Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Meaning of Resurrection

So I don't believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Isn't that a heresy? Perhaps. Isn't the bodily resurrection of Jesus a cornerstone of the Christian faith? Doesn't the Apostle Paul say in 1 Corinthians 15:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.
Yes he does and perhaps you, like me, have heard this passage quoted by conservative Christians with great seriousness. If you don't believe in resurrection, you can't possibly be a Christian.

But Paul's passage about resurrection - all of it - is actually a great passage. Here is how he defines resurrection:
35But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. 41There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. 42So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. (NRSV found at Oremus Bible Browser)
Paul doesn't know anything about a bodily resurrection of Jesus. He assumes the physical Jesus died and God raised him up as a spiritual body. Paul saw Jesus in this way in his conversion vision. He assumes that in this same way - as a spiritual being - Jesus appeared to the other disciples. He says that Jesus is the "first-fruits" of the general resurrection that he believed was about to commence, a spiritual resurrection.

Remember that Paul is our earliest New Testament witness. His writings predate the gospel writings by at least 20 years. By the time the gospels are written accounts of a bodily resurrection of Jesus are being remembered. It is possible that there are bodily resurrection memories of Jesus as early as Paul's writings. It is also possible that they become important responses in the Christian community to doubts about the resurrection of Jesus and/or as a response to alternative stories about him.

The important point, though, is that within the New Testament itself there is a diversity of belief about the meaning of resurrection. It is perfectly possible, based on reading the New Testament, to not believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus and still call oneself a Christian.

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