Monday, April 25, 2011

Is the Resurrection Passé?

Yesterday was Easter Sunday, and I hope you have been energized by the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the pivotal point of the Christian faith. Recently, though, I have begun to wonder if the Resurrection doesn’t seem passé to many Christians now.

In the previous posting I agreed with the Pope’s assertion that Christianity “stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead.” And I have just asserted that the Resurrection is “the pivotal point of the Christian faith.” But is the Resurrection something that contemporary Christians can, and do, affirm wholeheartedly, or is such an idea the result of wish-fulfillment?

(N.B. – What I mean, and what the Pope means, by the resurrection of Jesus is not the resuscitation of a corpse. Thus, there is a qualitative difference between the resurrection of Jesus and, say, the resuscitation of Lazarus.)

Is the whole idea of resurrection just a traditional Christian belief that present-day, scientifically-oriented people can’t really affirm in any literal sense? Were the Easter services yesterday primarily just a nod to that powerful tradition of the past? For contemporary people, is Easter meaningful only if the Gospel accounts are demythologized, psychologized, or secularized?

I myself have done the latter to some extent, in the past and as recently as last week: I called the column I write weekly for my hometown newspaper, “The Resurrection Principle.” That article was mainly non-religious: I wrote about seeing the resurrection principle at work in the world of nature during the spring and in the hearts of people who live by hope rather than despair.

The resurrection principle recognizes that life overcomes death, love overcomes hate and indifference, hope overcomes despair, and joy overcomes sorrow. There is, I believe, such a principle at work in the world. But can there be a resurrection principle at work in the world even if Jesus Christ was not resurrected? Or is the resurrection principle an indication of, and a pointer to, the Resurrection?

Regardless of what happened on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, the effects of the resurrection principle in our lives today are of great importance. Still, if nothing factual or objective happened on that first Easter morning, are our affirmations of life, love, hope, and joy just fanciful fabrications?

One Thinking Friend made this comment on the previous posting: “What I find fascinating is Christianity’s insistence that what one believes in one’s head about metaphysical realities is all important.” But if we take the Gospel accounts at all seriously, what the first Christians affirmed about the Resurrection was not primarily a metaphysical belief. They reported the actual experience of encountering the resurrected Christ.

For Christians today, too, what is significant is not an intellectual belief but a personal experience of Jesus Christ. So the Resurrection is not passé and the resurrection principle is not just the result of wish-fulfillment. On this day after Easter, all of us can truly celebrate life, love, hope, and joy because of presence of the resurrected Christ.


  1. John Dominic Crossan (though I don't necessarily agree with him on all things) takes an interesting position on the resurrection. He says that when most crucifixions were carried out, the body was simply dumped somewhere on Golgotha to rot or be eaten by dogs (hence "the place of the skull"--by 70 CE the Roman Empire was crucifying 500 insurrectionists a day there). In all likelihood, says Crossan, the same fate happened to Jesus. The resurrection was symbolic in that Jesus's ideas survived his own death and went on to thrive. Indeed, the resurrection is real, as Jesus currently lives today in the hearts of millions--he's constantly being raised from the dead.

    I'm not saying I agree with all that, but it's certainly an interesting perspective...

  2. Joshua, thanks for your comments.

    I cite Crossan (and others with similar views) on pp. 193ff. of my book "The Limits of Liberalism."

    I agree it is an interesting perspective, but I also think it is highly flawed.

  3. I did a lot of thinking trying to articulate a good response to last week's blog on the Resurrection. It didn't result in my posting a comment, but it did result in a very meaningful Passion Week and Easter service for me with my parents here in Lenexa.
    Thank you for these stimulating and important messages,Pastor Seat.

  4. Thank you for your comments, Robert.

    (For those of you who don't know Robert, he has just returned to the U.S. (Kansas) from Fukuoka, Japan, where he lived for many years. He was a very faithful member of the Fukuoka International Church, where I was pastor from 1980 to 2004.)

  5. Here is an e-mail from a Thinking Friend who has been a pastor for decades:

    "Really appreciated your blog today. If the resurrection of Christ is not real, my faith is vain. But we know it to be real and can rejoice!"

  6. I am pleased to be able to share, with his permission, the following perceptive comments of Dr. Michael Willett Newheart.

    "Thank you for your last two postings about Easter. The first one sent me back to Wright’s big (700+ pages!) book on the Resurrection. I am amazed that Pope Benedict did refer to it, especially since he substantially agrees with Wright. I looked up on the Internet some of Benedict’s comments on the Resurrection, and I look forward to reading his book (and yours too, for that matter).
    . . . .
    "But what does it all mean? Benedict says that Christianity 'stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead.' But what does that mean? Doesn’t Christianity 'stand or fall' based on its 2000-year history? Has it been a force that has contributed to the survival of the planet and its inhabitants? I would say, by and large, yes. But to judge its truth or falsehood based on first-century events seems a bit facile. In what ways are the people and institutions who take the name of Christ practicing Resurrection? How are they contributing to life in all its varied forms on this earth?

