I am sometimes accused of not believing in Easter because it does not matter to me whether Jesus’s tomb was actually empty and whether something utterly miraculous happened to his corpse –what is commonly called a “physical bodily resurrection.” For many people, that is what Easter is about and the meaning of the question, “Did it really happen?” Some believe it did, some don’t, and some are in a conundrum, uncertain whether things like that ever happen, even within a Christian framework.
If you are uncertain about or doubt the physical-bodily resurrection of Jesus, can you be a Christian, a “real” Christian? Can you whole-heartedly embrace Easter? For me, the answer is “yes.” Explaining why will take the rest of this blog, and even that will be insufficient.
For me, the truth of Easter is grounded in the religious experience of Jesus’s followers and in a particularly important instance an enemy, namely Paul. I regard it as a fact of history that Jesus was experienced after his death as a living figure of the present and not just as a dearly-remembered figure of the past. That is the unanimous testimony of early Christianity as we know it from the New Testament.
It begins with the earliest documents, the genuine letters of Paul, written in the 50s. Paul’s testimony is especially striking because he had been a strident opponent of the Jesus movement in the first few years after Jesus’s execution. In his first letter to his Christ-community in Corinth, written about 20 years before the first gospel, Paul tells us that Jesus “appeared” to him and radically changed his life.
In the same passage, he provides a list of others to whom Jesus “appeared” after his death: Cephas (Peter), the twelve, 500 at one time, James, and all the apostles. Paul’s repeated us of the verb “appeared” for their experience and his suggests a vision. That had been his experience, as the later book of Acts narrates three times.
So did Paul believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead? Absolutely. He had experienced Jesus after his death. Did he say, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain?” Yes.
But did he think of the resurrection of Jesus as physical? That is much less clear. His experience of Jesus after his death was not only a few years after what Acts narrates as the Ascension” of Jesus but also a “vision.” And near the end of 1 Corinthians 15, he explicitly says that the resurrection “body” is not a “physical” body but a “spiritual” body, a “glorified” body. What that means is not transparently clear, but, as Paul says, it is not a flesh and blood body.
Easter is about God saying “yes” to Jesus and what he was passionate about. What Jesus was passionate about was God and the kingdom of God.
God was the central reality of his life and the kingdom of God was the center of his message. The kingdom of God was not about heaven, not about life after death, but about the transformation of life on earth, as the Lord’s Prayer affirms. It is not about “Take us to heaven when we die,” but about “Your kingdom come on earth” – as already in heaven. The kingdom of God on earth was about God’s passion – and Jesus’s passion – for the transformation of “this world”: the humanly created world of injustice and violence into a world of justice and nonviolence.
That’s why the powers that ruled the world of Jesus killed him. They were not unknowingly doing the will of God by playing their part in God’s plan of salvation to provide a sinless sacrifice to pay for the sins of the world. No. They killed him because he was a radical critic of the way they had put the world together and he was attracting a following. So they snuffed him out.
In this context, Easter is about God’s “yes” to Jesus and God’s “no” to the powers that killed him. That, I suggest, is the primary meaning not only of Pau’s testimony and affirmation, but also of the Easter stories in the gospels. The earliest of these is the story of the empty tomb in Mark, written around 70. Reflect about what the story says, and set aside for a moment whether it’s meant to be read/heard literally and physically.
Its meanings are clear. You won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead. Don’t look for him in a tomb. He is not there – “why do you seek the living among the dead?” Imperial execution and a rich man’s tomb couldn’t stop him, hold him. It’s not over. He’s still here, still loose in the world, a figure of the present, continuing to recruit for the kingdom of God. That is the central meaning of Easter. God has said “yes” to Jesus and what he was about.
What would Christianity be like if Christians took Jesus, Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter seriously? What if Good Friday isn’t about Jesus dying to pay for our sins? What then is our Holy Week about?
By Marcus Borg