Artiklar/texter av Carl Gustaf Olofsson
Tema kristologi: Tron på den uppståndne Kristus 
Debatt om Jesu uppståndelse - december 2011

Länk till webbplatsens förstasidaArticle - Svensk Kyrkotidning

The article was published in print in swedish in Svensk Kyrkotidning issue 16/1998 and on Internet the same year. This english translation was published on Internet in februari 2008 as a 10 year celebration of the original publishing. The name of this swedish websajt is Språk, tro och religion. Translated to english it will be Language, Faith and Religion. This article is one of three in english. The other two is by Paul Tillich and John Shelby Spong




Christ is Risen!

Carl Gustaf Olofsson


The article is an existential interpretation of the biblical narratives of the resurrected Christ. It differs from the interpretations of Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. It could be read as an interpretation of what the Anglican bishop and theologian John Shelby Spong calls "The Easter Moment" in his book "Resurrection: Myth or Reality" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).
      The article was first published in print in Svensk Kyrkotidning, issue 16/1998. The same year it was also published on Internet




THE CHRISTIAN HISTORY OF THE PASSION and the belief in the resurrected Christ have served as the religious focal point of Western culture during almost two thousand years. Today this "Greatest story" is perceived by most people as being an antiquated religious remnant that has irreversibly played out its role. This has for a long time been my opinion as well.
A few years ago my relationship to this Christian key drama changed radically. It was staggering! A (for me) new and - at least superficially – very different way of understanding the biblical narratives of the death and resurrection of Jesus emerged. As a consequence, I have begun to believe that it is possible, even probable, that the tale of the resurrected Christ against all odds will reclaim its place at the center of Western culture in a not too distant future.
I will attempt to impart this alternative perspective by telling a story about the experiences of the disciples during the days following the death of Jesus.


Death and Resurrection.

Jesus was dead! He had been executed as a criminal of the worst kind, nailed to a cross to die slowly and painfully as a warning to others. He had died in the most horrible and degrading way imaginable.
      And they who had placed so much faith in Jesus and the vision of the Kingdom of God he had so often spoken of! Only a few days ago when they came to Jerusalem, large crowds of people had hailed Jesus with enthusiasm. It had felt as if something great were nearing its completion. All had felt right.

Now all seemed utterly ruined. That which had happened seemed to be one huge incomprehensible, paralyzing disaster. It was a crushing blow to all they had believed in and hoped for. The hope and faith that had grown ever stronger during the years of traveling with Jesus suddenly seemed like naïve dreams.
It was difficult for the disciples to fend off thoughts and feelings that questioned their decision to abandon their regular lives and follow Jesus on his travels. Had they been so mistaken? Had the years with Jesus been a waste of time? Their often so strong experience that that there was something great and important about Jesus - had it only been idle wishes and self-delusion?
      In the midst of the dark and chaotic feelings something revolutionary happens. At first maybe only to a single disciple, but later more and more in the circle of disciples are affected.
It begins with a strong, sudden feeling of affection and compassion arising directed toward the person’s own identity and fate in life with all its flaws, difficulties, disappointments, fears, longing, failures and betrayals. It also encompasses the last days’ radical doubts, resignation and brooding thoughts, not to mention the fear that had made the disciples panic and flee when Jesus was arrested.
      The feeling is of deep, almost unbearable pain and at the same time intense affection in a paradoxical mixture. As this wholly new feeling deepens, it also begins to direct itself outward, towards all imperfect, fragile, longing, burdened people who with different measures of success attempt to confront and relate to the vulnerability and mystery of the human condition.
     Viewing oneself and all other human beings from this perspective is staggering. With great force, it seems to say that there is an unconditional and all redeeming love that in a mysterious way surges through the totality of existence and encompasses our vulnerable, imperfect, and transient lives. It seems obvious that there is an uncertainty, and a certain form of loneliness inherent in the human condition that is so hard to accept that it almost inevitably tends to give rise to romantic and unrealistic dreams and expectations.

The difficulties and tragedy of life in a strange and paradoxical manner take on a powerful divine lustre. A wholly new light has suddenly and unexpectedly begun to shine on life and existence. It is something radically new.
The person, preachings, and death of Jesus now take on meaning from this new perspective. It seems as if exactly this revolutionary way of looking at oneself, one’s fellow man and the whole of existence was that which Jesus all the time had been pointing to and trying to make them take part in during the years they had followed him. But it is only now, after his death, that this perspective of unconditional reconciliation and affection reaches all the way in and thereby also unlocks their own ability to view themselves and every other human being in this new manner. It is as if Jesus himself is there, manifestly present, watching them. At the same time, it is as if they for the first time get to see themselves as well as others through the eyes of Jesus.
      This gives rise to an intense wish that every man should be able to experience himself and existence in this way. This exact possibility must be Man’s magnificent God-given possibility, his deepest purpose! Imagine if every man got to view himself, his fellow men, and existence from this perspective. How radically different the world would be!

