Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2021
I was a teenager when I became a Christian. As western Oregon was pretty unchurched, I didn’t grow up with any peer pressure to be religious. So, in many ways I was a blank slate as far as faith goes when I first walked into Elkton Bible Baptist Church with my friend David. It’s interesting to me as I look back because the driving force for me was a desire to understand, to get help with my questions, to move towards discerning truth. And I happened into a church which had this basic stance: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” We’ll answer your questions, but just one time. Though treated with kindness, I was certainly not encouraged to keep asking questions.
I was taught a bunch of things as true without really being given too many reasons why. So, as a result, when I went to college and by my junior year started getting pretty serious about the whys and wherefores of my faith, a whole bunch of beliefs quickly dropped by the wayside: No more rapture and Great Tribulation doctrine, no more creationism, no more inerrant Bible, no more substitutionary atonement. But for some reason, one of the really big beliefs, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, remained pretty much unscathed for quite some time. Like so many other beliefs, it was simply presented to me as factual, not open for negotiation, absolutely necessary. Don’t ask why; don’t ask what it’s based on, that is; don’t question it.
Questioning Jesus’s bodily resurrection?
Unlike the rapture, creation/evolution, and the perfection of the Bible, I didn’t mind not questioning the resurrection. But it seems to me that theological beliefs are kind of like a slot machine—different ones come up at different times. And, for various reasons, about 20 years ago or so, the resurrection came up for me. So, I started really thinking about it, and realized that, indeed, there are lots of questions.
Before turning to a couple of the questions that I started to examine let’s read three of the core resurrection-texts from the Bible.
The first passage is the only place in the entire Old Testament that seems to have a clear affirmation of the idea of dead people being raised to life.
At that time Michael, the great prince, protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky; those who lead many to righteousness, shine like the stars forever and ever. Daniel 12:1-4
The Apostle Paul goes into the most detail about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians. 15.
I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared also to me. I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
And here is the story from Luke’s Gospel:
On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. These words seemed to the apostles an idle tale; they did not believe what they heard. But Peter did get up and ran to the tomb and looked in. He saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed. Luke 24:1-12
How much does historicity matter?
What I discovered when I read how scholars approach Jesus’s resurrection is that there is a big focus on historical facts. Basically, they debate what should be believed about what actually happened in history. They sift through the evidence and try to make sense of what we can know in light of modern ways of looking at the world. One big issue centers on belief: What must one believe about Jesus’s resurrection in order to be a Christian? Do you have to believe that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead in order to be saved? Can you be Christian without belief in a literal resurrection? It’s kind of like another sort of question: Do you have to believe in heaven to go there? Or, is a failure to believe in a literal, eternal hell a guarantee that you will end up there?
Well, I’m not convinced that belief in the sheer historical fact of Jesus’s bodily resurrection should be an essential for Christianity. It’s not that I consider myself a historical skeptic. I don’t agree with a lot of modernists that current standards for historical verifiability force us to reject the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s resurrection. I do not think the resurrection could not have happened as reported in the New Testament (that is, to say it positively, I do think the bodily resurrection could have happened—in fact, I personally think something real did happen).
However, I think there is room for a lot of diversity and lot of uncertainty here in relation to historical issues. The New Testament itself seems most interested to present the resurrection as a call to action for people who already want to follow Jesus. More so than as a proof to skeptics of God’s overwhelming power. The risen Jesus appears only to his followers, not to the “general public.” The challenge he brings is something like this: He says, okay now you have seen just how far the Powers that be will go to crush our peacemaking movement and to silence my message of mercy and compassion all the way down. They will, indeed, commit murder. But now you know, the risen Jesus insists, just as you see me standing here, just as you touch my side, now you know that the violence of the Powers cannot defeat my love. And because you know this, go out and let the world know that my love wins, that the Powers cannot stop it.
Contrasting accounts of power
At its heart, the message of Jesus’s resurrection is a message of God’s thoroughgoing peaceableness. Jesus wins, not through fighting back, but by remaining consistently pacifist all the way. It’s not like there’s some point here where God says, enough, we have finally come to the last resort and a little violence will be necessary. No. God’s victory is totally due to love’s perseverance.
A number of years ago, I read at the same time two books that could not have been more different from one another: The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People by Jonathan Schell and Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter Liethart. Whenever I read a book I disagree with as much as I do this Defending Constantine book, I need to have something to read alongside to keep me from doing violence to the bad book.
Defending Constantine, as the title tells us, is an effort to present the Roman Empire’s first Christian emperor as a great hero of faith. Early on, Liethart discusses those people who criticize Constantine for being bad for Christianity (his main example is Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder). Then he insists that Constantine was indeed a tremendous Christian; the evidence for Constantine as exemplary Christian, though, is mainly his great power, his decisive victory, his willingness to crush his enemies. And he did it all in the name of Jesus, empowered by the Christian God.
This seems to me to be the kind of thinking that sees Jesus’s resurrection as something like the return of the warrior God of Joshua. Rather than look at the Bible and the story of faith since then through the lens of Jesus’ own life and teaching, this is really just another way of setting Jesus’s way aside. Sure, Jesus did suffer and die, but that was only so God could then step in and crush God’s enemies by displaying overwhelming power—and, when the time was right, this overwhelming power could be harnessed by God’s servant Constantine in order to take over the reins of the world’s greatest empire. And Constantine sets the pattern for later Christian empires. The bottom line for Liethart, it turns out, is an affirmation of the United States as at least potentially the current Christian empire. Big surprise. Liethart’s American heroes are people like Ronald Reagan and General David Petraeus.
