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Real Resurrection?

1 Corinthians 15.12-20

Years ago, when I was working in Birmingham, the Chair of the District read out a startling extract from a letter. It was from the wife of a Methodist minister in South Africa. He had stayed with the minister, his wife and twin daughters on a visit to their country. Just before the letter was written the twins had been killed in a car accident. Their mother wrote that she could no longer believe in the resurrection.

As long ago as the First Century, before any of the New Testament had been written down, some Christians were already thinking of Jesus' resurrection as  a purely spiritual event. They believed he was alive again, but only as a disembodied spirit, or perhaps because he lived on in the mind of God, and so God could still make Jesus known to his followers. 

But St Paul takes a different point of view. The writer David Kerrigan observes how, in this passage, Paul ‘[drives] home his conviction ‘that if there is no resurrection, then there is no gospel.’ “If Christ has not been raised… your faith has been in vain,” says Paul, because “you are still in your sins” and “those who have died in Christ have perished.” [1]

Is Paul really right to insist that Jesus had to be raised physically from the dead in order for the Christian message to be true? Some Christians today no longer believe in God let alone the resurrection. They’re drawn to Christianity because they find the story of Jesus inspiring, not because they think it’s necessarily all true. A great many more contemporary Christians do believe in  God and Jesus but are happy to accept that the resurrection was, after all, just a spiritual event. 

Even Paul's account, which is the earliest reference to the Easter story anywhere in the Bible, doesn't include the empty tomb. So they're willing to believe that God restored Jesus to life, but only to a spiritual life which didn't involve his physical body. And they accept that when we die we can't look forward to a bodily resurrection, only to being remembered by - and living on in - God and in the minds of other people.

To be honest, when I'm helping with the funerals of people who haven't signed up to any particular set of beliefs, this seems to be the safest thing to offer them. They and their families may not have believed in the empty tomb, these days they may not even have heard of it, so to promise them physical resurrection is a recipe for doubt and confusion rather than hope and reassurance.

The popularity of cremation underlines the loss of belief in a physical resurrection. For centuries Christians were carefully buried facing East, ready to await the physical resurrection of the dead. whereas now burial is a minority option.

So why was Paul so certain that the physical resurrection of Jesus is a necessary feature of Christian belief? Perhaps because, if we begin to doubt one part of the story, the rest - Jesus' miraculous birth, his healing ministry, the gift of tongues and the return of Jesus at the end of history - could quickly unravel too. That thought certainly encourages some Christians to hold on to everything in the Bible, but it seems unlikely to have compelled Paul to insist that Jesus was raised from the dead.

A more likely explanation is the way that the Old Testament thinks about life after death. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed in an imperishable soul, which survives our death and returns to God. This Greek idea of an eternal soul found its way into mainstream Christianity because the same word was used in the New Testament to translate the Jewish idea of our 'life force’, the thing that animates our body and makes us live and breathe. But in the Old Testament this isn't separate from our bodies; it comes from our hearts and our brains. It follows that if we're going to live again after our death we will need the physical resurrection of our body. 

For a long time this seemed like a less sophisticated idea than Plato’s doctrine of the soul, but modern science has vindicated Paul and the Old Testament. Our consciousness, our sense of who we are, really does depend on our bodies, particularly our brain, and therefore on our physical body.

Our bodies are crucial too to our sense of self. I would be a different person in the body of Marilyn Monroe, and she would be a different person if she were me. Or, as my son put it, she would find that she needed to be a lot funnier if she wanted to make as many friends.
David Kerrigan argues that 'we cannot face a broken, messed-up world and hold on to the hope that all will be well, unless’ Jesus ‘went into death, destroyed it and rose to new life.’ You may agree with him, although personally I think he overstates his case.

What I would say is that the resurrection offers us hope and consolation when we're faced by the manifest injustice of premature death, whether from illness, accident or deprivation. Without it, many lives would have been lived in vain or have ended in a degree of suffering and disappointment for which nothing else can make amends.

The great care with which many Christians were previously buried down the ages is not necessary if we believe in resurrection, although belief in the resurrection helps to explain why it was done. But throughout Christian history those who died at sea, or in fires or battles were still promised the hope of resurrection because it’s not a natural process; it’s a divine gift. If we are raised at death it is only because God gives us the gift of resurrection, and that applies as much to Jesus as to us. He did not rise from death; God raised him. 

With all this in mind I watched the very expensive operation to recover the bodies of Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotson from the wreckage of their plane which crashed into the English Channel.  The case for for doing this seems to be that it’s necessary to give them a proper resting place. But for centuries people have accepted that the high seas can sometimes be our final resting place until the resurrection. 

Elsewhere in this letter Paul is clear that he believes we don’t need our old body when we die; we’re given a new spiritual body. In that sense, his thinking isn’t so very different from the idea he criticises, that we’re only raised from death in a spiritual sense, except that Paul's understanding of life beyond death is less vague and more personal. He believes that each one of us retains our own identity when we’re raised from death, instead of simply being remembered by God or absorbed into God's own being.

David Kerrigan reminds us that resurrection is bound up with the idea that Jesus has shared our most fundamental experiences -  ‘birth, life, death and the life beyond it.’ We were separated from God until he came among us in Jesus, because until then he hadn’t shared these defining points in human existence.

Kerrigan says, ‘Without the death of Jesus,’ he cannot enter fully into 'our experience’ and ‘without the resurrection’ of Jesus, ‘his dying is no different from ours. Only the resurrection holds out the hope that our separation [from God] will be overcome—in fact, that it has already been overcome.’

Perhaps with a sideways glance to this  passage, the first letter of Peter reassures us that ‘death is not the end’. Instead, ‘we have “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” and a glorious inheritance that is “kept in heaven for [us].”

[1] David Kerrigan, Guidelines, The Bible Reading Fellowship, April 2017

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