I think it would probably be fair to say that if Jesus really did rise from the dead, it would be one of the most significant events – if not the most significant event – in human history. It is the kind of event that, if we believed it to be true, would fundamentally change the way that we understood reality. It would compel us to explore its ramifications and would in all likelihood cause us to alter how we lived.
Now before we go any further, I want to state this: I believe that it is impossible to either prove or disprove beyond any doubt that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. We will only ever be able to examine what evidence we have and draw conclusions based on probabilities. And while I believe that the Resurrection is sufficiently probable for me to accept it, I am convinced that getting bogged down, as a Christian, in trying to prove its historical verifiability is counterproductive. Generally speaking, people do not change their core beliefs on the basis of an appeal to the intellect. If my Christian journey has taught me anything it is that the logical strength of an argument means very little if people are unwilling to let go of their opinions. For example, I think the cases against doctrines like Biblical inerrancy or Penal Substitution theories of Atonement are significantly more compelling than the cases for them; nevertheless, even some very brilliant Christian minds will not let them go. A logical case alone is generally insufficient in compelling people to change their minds.
When it comes to Jesus’s resurrection, the only direct accounts we have of it are the gospels, and frankly I am not convinced that we have the requisite hermeneutical tools for engaging meaningfully with those. Be that as it may, the fact of the matter is that the gospel texts exist, and what we think about the Resurrection is likely to come down to what we make of them. In my experience, the debate is often polarised into one of two stances: either the Bible is the infallible word of God and so things happened exactly as the gospel writers say they did and we will not listen to any other position on the matter, or the Bible is demonstrably fallible and therefore we cannot take the Resurrection account seriously. I am reluctant to collapse the discussion around the Resurrection into this false dichotomy of myth vs history. We are not forced to choose: both myth and history can contain truths. Both are forms of story-telling that simply package truth differently. The binary distinction separating myth and history is a Western one, whereas the gospels – as Eastern texts – do not make such distinctions and contain elements of both. Mythology does not preclude historical accuracy, and I think we severely curtail our capacity to explore the Resurrection narratives when we think in that way. Put simply, the ways that we have been taught to think and to interpret the world around us hinder us in our engaging with the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection, whether we believe in it or not.
Still, whether the Resurrection happened literally or was a part of a mythologising of Jesus, whatever it may have been, it has had a radical impact on the course that human history has run. And I am convinced that this transformative power of the Resurrection is not dependent on what label one assigns it. The Resurrection acts most powerfully on human lives when it is an experienced reality.
You see, as I said in my introduction, the Resurrection is a game-changer. It has the potential to radically alter our perceptions not only of ourselves, but of life itself. It is an invitation to experience reality differently. No wonder it generates such strong responses from people. To consider whether or not one accepts the Resurrection of Jesus is not simply to consider an idea to which we may or may not give consent. To consider the Resurrection of Jesus is to consider the possibility that the world may be other than we imagined it to be. And if the world is not what we thought it was, then the possibility exists – is, indeed, likely – that we belong in it differently. And that is, to say the very least, a daunting prospect.
And I think the historical response to the claims to the Resurrection would bear me out. If you weigh up all the “evidence” for and against the historical veracity of the gospel claims, I think the most honest conclusion you can arrive at is this: that at the very least the early Christians believed that Jesus was alive. The impact of this belief was massive: people from all walks of life and from all across the then-known world radically reinterpreted their cultural ethics and practices in the light of this event.
The rise of Christianity represents a massive and unprecedented cultural shift, and while some scholars will suggest that this would have happened anyway, independently of the resurrection, and that the Jesus story was simply used as a convenient catalyst to drive social change that was already brewing, the resurrection story nevertheless provided then – as indeed it does now – a powerful foundation for social reform. For me, the important point is this: there is something about this story that compels change, and that “something” is not the historical veracity of the resurrection. Rather, it is experiencing the risen Christ (as opposed to simply believing in it) that changes individual and corporate life. The real question, then, is this: how do we continue to experience the risen Christ today?
