The claim that Jesus rose from the dead seems incredible. People have tried both to deny and to defy death, but only Christ has claimed to conquer it, Jn 11:25f. The very first Christians were confident of this, Acts 2:23f; 3:13-15; 4:2; 5:30-32. See also 1 Cor 15:3-8. John Stott has written about the relevance of the resurrection in the following terms:-
1. What does the resurrection mean?
The semantic question of what the resurrection means was brought into prominence in the 1980s by David Jenkins. He claimed to believe in the resurrection, but his belief is idiosyncratic. He caricatured the traditional belief of bodily resurrection as ‘a conjuring trick with bones’.
(a) The risen Lord is not just a surviving influence. Many leaders live on the memory of their followers. Example: Che Guevara, whose influence after his death was greater than during his lifetime. He provided Marxism with the image of a secular saint and martyr, and for years the walls of Latin American student buildings were chalked with the slogan “Che lives!” Similarly, after Archibishop Makarios of Cyprus died in 1977, public buildings were paint-sprayed with the words “Makarios lives!”
But the NT assertion is not merely that Jesus ‘lives’ as a continuing influence, but that ‘he is risen’.
(b) The risen Lord is not a resuscitated corpse. Jesus himself restored to life three people: the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus. But each of these was brought back to ordinary existence, and had their dying to do all over again. But Jesus was raised to a new plane of existence, and is alive for ever and ever, Rev 1:18.
(c) The risen Lord is not a revived faith in the experience of his disciples. This was Bultmann’s ‘demythologised’ view (“an historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable…If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the rise of faith in the risen Lord…all that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disicples came to believe in the resurrection”).
(d) The risen Lord is not just an expanded personality. This is what David Jenkins appears to believe. He refers to the resurrection as an “explosion” of Jesus’ “personality”, even though it did not involve his body.
(e) The risen Lord is not merely a living experience of the Spirit. Like Jenkins, Peter Carnley, Anglican Archbishop of Perth (The Structure of Resurrection Belief), regards the resurrection as a present experience rather than a past event. He asserts that Paul nowhere refers to the empty tomb, even in 1 Cor 15:3-8, and that the ‘appearances’ were intellectual apprehensions rather than visible manifestations. Carnley tends to speak not of ‘the resurrection’ (an event) but ‘the raised Christ’ (an experience).
(f) The risen Lord is a transformed person. “It is I myself”, Lk 24:39 – the same person, albeit with a glorified body.
1 Cor 15 speaks of a spiritual resurrection, v44. The has led some scholars to interpret the resurrection appearances of vv5-8 as non-physical. But the witness of the Gospels, of Acts, and of 1 Cor 15 itself will not allow this. For Paul, the resurrection was an objective, historical event: it occurred ‘on the third day’. It was a physical event: the four verbs (died, was buried, was raised, appeared) all refer to Christ as a historical, physical person. Since it was his body that was buried, it must have been his body (albeit transfigured) that was raised.
2. Did the resurrection really happen?
(a) There is the disappearance of the body. Everyone agrees that the tomb was empty. Rumours of resurrection would have got nowhere if the grave could have been visited and the body found to be still there. The idea that Jesus merely fainted on the cross, and then revived in the tomb, is absurd. Similarly, it is not credible that the Roman or Jewish authorities removed the body, since when the disciples began to proclaim the resurrection they would easily have refuted it by producing the body. It is not reasonable to supposed that the disciples themselves hid the body as a hoax, for they were prepared to suffer and die for the gospel, and people do not become martyrs for a lie which they themselves perpetrated.
(b) There is the reappearance of the Lord. This occurred repeatedly over a period of nearly six weeks. By the time that Paul wrote 1 Cor 15 (in AD 54), most of the witnesses were still alive, and could have been cross-questioned. The variety of people, times, places, moods and circumstances of the appearances make suggestions of invention or hallucination untenable.
(c) There is the emergence of the church. Something happened to change the apostles and send them out on the worldwide mission. When Jesus died, they were heartbroken, confused, frightened. But within two months they were joyful, confident and courageous. Only the resurrection, and Pentecost that followed, can account for this radical transformation.
3. Why is the resurrection important?
(a) It assures us of God’s forgiveness. Jesus himself linked his death with forgiveness, Mt 26:28, and resurrection confirms his death as a triumph. See 1 Cor 15:14-18.
(b) It assures us of God’s power. Is God really able to change human nature, to make cruel people kind, selfish people generous, immoral people pure, bitter people sweet? Is he able to take people who are dead spiritual, and make them alive in Christ? Yes, he can, and the power to do these things is the same power by which he raised his Son from the dead, Eph 1:18-20.
(c) It assures us of God’s ultimate triumph. Some ideologies offer no hope. Others conceive of an endless cycle of reincarnations. Yet others promise Utopia on earth. Christians, however, have a sure expectation which is both individual and cosmic. The horror of death is almost universal, but Jesus Christ rescues us from this horror. We are to be given new bodies, like his resurrection body, Phil 3:21, and undreamed-of powers, 1 Cor 15:42-44. For he is the ‘firstfruits’ of the harvest, 1 Cor 15:20,23, and the ‘firstborn from the dead’, Rom 8:29; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5. But the hope also has a cosmic dimension. Jesus Christ will return in great splendour, to bring history to its fulfilment in eternity. He will not only raise the dead, but also regenerate the universe, Mt 19:28. He will make all things new, Rev 21:5. The whoel creation will be set free from its present bondage to decay and death, Rom 8:20-23. There is going to be a new heaven and a new earth, 2 Pet 3:13.
The hope held out by the NT is impressively material, both for the individual and the cosmos. We look forward to a transformed body in a re-created universe. And the evidence for all this is found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 1 Pet 1:3.
Based on: Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 70-85.