However, an intense, painful awareness also arises, based on their own experiences of how infinitely remote this perspective on life and existence may seem to be, despite the fact that it is so close. Fear, distrust, refusal to take the vulnerability of the human condition seriously, "the lusts of men", and attachment to material and social circumstances tend to make us incapable of perceiving this life-changing perspective by ourselves. This awareness leads to a feeling of compassion for and unconditional brotherhood with this vulnerable, frightened, longing, blind "divine man" that so often fails and loses his way in life. The vision of Man’s inherent divine possibility presents itself with such urgent force that it appears as unrejectably true. The vulnerable fellow man gets so close to the heart that he is almost perceived as part of one’s own being.
The disciples’ hearts have been set aflame!
      Peter plays an important part in the drama of the Passion. He denies his master three times and then he is forgiven by the resurrected Christ. It seems reasonable to interpret this narrativ as being about Peter as a vehicle for that revolutionary change of perspective that I have been trying to imply.

FROM WITHIN A BIBLICAL AND CHRISTIAN FRAME of reference I would like to term this way of looking at and experiencing oneself and every other human being as Christ-sight. It is important to notify that this "sight" can become manifest in human existence from out of other religious and cultural frames of reference as well.
      When Christ-sight is opened in a human being – as hunches, glimpses, or more thoroughly – she begins to truly break away from the power of constraint and fear to govern her choices and actions in life. Love, deep concern for the well-being of one’s fellow man, and the enthusiastic and creative participation in the affairs of the world can begin to gain the upper hand over the psychological attachment to one’s personal, physical and social existence. Not as destruction of the self or denial of life, but as the deepest affirmation of life and the human condition for good and for bad.


The Cross and the Beginning of the Messianic Era.

Jesus’ loyalty to the voice of his heart even unto death became for the disciples like one last grand, wordless sermon from their teacher, friend and master. At first it hurtled them into unspeakable grief and feelings of paralysing disaster. After the unlocking of the Christ-sight, it appeared clear that precisely Jesus’ loyalty unto death was of vital importance to the dramatic alteration of perspective on life that they had experienced. They interpreted that which had happened as if Jesus loved them – and all human beings – so deeply and unreservedly that he even was prepared to give his life to make possible their attaining Christ-sight.
      That Jesus should have to die in this horrible way for their eyes to be opened was a disturbing and unbearable reminder of their inhibition and "blindness". However, in the light of what had happened it seemed to be an unavoidable and tragic necessity.

In the midst of this drama the vision of the messianic future which the prophets of Israel had prophesised began to live in them in a wholly new way. A world of peace and justice, with people living in a basic state of love no longer seemed to be something just belonging to a distant and vague future. The fact that Christ-sight had been opened in many people after Jesus’ death seemed to show that this messianic future had already begun to come true. The meaning of Jesus’ words about "The Kingdom of God which all carry within themselves" had become clear to the disciples. At the same time, the Kingdom of God was also that world in the future where people was living in peace, love and a basic joy of life that had become so tangible and seemed so close at hand.
      The preaching and actions of Jesus had certainly been important, but the fact alone that he had given his life so that their eyes – and the eyes of all of humankind – could be opened, was the unbelievable act of love that was needed to open the gate to the messianic era.

Christ-sight and the belief that Christ-sight was Man’s universal God-given possibility seemed the very key to this messianic future. The disciples did not perceive Christ-sight as being something personal, something that only concerned them and a few chosen, or as something that would only concern the people of Israel. It was something that everyone could become a part of. It concerned all of humankind. It seemed to be Man’s deepest purpose, God’s intention with Man.
      Through that which had happened Jesus had "returned from the dead" and become present and alive in their lives in a new and different way. Not as they saw and understood him while he lived and walked next to them, but as Christ, the divine, Messiah, the Savior of the World, the glorified, the giver of the Christ-sight, the King of Kings, God’s "firstborn" Son, who through his life and his death had opened the gate to the messianic age that the prophets of Israel had prophesised of. Something tremendous had happened.

