Today I read a poll of American Christians about the resurrection of Jesus. It reported that more than 90% of American Christians say that the resurrection of Jesus matters greatly to them. I agree – without the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity makes no important sense.
But I was disappointed because the poll reported that these Christians responded with “Yes” to the question whether Jesus’ resurrection was “physical” and “bodily.” I think that way of understanding Easter is a distraction.
To think that Easter intrinsically involves the transformation of Jesus’ corpse turns it into an utterly spectacular event that happened once upon a time long ago. This emphasis most often goes with the message that death is not the end for us, at least for those of us who believe in Jesus. As commonly understood, Easter it is about the promise of an afterlife.
But Easter is not primarily about Jesus’ triumph over death and a future for us beyond death. Rather, the meanings of the Easter stories in the gospels and the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection in the rest of the New Testament are much more significant. Moreover, their meanings are not dependent upon whether a spectacular miracle happened to the physical body of Jesus.
In the gospels and the New Testament as a whole, the meaning of Easter is twofold. First, Jesus lives; and second, Jesus is Lord. Both convictions flow out of his followers’ experiences of him after his death.
I begin with the first. Some of his followers had experiences him as a living reality of the present, not just as a figure of the past. Some of these experiences were visions. The best-known is Paul’s vision on “the road to Damascus.” It happened a few years after the traditional Christian chronology of forty days of appearances between Easter and Ascension Day, often understood as the day that Jesus’ body ascended into heaven, thus ending his bodily appearances. Paul experienced Jesus, though not as a physical bodily reality. It happened in a vision. And in I Corinthians 15.3-8, his language is most naturally understood to mean that the experiences of Peter and Jesus’ other disciples, and others as well, were visions. He uses the same language to refer to their experience as he does for his own: Jesus “appeared” to them – and to Paul.
To those who might say, “You mean these were only visions?”, I respond: anybody who has ever had a vision would not say “It was no big deal – it was only a vision.” Of course, some visions are hallucinations, an encounter with something that is not real. When this is the case, they are most often dysfunctional. But some visions carry a deep sense of an encounter with reality, and they are life-changing and not dysfunctional at all. For Jesus’ followers, their visions led to the conviction: Jesus lives – he is a present reality, not just a much-beloved figure of the past.
In addition to visions, I think his followers experienced him after his death in other ways. They continued to experience the same Spirit – the Spirit of God – they had known in and around him during his historical lifetime. This is the central meaning of Pentecost: the Spirit that had been present in Jesus returned to his community of followers. They also continued to experience the same power they had known in Jesus: the power to heal, change lives, and create a new form of community. They spoke of life “in Christ,” in the living Jesus.
That’s the first conviction: “Jesus lives.” He is not simply dead and gone. The second conviction is equally important: not just “Jesus lives,” but also “Jesus is Lord.” Experiences of Jesus after his death were not the same kind of experience that a good number of people have of somebody who has died. Surveys suggest that about half of surviving spouses have at least one vivid experience of their deceased spouse. And, of course, there have been many Elvis sightings. But these experiences do not lead to the conviction that the deceased spouse (or Elvis) is “Lord.”
There was something about the post-death experiences of Jesus that did lead to this conviction. In language from the New Testament, God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, has raised Jesus to God’s right hand, has made Jesus one with God. This meaning is expressed in John’s gospel when the risen Jesus appears to Thomas. Thomas does not simply say, “You’re alive,” but exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”
So it was for early Christians. “Jesus is Lord” is the constant affirmation of the New Testament. It has even been called the earliest Christian creed. “Jesus is Lord” – and the lords of this world are not. Indeed, the lords of this world crucified him, publicly executed him to make a statement: “This is what we do to those who oppose us.” But God has vindicated Jesus, said “Yes” to Jesus and “No” to the powers that killed him.
Consider the earliest story of Easter in the New Testament. Though Paul’s seven genuine letters from the 50s are earlier than the gospels and refer to the resurrection, he does not tell the story of Easter. The first Easter narrative is the climax and end of Mark’s gospel, written around the year 70, forty years after the end of Jesus’ historical life.
In Mark’s story of the first Easter, three women followers of Jesus go to his tomb on Easter morning in order to anoint his body. They expect his body to be there. Instead, they discover that the tomb was empty. Then an angel asks them why they seek the living among the dead and proclaims that he is not here – he is risen. The risen Jesus does not appear in Mark’s gospel. Instead, the angel promises the women that they will see him in Galilee – where the story began.
What does this story mean? Is it meant to report a spectacular miracle, maybe the most spectacular miracle ever? That God literally raised Jesus from the dead in physical bodily form? And if so, what does that mean for us? That death is not the end, and that God has shown us through Jesus the way to everlasting life?
Or does it mean something else and more? Set aside the question of whether the tomb was really empty. Believe whatever you want about that. And hear Mark’s Easter story as a parable of the resurrection. Think about what parables are.
Parables are meaningful, meaning-filled, truthful and truth-filled, independently of their literal factuality. I don’t know any Christian who insists that there really had to be a good Samaritan who acted the way he did, or else that story is false. So also I don’t know any Christian who insists that there must have been a father who received his prodigal son in the way narrated in that parable, or else the story isn’t truth-filled. Parables are about meaning. To confuse them with factual reporting is to miss their point.
As a parable of the resurrection, what does Mark’s story of the empty tomb mean? And the story of the empty tomb is found not only in Mark, but in the later gospels in the New Testament.
You won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead. He is still with us.
The powers killed him – but they couldn’t stop him. They crucified him and buried him in a rich man’s tomb. But imperial execution and a tomb couldn’t hold him.
He’s still loose in the world. He’s still out there, still here, still recruiting people to share his passion for the Kingdom of God – a transformed world here and now. It’s not over.
Easter is about all of this. To reduce it to a spectacular miracle a long time ago and a hope for an afterlife is to diminish it and domesticate it. It is not about heaven. It is about the transformation of this world. Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world. Easter is about God’s “Yes” to what we see in Jesus. Easter is not about believing in a spectacular long ago event, but about participating in what we see in Jesus. Crucifixion and the tomb didn’t stop him. Easter is about saying “Yes” to the passion of Jesus. He’s still here, still recruiting.