The Church has turned Jesus's Resurrection into a “happy ending” after the dark and messy story of Good Friday, often scaling it down so that “resurrection” becomes a fancy way of saying “He went to Heaven”. Easter then means: “There really is life after death”. The world shrugs its shoulders. We may or may not believe in life after death, but we reach that conclusion independently of Jesus, of odd stories about risen bodies and empty tombs.
But “resurrection” to 1st-century Jews wasn't about “going to Heaven”: it was about the physically dead being physically alive again. Some Jews (not all) believed that God would do this for all people in the end. Nobody, including Jesus's followers, was expecting one person to be bodily raised from the dead in the middle of history. The stories of the Resurrection are certainly not “wish-fulfilments” or the result of what dodgy social science calls “cognitive dissonance”. First-century Jews who followed would-be messiahs knew that if your leader got killed by the authorities, it meant you had backed the wrong man. You then had a choice: give up the revolution or get yourself a new leader. Going around saying that he'd been raised from the dead wasn't an option.
Unless he had been. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly dead by the Friday evening; Roman soldiers were professional killers and wouldn't have allowed a not-quite-dead rebel leader to stay that way for long. When the first Christians told the story of what happened next, they were not saying: “I think he's still with us in a spiritual sense” or “I think he's gone to heaven”. All these have been suggested by people who have lost their historical and theological nerve.
The historian must explain why Christianity got going in the first place, why it hailed Jesus as Messiah despite His execution (He hadn't defeated the pagans, or rebuilt the Temple, or brought justice and peace to the world, all of which a Messiah should have done), and why the early Christian movement took the shape that it did. The only explanation that will fit the evidence is the one the early Christians insisted upon - He really had been raised from the dead. His body was not just reanimated. It was transformed, so that it was no longer subject to sickness and death...more
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Very Good and Very Brief Apologetic for the Bodily Resurrection
The Rt. Rev. NT Wright wrote the following excellent article in the London Times