Are all interpretations acceptable or are there parameters that exclude some interpretations as “inappropriate?”
Presbyterians and other Christians have quarreled about these issues in recent years and the issues are not simply “academic”—that is, a matter for seminaries and their faculties—but are of vital concern for the whole church.
It is usually not long in this discussion before one party appeals to the “authority of Scripture” and dismisses the opposing party as “unbiblical.” But is it really that simple? Is it self-evident what the Bible tells us about the resurrection of Jesus Christ? One implication of a commitment to the authority of Scripture might be that one should not attempt to be clearer and more precise about this confession (or any other for that matter) than is Scripture itself. That hermeneutical principle, however, is difficult to honor, especially for those who preach and teach in congregations. The demands to make Christian faith not only clear but also intelligible and “believable” are sometimes overwhelming.
For many people it is not enough simply to identify the central confessions of Christian faith by which the church stands or falls. For them what the Bible confesses must also be explained, and “explained” usually means made “reasonable.” When preachers and teachers succumb to this demand—to not only confess, but to explain—the Gospel is impoverished for two reasons. First, Christian faith is usually reduced to “the limits of reason alone,” and, second, the Gospel is made to conform to what the Apostle Paul describes as “the wisdom of the world,” which stands opposed to “the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:21).
This temptation to move beyond confession to explanation is especially true of the central event of Christian faith—God’s resurrection of the crucified Jesus. In the New Testament Christians confess that “Jesus is Lord” for only one reason—because they believe “this Jesus God raised up” (Acts 2:32). Apart from this Easter confession Christians have no basis for affirming that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23), and that his crucifixion means “by his wounds you have been healed” (I Peter 2:24). Unlike the New Testament gospels, Christian faith begins not with “Christmas” and incarnation, nor with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, nor with Jesus’ proclamation and enactment of the Kingdom of God, nor with Good Friday, but with Easter. Christian faith, as it is described in the New Testament, is, above all else, Easter faith. The beginning of the Jesus story always presupposes its conclusion.
Given that the confession God raised Jesus from the dead is the basis of the Jesus story, does the New Testament reduce that confession to a single interpretation? Perhaps Paul is familiar with and presupposes the empty tomb traditions, but, curiously, he omits them from his summary of the Gospel that was “handed over” to him and that he in turn has handed over to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 15:3 ff.). Undoubtedly Paul believed that the Christ God raised from the dead was indeed the crucified Jesus. And yet Paul insists that the resurrected Jesus is neither a spirit–a disembodied soul–nor the “flesh and blood” Jesus, because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 15:50). The resurrected Christ, writes Paul, is a glorified and transformed pneumatic soma or “spiritual body” (I Corinthians 15:44) that is neither disembodied spirit nor flesh and blood.
Paul’s interpretation of the resurrected Christ appears (in more senses than one) to be quite different from the resurrected Christ who Thomas encounters in John’s Gospel (20:24 ff.), a Jesus whose wounded flesh Thomas is commanded to touch. And while Thomas has no difficulty recognizing the resurrected Jesus, such is not the case for Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple in Luke 24:13 ff. On their way to Emmaus they meet the resurrected Christ but do not recognize him, even when he interprets for them “the things about himself in all the Scriptures.”
What are we to make of this considerable diversity within the New Testament concerning this most basic of Christian confessions? What precisely did those early followers of Jesus experience in that strange event they describe by means of the word “resurrection?” What kind of reality was the resurrected Christ? Did some of the disciples see and touch the resurrected Jesus, while for others he was emphatically not flesh and blood but a “spiritual body?” To press and reduce these texts to a single voice, a single interpretation of Christ’s resurrection, is to make them say something we want them to say but which they do not. It is to refuse to listen to them in their variety and diversity, and in so doing it is to disbelieve them and to refuse to honor their “authority.” Better to let them stand as they are, witnessing in all their diversity to that mystery at the heart of Christian faith that should not be reduced to a single experience and a single explanation. Perhaps it is sufficient simply to join them in their common confession that “God raised Jesus from the dead” and, consequently, that this Jesus is Lord over all things.
The earliest written gospel tells us that the response of Jesus’ disciples to his empty tomb was neither a confession of faith nor great joy nor doxological worship, but trembling, astonishment, and fear (Mark 16:8). If we were to privilege Mark’s Gospel in our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection, that might mean we would judge only those sermons we hear this Easter as “biblical” that are full of trembling, astonishment, and fear. Let me know if you hear one.
Does the diversity in the New Testament concerning Jesus’ resurrection and the mystery and terror that surround it mean that any and all interpretations of it are appropriate? Hardly. Paul may not be able to explain precisely what he means by “spiritual body” because it is one of a kind, but he leaves no doubt that Jesus’ resurrection has everything to do with how Christians are to live. Jesus’ resurrection is the “first fruits” of what is yet to be and as such it defines and shapes Christian faith, hope, and love. Those who fail to see and live what Jesus’ resurrection means for faith, hope, and love are “of all people most to be pitied” (I Corinthians 15:19).
Christian faith is Easter faith. It trusts that all things, in life and in death, belong to God. And Christian love is Easter love. It is that love from which no one or no thing can separate us. And Christian hope is Easter hope. Because God has already raised Jesus from the dead, it is the confident anticipation of “that day” when all the dead and all creation will be raised and transformed.
GEORGE W. STROUP is J. B. Green Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary