagination and serious reflection are needed to make sense of it. Childish images of re-animated corpses and the philosophical prejudices of scientism pose as twin dragons waiting to swallow up any meaningful understanding of the pivotal Christ event. The first step to avoid being scorched by literalism or scientism is to ask, “What is it that we are asked to believe: a historical event, an existential hope, a shared life or a new cosmology?”

Resurrection and History

There is no direct account of the resurrection in the New Testament; it mentions no blast of supernatural energy or eyewitnesses. What is mentioned are the circumstances surrounding Jesus of Nazareth’s death and even these are given a theological interpretation. Unlike the resurrection, the death of Jesus is attested to outside the believing communities in sources such as Josephus and Tacitus. The crucifixion while probably not a highly attended incident was nevertheless a public one – capable of historical verification. The cross took place in history as we generally define history.

The resurrection as we have said had no eyewitness, believing or otherwise. It is an event acknowledged to have happened because of its effects on the believing community. The resurrection was accepted because of the subsequent appearances of the Risen Christ in various community settings in Jerusalem and Galilee:

  • To Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18; Mark 16:9)
  • To the other women (Matthew 28:8-10)
  • To Peter (Luke 24:34; I Corinthians 15:5)
  • To the two on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35; Mark 16:12)
  • To ten of the disciples (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-29)
  • To all eleven disciples, eight days later (John 20:24-29)
  • To seven disciples by the Sea of Tiberius (John 21:1-23)
  • To five hundred followers (I Corinthians 15:6)
  • To James (I Corinthians 15:7)
  • To the eleven, at the ascension (Acts 1:3-12)
  • To Paul “as one out of time” (1 Corinthians 15: 8,9)
Since the authentication of the resurrection is attested to exclusively by those who are theologically invested, modern historians eliminate it from their discipline. From a scientific historical-critical point of view, resurrection is placed in the category of personal belief. Within this private realm, it is beyond negative or positive criticism.

Those who seek assurance of resurrection through historical methods frequently end up discouraged because the discipline of history, as we moderns practice it, can’t verify the resurrection, nor does history disprove that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead. Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg maintain that our current “science of history” is inadequate and should therefore be replaced by a broader conception of history, one which could include events that while not empirically verifiable are nonetheless real and experienced. This philosophy of history doesn’t preclude out-of-the-ordinary events, nor does it restrict history to humanity’s actions toward nature or with each other. Contrary to the historical critical approach, this theological conception of history would allow for interactions between humanity, nature and supra-natural forces or beings such as God. Moltmann makes the innovative suggestion that we reverse the interpretive flow, asking not how history verifies the resurrection but how the resurrection contributes to the overall meaning of human history.

The resurrection is not capable of being proven but it is capable of being believed, trusted and lived.

A theological versus a critical view of history seen from within the context of a believing community seems to recommend itself as a better starting point for the exploration of the resurrection. The problem is that many historians do not share a metaphysical consensus on which to base their ideas about the resurrection and consequently view such a practice of history as theological sleight of hand.

A better approach is not to rely on history or science as validating the resurrection since at best it can only secure probability. As a historical miracle devoid of any interpretation, the resurrection makes very little difference. It merely leaves us with the uneasy feeling that of all the humans who have ever lived only one human being was raised from the dead. Such a barebones reading of the un-interpreted event of Christ’s resurrection would leave us asking the irreverent question, “So what?” Even if historical critical methods or newly discovered evidence proved that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth took place, its meaning would still remain a mystery. Resurrection must have another means of validation and explanation than historical proof.

The author of Luke foresaw the shortcomings of empiricism as a means of verifying faith or belief. He concluded the parable of Lazarus the Beggar and the Rich Man with the words, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." (Luke 16:31). Faith is not based on probability but on belief. The resurrection is not capable of being proven but it is capable of being believed, trusted and lived.

Instigating a revolution in the paradigms of science and history is not an effective or efficient approach to understanding and living the resurrection. The danger of Moltmann’s historical approach lies in returning theology to its pre-modern position as queen of the sciences. Ken Wilber, founder of Integral Studies, believes that one of the benefits of modernity is the creation of the dignity of the disciplines where science can be carried on independently of theological censorship. The theological history proposed by Moltmann may still be appropriate for the discipline of theology whose guiding axioms are other than those of the modern historian.

