John Shelby Spong
Resurrected into God or
The heart of the Christian faith is found in the Easter moment. Without the Resurrection experience, there is no reason to believe that the Christian Church would ever have been born. Given both the centrality and the significance of the Easter claim, it elicits particular fears and peculiar anxieties when scholars raise questions, as is commonplace in the academic world today, about the historicity of the Resurrection narratives. Yet those questions will not disappear simply because they are uncomfortable or disturbing and a Christianity that cannot engage them openly will quickly become a religious tradition attracting only the neurotic anti-intellectual few. That is why this central issue must be part of the debate that will call the Christian Church into a new Reformation.
The thesis which I posted on the Resurrection was a carefully nuanced statement, most likely to be misunderstood and misinterpreted by those whose religious commitments are more emotional than rational, more obsessed with maintaining security than with seeking truth.
The primary place one must go to examine the Easter claim is the New Testament. However, first we must recognize that those treasured scriptures were written 20 to 70 years after Jesus died. Paul wrote between 50 and 64 and the Gospels are dated from 70 A.D. (Mark) to 100 A.D. (John). A careful analysis of these texts enables us to document how the Easter story grew and developed over those years, but that realization only leaves us to wonder how these narratives might have grown and developed before they were written down. Certainly the literal accuracy of every detail of the written narratives of Easter becomes subject to question.
Something powerful compelled the members of this Jewish band, who would die before they bowed their heads to Caesar, to make the audacious claim that God was in this Christ in a unique way. Something enduring happened which made it impossible for them ever again to separate the God they worshiped from the Jesus they had come to know. These were the elements that coalesced to create the revolution that caused the birth of the Christian movement. Clearly Jesus had died, but equally clearly the God they had met in Jesus could not and did not die. When they were grasped by that reality, they knew the meaning of Easter and they celebrated that meaning by creating a new holy day, the first day of the week. It is not the reality of the Easter experience that is debated, it is rather how that experience is to be understood. Is it objective or subjective? Is it an event in history or an experience beyond history? Is it physical or spiritual? Those are the questions that a person journeying into faith must raise.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the middle 50's, before any Gospel had been written, he asserts that God raised Jesus on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. For Paul that assertion appears to mean that God raised Jesus into who God is. Later Paul would write that those who have been raised with Christ must seek the things which are above, "where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God." But we need to remember that no story of the ascension had yet been written. For Paul the resurrection did not mean physical resuscitation. It meant rather being raised from death into the essence of God.
Next Paul lists a series of witnesses to whom he asserts this risen Christ has appeared, presumably out of heaven. The list is fascinating. It begins with Cephas (Peter) and moves on through the twelve (Judas Iscariot seems to be still included), 500 brethren at once, James, all the apostles (one wonders who they are since the 12 have already been named), and he concludes with himself "as to one untimely born." Paul was arguing that the appearance of the risen Christ to him was like all the others. At least it is clear that Luke, writing the story of Paul's Damascus Road experience in the book of Acts, did not see Paul's resurrection experience as an encounter with one who had walked out of a tomb. It was rather an ecstatic vision, a theophany not a physical resuscitation. That is the earliest witness of the New Testament.
The original text of Mark, the first Gospel, ended at Chapter 16, verse 8. In this resurrection story the risen Christ never appears. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are depicted visiting the tomb where they meet a messenger dressed in white. He proclaims that Jesus is alive and promises that he will meet the disciples at some future time in Galilee. Mark has earlier portrayed Jesus as dying alone with all of the twelve having abandoned him and fled. So, in Mark none of the twelve disciples is present at the tomb at dawn on Easter day.
When Matthew wrote a decade or more after Mark, the messenger in Mark's Gospel is now portrayed as a supernatural angel who travels on the wings of an earthquake, rolls back the stone and makes the Resurrection announcement to the women who are, in Matthew, only two in number. Salome has disappeared. Once more the angel promises a meeting with the disciples in Galilee, but contrary to Mark, Matthew says that the women did see the risen Lord in the garden. This represents the first New Testament story to portray the risen Jesus in a physical form and does not occur until the mid-eighties. Physical appearances are simply not part of the earliest Easter tradition.
Matthew then moves on to tell the story of that promised meeting in Galilee. The disciples are now eleven, since Matthew has narrated the story of Judas' death. Jesus is portrayed as exalted, coming from heaven, armed with God's authority and sent to give the divine commission. This is not a portrait of one physically resuscitated who walks out of the tomb back into the life of the world. Again, recall that no story of the ascension has yet been written.
When one comes to Luke, written around 90 A.D., Mark's messenger becomes two angels. The women who come to the tomb have been expanded to include Joanna and others. Luke's divine messengers offer no promise of a Galilean rendezvous with the risen Christ. Indeed, Luke changes the message of the angels specifically to preclude such a possibility. He then relates the appearance of Jesus to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, a village near Jerusalem. A physical Jesus walked, talked and ate with the two travelers. But this Jesus was also non-physical. After a revelatory breaking of the bread, he disappeared into thin air. Cleopas and his partner then returned to the disciples who, Luke asserts contrary to the first two Gospels, were still in Jerusalem. There they are told that the risen Lord has also appeared to Peter. As Luke's story unfolds, the risen Christ becomes even more physical, eating food and inviting them to touch him to prove that he is not a ghost. He then interprets the scriptures to them in typical rabbinic fashion and finally on that Easter afternoon, ascends into heaven, the first biblical mention of Jesus' ascension. Luke would revise his own dating of that event rather dramatically in the book of Acts to say that the ascension took place forty days after Easter as a preamble to the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which Luke transformed from the Jewish observance of God's gift of law, the Torah, to a Christian observance of God's gift of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, John, writing around the turn of the century, made the risen Christ even more objective and physical. In John's story only Magdalene comes to the tomb. She sees the grave clothes positioned as if the deceased Jesus had simply risen out of them. She is portrayed as clinging to him, apparently in a quite physical manner. John says that Jesus ascended into heaven between the time he appeared to Magdalene and that evening when he first appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem, and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them. At this first Easter gathering not only Judas, but also Thomas was missing. So Jesus returned a week later and on that occasion invited Thomas to touch his wounds. He was quite physical yet managed to appear and disappear inside a room with doors locked and windows barred.
In this quick analysis one can see the tradition growing, new details entering the Resurrection narratives, and the literalization process moving ahead at full speed. But the task of the interpreter is to seek the experience that gave rise to these explanatory narratives.
God raised Jesus. That is the Church's faith and it rests on the disciples' experience. The ecstatic cry "death cannot contain him" was destined later to give rise to empty tomb stories. The acclamation, "Jesus lives," was later to give rise to physical appearance stories. But the original experience was that God had been met in Jesus and that God cannot die. So Jesus was raised into the life of the eternal God. It was not an event that occurred in human history. It was an act of God that was beyond history. Is it real? Of course it is real, unless you believe that anything that is not physical is finally not real. "God is spirit," said the Johanine Christ, "and those who worship God must do so in spirit and in truth." This God was in Christ, said the first Christians, and so this Jesus was lifted into the very life of God to share in God's eternity and to be available to us as a living presence, for that is who God is.
Easter has little to do with earthquakes, empty tombs or resuscitated bodies. It has everything to do with a living God who calls you and me to share eternity inside that God presence that we have experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. For the same God who raised him will also raise those of us who live in him to be part of God forever.
That is the faith of Easter into which all believers are invited.