01 September 2008
The Basics: Bodily resurrection of Christ
In our 11-part series looking at how the Alliance's Basis of Faith is Good News for our neighbours, Paul Woolley discusses…
7. The bodily resurrection of Christ the first fruits of our resurrection; His ascension to the Father, and His reign and mediation as the only Saviour of the world.
Evangelicals tend to have a weak theology of the resurrection. Consider the presentation of the Gospel frequently delivered in an evangelistic setting: Christianity is described in terms of "knowing God personally" and "going to heaven when you die". The problem is that the first part requires a bit more explanation, and the second part is unbiblical, reductionist and even dangerous.
The great irony of course is that evangelicals have a reputation for being concerned about doctrine. Isn't it liberal theologians who fail to take the Bible or its historicity seriously? The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, was quoted as describing the resurrection as "a conjuring trick with bones". (In fact, on that occasion Jenkins described the resurrection as "not just a conjuring trick with bones"). And yet, although evangelicals accept the resurrection of Christ as a historical fact, we often fail to grasp its meaning or implications.
Resurrection of the body
Note how the Gospel writers are concerned to underscore the bodily nature of Jesus' resurrection. In Luke, for example, the Emmaus disciples see Jesus sit down, take bread and break it (Luke 24.30). Later, the point i s further emphasised: "Look at my hands and my feet," said Jesus, "and see who I am! Touch me and find out for yourselves. Ghosts don't have flesh and bone as you see I have" (Luke 24.39).
Secondly, the Bible not only emphasises the physical nature of Jesus' resurrection but also the fact that His resurrection body was qualitatively different from his pre-resurrection one. In Luke's Gospel, the disciples on the road to Emmaus didn't recognise Jesus until He broke bread with them. In John's Gospel, despite the doors being locked, Jesus appeared to His disciples when they were together.
In his classic novel, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis describes people in hell as "phantoms" in comparison with the "bright solid people" from heaven. The point Lewis is making is that the kingdom of God is infinitely more real, more substantial and more material than any kingdom without Him. Similarly, the appearance of Jesus in the upper room could be explained by the fact that He was more solid than the "shadowy" doors and walls of the room through which He walked.
The kingdom of God
Thirdly, contrary to popular belief, the resurrection of Christ was not proof of His divinity but evidence of God's kingdom breaking into His world. The Maccabean martyrs expected to be raised from the dead, but they certainly did not think that would make them divine. The resurrection of Jesus cannot be understood except in relation to the kingdom of God.
In His declaration that "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1.15), Jesus was announcing that God, in Tom Wright's phrase, was "putting the world to rights". The evidence of God's reign breaking in was everywhere to be seen.
In the words of Bishop Wright, "Everybody knew that God's kingdom didn't refer to a place, perhaps a place called 'heaven', where God ruled and to which God's people would be gathered, well away from the wicked world, at the end of their lives. Only a deist could think like that. God's kingdom, said Jesus, was coming, and people should pray for it to come, on earth as in heaven; and here He was, on earth, making it happen before people's very eyes."
In the early period of Jesus' ministry, disciples of John the Baptist (who had been imprisoned by Herod) came to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor" (Luke 7.22).
The kingdom of God was not a promise of heaven when you die but God's purposes being brought to bear on His world. In the resurrection of Jesus, we have the ultimate demonstration of evil being defeated and God's creation being restored.
Finally, the resurrection of Christ is a guarantor of our own bodily resurrection. The apostle Paul writes that the resurrected Christ is the "first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15.20). Christianity is not about escaping planet earth and entering a state of disembodied bliss. The belief in a disembodied soul is unbiblical, reflecting a Greek rather than Christian worldview. In the New Testament, resurrection is about the transformation of our bodies and everything else that makes us human. The Gospel is about the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
The implication is that matter matters. The body and the material world are part of God's good creation. Of course, physical reality, like all sorts of other reality, is affected by sin; but matter is not bad. The word translated "flesh" in Paul's letters refers not to the body but "sinful nature". Christianity is not about escaping the body or the material world. It's about celebrating, respecting and healing it.
And since the resurrection affirms created reality, it necessitates social and political activism. Social action is not an optional extra. It's core to the Gospel. If we reduce the implications of the Gospel to going to heaven when we die, we will not only distort the Gospel but we will fail to engage in society and work to see God's kingdom come.
- Paul Woolley is director of Theos: www.theosthinktank.co.uk
- The Alliance's full Basis of Faith can be found at www.eauk.org/basisoffaith
This series is not a commentary on the Basis of Faith, neither is it an explanation of how the Basis is interpreted by the Alliance. Rather, it focuses on the relevance of the Basis to spreading the Good News.