Easter – the celebration of God raising Jesus from the dead – is at the center of the Christian faith.
Without Easter, explaining Christianity's existence seems impossible. For example, Reza Aslan in Zealot concludes that Jesus was fully human without also being the unique, fully divine Son of God. Aslan's conclusion is not persuasive. Why would so many people have risked so much and, in some eras, suffered so much, to follow Jesus? In Palestine during the two centuries before and after Jesus, literally dozens of individuals claimed to be the messiah. These other messiahs proclaimed God's message, performed wondrous deeds, and attracted bands of Jewish disciples. Why did all of their movements soon fade away whereas Jesus' movement grew rapidly, becoming the Roman Empire's official religion within four centuries? Aslan does not offer a reasonable answer.
Alternatively, traditional Christian interpretations of the resurrection as physical or spiritual seem increasingly untenable. To argue that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead (i.e., God physically raised Jesus from the dead leaving the tomb empty) requires ignoring biological facts and historical probabilities. An Ethical Musings' reader noted in a comment on a recent post that "autolysis, the plunging PH at the time of death which releases the enzymes from the body's cells to decompose the body" makes a physical resurrection impossible. Also, physical bodies, whether original or resuscitated, die. Historically, the Romans left the bodies of those crucified hanging on crosses as a poignant reminder of the perils of challenging Roman rule.
On the other hand, spiritualizing Jesus' resurrection presumes a highly problematic divide between spirit and matter. Since Descartes, scholars from many disciplines (theologians, philosophers, natural scientists, and others) have struggled unsatisfactorily to explain the interaction of spirit and matter. No evidence for an ethereal, eternal aspect of human life exists. Given that humans evolved from other life forms, those who maintain that humans possess an ethereal spirit also face the challenge of describing at what point in evolution humans acquired that spirit.
Biblical accounts of the resurrection offer little help, offering contradictory images. The resurrected Christ moves through walls, seemingly unbound by physical or geographic constraints. Nevertheless, the resurrected Christ eats and his disciples touch his wounds.
The most intriguing, provocative, and promising approach to understanding Jesus' resurrection is that of Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman. He believes that historians can know three very important things about Jesus' resurrection with reasonable certainty:
(1) Some of Jesus’s followers believed that he had been raised from the dead;
(2) They believed this because some of them had visions of him after his crucifixion; and
(3) This belief led them to reevaluate who Jesus was, so that the Jewish apocalyptic preacher from rural Galilee came to be considered, in some sense, God. (How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, p. 174)
Jesus being present to his disciples in a vision is perhaps a spiritual interpretation of the resurrection. The visions must have felt real to motivate discouraged disciples and to give them the courage and strength to persevere in spite of religious and political opposition. Ehrman's theory advantageously coheres with historical probabilities and scientific fact. Does this make God's salvific activity in Jesus any less real than other theories of Jesus' resurrection?