By G. W. Bromily Ph. D.
Christian Faith Series, Church Book Room Press
Every churchman claims to believe in the resurrection of the dead. In all ages, however, this Christian truth has been both attacked and misunderstood. Probably misunderstanding is the greater danger. It usually has its origin in a deliberate attempt to re-state the Christian teaching in a form acceptable to non-Christian thought.
In the present age there is particular need that Christians should fully understand and fully proclaim the truth of resurrection. There are many reasons why this should be so.
1. The first reason is that today the sense of the eternal, and the hope of an after-life, have generally been lost. Modern thought has concentrated the attention of men upon things temporal. The scientist, for example, examines only that which can be seen or measured. He frequently concludes that the world of sense is the only real world. The economist turns the minds of men from future hope to present realities. If he seeks an Utopia, it is an earthly one, future only in time, not in eternity. The philosopher takes matter as his final reality. If a place remains for God in his system, it is not the Creator-God who is above the world, but a divine “force” within the world. Against all these materialistic schemes, in science, economics, or philosophy, the Christian has to proclaim constantly and unashamedly the eternal realities: God, resurrection, judgment, eternal life, eternal death.
2. A further reason why the truth should be understood and stated is that many thinkers try to accommodate the Christian teaching to the modern spirit. Sometimes the theory advanced bears little relation to Christian truth. Thus, when it is said that men are immortal by virtue of the permanent influence which they exert, and of their part in the general development of the race, a substitute is offered. But in other cases there is great danger of confusion with the Christian belief. The most seductive theory is the old philosophical teaching of the immortality of the soul: that the physical body, sometimes thought of as a prison, sometimes as the centre of sinfulness, that the body is sloughed off at death, and the soul continues in a purely spiritual life. Of course, Christianity does assert the imperishable nature of the soul. But the Christian doctrine must be carefully distinguished from the philosophical teaching of immortality. Only too often Christians fall into error at this point, whether for lack of proper instruction, or through a desire to present Christian truth in what appears to be a more rational way.
3. A final reason why a careful understanding is needed is that in spite of the prevalent “this-worldliness,” a deep craving for some kind of other world does exist. Among the more ignorant this craving produces the grossest forms of superstition. It lies behind the dangerous attempts to explore the psychical world and to establish contact with the dead. Many such attempts are fraudulent, but the Christian, who believes in evil spirits, cannot regard them complacently. Ignorance of the truth is the most fertile seed-plot of error and superstition. The duty of Christians is to know and proclaim the true teaching, so that false popular beliefs may be dispelled.
Against the denial of the eternal world, against the philosophical doctrine of immortality, against crass popular superstition, the Christian sets the truth of God, revealed in Jesus Christ. He does not attempt to build up a rational case for survival after death. He believes in the resurrection of the dead because he believes in Jesus Christ and in His resurrection. If he is to make plain his faith, to himself and to others, he must start at that point. He must begin with Jesus Christ, and with the fact of His resurrection. Upon that resurrection, as the Apostle said, the whole Christian faith depends. If Christ is not risen, then our faith is vain; we are still in our sins; we are of all men the most miserable (1 Cor. 15: 12-19).
The Fact of Christ’s Resurrection
One primary point demands consideration. If the Christian faith depends upon an historical event, can there ever be any true certainty that that event took place? Rationalists have seized upon this difficulty and magnified it. Where a miraculous event is in question, the mind is not naturally pre-disposed to believe. It demands a higher standard of historical proof than would be demanded in the case of a normal event. A good deal of hostile criticism of the New Testament has underlying it the desire to weaken or to overthrow the historical basis of the Christian faith.
Paul, of course, had to deal with the same difficulty. He had the advantage that he was able to produce eye-witnesses of the facts which he asserted. In our own time the position is not quite so easy. But it may confidently be asserted that as an event the resurrection will stand up to the most rigorous and exacting examination, and remain unshaken. Of course, anyone who wishes to throw doubt upon the fact may do so. But in doing so he will reject all acknowledged standards of historical proof, and doubt the trustworthiness of all historical records. In all history a certain amount has to be taken upon trust. Some sources have to be accepted, otherwise there can be no history. As historical sources, the New Testament records may without prejudice be said not to fall short of the ordinary requirements.
