Sunday, 16 April 2017



A BBC survey reported that a quarter of people who describe themselves as Christians in Great Britain do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. However, almost one in 10 people of no religion say they do believe the Easter story, but it has "some content that should not be taken literally".

It is difficult to know what to make of these surveys, especially as reported.

Gavin Ashenden has recently made the provocative statement:

"Those people who neither believe in the Resurrection nor go anywhere near a church cannot be 'Christians'.

That is an extremely insular statement. Neither the Quakers nor the Salvation Army have a church in the sense that Dr Ashenden seems to mean; and surely Christians in countries where there is great persecution may still practice their faith, but in small groups rather than in the formality of a church setting.

But what of the first part of Gavin Ashenden’s gripe. The earliest creedal statement of belief we have for Christianity is the Apostle’s Creed. It is now universally accepted that it does not come directly from the first apostle’s, but it is a statement of belief derived from the early church, most probably from responses in the baptismal liturgy. The latter part of it states:

Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,
sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem,
remissionem peccatorum,
carnis resurrectionem,
vitam aeternam.

Which translates to:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. 

Belief in the resurrection, as we see in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, formed part of the kernel of early Christianity. Indeed Paul says:

If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sins. It would also mean that the believers in Christ who have died are lost. If our hope in Christ is good for this life only and no more, then we deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world. (1Co 15:17-19)

However, the accounts of the resurrection are very strange. Most of the gospel stories overlay the text with references from the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament), but there are none in the resurrection stories; it is almost as if this is something unprecedented, something beyond the grasp of existing categories.

Yet there are discrepancies in the texts. They are not straightforward. Matthew has guards at the tomb, two women, an earthquake rolling away the stone while they are present, and one angel. Mark, the earliest gospel, has three women, a stone already rolled away, and a young man in a white robe. Luke follows Mark with three women, a stone already rolled away and two men in shining robes. John has one woman, Mary Magdalene, a stone already rolled away, two angels slightly later just appearing to Mary, and Jesus appearing to Mary.

Another feature in both Luke and John is the way in which these “appearances” take place. The risen Jesus seems at first to be so unlike the mortal Jesus that he is not recognised, until he says or does something which triggers the moment of recognition. It is not like a ghost story, where the ghost is instantly recognised as a dead person.

So what can we say of a “literal resurrection”? What precisely would that mean? Paul, again, uses a language of analogy to try and convey in word pictures that this is more that than the re-animation of a corpse.

Someone will ask, "How can the dead be raised to life? What kind of body will they have?" You fool! When you plant a seed in the ground, it does not sprout to life unless it dies. And what you plant is a bare seed, perhaps a grain of wheat or some other grain, not the full-bodied plant that will later grow up. (1Co 15:35-37)

This is how it will be when the dead are raised to life. When the body is buried, it is mortal; when raised, it will be immortal. When buried, it is ugly and weak; when raised, it will be beautiful and strong. When buried, it is a physical body; when raised, it will be a spiritual body. There is, of course, a physical body, so there has to be a spiritual body. (1Co 15:42-44)

Being Jewish, Paul knows only that humans are embodied beings, not discarnate “souls” (whatever a “soul” would be) and so he uses analogy to say that the resurrection body is also a body, but quiet unlike anything we know or can think of.

Other analogies gave been given through the ages. A caterpillar turning into a butterfly: earthbound, then able to soar into another plane of existence, but no less real. A water bug, bound to the water in which it lives, until in emerges as a dragonfly, and leaves behind the water bound existence, yet is as real and more free but startlingly different.

So what precisely would a “literal resurrection” mean in the context of these teachings and images? It would not mean the resuscitation of a corpse. It would not mean the picture in the wall painting in the Fisherman’s Chapel of graves opening and “giving up the dead”, a “conjuring trick with bones”. It would not mean a ghost, a shadow of the former self.

Can a waterbug understand what it feels like to be a dragonfly? This, if anything, is what resurrection means, another mode of existence that is almost impossible to grasp. How can that be “literal”? If literal means reduced to something we can understand, then the resurrection cannot be literal. It is as Paul says:

What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete---as complete as God's knowledge of me. (1Co 13:12)

No comments: