Ted Grimsrud—Easter Sunday (April 24) 2011
What happened on that first Easter Sunday, nearly 2,000 years ago? Does it really matter? Do we have any way, truly, of knowing?
Or, a parallel set of questions, is the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection credible? Is it helpful? Is it necessary? How do we connect (or not) our beliefs about what happened with Jesus after his death and what will happen to us after our deaths?
My entire life I have loved asking questions and desired powerfully to understand, to make sense of life’s big questions. However, issues related to resurrection never really caught my imagination. Certainly, I did not grow up with an embedded theology insisting that the belief in the resurrection was the one essential Christian faith commitment. So, I have always had a bit of a detached attitude about questions such as those stated above.
I remember as a kid going to church on Easter occasionally—one time, at least, our family got up early and went to a sunrise service (what I remember is having to get up early, not the service itself!). Of course, we had Easter egg hunts and Easter candy. But we would never have talked about the meaning of Easter in a serious way that I remember.
In the largely secular environment of my youth in rural southwestern Oregon, Easter was not very deeply ingrained in my surrounding culture. I was surprised many years later to learn, while pastoring in South Dakota, that Easter weekend was a holiday for everyone there (e.g., no school in the public schools on Good Friday).
When I was in my doctoral program in the 1980s, I took a class on Scripture and Ethics largely populated by Jesuits. I was taken aback by the sharply skeptical attitude a number of my fellow students took toward the Bible and traditional Christian beliefs. Then, a few days before Easter I ran into one of these students, a priest from New Orleans, who in a warm way asked me about my family’s Easter plans. For some reason, this reverence toward Easter did not fit with my image of this man’s deep skepticism.
Though when I was a young child my family attended church, I ended up a self-avowed atheist by the time I entered my teens. When I took the step on my own initiative to embrace Christianity when I was 17, my big motivation was my quest to understand and, for reasons I do not now remember clearly, I believed that hot night, July 1971, that accepting Jesus as my savior would advance me on the path toward understanding.
I did not have any problems from the start with accepting what I was taught in Elkton Bible Baptist Church about the essentials of the Christian faith. This included, certainly, a belief that Jesus was literally brought back to life after his death. But the theology I was taught actually placed a higher priority on Jesus’ death, as a necessary sacrifice that would turn God’s anger away from those who deserved it (like me) and toward our perfect substitute, Jesus.
Other central beliefs included the certainty of Jesus’ second coming and the end of life on this earth (expected any second), the certainty of hell as eternal punishment for those who do not accept Jesus as their savior, the perfect errorlessness (inerrancy) of the Bible, the rejection of evolution and affirmation of the six day creation (“creationism”), and the belief that once a person makes a commitment to Jesus as savior that person is assured of going to heaven.
Jesus’ resurrection was only one of these many beliefs (and not really one of the most emphasized ones) that I would not have held before I became a Christian, but that I accepted when I was taught them during my early days in the church. But my faith was never based on any of these beliefs; it really was centered elsewhere.
It took a number of years for me to come to clarity on what the center of my faith actually was. As I look back now, I would say that my Christian faith (which has continued without any serious doubts in the forty years since that Oregon July night in 1971) was based on the sense of coherence that it gave me to see Jesus as the reflection of God’s presence among human beings. I “knew” this about Jesus before I knew anything about those other beliefs I was taught immediately upon joining with other Christians in my hometown church.
I drank deeply and enthusiastically of the doctrinal waters given me in that church for several years. But the reality of those various beliefs being secondary to my basic trust in Jesus’ way as truthful was born out as I quickly and painlessly discarded them as I was exposed to other doctrinal streams.
For example, I assumed all Christians affirmed the beliefs I had been taught about Jesus’ soon return. Then, in the spring of 1975, when I was a junior at the University of Oregon, a mentor in my congregation there in Eugene, a Bible-school grad named Keith, gave me a lesson on end-times teachings. He said he himself affirmed the views I had been taught, but (to my shock!) he taught me that there were other views sincere Christians held as well. It really shook up my mind to learn that what I had accepted as simply fact was actually a matter of opinion. Just a few weeks later, I stumbled upon some articles strongly critiquing my received end-times doctrines and I was convinced to reject what I had been taught.
