Voices ranging from tub-thumping fundamentalists to reasonable sounding evangelicals speak of the need for Christians to believe in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus. Yet the scientific modern understanding of a post-Enlightenment world makes it increasingly difficult to believe in that form of the resurrection, which has an actual corporeal body walking from the tomb and being present again upon the earth.
This seems to be an image that just will not wash in the modern world. Are there alternatives to this view, or is it necessary to do away with the idea of resurrection per se, and so can Christianity then survive at all? I believe there are alternatives and that the commonly held view of a physical resurrection – whereby Jesus in bodily form walked from the cave of his entombment miraculously rolling the stone away, being resurrected to the earth where he remained in physical form for about 40 days before ascending to the heavens and only then existing in another form beyond the physical – represents a very late, primarily Lukan development in the Scriptural tradition.
This still orthodox view of the resurrection is preceded by another tradition. A tradition not, however, from outside, but rather from within the Christian Scriptural tradition, at least 30-50 years earlier than that described above. This is the resurrection as spoken of by Paul writing about 20-30 years after the event. Here we find Jesus resurrected not in physical form with that resurrection to the earth, but rather one where the resurrection is non-physical and directly to the heavens. That resurrection is experienced not as physical contact, nor proven by physical evidences (such as the consumption of food or stones miraculously rolled away), but rather in the far more subjective realm of appearances or epiphanies.
Paul, himself, experienced the resurrected Christ about 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion in the well-known episode of his being blinded on the road to Damascus whereupon on arriving he finds a community already convinced of the reality of the resurrected Christ. That such belief already existed, indicates just how early it was present among the followers of Jesus. Paul, however, in his resurrection belief, never claims it to be physical. Indeed, he claims the opposite, exclaiming: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable … It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body … flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable”. The resurrection, however, was profoundly real for Paul. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (I Corinthians 15). Quite clearly something incredible had to have happened to create such faith placed in Jesus by Paul and others, he after-all having utterly failed as ‘Jewish Messiah’ been shamefully executed by the Empire which the Messiah was expected to overthrow. What was it that caused his earliest followers, all of them Jewish, to begin immediately to make such stupendous claims, as strict Jewish monotheists, about this failed Messiah?
I believe we can never know but, nonetheless, it has caused such figures as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, among others, emboldened in its power, to be prepared to give their lives in pursuit of those same values that sustained Jesus. I believe that in such, rather than in fruitless attempts at proof, the truth of the resurrection is found.