Refections on the Resurrection
Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting
One of the key Christian doctrines is the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus. When I attended the Anglican Church in my youth, we recited the Apostles Creed every Sunday, including the words “I believe ……. in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” I said it with a note of doubt in my voice. I didn’t know what sort of body I would have at the time of death, but I wasn’t sure I would fancy keeping it for all eternity.
I recently heard a minister on the TV say that we knew about the after-life because Jesus returned and told us about it. But this is not how I read the gospel stories. They tell of Jesus giving comfort to his followers and telling them to continue his work. The stories do not attempt to explain how Jesus experienced the resurrection, or to give any idea of what a life after death could be like, other than a conventional image of Jesus “sitting on the right hand of God”.
I don’t think that the disciples of Jesus believed in an after-life because Jesus rose from the dead. On the contrary I think they could accept that Jesus rose from the dead because they had always believed in a life after death. This was a matter of dispute at the time of Jesus, and we have an interesting record of Jesus arguing with the Sadducees who did not believe that the dead would rise. They put to Jesus the case of a woman who had been married many times. Whose wife would she be when the dead rose to life? Jesus replied, “When the dead rise to life they will be like the angels in heaven and will not marry. Now as for the dead rising to life; haven’t you ever read about what God has told you? He said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is the God of the living, not of the dead’.” (Matthew 22,23-32)
The gospel records of the resurrection are not very satisfying to a modern historian. The earliest gospel is that of Mark. He records that a group of women went to the tomb and found that body was not there. An angel told them, ”He is not here – he has been raised!” The women ran from the tomb and said nothing to anyone. Some appearance stories were added later.
Matthew also has the women and the angel at the tomb, but says that the women “ran to tell the disciples.” Then Jesus appears to the women, and later to the disciples in Galilee.
Luke has the women and two angels at the tomb, and has the women telling the disciples what they saw, “but the apostles thought that what the women said was nonsense”. Peter however went to see the empty tomb. Then Luke tells the story of the appearance on the road to Emmaus, and of an appearance to the apostles.
John, the last of the gospels to be written, has only one woman at the tomb – Mary Magdelene – who goes to fetch Peter and one other disciple. Jesus then appears to Mary and to all the disciples. There follows an appearance to seven disciples at Lake Tiberias.
Two things stand out in these stories. One is that the stories of the resurrection appear to come initially from women. And the role of Peter seems to increase in the later stories, reflecting his importance in the early church.
The Book of Acts gives us some idea of the teaching of the early church based in Jerusalem. They taught that Jesus had risen from the dead, but the core of their teaching was that Jesus was a prophet like Joel, King David, or Moses. The early Jewish Christians tried very hard to place Jesus within mainstream Judaism. It is interesting to read the speech which Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is said to have given in his defence (Acts 7). He talks at length about Abraham and Moses, and the prophets who foretold the coming of the “righteous Servant”, adding “and now you have betrayed and murdered him.” He does not mention Jesus by name, and does not mention the resurrection at all.
This same reliance on the scriptures is seen in the speech which Peter gave on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2, from verse 14). He first establishes that Jesus had to rise from the dead because this is foretold in the scriptures. He quotes Psalm 16, verses 8-11, attributed to King David. The key words from the original version are “I feel completely secure, because you protect me from the power of death. I have served you faithfully, and you will not abandon me to the world of the dead. You will show me the path that leads to life”. This, Peter claims, is a prophecy about Jesus. I don’t know that this line of argument has great weight with the modern reader.
Peter goes on to say, “God has raised this very Jesus from death, and we are all witness to this fact.” But he gives no detail of what he has witnessed.
This pattern of preferring scriptural references to eyewitness reports is seen also in the story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24, 13-32). The disciples are talking about the empty tomb: “Some of the women of our group surprised us: they went at dawn to the tomb, but could not find his body. They came back saying they had seen a vision of angels who told them that he is alive. Some of our group went to the tomb and found it exactly as the women had said, but they did not see him.” In response, Jesus “explained to them what was said about himself in all the Scriptures, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets.” Jesus does not say, “But I am alive, here I am!” Only when Jesus breaks the bread and hands it to them do they recognise him.
Actually, the oldest surviving record of the resurrection is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15. “I passed on to you what I received,….that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures; that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later as written in the Scriptures; that he appeared to Peter and then to all twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of his followers at once, most of whom are still alive, although some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared also to me..”
