What does it mean to believe in the resurrection of Jesus?
The earliest answer, from a chronological perspective, probably affirmed a literal, bodily resurrection. This view fit nicely into a worldview populated by persons of mixed divine-human parentage in which other individuals were alleged to have risen from the dead. This view also fit nicely into a pre-scientific worldview.
The physical view became problematic with the advance of science that began during the Enlightenment. Illustrative of scientific difficulties with positing a physical resurrection is that a physical body begins to deteriorate immediately upon death. Yet Christians over the centuries have preferred burial to cremation precisely because of their mistaken belief in the resurrection of the physical body.
The second answer, again from a chronological perspective, was to interpret Jesus’ resurrection spiritually, that is, the resurrected Jesus was a new-being, changed from physical into a new quality of being. This view cohered well with the seeming paradoxical descriptions of the resurrected Jesus found in the Bible. Jesus could move through walls to enter a locked room, but he could also eat and people could touch him.
As belief in a theistic, supernatural God waned and became more problematic during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christians struggled to articulate new ideas of resurrection. One idea is that resurrection denotes unending, eternal life in God’s mind. Another view of resurrection is that it denotes Jesus continuing to live in the minds of his disciples. In this latter case, events such as Paul’s dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road may represent an event that occurred entirely in Paul’s mind. This differs markedly from a spiritual interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection in which Paul would have encountered a presence external to himself.
Scripture offers no definitive clarity on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. All of the gospels were composed decades after Jesus’ death. Mark’s gospel, the first written biography of Jesus, ends without a description of the resurrection. Close comparison of the details in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John reveal a number of contradictions, e.g., the identity of the first person to know of Jesus’ resurrection. If the Bible offered an easy answer about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, then theologians, biblical scholars, and ordinary Christians would not engage in ongoing contentious, unresolved debates about it.
Somehow, Jesus continued to exert a powerful influence in the lives of his disciples. Jesus continues to exert a powerful influence in the lives of many Christians today. And this is in spite of the fact that nobody can know with certainty what happened on the first Easter morning.
Ultimately, debates about the specifics of Jesus’ resurrection are unimportant. Definitive answers may come only in an individual’s own transformation from this life to the next – if indeed that happens, a topic on which the longstanding Christian consensus is slowly dissolving. Furthermore, in our increasingly “flat,” globalized world with competing religions, few people will convert to Christianity simply by reading the Bible.
Instead, the real proof that Jesus lives is in the lives of his disciples. Do they love one another (this is how Jesus said that people would recognize his disciples)? Do they love their neighbor – all of their neighbors? Do they love God, allowing the light of the ultimate to shine forth from within them?