      The cross became the strange symbol that came to summarize this dramatic historical course of events as well as the essence of the Christian faith. The cross, a cruel instrument of execution, became the sign of unconditional, fundamental, boundary- breaking love manifesting itself in the transient existence of Man through the life, suffering and death of one single person. The cross "bore" the realization that there was an unconditional forgiveness and reconciliation that Man could take part in. The cross also became a constant reminder of the power of this love, not least in relation to the threat of degradation, suffering and death.

A CRUCIAL ASPECT of this tale is that it was only after the horrible death of Jesus that the true significance and power of the teachings, life, and actions of Jesus reached the disciples’ hearts and thoroughly changed their lives, then also making them part of the same calling that had driven Jesus. It was not their old faith in and understanding of Jesus that "rose anew" and returned with renewed strength after the days of darkness, death, and despair. This "restorative" view is otherwise the predominant one among the existential interpretations of the faith of the Resurrection that have been formulated by a few prominent theologians during the twentieth century. This is true of, for example, the interpretations of Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich.

From the "constitutive" perspective that I’ve taken it upon myself to present here, the old "faith in Jesus" died when Jesus died on the cross. A revolutionary and radically new outlook on life entered the souls of the disciples after these terrible days. The life and deeds – and death! - of Jesus appeared in a wholly new light.


The Birth of the Church.

According to the chronology of the New Testament, this profound transformation of the souls and lives of the disciples began during the third day after the death of Jesus. It was not consolidated until Pentecost. It is then that the disciples with great vigor and fearlessness begin to preach about the tremendous thing that has happened. This also marks the point of the birth of Christianity and the Church.
      Jesus never told in detail about how his Christ-sight had been unlocked, for it made no difference to his preaching. For the apostles, however, the unlocking of their Christ-sight was inexorably connected to their personal relationship with Jesus – and not least to his death. For them it was unthinkable to tell and preach about Christ-sight as being a possibility inherent in every human being without telling about the years with Jesus and the drama that had unlocked this sight within themselves.

After the opening of Christ-sight, the choice of becoming disciples of Jesus seemed important in a new and different way. The daily life in the presence of Jesus in hindsight seemed crucial in making possible this grand transformation of their relationship to existence. Offering all human beings to become disciples of Jesus Christ became the very essence of the calling that seized the disciples after the drama of Easter.
      Becoming a disciple, a Christian, and starting to confess one’s faith in Jesus Christ was to begin to believe that oneself, as well as every other human being, in all one’s imperfection and with all one’s shortcomings could be seen through the "eyes of Christ". Through disciplehood and the connection to a Christian congregation, one was brought into a "process of faith" where, in time, one might be able to view one’s fellow men through the eyes of Christ oneself. At the moment of experiencing some of this one was filled with desire that each and every human being should experience it.

When a community that supported this faith was created nearly two thousand years ago, a new cultural-religious form was born, the Christian Church. The strange thing is, as I’ve come to see it, that this "new creature" was able to strengthen the fragile process that dealt with "the opening of the heart" in contemporary culture. The most mysterious possibility of human life received for the very first time - in the Mediterranean culture of that time, the cradle of Western civilization - a unified language and cultural support with the power to surpass lingual and ethnical barriers. From this perspective the birth of the Christian Church, no matter its imperfections, seems to be a historical breaking point in our culture with far-reaching significance for the mysterious "process of creation" of Man as a sensible and loving creature. To what extent and in which fashion this process of creation is expressed and interpreted in other cultures and other religious vernaculars is an important and exiting religious-theological question that there isn’t enough space to elaborate on here.
The Divine service with its sermons, Holy Communions, and a constant retelling of the stories of Jesus became the first Christians’ most important way of symbolically recreating "a life in the presence of Jesus". According to the experiences of the disciples, this was the best way – and the only one they knew of – to offer a lasting movement towards the resurrected Christ and little by little let people participate fully in the miracle of resurrection.
      In the early Church, the baptism became the ritual action through which the conscious choice of becoming a disciple of Christ was confessed and manifested. Through this action one was also joined into the community of the Church. By celebrating the Holy Communion one constantly drew new strength to remain "moving" towards the unlocking of Christ-sight despite all difficulties, personal and other. It also became a ritualistic way of expressing one’s desire that every human being should be joined in this "movement" and take part in "The body of Christ". The Holy Communion also became a recurring celebration of the messianic age that had entered history through the life and death of Jesus.


Beyond Death.

