The more you think about the resurrection, the more bizarre it seems. Bizarre in the sense of out of the ordinary, peculiar, odd - you can look up more synonyms on Microsoft Word. I do not mean that it seems unreasonable, oddly, which some people might initially suspect, for if one posits a living God, the God who creates and sustains all life, it does not seem unreasonable that the living God might indeed choose to keep all life and restore it at some point in the future, which seems to me what Jesus is driving at in Mark 12 when he says that God is the God of the living not of the dead. The more science understands about the continuation of matter, matter that cannot always be seen, even after its decay from one form into another, the less unreasonable it appears that such matter as once existed and now exists in a different form and way might take shape in continuity with that which it once was in the future, which is precisely how Paul speaks of the general resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). What seems to be most bizarre, for someone who finds the notion of the general resurrection reasonable, is the stepping outside of the normal means of operation for just one man. That is, when God acts in some fundamentally new way to bring about the general resurrection, it will be God acting on behalf of all: the old ways have passed, behold, a new way has come! Admittedly, Jesus is more than just “one man,” but his death in solidarity with our humanity is real death and so his rising from the dead fundamentally alters the way we look at the world because it is so out of sorts, so peculiar, so weird, so strange.

I think both ordinary readers of the Bible, of all stripes, and scholars of the Bible have the hardest time coming to terms with the ordinariness of life in the ancient world, that people back then were not all superstitious, credulous, or easily hoodwinked. I think there is a common sense, which I get from my students, that it was much easier for ancient people to believe in the resurrection because, well, they were so ancient. How can you trust people whose technology had not gone beyond that of hand delivered mail? When ancient people wanted to promulgate a law they often had it carved into stone and placed in the city square! Yet, this concrete approach to life is precisely why the resurrection was so odd to them. There was no way to use technological magic to befuddle the masses or post a You Tube video which cut and pasted various bits of film to create the sense that he was “risen.” The ancients knew death. They knew how death occurred and they saw it regularly. They were not kept at hospital’s length from decay or funeral home’s length from the preparation of the body. Death resonated with the wide circle of loved ones to whom the deceased had belonged. So, when death came to Jesus, his friends and family knew: Jesus is dead and now we hope that someday we will see him again in the resurrection at the end of time.

When his resurrection came in days, it shattered all understanding of the commonly, if not universally, held notion that resurrection occurs in the future, for all, with the establishment of God’s kingdom. Something new had happened here, something not in the schema that was expected. God can do what God wills, but what is willed here in light of expectations of the Messiah, the Kingdom and the general resurrection? Peter says that God

“In his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5)

It is a promise, a guarantee, the first fruits of that which is to come for all. By transcending the bounds of life and death as experienced prior to Christ’s resurrection and experienced by all since then, even those who with joyful longing await the fulfillment of the Kingdom, a strange event captures our attention, offering proof for those who believe, but only through the faith of those who first witnessed the events of the resurrection. Is it not strange to nod approvingly with Peter’s words?  “Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). According to the Gospel of John, Jesus says the same thing to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20: 29). We are asked to love and believe in the one we have not seen.

At Easter, we reflect on these realities. We love and believe the one we have not seen because we believe that people from long ago saw him die and then experienced him as raised from the dead. We trust them not because we are in the habit of believing all of the crazy things that people tell us, especially those we have never met, but because we think that God would give new life to his Son as a promise of the new life promised to humanity, even though it crashes through the boundaries of human life. We forget how bizarre it is because the more we experience the love of God, the more reasonable it becomes for God to have loved us in this way, to have given us a path that trusts us to trust and depend upon each other. We trust the ancient witnesses, because ancient people knew death concretely and when this strange thing occurred, Jesus arisen, they knew resurrection, though they had never seen it before. And they passed it on to us, their faith to our faith.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

 

Comments

Bill Collier | 5/5/2011 - 5:26pm
"We trust the ancient witnesses, because ancient people knew death concretely and when this strange thing occurred, Jesus arisen, they knew resurrection, though they had never seen it before. And they passed it on to us, their faith to our faith."

And there may yet be a non-human witness that passed on concrete evidence of the Resurrection, i.e., the Shroud of Turin, the most studied artifact in human history. Whether it is real or, literally, the most ingenious forgery or devotional object ever made, the Shroud provides a tangible reminder of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. For an even-handed treatment of this amazing artifact, one can't do any better than "The Shroud" (2010-11 edition) by Ian Wilson.    
Marie Rehbein | 5/5/2011 - 3:02pm
I think it is an excellent point that the absence of our technology would incline people to consider the resurrection as more remarkable than we might.  However, I think there are some freakish things that people who routinely dealt with the bodies of their dead loved ones might have experienced that we forget can happen.  I am thinking specifically of someone either not being actually dead (aside: is this why wakes typically last three days before burial or is that because Jesus arose in that time?), and the other is that the dead body sits up or moves in some way.  I think given those possibilities, the imaginations of the ancients might have been more inclined to consider resurrection than you allow, John.
Stephen Murray | 5/3/2011 - 9:57am
John Martens, that was very well said.  Excellent.