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The key to the mystery

27 April 2018

David Winter concludes his exploration of post-resurrection appearances

Angelo Hornak/Alamy

Noli me tangere by David Wynne (1964), Ely Cathedral

Noli me tangere by David Wynne (1964), Ely Cathedral

IT SEEMS to me worth looking into the difference in nature of the two things — experience and appearance — because there is enough overlap to confuse the issue. After all, the resurrection of Jesus is fundamental, in Christian terms, to an understanding of life after death.

The earliest account of it is not in the Gospels, but in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, probably written about AD 55, a mere 20 or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus. Paul sets out very clearly what he was taught when he was prepared for baptism around AD 36 — two or three years after that first Easter weekend, and while its consequences were still fresh in people’s minds.

Here is what he wrote: “For 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 Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15.3-7).

THIS is, as I say, the earliest account we have of the resurrection of Jesus. It bears the hallmarks of a known narrative — an early credal confession, possibly — but also of someone dictating his words to a scribe. There are obvious repetitions: the “twelve” were the apostles, and included others he names, notably Cephas (Peter), and James, who were the recognised leaders of the Church at that time.

Twice, Paul’s statement asserts that this happened “in accordance with the scriptures” — that is, foretold by the prophets of Israel. On the other hand, he doesn’t mention the women, who by the unanimous testimony of the Gospels were the first witnesses of the empty tomb; or Mary Magdalene, the very first person to see the risen Christ.

The Gospels do not mention an appearance to 500 people at once, which would be a very significant part of the evidence for the resurrection — especially the claim that many of them were still alive 33 years or so after the appearance.

This shows, then, how difficult it is to put together a single, coherent account of the resurrection of Jesus.

WHEN we turn to the Gospels, we find the same situation. Apart from Mark, whose truncated Gospel records no appearances of Jesus (while clearly asserting that he had risen), they record many such appearances — some to individuals, like the couple on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35), and Peter and his companions on the lake (John 21).

Others were to larger groups of people: the disciples in the upper room (John 20.19), and on the mount of the Ascension (Luke 24.50-52; Acts 1.6-11). The appearances were all transient or at least temporary, in widely differing geographical locations, and — twice — in locked and bolted rooms. Jesus “appeared”, and then withdrew from people’s sight.

THE witnesses to Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances all attest that it was undoubtedly Jesus they encountered, though on several occasions they recorded that at first they didn’t recognise him (for example, John 20.14; Luke 24.15-16). What they saw was not, they were clear, a “ghost”, but equally clearly it was not an ordinary flesh-and-blood person — otherwise, how could they account for the appearing and disappearing?

He was, in other words, Jesus their Lord and teacher — they were prepared to die for that belief (and many of them did). But he was not Jesus as they had known him on the dusty lanes of Galilee or the crowded streets of Jerusalem.

I BELIEVE that there is a key that unlocks the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus, and of the resurrection which the Christian creeds speak of. It is found in the same chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as the earlier excerpt. It is, I think, a crucial key to understanding, but it is one that many Christians seem to be unwilling to turn to.

It is found in a passage I quoted earlier, a series of repeated assertions about resurrection: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. . . It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15.42-44).

Paul is answering an oratorical question: “How are the dead raised?” The central and repeated point he makes in answer is that they are raised “spiritually”. In case one imagines that his is simply a lone voice in the Early Church and the New Testament, his point is made more briefly but equally clearly by the apostle Peter: “Christ . . . was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3.18).

WHATEVER resurrection is, whether of Jesus or of people today, it is emphatically not a physical restoration of the body. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God,” Paul says (1 Corinthians 15.50).

Many people are unhappy about this assertion. They think that “raised in the spirit” means that we shall be wispy ghosts in heaven, and that is not an attractive idea. On the whole, we rather like our bodies (when they are functioning properly), and we cannot imagine being human without them; and it is as humans — as “people”, not spectres — that we expect to enjoy eternal life.

A closer reading of Paul’s words in the letter to the Corinthians, however, shows that he is not remotely suggesting that in the resurrection life people will be ghosts. I suspect the very idea would have reduced him to eloquent fury. The risen spirit (whether of Jesus, or of you and me) will have a “body” in which to express itself, but it won’t be this one, or anything else that would wear out, decay, or perish. That is the heart of his argument.

When we apply that insight — “turn that key” — to the question of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, we shall find that many of the difficulties disappear. When the women came to the empty tomb on Easter morning, the “young man dressed in a white robe” said to them “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here” (Mark 16.6).

Jesus of Nazareth, the son of the village carpenter, was not there — or, in a sense, anywhere else. The “incarnation” was over. They would meet the risen Messiah, but they would never again see the carpenter’s son. “He has been raised” — and in that resurrection transformed from a first-century Jewish man into a citizen of his Father’s Kingdom of heaven.

And that, Paul says, is the pattern for all our resurrections. It was, as the disciples recorded in their bewilderment and confusion, the same Jesus who appeared to them, but different: not less, but more — no longer limited by the restrictions of physicality, of space and time, but gloriously, powerfully, spiritual.

WE MAY find it hard to appreciate that this is to be more, not less, alive. We are immersed in an intensely physical world, where things are held together by time and space. That hesitancy is understandable, and probably doesn’t matter, provided we are willing to accept that there might be — indeed, there is — an infinitely better way of “being” than what we have known during our lives on earth.

It is a way of being which mirrors the very nature of God himself. We, who are made in his “image”, will one day share his eternal being, freed from the limitations of the created universe to be with its Creator. That is the plain but staggering implication of the phrase “eternal life”: not just life that lasts for ever, but life “in all its fullness” (John 10.10, NJB).

This is our second and final edited extract from Heaven’s Morning: Rethinking the destination by David Winter (BRF, £7.99; CT Bookshop £7.20).

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