The Resurrection of Jesus

by Berry Friesen (April 22, 2015)

In his otherwise positive review of our book, Tony Bartlett offers this critique: “One thing I would have liked would have been a greater stress on resurrection--as itself a definitive victory over empire and its most feared instrument, death.”

Tony’s life and writings have been an inspiration to John and me and we take his critique seriously. He’s right to emphasize how the resurrection of Jesus reveals (and delegitimizes) the empire’s shocking hypocrisy and pretense. I won’t try here to fix the weakness Tony identifies, but instead will reflect on it.

In a book like ours written primarily for skeptics, resurrection is a difficult subject. Ringing affirmations don’t count for much, nor do “proofs.”  Yes, modern physics has demonstrated that the laws of energy are more open-ended than the Newtonian model suggested.  Still, that does not provide an explanation of resurrection.

Building on what he had been told (1 Cor. 15:3-7), the Apostle Paul was the first to write about Jesus’ resurrection.  His chapter-long discussion established the framework for subsequent writings.  It emphasized the physicality of Jesus’ risen state and how “those who belong to [Messiah]” would also be resurrected at the end of history (1 Cor. 15:23-24).

The Gospel According to Mark came next, perhaps fifteen years later. It included a low-key account from “a young man, dressed in a white robe” who sat in Jesus’ empty tomb and said Jesus “had been raised” and would be visible to his followers in Galilee (Mark 16:5-7). Mark ended his account (Mark 16:8) without confirming the physicality of Paul’s account, thus raising doubts about what Paul had written.

The Gospel According to Matthew followed soon after with an awkwardly dramatic account of the resurrection that included an earthquake, celestial beings and the emergence from tombs of long-dead saints who walked around Jerusalem (Matt. 27:52—28:3). But it confirmed the risen Jesus’ physicality, noting that his disciples “took hold of his feet” when they worshipped him (Matt. 28:9).

The Gospel According to John was written next and added several unique dimensions to the story.

First, it alone included the story of Jesus summoning Lazarus from the tomb.  This allegory speaks to the human condition—comatose until we answer the call of Jesus to new life.  Second, John’s gospel included multiple descriptions of personal encounters between the risen Jesus and individuals: Mary Magdalene, the disciples, Thomas, Peter and John.  In these encounters, Jesus is described as a physical being who prepared breakfast for his disciples and invited Thomas to touch his wounds.

Third, John’s gospel addressed an aspect of the resurrection accounts every skeptic notices:  only those who wanted to see Jesus alive saw him.  While speaking to his disciples shortly before his death, Jesus predicted this: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.” One of the disciples asked Jesus why he would “reveal yourself to us, but not to the world.”  Jesus’ oblique reply suggested that the experience of those who followed him would be different from those who didn’t (John 14:19-24).

The Gospel According to Luke was published last.  It omitted Matthew’s drama, added an ambiguous account of followers who did not recognize the risen Jesus until the moment of his mysterious disappearance from their sight, and made a point to say that Jesus ate a piece of broiled fish.

Finally, we have Acts, which described the motley group of Jesus-followers galvanized into an energetic and courageous new community by Jesus’ appearances and the events of Pentecost.

How do we speak of all of this to a skeptic?  On the one hand, we see a kind of literal factuality and physicality, and on the other, mystery and things that challenge all rational description.

Yet without doubt, what Jesus’ followers saw and experienced convinced them that Jesus was alive. From this conviction flowed the courage and commitment to continue the work Jesus began, including his resistance to the imperial ways of Rome.  They were convinced, as we are, that the way Jesus lived and taught did not end in defeat, but was in fact the way that God intended humans to live, denying death and affirming life.