translated by Sara MacVane
All Christian traditions claim that if you are a Christian, you certainly believe in the resurrection of Christ. But what do we mean by this? In what sense was he raised? There are many different answers to this question. Some people believe that Jesus’ body was resurrected, that he returned to life, took off his grave clothes, rolled away the stone and went off to appear to the apostles. Other people hold that the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ appearances are imaged stories of the disciples’ experiences, which were in fact spiritual encounters. This account says that Jesus really did die, but that afterwards the disciples discovered that what he had said, done, and passed on to them remained true. They found that he was spiritually present to walk along the way beside them.
We find both these interpretations of the resurrection in the Bible. Some texts offer a very ‘material’ picture of the risen Christ. For example, in Luke 24. 37 ff, he eats some fish with his disciples. Other texts show him in a more spiritual context, where his followers don’t recognize him, he passes through walls, or is in two different places at the same time. In all of these stories, he appears only to those who believe in him. He doesn’t get back at Pilate, for instance, by appearing to him, or confound the chief priests by appearing to them. So we can conclude then that these stories about Jesus’ appearances after the crucifixion are not objective facts; rather, they recount the experience of faith.
The resurrection stories in the Gospels are all different, and this in itself shows us that they are subjective accounts. The accounts of Jesus’ ministry are very similar through the four Gospels, but his post crucifixion appearances are all particular to the Gospel in which they occur. The resurrection is not an objective “fact” then, but a personal experience.
If we look at Paul’s account, it is not at all “bodily”. For example, in chapter 15 of his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, he insists on the resurrection of Jesus in these beautiful words: if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain. He mentions Jesus’ appearances to Peter and to the twelve, and then goes on to say that Christ also appeared to him in the same way. Now, according to Luke’s account, Jesus shouldn’t have appeared to Paul at all. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus was raised on the third day, then appeared during the 40 days after his death and then was raised to heaven (the Ascension). He didn’t appear after that, and 10 days later we have Pentecost. Paul’s conversion takes place much later and it is his only point of reference to Jesus. There are three accounts of this event in the Bible and they specify a light and a voice. In one version of the story, those travelling with Paul see the light, but do not hear the voice, while in another version they hear the voice, but see nothing. In any case, there is nothing to see; there is no physical body. So for Paul then, what appears to him is in fact his conversion experience.
In fact, historical studies of the texts show that the resurrection stories are late additions to the Gospels. John’s account of the apostles’ miraculous catch of fish takes place in the other Gospels while Jesus is still alive. We also find two endings which were added on to Mark’s Gospel. The only objective fact found in all four Gospels is the empty tomb, and on this image they all originally ended. Some of Jesus’ followers go to reverence his body, and they find that the tomb is empty. The message is clear: we must not look for Christ in a tomb or in a cadaver; he is in heaven. In other words: we must look for him in a spiritual realm.
Whatever may have happened to Jesus’ physical body is not really important. Those who believe in miracles will continue to do so. Others will be made suspicious by Matthew’s strong warning not to believe that Jesus’ followers removed his body (perhaps to put it in some more discrete place, like a common grave, in order to avoid any attempt to worship a dead relic).
All of this information should make us very cautious as we look at the accounts of Jesus’ appearances. We should not take them as journalistic stories of objective events. On the other hand, we were not present, and it is impossible to know what really happened. What is important for us today, is not to know how Jesus appeared two thousand years ago to this person or to that one, but to know how he can be present and alive for us in our lives. That means that we should make a distinction between resurrection and appearance. You can believe in one without necessarily believing in the other. You can believe that Jesus was raised and is alive today, without believing that he appeared in a material sense up until the Ascension. In fact it is dangerous to think that the two ideas are entirely congruent, because if the Resurrection is entirely contingent on Jesus’ appearances, we have no hope of meeting him today in flesh and blood, just round the block. The good news of the Gospel is that Christ is risen, he lives. It certainly isn’t: He was raised for forty days, but now he is no longer physically alive. The good news of the resurrection is for us today to know how Christ is still alive. And there is no doubt about that; he is alive in a purely spiritual sense. When Jesus says: Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be among them, we believe him and we live that reality, but his is not a physical presence. Today, the risen Christ is clearly a spiritual reality. He walks beside us in his teaching, his good news, his love. The spirit of God that was in him and that he has given to us accompanies us.
If we were to see Christ’s appearances as material phenomena, that would be an under-estimation of the resurrection. We would become mere strangers, spectators at an event which was good news for a handful of the early Christians, but from which we are excluded. We would find ourselves left with a kind of lesser resurrection. But there is something better than participation by proxy that leaves us as spectators at some event in the past, now finished. Instead, we can read these stories as parables, as imaged stories which show us today how we can experience the reality that Christ still lives, accompanies us and gives us life. In John’s story of the apostles locked away in fear, we can see ourselves as well. And when Jesus passes beyond the locked door to give them peace and the spirit, and sends them out on mission, it is our story too. Or the disciples walking sadly along the road to Emmaus who suddenly discover that contrary to all appearances, Jesus walks beside them in word and shared understanding. If we read these texts in a spiritual context, we will understand that they speak about us, and in this way, we too can experience the presence of Christ resurrected.
Indeed, this is the resurrection news we find in the empty tomb. There is no corpse. Christ is present for us in another way, not as a corpse, but as a spirit which gives life. Christ passed through death. His physical self is dead, but life is more than the body and his spiritual self is alive for all eternity. There is no need to wait three days for Jesus’ resurrection then. He suffered death on the cross and left behind his visible, less important mortal spoils, and in effect it took the disciples three days to understand this.
Christ’s body is elsewhere. According to Paul, we who believe are the body of Christ, and Christ himself is the head. The body acts concretely in the world; those who believe in Christ become his hands to work, his arms to embrace, his mouth to speak. We are his body and he is the head, so it is within us that Jesus’ bodily resurrection becomes real.
 Translator’s note : All are in the Book of Acts. Acts 9. 3-9; 22. 6-11; 26. 13-14.  Acts 22. 6-11  Acts 9. 3-9
 Translator’s note : All are in the Book of Acts. Acts 9. 3-9; 22. 6-11; 26. 13-14.
 Acts 22. 6-11
 Acts 9. 3-9
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