Likewise, in early 1975 I attended a conference featuring Henry Morris and Duane Gish, major players in the “scientific creationism” movement. Their teachings fit with the theology I had been taught, so I bought what they were selling. During the next school year, I joined with several friends to buy ad space in the University of Oregon daily newspaper where we published short articles on Christian apologetics. I wrote one on creationism and got a letter from, followed by a conversation with, an evangelical Christian who was a graduate student of the UO in some scientific discipline and was (shocking me again!) an evolutionist. It didn’t take much for him to convince to switch on that belief, too.
I could tell similar stories about the ending of my belief in inerrancy (ironically, through reading a pro-inerrancy book, Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible) and Jesus’ substitutionary atonement (the final straw here was studying with Professor Willard Swartley as Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1980-1).
However, through all of this, I never really questioned what I had been taught early on about Jesus’ resurrection. I suppose partly this was because the thinkers and friends who helped me leave behind the beliefs I have mentioned did not themselves question the traditional understanding of resurrection. Still, I never did really find resurrection belief to be all that important, either.
I became aware of how the mainline, majority Christian tradition (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) that affirmed Jesus’ resurrection (and the general resurrection of Christians at the end of time) also tended almost unanimously to affirm the legitimacy of warfare. For quite some time, I didn’t think much about whether there was a necessary connection between belief in resurrection and acceptance of warfare, but obviously there was not a contradiction between the two (at least, not for the vast majority of Christians, including the most influential Christian theologians from Augustine to Barth).
My sense was that jumping too quickly to the resurrection, and jumping there in a way that makes the resurrection the central truth for Christian faith, caused problems. Going back to the Apostle’s Creed, the tendency has almost always been to skip from “born of a virgin” to “suffered and died” and “rose from the dead.” This tendency, that makes virgin birth, crucifixion, and resurrection the things that matter about Jesus and leaves aside his life and teaching and call to walk with him, has been deeply problematic and helps explain the Christian embrace of warfare. However, that the tradition has consistently gotten its priorities wrong does not itself invalidate the truthfulness of Jesus’ resurrection.
During my previous sabbatical (the 2003-4 school year), I decided that I would look more closely at the resurrection doctrine. My consideration of resurrection came as part of a larger project looking at the Bible’s portrayal of salvation—and at how this portrayal subverts traditional Christian understandings that have actually linked salvation with necessary redemptive violence. [I finished most of a rough draft of a book during that year, but struck out when I tried to find a publisher (so far). With the wonders of the internet, though, I can make my manuscript on salvation available here.]
I enjoyed the chance to look more closely at the New Testament portrayal of Jesus’ resurrection. I found N.T. Wright’s book, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3), extremely helpful as I sought to understand the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the biblical story, and how this part of the story fits with the bigger story. I ended up with, I believe, a strong affirmation of the importance of Jesus’ resurrection to the biblical portrayal of salvation (here’s a link to that chapter). In a nutshell, I think the place Jesus’ resurrection plays in the bigger story is to validate Jesus’ way as the way of God and to make this validation nonviolently. Hence, Jesus’ resurrection becomes a call for all people of good will to follow his path as going with the grain of the universe.
However, I did criticize Wright for his preoccupation with historical arguments. Wright’s book, to an unfortunate degree (in my opinion), focuses on a kind of Christian apologetics attempting to prove the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. I had the privilege in the spring of 2004 to meet regularly with a very bright student just then finishing his undergraduate degree, Dan Umbel. Dan read and responded to my manuscript. He gave me lots of affirmation—as I remember the only place where he raised strong criticisms were in relation to my criticism of Wright’s emphasis on historicity. Dan tended to agree with Wright and disagree with me.
I’m still not convinced. I don’t consider myself a historical skeptic. I don’t agree with a lot of modernists that current standards for historical verifiability force us to discount the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. I don’t think the resurrection could not have happened as reported in the New Testament. Yet, I’m not convinced that to believe that Jesus actually was bodily resurrected is necessary for Christian faith.
Certainly, there are issues with traditional understandings of Jesus’ resurrection. These may not be decisive problems, but they should be respected.
(1) The New Testament itself portrays Jesus’ resurrection as inextricably linked with faith. Only believers in Jesus are reported as having seen him after God brought him back from the dead. Whatever else might be the agenda of the New Testament storytellers, the idea that Jesus’ resurrection was a brute fact that was apparent to everyone was not one of them. At the least, this emphasis tells us that the New Testament is more concerned with meaning for believers than apologetics for non-believers. That is, the resurrection is not actually the basis for New Testament faith but more a confirmation of that faith for people who already believe.
(2) Certainly, the story of Jesus’ resurrection defies human experience. It’s a claim for a one-of-kind miracle. Such a claim is not proven false by its uniqueness, but it does seem that we should be cautious about putting too much weight on something that is so unusual. One kind of consequence of putting too much weight on this alleged event is that that can lead to a kind of mystification of faith, where we claim to believe something that we don’t actually believe because we know we should believe it—not a recipe for healthy, life-transforming faith.
(3) As I understand it, in the history of debates between Christians and Jews about truth claims, one of the main points the Jewish side has raised is something to the effect of, “if Jesus’ resurrection really happened and it was the epoch-changing event you claim it to be, why has human history continued on the same sad trajectory post-resurrection that it was on pre-resurrection.” That is, why does it seem that Jesus’ resurrection changed so little in the world? I think this is a powerful challenge, at least to traditional understandings of the resurrection. If the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is that something did happen to change the course of human history, consideration of history seems to undermine that meaning. Maybe we need to think again about what the resurrection truly does mean in light of the reality of human history remaining so corruptible.
(4) Another question I had not thought about until hearing a lecture by John Caputo a few years ago is the question of what happened to Jesus’ post-resurrection body. I’m afraid I don’t now remember well enough all that Caputo was trying to convey in raising this question (and I can’t find my notes right now), but I do know that it does seem like an interesting question that might point to big issues about the nature of reality.
(5) Finally, I have concerns about how the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection has served as a kind of boundary marker or, we could say, tool of exclusion. Any time orthodoxy takes priority over orthopraxy we are departing from Jesus’ way and moving in the direction of sacred violence.
On the other hand, there are at least two important factors that draw me toward affirming the importance of Jesus’ resurrection and accepting the basic New Testament account as truthful (if not necessarily literally historical).
(1) I can think of no other explanation for the utter transformation of Jesus’ followers. Something had to have happened to move them from the scattered, terrified deniers who experienced the execution of their leader as a shattering of their world to the courageous radicals of the Book of Acts who risked their lives for the sake of the message Jesus had left them with. There had to have been, it seems to me, some kind of authentic encounter with a risen Jesus to have empowered such a turnaround.
(2) Jesus’ resurrection provides a powerful exclamation point for a truly nonviolent soteriology. In traditional, violence-embracing understandings of salvation, Jesus’ death becomes the key element as a means to satisfy God’s justice or holiness or honor. God needs an act of violence to be empowered to provide salvation for sinful humanity. But if we understand the Bible’s teaching on salvation to be that salvation from the beginning of the Old Testament to the end of the New Testament is simply a matter of God unconditionally offering forgiveness in face of human blindness to this mercy, then the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection becomes not another case of sacred violence but the opposite. Jesus follows the path of nonviolent resistance (i.e., mercy and compassion) in defiance of the domination system (political and religious structures) in order to illumine God’s mercy and how that mercy is contradicted by the powers-that-be despite their claim to be God’s agents. These powers go all the way to killing Jesus for his witness, yet he does not retaliate. Rather, God vindicates Jesus through resurrection, remaining consistently nonviolent in conquering the powers.
Still, in the end, the resurrection of Jesus does not provide the core to my faith. My faith is in the power of love, love that I confess comes from God and that reflects the deep reality of the universe. Jesus embodied this love, hence we should seek to walk with him.
Jesus’ resurrection conveys the truthfulness of his way of life. However, this way would be true even if Jesus had not been raised. In fact, it would be true even if Jesus had not existed. But he did exist and he was (I believe) raised from the dead. The point, though, is the way of life this resurrection vindicates, not the resurrection itself.