    "I see Resurrection in the people in North Africa and the Middle East who are demanding democracy and dignity! I see Resurrection in the folks who are calling on the powers in Georgia not to execute Troy Davis! I see Resurrection in the individuals and groups who are awakening to a sense of concern for the earth!"

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  8. Dr. Newheart wrote again to say that he left out a word: he intended to say that he was surprised that the Pope did not refer to Wright's book.

  9. The New Testament plays word games with birth and death. Why do we not expect the same with resurrection? When Jesus is asked about a planned funeral, he says, "Let the dead bury the dead." Rarely are the metaphorical and the literal pushed so hard up against each other. Poor Nicodemus does not understand how he can return to his mother's womb to be "born again." In both cases, the metaphorical is more important than the literal.

    So why not start out with "The Resurrection Principle," and then leave each free to find his or her way to understanding? As Paul teaches us, "When I was a child, I thought as a child." In a despairing world, why bother the lost with technical debates? The three things that endure to the end are faith, hope and love.

    Sometimes truth must wait in the shadows, or even, contrary to the old Greek myth, come wearing the clothes of falsehood, the very personification of metaphor. Sometimes, truth might even come dressed in robes of metaphysics, just to please the theologians. All things are possible with God.

  10. I always appreciate Craig's perceptive comments. But I have trouble this time with his reference to "technical debates." There are, to be sure, metaphysical and "technical" aspects to the Resurrection that theologians can, and do, discuss. But the "fact" of the Resurrection and its decisive importance seems to have been central in Paul's thought.

    1 Corinthians 15 doesn't give much wiggle-room for what Paul thought about the centrality of the Resurrection, and in Romans 10:9 he declared that "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

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  12. What I like about Michael's and Craig's responses is that they continue to articulate a perspective that is inclusive of any who would continue to follow the Way of Christ. As a pastor, of course, I would sometimes struggle with a sermon that involved identifying what is essential to Christian faith, what Christianity "stands or falls on," or what is fundamental; i.e, without which one would no longer be Christian. I'd think about the various individuals of my congregation, the ones who would be there in the pews when I preached that sermon. Starting with them ("by their fruits you shall know them") took me to a different conclusion than if I began with historical Christian doctrine.

  13. Certainly there is a problem with setting forth the fundamentals of the faith and then excluding those who do not agree with those fundamentals. That is a grave problem of fundamentalism, and I even know someone who wrote a book called "Fed Up with Fundamentalism."

    There is also a problem with those who agree wholeheartedly with the fundamentals but don't seem to live by the teachings of Christ or by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In fact, there are a host of "Christians" who would fully affirm the factuality of the Resurrection but who are an embarrassment to many of us who seek to be followers of Christ (such as Franklin Graham, who was interviewed by Christiane Amanpour on this past Sunday's "This Week.")

    So, while I stand by what I have written about the Resurrection, I also gladly acknowledge that Michael, Craig, and now Anton have made significant comments about the meaning of being a Christian today.

  14. And so we return to that nagging question, what is a Christian?

    The late Presbyterian minister, Dr. Vernon McGee, commenting on Ephesians 2:10, said that the problem with the Church is dead fundamentalism - giving credence to the fundamental of works along with grace and belief.
    A theist "Catholic" friend denied the concept of Jesus as God or Christ, yet is one of the best, good persons I know, active with family, community, work, and church (he does not take part in the Eucharist).

    One can easily find definitive fundamental differences. Without common foundations (antithetical in post-modern Christianity) where is a viable commonality?

    And yet I do find gatherings of believers in unity (typically outside the walls) - Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and mainline Protestant with a relational and "creedal" commonality in Christ as seekers, followers, and doers, living by St. Augustine's golden rule - In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas - with necessarilis taken very seriously (including the literal death/burial/resurrection of Jesus Christ).

  15. I like the statement, which in English is rendered something like, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

    Although sometimes attributed to Augustine, it probably goes back only to the Reformation period. I am most familiar with it as an emphasis of John Wesley.

    But the problem remains: what are the essentials? (That are the "fundamentals"?)

  16. Yesterday I read (again) the following statement by Archbishop Oscar Romero. What he said did come true, to a certain extent. My question is, is there any qualitative difference between Romero's "resurrection" and that of Jesus? I believe there is.

    "I have often been threatened with death. Nevertheless, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without meaning to boast, with the greatest humility. As pastor, I am obliged by divine mandate to give my life for those I love."