Saturday, 15 April 2017

Resurrection and Meaning

Writing toward the end of the second century, Celsus was the first writer to really attack the foundation of Christianity (rather than dismiss or persecute), and he had a go at the resurrection. Interestingly, he wasn't a naturalist, believing in the miraculous. However, he did find the Christian hope really quite absurd - but is that so different to Christians today? How many Christian families raise their kids to believe in an eternal life with Christ and the Father in resurrected bodies like the early Christians did and like Christ taught? I sometimes get depressed thinking how far we have drifted from the early hope, settling for platonic disembodied vagueness and bliss.

But this is my exaggeration, not the situation per se. Lots of Christian education does include the idea of "new bodies", but what of transformed bodies? To get to the heart of the issue, we need to look back at Jesus' resurrection and ask, what did his resurrection mean? Why did it matter that the tomb was empty?

It is often repeated in Christian discussion around the resurrection that we needn't think that an empty tomb means a resurrected Christ - more obvious natural explanations would explain such an event, as Mary Magdalene demonstrates in John 20 ("they've taken my Lord away", v13). It is the empty tomb plus the appearances that point to a resurrected Christ. If you have just the empty tomb, but no appearances, then something else happened to the body. If you have just the appearances, then the earthly body remains in the tomb. But the Christian hope has both. Why though?

Resurrection was the hope of the pharisaic Jews (fairly mainstream) of the second temple Judaism era. More clearly than in the Old Testament itself, these Jews believed and taught that the dead would rise back to life and God's kingdom would come, with his messiah-king to reign eternally as his Son. The bad guys would be kicked out forever. This helps to understand Jesus' early ministry as an apocalyptic preacher, that the end was nigh and God's kingdom had come.

God resurrecting Christ means the beginning of the end phase. But the end of the end phase still hasn't happened. When it does it will be marked by the same resurrection as that of Christ, who was the "firstfruit". But I wonder if Celsus had a point, which leads to some of the confusion today. Part of the point of Jesus' bones no longer being in the ground was to convey all this meaning of God's massive redemptive act and kingdom advance being true "according to the Scriptures", as Paul and his predecessors insist on emphasising. As the psalmist said in Psalm 16: you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.

But what about our relatives' decayed bones and flesh? 2000 years of waiting, for a lot of Christians, including those eaten by lions, can lead us to ask in what sense will we be resurrected if we are to be resurrected as Jesus was? Aren't our predecessors' molecules scattered throughout nature and even reintegrated into other organisms? Aren't masses of folk scheduled for resurrection in a current state of cremation? Is it not all a little absurd?

Coinciding with the future cataclysmic return of Christ, we can usefully differentiate two distinct types of resurrection. There are mortals who have died and mortals alive. For decayed individuals receiving "transformed" bodies, this will presumably equate to a gift of a new body. The physical transformation of a mortal body disintegrated into a myriad of other organisms or the world at large seems to carry no sense. Conversely, those whose mortal bodies are still alive will presumably experience transformation of their bodies into the new spiritual state of those bodies.

A couple of points of meaning to note then. Firstly, note how Christ's resurrection anticipates both of these distinct types. Secondly, can you imagine cemeteries and other reminders of death and decay in the future transformed physical world order? If that is not conceivable, then one component of the full meaning of Christ's resurrected body from the grave does not need to apply decayed corpses, whose spatial "location" is meaningless. In other words, in light of the resurrection apparences, the empty space of Jesus's empty tomb previously occupied by death carries a powerful symbolism that a new regenerated physical universe would probably not require, unless you think corpseless cemeteries might be a feature of the world to come. 

I hope you can enjoy this Phatfish classic and please have a great Easter!

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