Jonathan Schell, in The Unconquerable World, has a very different kind of resurrection in mind. He discusses the American Civil Rights movement, the resistance to Soviet tyranny in Poland and Czechoslovakia, the South African battle against apartheid, and India’s campaign to end Britain’s colonial domination. Each of these movements met with mixed success, but in each case the effective power dynamics were the opposite of Constantinian top-down violence-centered power.
Vaclav Havel and others in Europe in the 1970s and 80s experienced many setbacks—prison, repression, silencing—and a genuine resurrection as the tyrants went down in face not of massive violence but of steadfast, largely nonviolent resistance that conquered through the denial of consent. When enough people said, you are no longer our government, the tyrants went down. One of the most powerful cases of this kind of resurrection arose in a different part of the world, Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He emerged after decades of imprisonment and torture as a remarkably whole, powerful, and inspirational leader. Mandela’s courage and steadfast humane-ness enabled a political transformation very different from the bloodbath almost all the so-called experts predicted.
Well, theologically, there is a terrible irony here. The self-professed Christian writer looks for top-down power. Resurrection as underwriting a “Christian empire.” The secular writer is the one who perceives the same kind of power that Jesus embodied in his life and teaching—the power borne from self-suffering rather than causing others to suffer that empowers others rather than the power that dominates others. And through these secular eyes we see portrayed a very different kind of resurrection, resurrection that emphasizes that love and genuine human solidarity cannot be conquered.
Schell’s story includes numerous people who did not live to see their kind of power win the day. Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, who returned from exile fully expecting that he might well sacrifice his life, as he did. But a sacrifice that led directly to the people-power fueled overthrowing of the tyrant. Steven Biko, a nonviolent community organizer in South Africa whose murder inspired opponents of apartheid around the world to heighten their resistance and ultimately bring that system down. Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador whose violent death did not immediately lead to political change, but who now stands as one of his nation’s greatest heroes and an inspiration to pro-democracy forces that in time did move into national leadership.
One of the great stories of this kind of resurrection happened on a much smaller scale. Franz Jagerstatter was a devout Catholic in Austria in the late 1930s. After Nazi Germany took over his country, Jagerstatter was called up to report for military service. Though his church leaders urged him to cooperate, he simply could not go against the message of the gospel. He said no. And he was executed. And there he rested, an unknown hero of faith for another generation, until his story was uncovered, “resurrected,” by an American researcher. Now Jagerstatter’s “solitary witness” has and continues to inspire countless fellow-disciples looking for encouragement in their own lives of resistance to tyranny.
What does Jesus’s resurrection mean?
So, to me the question that is most interesting about Jesus’ resurrection is this—what does it mean? Especially, what does it mean for how we approach life now as people who would walk with him? This is how I begin to answer that question. Jesus’s resurrection is a message to the world. It points us to his words and his actions. Jesus’s resurrection tells us that “love your enemy,” “do not lord it over others but be a servant to all,” “forgive seventy times seven,” and “love your neighbor as yourself” are not exceptions to the more fundamental rule of life as nasty, brutish, and short. These are not exceptions to the more fundamental rule of nature as red in tooth and claw.
No. Jesus’ resurrection is a message to the world: what you see in Jesus is what you see in the Maker of the Universe. What you see in Jesus is the stuff out of which your humanity has been fashioned. You see in Jesus your destiny to be embodied beginning right now. Despite what you see around you, the brokenness and the lust for domination. God means this message to encourage those who receive it, so we may see Jesus’s way at the way, truth, and life, the way to God, the way we show God to others. Even in face of resistance to that way and of the need to take up the cross in face of that resistance. In this prophet’s vindication we have an exhortation to go and do likewise.
It seems to me that Christianity has all too often gotten things almost exactly backwards. We start with a world of top-down authority and eye-for-an-eye justice. This “real world” is where self-defense, deference to wealth and status, just war, and necessary selfishness are normal. In such a world, Jesus’s resurrection is seen as crazy, a miracle, something that goes totally against the grain. In such a world, the most that this resurrection can do is provide a ticket out, a ticket to an otherworldly heaven. Sadly, in such a world, it is much more difficult to believe in Jesus’s way of life as our standard than to believe in God directly intervening this one time to bring Jesus back from the dead and then take him back to heaven where he can safely serve as our personal savior, not as our model for political life.
However, what if we live in a world where what actually is most natural, most normal, closest to our true nature, is the path of the good Samaritan and the path of the father who welcomes his prodigal son back into his arms without condition? What if we live in a world where we actually are born for friendship and compassion? Then, Jesus’s resurrection as a message of vindication of his way seems pretty easy to accept. In such a world God, of course, does not desert the ones who resist tyranny and domination with welcome and kindness. All we need are eyes to see, and a willingness to take a few steps to walk alongside this one who the Powers indeed cannot conquer.
So, at our reflections on the Jesus story come to an end, let’s go back for just a second to our original question—why pay attention to Jesus? What we have seen is that Jesus provides a kind of model for a particular way of being human—and quite a few of us find this way of being human very attractive. Jesus was full of love, compelled to show this love to a wide variety of people and to show it in ways that led to the power elite in his world to fight against him. He remained steadfast even as the weight of the forces opposing him crushed him. God vindicated the prophet and showed that love continues. We pay attention to Jesus because he reminds that love is supreme, and he inspires and empowers us to live that truth.