Christian hope of resurrection comes from two sources
1. The Judaism of the Pharisees, for whom it was an extension of classic Jewish faith in a Creator God, who had a special relationship with them, as those who would reveal his nature to the world, as part of his inclusive plan to perfect his creation. Within the first century BCE Pharisees taught that the dead would share in the world to come, and would not be left in Sheol, the abode of used-up people. Because the dwellers in Sheol were bodiless, it is likely that resurrected people were seen as embodied. It is notable that personal fulfilment beyond death was linked to the fulfilment of all creation. Jesus himself held to this teaching, and defended it against a satirical story which featured a seven times married woman: who would get her in the resurrection? Jesus dismissed this as making the error of seeing heaven as a continuation beyond death of earthly habits. “In heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels in heaven.” He meant that resurrection was a transformation beyond human understanding.
2. Reflection on the life, ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Notice I do not add his resurrection to this list. Let me be clear: I think it a likely historical fact that his followers had experiences of him after his death, and that they formed a community which continued his ministry and looked forward to his return as God’s agent in the time of cosmic transformation. “That God raised him from the dead on the third day” became their witness to his presence amongst them. Resurrection in the form of firstly, lists of witnesses to his risen life, and then, detailed stories of the resurrection event, developed later in the life of the community, and are variously retold by the writers of the gospels.
3. These stories embody the result of the community’s reflection on its memory of Jesus, and his continuing influence on their lives. They embody common elements which were seen as essential doctrines:
A. Jesus of Nazareth was killed by the Roman Administration and buried.
B. The same Jesus was alive.
C. He was seen by many followers as possessing a body which bore the marks of crucifixion, although it was not subject to the same restraints as human bodies.
D. He was present in the community, for example in the Community Meal, but was also present with God in heaven.
E. He was seen as having overcome evil and death
F. He commanded his followers to take his story into the gentile world.
G. His intimate role with the community was taken over by the divine spirit which was also his spirit.
H. The forgiveness of sins remained as much a part of his risen life – in and through his community – as of his earthly ministry.
These are doctrines embodied in story and preaching. They are not historical events. By means of narrative and metaphor, they express the convictions and practice of a believing community. But they are perceived as “what must have happened.” They are an attempt at a magical realism which narrates a fuller version of events than a video camera. So we would be mistaken in trying to cut through to find what “actually happened.” Rather we have to ask what they mean.
The Implications of Jesus’ resurrection for the doctrine of personal resurrection, were considerable, and can be detected in the letters of Paul. At first, in some communities, the emphasis was on the return of Jesus to end the present evil era of the world. At that time, envisaged as imminent, he would reward his true disciples with eternal life. But as the end was delayed, people asked Paul about those disciples who had died meantime. Paul answered that they would be resurrected, to share in the new world.
A complication arises with the notion that the return of Jesus will also be a judgment on the world.In Matthew 25, we find a parable of judgement, in which the King identifies with the needy and least important, rewarding those who have cared for them, and condemning those who have not. Resurrection life is seen as reward and not entitlement.
The Greek notion of the immortality of the soul also contributed to the teaching of the church communities, especially when the majority of such communities were Greek -speaking. This notion explicitly excluded the material body from life after death. Hybrid teachings, for example that souls would be given separate life after death, until the day of judgment when they would be reunited with their bodies, were developed.
As belief in an imminent return of Jesus faded, the intimate connection between personal and cosmic renewal was lost. Resurrection was of disembodied souls, and sometimes judgment was envisaged as consequent on death, with an immediate allocation of the soul to heaven or to hell, and later, purgatory. Nevertheless hope in an imminent return was not completely lost often surfacing in the life of fervent communities who might think they had been given the date and time of this event. For them, resurrection was primarily an eschatological event. It’s interesting that such communities, often considered as nutters by the mainstream church, have rediscovered an important theme of early Christianity.
There are two images of God that for me make sense of resurrection:
1. The universe exists IN God, who has withdrawn in order that there may be space within God for all the independent processes of evolution and life. Think of this space as a womb and this earthly life as development. Dead persons are born into the life of God who will ask them to share it.
2. God is the Cosmic Persuader who relates to every event in the universe luring it towards perfection. Because this often fails we can also call God the fellow sufferer who understands. If we are willing however, God completes our falling short, in this life and beyond. To the persuasive God, no event, or cluster of events like a human being, is ever forgotten and left behind.
These images arise from thinking of God and human life in the context of a universe which is still being created. In God’s love the perfection of the universe excludes nobody who wants to be part of it.
This seems far from the cosy notion that granny’s still doing her knitting up there, but Jesus had already knocked that on the head. A theory of resurrection involves a theory of the universe.
POEM BY HUGH MACDIARMID
On the Western Seaboard of South Uist
……Los muertos abren los ojos a los que viven
I found a pigeon’s skull on the machair,
All the bones pure white and dry, and chalky,
Without a crack or a flaw anywhere.
At the back, rising out of the beak,
Were domes like bubbles of thin bone,
Almost transparent, where the brains had been
That fixed the tilt of the wings.