I think the key here lies in Jesus’s giving of the Holy Spirit. In the modern Western church, you would be forgiven for equating “experiencing” Christ through the Spirit to some of the bizarre shenanigans you will find in the charismatic churches. That is not what I mean at all. For me those are sociological and psychological phenomena, not spiritual ones. The topic of the Holy Spirit is one for another day, but I will simplify the matter – for the purpose of carrying my line of argument further – to say that I believe that the Holy Spirit is the way that God (inseparable from the risen Jesus) shapes our relationships. That is why the “fruit of the Spirit”, or the evidence of the Spirit’s working, is described by Paul in inescapably relational terms: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
If we are looking for a portrait of what experiencing the risen Christ might look like today, perhaps a helpful starting point would be to consider what commonalities there are in the stories about the ways that early converts to Christianity experienced the risen Jesus. The vast majority of them never actually saw the risen Jesus (the ascension had already happened). But they nevertheless experienced something that made them embrace a radical change. What was that “something”?
I do think that modern Christianity has lost something in this regard through becoming ignorant of the way that the earliest converts – who were Jews – would have interpreted the Resurrection story. That is not to say that their interpretation is necessarily the only one, nor the most correct one, but it certainly gives us insight into why the Resurrection matters. If you are an astute enough reader, you will have picked up something important in the gospel descriptions of the Resurrection encounters: nobody who encounters the resurrected Jesus recognises him. This resurrection is substantially different from the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus is an animated corpse; it is undeniably Lazarus who walks out of the tomb to a stunned reception from all who buried him. But Jesus is something altogether different. There is nothing like this in the Jewish literature that precedes it, and – to my knowledge – nothing after it. In that sense, it is unique. You see, for the Jews, the Resurrection is an eschatological event. For the early Jewish believers, the resurrection of Jesus was essentially a visit from the future. Many of them would have held the belief that at the end of time, when God decided finally to call it a day with Earth, the dead would be resurrected and would face the final judgment. In the resurrection of Jesus (unlike Lazarus) they would have seen an end-time event manifesting in the present. And – despite the fact that many of them had denied him, abandoned him or even called for his execution themselves – the message that this figure brought from the future – and from the Day of Judgment – was not condemnation. Rather, God’s judgment on humanity was – beyond any shadow of a doubt, because they heard it from his lips – “Shalom”. Peace. At Calvary they had all numbered themselves among the “sinners” in some way or other, by becoming complicit in the murder of the Son of God. Yet in the final reckoning, so it was implied in the Resurrection encounter, they were declared righteous. I have no doubt that this would have been a message that would have shaken their existing beliefs to the core.
Perhaps the most famous encounter with the risen Jesus is Paul’s on the road to Damascus. Interestingly, there is nothing in Luke’s description of the encounter to suggest that there was another physical person with Paul. Instead, Paul’s conviction that Jesus is Lord is premised on words he hears: “Why do you persecute me?”
For me, those words hold the clue to how we experience the risen Jesus post-Ascension. Where does God manifest? Jesus already told us: “Where-ever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20) and “whatever you do for the least of these you do for me” (Matthew 25:40). In other words, God manifests in our relationships. We experience the risen Christ when we relate in love, even with (perhaps especially with) those whom society deems unlovable. Paul was not present at the crucifixion, so Jesus could not have been referring to that when he asked Paul to reflect on his violent actions. No. Paul was acting zealously in way that he thought was pleasing to God and honouring of his religious and cultural traditions. But the words “Why do you persecute me?” invited Paul to rethink his position: if God identifies with the scapegoated victim, then what Paul considered to be an uncompromising defence of faith was in fact a lie. Just as the early Jewish believers would have seen themselves as experiencing something of the judgment of God in their own encounters with the risen Jesus, so Paul faced God’s judgment on the road to Damascus, and it changed him. But there was no condemnation in the judgment, and Paul would go on to speak of the grace that was shown to him (“the worst of sinners” – and note how sin and violence are synonymous for Paul here) through one whose blood spoke a better word than the blood of Abel. Once more, the risen Jesus was a forgiving victim, not a vindictive one.
