the third day he rose from the dead;
During the closing decades of the eighteenth century, a German historian Hermann Samuel Reimarus wrote a treatise rejecting the Gospel account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ because of its incredulity to reason. Reimarus spoke on behalf of many philosophers and intellectuals of his day who subjected not only the Church’s dogmas but the Bible itself to scrutiny under the reductive lenses of rationalism and scepticism.
Reimarus fabricated an ingenious theory in an attempt to explain the rationale of the resurrection narratives in the gospels. He argued that Jesus’ disciples, realising that there was a better living to be made from preaching than fishing (if this were true, their misjudgement was catastrophic!), invented the story about the resurrection of Jesus. This story, which falls in line with Jewish expectations of the resurrection, enabled the disciples to embark on what was potentially a lucrative line of business. According to Reimarus, the disciples of Christ were nothing but clever con-artists who concocted what might now be called an ‘urban legend’ surrounding the person of Christ by taking advantage of Jewish apocalyptic expectations.
Suspicion about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, of course, did not originate either with Reimarus or the sceptics of the Enlightenment. They are found in the gospel accounts themselves. The chief priests and Pharisees were afraid that the disciples might steal the body of their Master from the tomb and then claim that he had risen from the dead. Thus, in Matthew’s account, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate to request that the tomb be guarded until the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion and death (Matthew 27:60-63). Like Reimarus, the chief priests and the Pharisees also thought that the disciples would resort to deception to advance their cause.
Although scripture clearly presents the facticity of Christ’s resurrection, its portrayal of the nature of the Risen One remains enigmatic, shot through with paradox. This is because the resurrection signals the coming of the future into human history. The resurrection of Christ is unique: it is not a species in a genus. Rather it is sui generis.
Other theories to refute the resurrection of Christ have since been suggested. One speculated that Jesus did not die on the Cross, but that he swooned, and later revived in the cool of the tomb. But this theory is untenable because if Jesus had only swooned, signs of life would have been detected when his body was being embalmed. It would also be inconceivable for a man who is barely alive to have disentangled the long winding of the grave clothes, rolled the large stone from inside the grave and escaped.
Even those who remain sceptical about the resurrection fail to find these attempts to refute it convincing. The incredulity of the presuppositions behind these theories is eloquently refuted by a Jewish scholar, Joseph Klausner: ‘That is impossible; deliberate imposture is not the substance out of which the religion of millions of mankind is created … The nineteen hundred years’ faith of millions is not founded on deception’.
The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation upon which the Christian Faith is erected. Here is how the Church’s earliest theologian put it: ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve’ (1 Cor 15:3). And again: ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’.
All the gospel narratives emphasised the fact of the resurrection of Jesus, and the Church has always and everywhere proclaimed it. Although scripture clearly presents the facticity of Christ’s resurrection, its portrayal of the nature of the Risen One remains enigmatic, shot through with paradox. This is because the resurrection signals the coming of the future into human history. The resurrection of Christ is unique: it is not a species in a genus. Rather it is sui generis.
The discontinuous nature of the resurrected body of Christ is brought out by the fact that neither the two disciples on Emmaus road (Luke 24:16), nor Mary Magdalene (John 20:14) could immediately recognise it. Its discontinuous nature is further brought out by the fact that the risen Christ appears not to be bound by space and time. He is able to suddenly vanish (Luke 24:37) or appear (John 20:19, 26) at will. These discontinuities notwithstanding, there are important continuities, which signal the fact that it is the Jesus who died three days before on Golgotha’s cross who is now risen.
Thomas touched the wounds of his crucifixion (John 20:17). The Church’s belief in a bodily resurrection is also founded upon the physicality of the Risen Saviour – although it is a transfigured physicality which Paul enigmatically calls a ‘spiritual body’.
Whatever may have been the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body, when it was revealed to them that their Master had risen from the dead, the disciples responded in worship. Thus when the women returning from the tomb met the risen Jesus, they took hold of his feet and worshipped him (Matt 28:9). Similarly, when the disciples met Jesus on the hill-top in Galilee, they worshipped him when they saw him (Matt 28:17). And Thomas, having put his fingers on the wounds of Jesus, cried aloud: ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). The encounter with the resurrected Lord emboldened a small group of men who were previously anxious about their own safety to be powerful witnesses of their Lord.
What is the significance of the resurrection of Christ? The resurrection of Christ points to the triumph of both God and man. Because of the resurrection, God did not humble himself in vain in his Son. In the resurrection, God confirmed his own glory and acted for his own honour. In the resurrection, God’s mercy has triumphed in his humiliation, and God’s Son Jesus Christ is exalted.
But in the resurrection man’s triumph is also secured. By rising from the grave, Jesus Christ has set man free from the fetters of sin and death. As author and finisher of our faith, Christ in his resurrection has paved the way for his people: those who believe in him will also overcome death and participate in the divine glory. Thus the Easter message is a message of reconciliation, and man’s redemption.
Easter also announces the defeat of our enemies – God’s enemies. The resurrection of Christ signals the resounding victory of God over sin and death. To be sure, sin and death continue to pervade our world. Sin and death still behave as though the war is on. There is still some shooting here and there, and the presence of enemy troops can be spotted and can still cause damage. But the resurrection points us to the fact that the battle has been won, and the war is at an end.
The resurrection of Christ points us to the consummation of the kingdom of God when all evil will be completely and finally removed and the resplendent glory of God will radiate on earth and in the heavens. In this way, the resurrection of Christ is the basis of our hope: Christ has died, Christ is risen, (and thus) Christ will come again!
We end as we had begun, by turning to the eighteenth century. The acids of Enlightenment scepticism, so starkly exemplified by Reimarus’ christology, have failed to destroy the fabric of the Christian Tradition despite its large following. In that same century, the voices of orthodoxy continue to proclaim the resurrection of Christ without diminution and compromise. This is found in the theology and music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who in the closing chorus of his magnificent Easter Oratario (BWV 249), which was performed in Leipzig on Easter Sunday 1735, could resonate with the resurrection faith of the apostles by declaring:
Laud and thanks
Shall always be, O Lord, thy song of praise.
Hell and devil are now vanquished,
And their portals are destroyed.
Triumph, O ye ransomed voices,
Till ye be in heaven heard.
Spread open, ye heavens, your glorious arches,
The Lion of Judah with triumph shall enter!
The reverberation of this Faith will continue to be heard in the twenty-first century and beyond in the midst of scepticism and against the stone walls of unbelief. For truth is more powerful than unbelief, life more powerful than death!
The resurrection of Christ signals the resounding victory of God over sin and death. To be sure, sin and death continue to pervade our world. Sin and death still behave as though the war is on. There is still some shooting here and there, and the presence of enemy troops can be spotted and can still cause damage. But the resurrection points us to the fact that the battle has been won, and the war is at an end.
Dr. Roland Chia is Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Historical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.