Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Pope on the Resurrection

Pope Benedict XVI is not my favorite Pope; that would have to be John XXIII. And next month I plan to write about Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical I evaluate highly. But I have just finished Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, his new book which was published March 10, and I was quite favorably impressed with it.

On this Wednesday before Easter, let me share some of the Pope’s statements about the Resurrection, which I found very close to my own theological position (and also close to the position of the noted New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, whom he does not cite).

Near the beginning of “Jesus’ Resurrection from the Dead,” the ninth chapter, the Pope asserts, “The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead” (p. 241). And on the following page: “Only if Jesus is risen has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind.”

The Pope cites New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann on page 246. I write more (and more critically) about him in my book The Limits of Liberalism (see especially pp. 194-5). In his book The Resurrection of Christ (2004) Lüdemann dismisses the “vain resort of accepting the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact” and then goes on to assert that “we can no longer be Christians even if we wanted to be, for Jesus did not rise from the dead” (p. 202).

In response to what he quoted Lüdemann as saying, Benedict writes, “Naturally there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data.” But, “The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented—a new dimension of reality that is revealed. . . . Does that contradict science?”

The Pope continues, “Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new? If there really is a God, is he not able to create a new dimension of human existence, a new dimension of reality altogether?” (pp. 246-7).

In the last section of the ninth chapter, Benedict says that the resurrection is “a historical event that nevertheless bursts open the dimensions of history and transcends it” (p. 273). He also says that the Resurrection can be regarded “as something akin to a radical ‘evolutionary leap,’ in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence.

“Indeed, matter itself is remolded into a new type of reality. The man Jesus, complete with his body, now belongs totally to the sphere of the divine and eternal” (p. 274). So, the Resurrection “is not the same kind of historical event as the birth or crucifixion of Jesus. It is something new, a new type of event.

“Yet at the same time it must be understood that the Resurrection does not simply stand outside or above history” (p. 275).

This is essentially what I believe about the Resurrection, and what I have taught and preached for many years. So while not a big fan of Benedict XVI, I find myself in agreement him about the Resurrection. What about you?


  1. It is good to be reminded of Church unity on the fundamentals of historically accepted Christian orthodoxy.

    The story of Jesus Christ culminates in his physical resurrection from the dead following an amazing life including being born of a virgin, voices from the sky, walking across a very large lake, raising others from the dead - even after days, and many amazing miracles... What a life! This man was beyond exceptional - and no narcissism! Must be who he claimed to be, giving credence to his teaching and mandates to love.

  2. Thanks for the post...the quotes from Pope Benedict...about the Resurrection of the Christ. As a non-clergy, not having the seminary training to understand the context, etc., I have never really had a problem with believing in the resurrection, and that it was totally necessary because of the innocense of Jesus. My biggest challenge was always with the crucifixion. After being introduced to the non-violent atonement understanding by Rita Nakashima Brock, I now believe that Jesus did NOT die for my sins, or anyone's sins. He died a rebel. Everything he spoke about, taught, did was against the empire and he was killed because of it. He came to earth to LIVE for show me the way to get right with my neighbor, and therefore get right with God. I am saved in community. I am not a universalist (I don't think) but I cannot believe that God would kill God's child to save the creation. God gave us God's child so that we might have life and have life abundantly.

    So the resurrection is believable and amazing, and consistant with his life. This I believe.

  3. We experience Resurrection. We are committed to Resurrection faith. Speaking beyond this attempts the unspeakable.

    When Benedict says the Resurrection "is not the same kind of historical event as the birth or crucifixion" he is stepping out of normal historical and scientific analysis. Which makes the next quotation problematic, "the Resurrection does not simply stand outside or above history." Perhaps in the text of his book he explains the "simply" in this quotation.

    Jesus tells the woman at the well "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24) It is as a spiritual truth that we must approach the Resurrection. The Resurrection is not a matter of either physics or metaphysics, but of the experience of the spirit.

    Neither scientific inquiry nor metaphysical speculation will take us beyond the experience. Nor will they substitute for the experience. We either find our way on the road to Emmaus, or we do not. Faith is confessed, not proven. Science will lead us through shadows of neurons and psychology. Metaphysics will take us through assumptions and possibilities. Each has its place. Neither can capture the essence. Resurrection is a fire burning within us.

  4. The comments posted so far are so insightful and profound, I don't know why I'm commenting here. Craig Dempsey's statement is one I'm going to keep and borrow from, from time to time. I don't know Rita Nakashima Brock's work, but I'm going to check it out. As you anticipated, Leroy, I'm not with you or the pope or N.T. Wright on this issue; although I suspect I have more respect for you than for the "Vicar of Christ." ;-)

    Even on empirical grounds, there are a great many Christians, probably always have been, who either doubt or simply don't believe in a literal resurrection. It is probably enough to be a "follower of Christ" without being coerced to affirm problematic beliefs about supra-historical events. It is possible, of course, that Christianity might not have developed if its earliest adherents didn't believe Jesus was raised from the dead. We can't say for sure; that's what-If-history speculation. I'm also thinking of Voltaire's argument that at the end of any piece of work on metaphysics we should add that we just don't know.

    What I find fascinating is Christianity's insistence that what one believes in one's head about metaphysical realities is all important. Ecclesiastes, Job, the prophets, and the mainstreams of subsequent Jewish history have manifested a hesitancy and humility about metaphysical claims. As you know, there is a similar hang-loose attitude about metaphysics in Buddhism and Hinduism. So why did Christianity come down on the side of insistence, even through violence and murder in earlier centuries, on cognitive adherence to beliefs about things that are beyond experience and reason?

  5. Dr. Glenn Hinson sent me the following e-mail, and I post it here with his permission.

    "Fundamentalist attacks on me during the 1980s led to a demand from the 'Peace Committee' that I submit a statement on the Resurrection, Leroy. For what it is worth I quote what I told them:

    "I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead as the 'firstfruits' of all those who believe through Jesus. When Jesus was raised, he assumed a glorified body no longer subject to limitations of space and time such as we experience. This was no resuscitation of a corpse; Jesus entered into an incorruptible state in which he would never die. The transformation of an earthly body into a heavenly body evidently explains why the disciples had trouble recognizing him (Luke 24:13-35) and how he would appear among them suddenly through closed doors (John 20:19f.) or appear to the Apostle Paul long after the ascension (1 Cor 15:8). At the same time I believe the body which God transformed was the very body placed in the tomb on Good Friday, for the disciples found the tomb empty and did recognize Jesus. Because the resurrection of Jesus is the only one that has ever occurred, however, we cannot 'prove' it; we must believe it. It is the article of faith without which Christianity cannot exist."

  6. A good statement by Dr. Hinson. This leaves the mystery in place.

    In exclusivity however, what of the resurrection of Lazarus after he would have been stinking (and probably maggot infested), and of the saints resurrected from their opened tombs on Good Friday and seen walking about Jerusalem (Matt 27:51-53)?

  7. I spent six years as a Catholic.... during that time I found so much of the Churches teachings to be in step with my own feelings. However, I also learned that in this tradition there is no questioning....This kind of debate- the kind your blog allows would not be accepted or allowed in the Catholic Church.
    Pope Benedict lost me when he underlined the differences between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches right after becoming pope.
    The Church was meant to be inclusive not exclusive...That being said.. his comments concerning the resurrection are insightful.. Thanks for sharing... Leslie Taylor Tomichek