Part 9 of TGCA’s series on The Apostle’s Creed
The bodily resurrection of Jesus is one of the central affirmations of the evangelical church. Sadly, there have been times in our recent past when we have needed to defend this belief not only against materialistic atheists who are sceptical about the possibility of anything miraculous, but also against groups within the wider church who prioritise an apparent theological sentiment behind the resurrection texts over the relatively straightforward message of the texts themselves. For these groups, ideas like ‘Jesus is now risen in our hearts’ are more the point than the fact that Jesus rose from the dead in history, and that he will remain alive and embodied eternally.
The resurrection is more than just an apologetic for the biblical Christian faith, it also means something
As much as it is right for us to continue arguing the importance of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we must also make sure that we are clear in our own minds on what actually happened when he rose, and how those happenings are theologically significant. This is because the resurrection is more than just an apologetic for the biblical Christian faith (“if we prove to you that Jesus rose from the dead, you’ll have to accept the veracity of the Christian message”), it also means something, and that something is part of the gospel itself (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:1–5).
Same but (Completely) Different
The first thing for us to remember about Jesus’ resurrection is that it was not only a restoration back to his pre-crucifixion life in his incarnate body, and it was not only the reunion of his flesh with his soul—or spirit, that’s a discussion for another post. To be sure, his resurrection was not less than these things, but it was most certainly more.
When Jesus took up his life again, his resurrected body was somehow significantly different from his pre-death physical body; a transformation had occurred. The change was not from physical to non-physical, but rather from one physical existence into another, even greater, physical existence. This was so significant that I would even be willing to speculate that the transformation which Jesus experienced in his resurrection was of a comparable magnitude to the difference between his divine and human nature.
The Apostle Paul speaks at length about the nature of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15:35–55, and he could not be more explicit as he presses the point that the risen body is meaningfully different from the mortal body. His brief seed illustration in verses 37–38 makes the point nicely. When a seed is sown, the hope and expectation is not that it will be dug-up again unchanged; nor that it will transformed into some kind of ethereal ‘spirit seed’; nor that it will just be remembered as a source of inspiration. Rather, when a bare seed is buried in the ground, we look for and celebrate the plant that grows from it—the final realisation of its purpose and always-latent potential. There is both profound continuity and discontinuity in a seed becoming a plant. The plant is every bit as physical as the seed, they share exactly the same DNA, and even some of their constituent matter is the same, but the form has radically altered—so much so, that an uneducated person might think that the seed and the plant were two totally unrelated things.
When we recognise that something like this happened to Jesus in his resurrection, we can start to make a little more sense of some of the encounters with the risen Jesus that we read about in the Gospels. Cleopas and his companion did not at first recognise Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35); the disciples thought he was a ghost (Luke 24:36–43); Mary did not recognise him outside the tomb (John 20:11–18), and Peter and the other disciples did not recognise him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:4–8). And although it is not a canonical text, the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel also records an early (first half of the second century) tradition of Jesus being transformed in his resurrection. When referring to what is presumably the Emmaus road encounter, Mark 16:12 says that Jesus appeared to the two travellers ‘in another form’ (en hetera morphé). Clearly, something about him was different.
Forward into the New
Recognising the change in Jesus helps us see that while his resurrection was very much his restoration to life after his death on the cross, it was not him going back to his former mortal life. Rather, it was his going forward into the new and eternal life where the first physical creation is not only endorsed by God, but is also brought to its more-glorious goal (or telos).
Life after death is not the same as life before death. The new life is a transformed life, a more glorious life, a New Creation life
At one level, the message of the resurrection is simply the message of life—life (eternal) after death—and this is indeed good news! In Jesus’ resurrection, we have the answer to what is perhaps humanity’s greatest and most commonly-asked existential question: What happens after we die? The Christian answer is that there is new life! Moreover, this is not just our philosophy or speculation, it is our conviction grounded in the records of history.
But what we have seen in Jesus does not lead us to an expectation of ‘more of the same’. Life after death is not the same as life before death. The new life is a transformed life, a more glorious life, a New Creation life—in fact, a part of God’s making all things new. Again, it is no less material or physical than the mortal lives we know now; it is their destination and completion.
And of course, the great Christian hope is that it is not only Jesus who will experience this resurrected life. It is also for his faithful followers who will be raised like him and with him on the last day. In his resurrection, Jesus is the first fruits of those who have died (1 Corinthians 15:20) and this general resurrection of all people on the last day is something that the Creed will go on to separately affirm in its second last line … which is where we will pick up again.