The affirmation of a process of life that can lead to the opening of Christ-sight, is expressed as "moving" towards the resurrected Christ, using the traditional Christian vernacular. Using secular language, this means believing that love and reason can become fundamental forces in our lives and, equally important, affirming this process of growth in oneself and in others in daily life. When one’s life has attained this "direction of movement", it begins, in spite of its flaws and shortcomings, to paradoxically become anchored in a messianic future beyond death. One begins to take part in the "Divine reality" that one hopes shall come true for oneself and all other human beings. This takes the edge off the fear of death. Qualities such as trust and hope, so crucial to our lives, are nourished and deepened. It begins to become possible to accept and come to terms with the vulnerability, ambiguity and transience inexorably linked to our human existence. The heavenly light constantly generated while we are in this "direction of movement", although it is often obscured by the travails and worries of daily life, can on blessed occasions begin to illuminate our existence.
      This eschatological dimension of experience is inexorably bound to a living Christian faith. However, it is also connected to every way of life where the belief that love and reason are fundamental and boundary-breaking forces is a corner stone.
      What conclusions we draw about the "innermost nature of reality" from our experience of Christ-sight and the eschatological dimension that it is connected to is of secondary importance. When human imagery and explanations become primary and start to be regarded as the core of the Christian faith, a side issue has turned into a primary one. If so, our human mental creations start to become false idols that obscure our view of the centre of the faith.
      On the other hand, deepening our knowledge and understanding of this road of life will, from the existential-dynamical perspective that I am trying to impart here, always be a central task for every Christian and for a living Church. This being a way of life in which a reconciliation with the vulnerability and ambiguousness of existence as well as with the shortcomings of oneself and others, can grow and deepen, sometimes leading to the opening of Christ-sight. This quest for knowledge is about developing our understanding of the inner structure and characteristics of this road of life, what can aid different people in discovering it, and what is needed in order to remain on this road while encountering vulnerability, suffering, and severe conflicts.

In a Christian context all of this is achieved by gathering strength from the strange events two thousand years ago that resulted in the creation of the Church, and the tradition that, however imperfectly, has supported an integrated manifestation of this road of life in Western culture right up to our time. When the Christian church is no longer in the "forefront of knowledge" when it comes to understanding of this road of life it is dying. This seems to be the situation of Christianity today. This predicament is not necessarily caused by, for example, the advances of science and culture. As far as I understand, the causes are found mainly within the Church and within Christendom.


What About the Biblical Narratives?

I am well aware that the tale told above about the last Act of the drama of the Passion and the birth of Christianity gives rise to many questions in relation to the texts of the Bible and the doctrines of faith that have shaped Christianity since the time of the ancient Church. 
      An important element of the Bible’s contradictory accounts of the disciples’ meetings with the resurrected Jesus a few days after his death on the cross, is depicting these as being actual occurrences in the physical, corporal realm. This concerns the accounts of the empty tomb, the disciple Thomas being offered to touch Jesus’ wounds, and Jesus asking for something to eat in order to convince the terrified disciples that he is present in his usual body of flesh and bone. In the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul very strongly expresses the opinion that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection from death is absolutely crucial to Christian faith. That is my opinion as well. Most traditional Christians are of the opinion that these words of Paul should be understood as if he talks about the Resurrection in the same bodily sense as the narrative about Tomas and the wound’s of Jesus. There are arguments for another interpretation.
      Those Biblical examples that emphasize the bodily aspect indicate that the interpretation of the Passion that I am offering here not be a Christian interpretation. Another possibility could be that these two-thousand-year-old stories contain something stranger and more elusive than this simple and seemingly obvious "bodily interpretation" indicates. In that case, it means that this is one of many possible Christian interpretations of the drama of the Passion.
      The Gospels’ texts of the meetings with the resurrected Christ are, from this point of view, narratives that speak of the last and entirely crucial link in the historical course of events that lead to the birth of the Christian Church. It is the early Church’s way of telling about the incredible thing that had happened after the crucifixion of Jesus. At the same time, these tales – and the Gospels as a whole - are an expression of the attempts of the disciples and the first Christians to understand these life-changing experiences with the help of the conceptions and forms of thought of the time. The Jewish beliefs, the preachings of the Jewish prophets, and Greek metaphysics were the given framework within which they tried to interpret and give words to these experiences.

      Many things indicate that the all-pervading concern of the creation of the evangelical stories was to try to make other people understand the fabulous thing that had happened. From this point of view, the Gospels seem to be a mix of testimony, preaching, and artistic creation, all to the purpose of trying to attract people to the messianic transformation of one’s own life and the world given by the faith in Christ. For the apostles and the first Christians, this was undoubtedly a matter of concern for all of humankind.

