Jesus' resurrection has stirred doubt and debate since the women ran back into Jerusalem telling stories about an empty tomb. A few decades later Paul had to defend the Resurrection to skeptical church members at Corinth: "Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:12). Even then Jesus' resurrection was questioned.
We depend on the faithful testimony of those who have gone before us. They passed on an unfathomable message: "Christ is risen!" Generation after generation of believers have received and struggled with that message.
Contemporary theologians continue to probe the meanings of the Resurrection. Their insights can help us claim its truth anew. Here are four.
The Resurrection is a historical reality, not just the believers' subjective experience. For many years theologian Rudolf Bultmann's view held sway: "Jesus is risen into the New Testament proclamation." Bultmann supported a subjective interpretation: What is most important is not what happened to Jesus but what happens to those who believe in him and his resurrection. We can't know any historical details about the Resurrection, Bultmann said. We only know that the early church kept believing and proclaiming Jesus after his crucifixion.
The disciples' actions - proclaiming Christ and giving birth to the church despite the shock of Good Friday - remain a strong argument for the truth of the Resurrection. But recent scholarship has emphasized the historical nature of the risen Jesus.
Wolfhart Pannenberg powerfully contends for the historical character of Jesus' resurrection based on the sources that commend it, both the testimony of original witnesses to the risen Jesus and the tradition of the empty tomb. Jesus' resurrection has more credible historical evidence than many ancient events whose occurrence we don't question, for example, some incidents in Julius Caesar's life.
The Jews of first-century Palestine held a lively hope for the final resurrection of the dead. Jesus' resurrection was experienced within this horizon as the first fruit of the final resurrection. In Pannenberg's view, we know where we are going; Jesus' resurrection shows us the end of history.
This position challenges those who reduce Jesus' resurrection to a misinformed psychological state in the disciples' minds. Christian faith isn't based on mass hallucination. It is grounded in God's action in history - the raising of Jesus from the dead.
The resurrection verifies Jesus' identity and the truth of his message. Jesus announced the nearness of God's kingdom. He taught his disciples to pray, "Your kingdom come" (Luke 11:2). His parables portrayed the unexpectedness of the kingdom's arrival and revealed God's undeserved mercy. He made the kingdom present in his works - healing the sick, forgiving sinners and welcoming dubious characters to share the fellowship of a meal.
Jesus boldly forgave sins, claiming God's authority. He courted controversy by welcoming outcasts and frequently violated religious law. With breathtaking audacity, he sharpened God's law. "You have heard that it was said," he would say quoting a bit of the law. "But now I say to you ...."
Questions about who he thought he was were inevitable: "By what authority are you doing these things?" authorities asked (Mark 11:28).
Jesus' death on the cross posed the most profound question about his identity and legitimacy. "A man hanged on a tree is accursed by God," Scripture says (Deuteronomy 21:23). Every observant Jew knew this. Little wonder Jesus' scandalized disciples fled and hid. That God's son should die on a cross, an instrument used only to execute criminals, was incomprehensible.
The miracle of Easter transformed grieving and despairing hearts to hope and joy. The resurrection was God's verification of Jesus as the son of God. It placed God's seal of approval on everything Jesus said and did.
Common believers and theologians frequently create a chasm between the life, teachings and death of the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. Some emphasize Jesus' death and resurrection in ways that separate this event from his message and ministry, making it unclear why some objected to Jesus and wanted to kill him. Others, like some in the Jesus Seminar, reconstruct the sayings of the historical Jesus in ways that make him look and sound like a different person than the resurrected Christ the church confesses.
Affirming the resurrection as God's verification of all Jesus stood for - his teaching, forgiving, healings and fellowship with sinners - unifies Jesus' earthly life and death.
Jesus' resurrection means mission. All four Gospels connect Jesus' resurrection with the church's mission. Best known is the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Among contemporary theologians, Jurgen Moltmann most forcefully shows how God's mission in the world is being accomplished through the power of new life in the risen Christ. The risen Jesus sends the Spirit to empower the church for mission. The Spirit of the living Jesus is present in our worship, in hymn and prayer, in preaching and communion. The Spirit shapes us into the body of Christ and sends us to live out the gospel in words of faith and deeds of compassion.
For Moltmann, the Resurrection isn't an ancient event we merely believe once happened. It's a new reality into which we enter as we receive the Spirit and participate in the life-giving mission of the risen Christ.
Too often the church thinks of evangelism and social ministry as different, even opposing, kinds of ministry. Moltmann insists that we think holistically about mission in the name of the crucified and risen Christ. Both ministries are part of the fullness of life Christ works in the world.
The salvation Christ offers the world is wholeness in body and spirit - for individuals, families, communities, the world - and harmony between humankind and the entire natural creation. The risen Jesus commissions us to proclaim the gospel evangelically, making disciples of all nations according to his way of justice, peace and love.
Jesus was raised in the body. The Bible is absolutely clear about this: The crucified Jesus and the risen Jesus are one and the same. The resurrected Jesus bears the marks of the nails and the spear. At the same time, the risen body of Jesus possesses transcendent characteristics, such as the ability to appear and disappear instantaneously. This led Paul to speak of the resurrection body as a "spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:44).
Theologian Oscar Cullmann emphasized the importance of distinguishing between the Greek idea of the soul's immortality and the New Testament witness to the resurrection of the dead. If the soul is immortal, then what is the meaning of the bodily resurrection of Jesus?
Each week the church confesses: "I believe in ... the resurrection of the body." This has new relevance in an age when spiritualism, the occult and New Age religion attract many seekers. Many new religious movements promote methods for people to tend their inner soul with little regard for the body. To cite an extreme example, consider the mass suicide of Heaven's Gate members who were convinced that at death their souls would ascend to the next level of existence and assume new bodies. Believers in reincarnation likewise hold that the soul moves from one body to another.
Jesus' bodily resurrection shows how important the body is to God. The Christian hope is for the final resurrection of the dead, with body and soul inseparable. Without this clear affirmation of bodily resurrection, we are tempted to denigrate the goodness of God's created world, composed as it is of bodies. Belief in the resurrection of the body keeps the church connected and committed to caring for God's world and turns us from escapism.
The resurrection of Jesus' body guarantees our hope that we, too, shall be raised with spiritual bodies to live forever with God.
"Behold, I tell you a mystery!" Paul wrote of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:51). Easter remains a mystery because in Jesus' resurrection we encounter the transcendence and eternity of God. Neither theology nor Scripture answers every question about resurrection life. But they do help us to understand - and even more, to celebrate - what God has done through Jesus' resurrection.