The meaning of resurrection
In my previous Ethical Musings’ post, “Holy Week and Theology lite,” I explained why resurrection without death is incomprehensible. At best, resurrection without death becomes a form of self-help teaching.
So, given that all are dying or dead, what is resurrection?
My answer to that question begins by recognizing two definitions that are inapplicable to resurrection. First, resurrection differs from resuscitation. Resuscitation restores a person to this physical life. The experience may or may not change the individual. In any case, the resuscitated person remains mortal and will die another physical death. The biblical account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, found in John’s gospel, when read literally describes resuscitation rather than resurrection. Simplistic, literal readings of Jesus physically rising from the dead similarly are often closer to resuscitation than resurrection.
Second, resurrection requires external intervention. Nobody has the power to resurrect him or herself. If a person had that power, then the person would not be truly dead or dying. Twelve step programs describe the outside assistance for resurrection in terms of a person’s dependence upon a “higher power,” while concurrently acknowledging the ineffability of that “higher power.” Resurrection, however, does not preclude an individual cooperating with that “higher power.”
Resurrection is the higher power – God, in the vocabulary of many – intervening, often with the assistance of the individual in whose life the intervention occurs, to transform the inauthentic into the authentic. Other persons and things (e.g., a beautiful sunset) may also contribute to the process of resurrection. Resurrection transforms a person’s I-It relationships, in which the person objectifies others and God as a consequence of self-betrayal, into I-Thou relationships, which depend upon the authenticity of self and the other. Resurrection may also be defined in terms of liberation, e.g., the liberation of a person from bondage to an addiction.
The Bible, read mythically as an account of human experience, consistently reports God acting to resurrect the dead and dying. For example, this definition of resurrection provides a useful framework for understanding the account of the exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt, the return of Israel from its Babylonian captivity, the story of Lazarus’ rising from the dead, and Paul’s transformation on the road to Damascus.
Most importantly, this understanding of resurrection makes sense out of what happened on the first Easter, when the spirit or memory of Jesus, persisting after his death, transformed despondent disciples into messengers of hope and new life.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!