Communities of Resurrection

Theology uses confession, the testimony of a community’s stories, and personal experience as primary data. Evaluating the resurrection accounts alongside the founding language and overall traditions of the various believing communities allows us to give the event a meaningful interpretation.

The living presence of Christ in community is a primary experience whereas the resurrection is the theological concept used to describe an event that predated those encounters. A personally perceived encounter with the formerly crucified and dead Jesus demands an explanation. The primary toolkit available to the early interpreters of this living presence came from Jewish apocalyptic. Resurrection in Jewish apocalyptic represents a type of cosmic hope in a time of national and personal abandonment; it became a resource for national religious martyrs who faced death with assurance of a bodily return.

In Ezekiel the resurrection image was depicted as the revitalizing of the dry bones of a dead nation. National impotence was overcome by the inauguration of God’s new reign called The Day of the Lord. This Day buried the current political systems in an eternal realm of justice and compassion. The timetable for this was at the end of temporal time; those involved in this kingdom were known as the Children of Light. Depending on the school of apocalyptic there was a figure known as the Teacher of Righteousness, Son of Man, or Messiah who would initiate the new cosmic era.

How did the various communities who had encountered the living Christ describe the resurrection, find meaning in it, and live it?

The Jesus Community had hoped that their leader would be the apocalyptic messiah but with his crucifixion and death that hope was obliterated. For those on the way to Emmaus, hope died on Golgotha:

This man was a prophet and was considered by God and by all the people to be powerful in everything he said and did. Our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and he was crucified. And we had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set Israel free! Besides all that, this is now the third day since it happened (Luke 24:20-21).

They scattered and returned to their occupations disillusioned. The impetus to proclaim the risen Christ surfaced when some reported seeing Jesus returned from the dead. They continued using the idiom of the apocalyptic but in a way that revolutionized it, setting a path for a new universal interpretation of its language. Jesus said in his ministry that he fulfilled and exceeded the Law. Nowhere is this principle more apparent than in the understanding of the resurrection. Never was there an apocalyptic expectation that one individual would be resurrected and especially that this individual would be the coming messiah. The reconfigured message, while using the language of apocalyptic, completely reinterprets and demolishes it. Instead of national liberation and a liberating messiah, the gospel proclaimed universal liberation and a messiah who conquered through suffering and forgiving even the oppressor. The best news yet was that through the Suffering Servant’s raising and vindication, the exodus was offered to the entire world and not to only one nation.

These were the apocalyptic images and symbols used to understand what had happened to Jesus Christ. The appearances themselves are wrapped in this linguistic skein and used to tell about genuine encounters with the raised One. Some of the gospel writers used the idea of seeing Jesus alive as a form of inner revelation or an unveiling; Christ allowed himself to be seen and the witness was passively involved. In other stories, faith and interpretation seem to be vital ingredients. Some saw the Risen Christ and others doubted and couldn’t see him (Matthew 28:17). If the showing of Christ were an ordinary event that could be captured on film then how could they doubt? Like the resurrection, the early appearances seem to have been aspects of eschatological history or the in-breaking of God’s future kingdom manifest to those with faith on the borderline of history.

Where the modern emphasis is “What actually happened at the precise moment of resurrection?”, the New Testament is more interested in answering, “How did the various communities who had encountered the living Christ describe the resurrection, find meaning in it, and live it?” Distinguishing between these questions ought not to imply that the resurrection did not happen, it merely points out that the early church did not puzzle over the metaphysics of the resurrection or question its historical validation. They assumed the resurrection was an inexplicable, mysterious eschatological fact, the dynamics of which were not speculated upon. They alleged that resurrection gave rise to a faith community that was in harmony with and permeated by the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament never pitted the fact of the resurrection against its meaning or interpretation.