AFTER THE SWEDISH PUBLICATION of the article I read the book "Resurrection: Myth or Reality" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) by John Shelby Spong, the well known Anglican bishop from New Jersey, now retired. With a thorough exegetic analysis he argues that the Resurrection of Christ was not of the physical body. One important method in Spong’s analyses is a cronological reading of the biblical narratives. It means first reading Paul and then Marc, then Matthew, then Luke and last John. Spong uses the concept "The Easter Moment" to summarize his analyses: that something absolutly decisive happened after the death of Jesus that gave birth to Christianity, that this decisive thing was not a bodily resurrection of Jesus but something remarkable that happened in the hearts of the disciples, that the basic core in the experiences and insights of the disciples was about love, foregivness and being fully human connected to the life and death of Jesus and that "The Easter Moment" is the great mystery that all Christians have to meditate on. In my view the concept "The Easter Moment" is a poetic and very workable way of talking about the most decisive moment in the birth of Christianity. This text could be read as one possible Christian interpretation of – or meditation on - "The Easter Moment".


A Church of Two Gates.

For me it is now obvious that there is a "second gate" opening towards the centre of the Christian Faith, beside the "traditional gate" that the Church has made visible and looked after during its two-thousand-year-old history up until now. It can be called "The gate of existential faith". Quite contrary to conventional conceptions of the meaning of Christian faith, the Christian life of faith entered into through this gate presupposes no concept of a personally active god that can intervene in our individual lives with gifts and trials, a life after death, or that Jesus should bodily have risen from the dead.
      I am well aware that this is a provocative and awkward thought for many. Nonetheless this vision of "the Church of two gates" is vibrantly alive before my inner eye. The prerequisite for this "existential gate" to become a reality is, however, that there are congregations wanting their church to have "two gates". Priests willing to serve inside the "existential gate" are needed. This presupposes a Church administration, centrally and at a Diocese level, accepting the congregations that want to realize "the Church of two gates", and not least, genuine and committed theological work to firmly anchor the "gate of existential faith" and the "Church of two gates" in the Christian tradition of learning.
      Today the Church is a marginal force in the lives of a majority of people in the Western world as well as in culture and the development of society. Through the creation of a Church of two gates I believe that the Church would again become an important creative force at the centre of culture and democratic society. It would once again become a visible and important aid for people to consciously choose, remain in, and deepen what I elsewhere call "the lifestyle of participation" ("Har kristen tro en framtid?" [Does Christian faith have a future?], Vår Lösen, issue 8/1996). To actively affirm the lifestyle of participation means moving towards the opening of Christ-sight whether one is aware of this "movement" or not. Bearing in mind how insecure, imperfect and fragile we usually are, it is of central importance for our individual lives as well as for the vitality and spiritual health of our society that our culture contains a clear and recognizable support of this way of life. This support does not exist today. I believe that this from the beginning was the mission of the Christian Church, that it is its mission even now, and will be in the future.

THE SHEER EXISTENCE of two gates would be like a powerful exclamation mark in our culture about the fact that there is a depth and an universality to the Christian tradition of faith that today is nearly impossible to perceive. The Church would be lended a shimmer of mystical poetry, speaking about the exposure and ambiguity of human existence and at the same time about love, dialogue and the crossing of boundaries. This poetical exclamation mark would in a new and different way speak of hope and belief in the future in a time in which humanity stands before large and sometimes seemingly insurmountable problems.
To be sure, one can for various good reasons think that this vision of the "Church of Two Gates" is unrealistic. To this, I can only say that most visions are unrealistic. Nevertheless, that which seems unrealistic sometimes comes true.


PS. The translation from Swedish into English is preliminary and is made by Axel Swahn. It must be read and corrected by a person who has English as first language before it can be published in print. DS.


That kind of existential interpretation of Christian faith that is outlined in this article is going much deeper in the book Existentiell livssyn - kristen tro? (Existential View of Life - Christian Faith?) of Carl Gustaf Olofsson. It is also published on this websajt. But only in swedish.



Till sidans början!  


Språk, tro och religion - webbplatsens förstasida
Existentiell livssyn - kristen tro? - bok/titelsidan
Har kristen tro en framtid? Debatt i Vår Lösen 1996-97
Budord för en modern tid
Fyra klassiska bekännelsetexter
Artiklar/texter av Carl Gustaf Olofsson 
Debatt om Jesu uppståndelse - december 2011

Till sidans början!