The power of the experienced Resurrection story, I think, lies in how it positions us in relation to one another and in relation to God. Every encounter with the risen Jesus in the Biblical texts seems to me to be characterised by the three things. First, the encounter shatters their preconceptions about God (and most of the time those preconceptions contain a degree of violence, as is implied by the necessity for Jesus’s repeated refrain: “Do not be afraid”). Second, the encounter often compels them to recognise their own complicity in perpetuating exploitative and violent relatedness, whether this is overt : “Why do you persecute me?” , or more subtle: “Peter, do you love me?”, a reminder of his denial and an offer at redemption. Third, it leads to imitating Jesus in a new inclusive and non-violent way of relating that takes precedence over any prior group identity (in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free).
These encounters with the risen Jesus find symbolic and liturgical expression for the early church in the Eucharist: a common table where people of all races, cultures, classes, genders, and sexual orientations are equal not only in our complicity in ‘devouring’ the scapegoated Jesus – in reminding ourselves that our systems that create social cohesion and harmony through violent Othering have a real human cost; but also equal in that we can experience God’s grace as the forgiving victim, and accept the invitation to participate in the formation of a Kingdom based on a better way of bringing peace: self-giving love and forgiveness.
An encounter with the risen Jesus is an invitation to a different way of being in the world. In some ways that is a more difficult truth to accept than an intellectual acquiescence that a person may have come back from death. So I can sympathise with the polarised response of myth vs history. In reality, though, I think they amount to the same response: they may differ on the literal reality of the Resurrection, but both reject the experienced reality of it.
If you examine the theology of the Bible-as-the-inerrant-Word-of-God camp closely enough, you will see that they are essentially rejecting the inclusive and non-violent way of Jesus. Their God demands retributive justice and the Risen Jesus will be the one to come back and exact it. They still embrace scapegoating violence as a viable way to create reconciliation, with God orchestrating the ultimate sacrifice. For them, the world still operates as it always has and we can continue to divide people into the righteous and the unrighteous. And the end for the unrighteous is decidedly…unpleasant.
The other camp – the throw-out-the-Resurrection-because-the-Bible-is-unreliable camp –rejects Jesus, I believe, for much the same reason: Christianity as they see it practiced by the first group does not offer any experienced reality that is superior to the one they know. Christians, they argue, are hypocritical, and religion is the cause of so much of the suffering in the world. They (rightly) see the God of Christianity as a Janus-faced tyrant who is nothing more than a projection of an equally Janus-faced humanity. And they want nothing to do with that. They do not see that their justice systems, their economies (whether capitalist or socialist) and all of their ideologies are different manifestations of the same scapegoating reality.
I think both parties see the problem of suffering in the world, both assign a fair portion for the blame for that to the other group, and both use the Resurrection as a boundary marker to divide ‘us’ from the problematic ‘them’. I am sure there is no active malice, generally, on the part of those who hold either of those positions (in their various forms), and I think both genuinely want to make the world a better place. But I also think that part of the reason they will fail to do so is that they believe that they are in separate camps. You can believe wholeheartedly in the literal Resurrection of Jesus and never actually experience it, just as I think you can experience the risen Jesus and doubt the historical veracity of it.
So I think it would probably be fair to say that if Jesus really did rise from the dead, it would be one of the most significant events – if not the most significant event – in human history. It is the kind of event that, if we experienced it to be true, would fundamentally change the way that we understood reality. It would compel us to explore its ramifications and would in all likelihood cause us to alter how we lived. And I have no doubt that the world would be better off for that.