Resurrection as an apocalyptic image

New Justice

The diversity of interpretation of the resurrection in the New Testament has to do with the purpose for which Jesus’ resurrection was used. If a community were struggling to answer the Jewish question concerning the Law, then the emphasis was placed upon how the resurrection of Jesus revealed a New Justice (Acts 2:1-36). The earliest proclamation stressed how justice was not done in the specific case of Jesus of Nazareth but that in this miscarriage justice itself was transformed from law to grace. The offer of participating in God’s universal justice was available to all, including those who put Jesus to death. Jesus’ faithfulness to God, validated by his resurrection, replaced nationalistic works righteousness as the ground of hope. A new justice and a new people are created from the injustice done to Jesus of Nazareth.


As the early believers became convinced of the universal as opposed to the national message of the gospel, mission and resurrection were linked. From the earliest testimonies of the women at the tomb there is a direct link between resurrection and mission. Upon discovering the empty tomb the women were told to go and tell the disciples (Mark 16:7). Going and telling has forever been extrinsically linked to the resurrection; new creation and vocation are coupled. Later, when Paul spoke of the gospel, he easily went between describing it as the gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of the resurrection. The appended resurrection appearance (John 21:1-14) associates the seaside encounter and miraculous catch with the original calling of the disciples. The inference was that the Galilean fishermen were still fishers of men and women; this missionary calling was reemphasized at the resurrection.

Lordship and Exaltation

In times of persecution, when the loyalty of the community was tested, the Lordship and Exaltation of Jesus in his Resurrection were emphasized. One of the first confessions of the Christian community was “Jesus is Lord.” While a direct affront to the political monopoly of the emperors, this confession also insinuated to the Jewish audience that Jesus was the expected king of the Jews from the Davidic lineage (Acts 2: 24-36). Here the resurrection becomes a sign that Jesus is the expected eschatological king.

Language of lordship and exaltation was by far the most dangerous and open to misunderstanding of descriptions of what had happened at the resurrection of Christ. Jesus himself steered clear of using it directly for fear that it would take on a military or political meaning as it usually did in Jewish apocalyptic. The image is reigned in by setting lordship beside images of suffering servanthood, epitomized by the figure of the lamb in Revelation. If Jesus was king, he was king in a very un-monarchial manner; if Jesus was exalted, he was lifted up first on a cross not a throne. Jesus is Lord became a confession of submission by the early community to authority as it is revealed in Christ. What was affirmed in the heart of Christian community was eschatologically expected to be a universal affirmation by all of creation (Philippians 2:8-10).

Eternal Life

At a later date, especially when the hopes for an imminent return of Christ were dashed and many of the early witnesses to the resurrection appearances were dying, the community began to ask questions about Eternal Life. Resurrection and a qualitative as well as quantitative life are connected in the Johannine tradition (John 11:21-27). The resurrection is not exclusively to be found in the future but is already here in the physical and spiritual life of the community of individuals who confessed Christ. Hope for the future is presaged by hope in this life and it is grounded in the resurrection of Christ.

Hope and Future

Dealing directly with the postponement of the second coming, some communities emphasized Hope and the Future of the kingdom in history. Eschatology stressed the new creation in distinction to Jewish apocalyptic, which emphasized the end of time. The destiny of the world was linked to the destiny of Christ as revealed in the resurrection. What is true of Christ is true of his followers (Hosea 6:2 and Romans 6, 8).

Just as Jesus was raised, the believer could be confident of his own resurrection. Not only are people raised or liberated, creation itself participates in the new creation revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It would seem that the exodus is universalized in the resurrection and offered to all people.

These themes could be discussed without reference to the resurrection. However, placing them alongside this core conviction rooted community spirituality in an acknowledged in-breaking of God in history. The resurrection safeguarded faith from becoming a private belief or a cult of mystic participation. Resurrection faith implied belief in an act of God that gave rise to a community. Belief in the resurrection implied a discipleship that confirmed that something radically new had happened in history - that in fact the Kingdom has arrived in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and is confirmed by the formation of a community of resurrection that points toward the renewal of the world. This validation of the resurrection through evidence of the continued life of the Risen One in community and individual lives is superior to any historical validation through belief or probability.

The Resurrection continues in communities and individual lives.