Several points can be made about this account:
- The fact that these events are “according to the Scriptures” comes before present experience.
- The women have disappeared from the story.
- Where does the story of the “more than 500” come from? (Paul says he is reminding his readers of facts they already know, or he might have given more detail.)
- Paul regards his own experience on the road to Damascus as equivalent to the early experiences of the apostles.
In view of point 4, it is worthwhile revisiting what happened to Paul. The account is in Acts 9. The event seems to take place after Jesus was said to have ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit.
“As Paul was approaching the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
‘Who are you, Lord?’ he asked.
‘I am Jesus whom you persecute,’ the voice said. ‘But get up and go into the city where you will be told what you must do.’
The men who were travelling with Saul had stopped, not saying a word; they heard the voice but could not see anyone.”
As far as we know, this is the only record of Jesus appearing to someone who was not already a follower.
But to return to the mysterious 500. Could this be a reference to the event known in the church calendar as Pentecost? (Acts chapter 2) In the ecclesiastical calendar this event comes 6 weeks after the resurrection. During this time the followers of Jesus have started to regroup, and to share their stories about Jesus with each other. They have not engaged in public ministry. According to Acts “When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak”. This is the beginning of the public ministry of the early church.
In trying to understand the experiences of the early church I find it helpful to look for similar experiences amongst our own Quaker tradition. We can find Road to Damascas experiences there (and in other religious traditions as well.) Take for example this account of Marmeduke Stevenson: (Quaker Faith and Practice 19.17)
In the beginning of the year 1655 I was at the ploughing the east parts of Yorkshire in Old England…. And, as I walked after the plough, I was filled with the love and presence of the living God, which did ravish my heart when I felt it…. And, as I stood a little still, with my heart and mind stayed upon the Lord, the word of the Lord came to me in a still, small voice, which I did hear perfectly, saying to me in the secret of my heart and conscience, ‘I have ordained thee a prophet unto the nations’.
Many Quakers will have had an experience of a Spirit filled meeting, as the disciples experienced at Pentecost. An example can be found in Quaker Faith and Practice 19.20, from Edward Burrough:
While waiting upon the Lord in silence, as often we did not many hours together, with our minds and hearts toward him, being stayed in the light of Christ within us from all thoughts, fleshly motions and desires, we received often the pouring down of the spirit upon us, and our hearts were made glad and our tongues loosened, and our mouths opened, and we spake with new tongues, as the Lord gave us utterance, and his spirit led us, which poured upon sons and daughters.
However, I am not sure that I would call these resurrection experiences. Paul felt that his experience was the same as the experience of the first disciples, but the disciples felt that there was a qualitative difference between the experience of the resurrection and Pentecost. They explained this by saying that after the resurrection Jesus went away to Heaven, and God came to them in a different form which they called the Holy Spirit.
There is a hymn often sung at Easter which goes “Up from the grave He arose, With a mighty triumph o’er his foes!” The tone of Easter hymns tends to be triumphal. But it is not as though Jesus appeared to Pilate or the High Priest in order to scare them out of their wits. He appeared to his friends to comfort them.
I believe it is not so uncommon for those who have lost a loved one, especially in traumatic circumstances, to feel that that person was sometimes present with them offering them comfort. This is not necessarily a religious experience, and the loved one may not have been a person of faith at all. But for the disciples of Jesus, their most powerful religious experiences would have been in the presence of Jesus. When they felt that he was with them, they would have felt that God had not forsaken them.
I think that these experiences of Jesus being present with them were deeply personal experiences. They were the sort of experience you could share with other followers, although even then you might not be believed. You could hardly explain them to strangers. In their preaching, the early Christians did not give details of Jesus’ appearances to them, and only with the passing of time did they try to put them in writing. Hence, as historical records, they are rather unsatisfying. But without these experiences, would the early followers have regrouped and become sufficiently organised to carry their message to the world?
I have stressed that these pivotal events in early Christianity were “experiences”. I do not mean to imply by this that they were mere feelings, or even delusions. They were experiences that changed lives. And all religion goes back to people’s experiences. We speak of the Quaker faith as “experiential”. It is experience that keeps a faith alive, not doctrine or written texts.
We are left with the challenge of George Fox – “Christ saith this, and the disciples saith this, but what canst thou say?”
*All Biblical quotations are from The Good News Bible, The Bible Society in Australia, Ingleburn. 2001.