The facts to which those records testify, and upon which belief in the resurrection rests, are three.
1. The first is negative: the empty tomb. Taken by itself, this fact does not warrant belief in the resurrection. It is so unusual, however, that it does demand explanation. Explanations in ordinary terms have been forthcoming, but they all break down psychologically or historically. To say that the disciples stole and hid the body in order to deceive the people is plainly ridiculous in the light of the high moral standards and achievements of the Apostles and their followers. The suggestion that in the half-light the women went to the wrong tomb hardly merits discussion. The theory that Jesus never died, but swooned, and later recovered, and walked away, does not carry conviction. A more hopeful explanation is that the authorities removed or destroyed the body in order to prevent the rise of a dangerous cult. If this were the case, however, then surely steps would have been taken to produce it when the story of a resurrection gained currency. Even if it had been destroyed, a substitute could have been put forward, or the plain truth told, as an antidote to the dangerous apostolic teaching.
2. In itself the empty tomb, although it suggests a good deal, does not prove anything. The second fact is more positive. The disciples had experiences of contact with Jesus. He appeared to them in a recognizable physical form, although apparently freed from the ordinary restraints of space and time. It was not that the disciples saw visions, or underwent certain spiritual or psychical experiences. Had that been the case, then something could be said for the theory that they were the victims of hallucinations: the products of their unfulfilled longings. The fact that so many people saw Jesus, even at the same time, and that they were not in any case expecting a resurrection, makes this theory doubtful on any showing. But the concreteness of the appearances destroys it altogether. The appearances as reported in the New Testament seem almost to have been specially designed to prevent such an explanation. Everywhere Jesus showed His reality. The point is that the disciples themselves, who did not expect the resurrection, were inclined to dismiss the early appearances as delusions—“idle tales.” Until convinced by unmistakable evidence, they were as blasé and unbelieving as the greatest scientific sceptic. The theory of a wish fulfilment thus falls to the ground.
3. A final fact which cannot and ought not to be overlooked is the change produced by the resurrection-appearances in the character and activity of the earliest followers of Christ. History does record examples of changes worked by visions, and even by delusions. Joan of Arc is a case in point. Psychologically, the sense of having contact with supernatural powers does spur on to great deeds. But these examples are all isolated cases, and concern people in some degree exceptional. The early church was not made up of exceptional people, and the change was not confined to individuals. Before the resurrection even those disciples who belonged to the inner circle were conspicuous only for their weakness and mediocrity. It would appear that Jesus could hardly have selected less promising material for world-wide missionary enterprise. They had neither understanding nor vision, ability nor courage. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the consequent out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, made of them literally new men, enthused with a new message and equipped with a new power. Upon this primary fact of the resurrection the Christian church was built, for it was the resurrection which gave the disciples power, and the resurrection which was the content of their message. The reality of the Christian church is a guarantee of the historicity of the event upon which it is grounded.
A common objection is that scientifically a resurrection is quite impossible. The refusal on grounds of rationalistic science to admit any miraculous events is responsible for the determination to accept any explanation of the facts, however improbable, rather than the obvious one. But Christians must not be misled by the prevailing scientific dogmatism of the age.
(a) In the first place, the Christian returns to the facts. Whatever scientists may say about possibility or impossibility, the facts are there. They require explanation. The only satisfactory explanation is resurrection.
(b) Again, science is not in a position to judge a miracle. By its very nature, science deals with the regular and normal. A miracle cannot possibly conform to any known law, or it would not be a miracle. The discussion of a miracle does not properly belong to the sphere of science at all.
(c) Finally, on what grounds can science pronounce a miracle impossible? Experimentally, on the ground that it does not conform to law. Philosophically, on the grounds that the world is a closed system, and that there is no free agent who controls the world, a Creator-God. The Christian accepts neither of these assumptions. He is not satisfied that the scientist even knows all the so-called laws of this world, much less that those laws are fixed and irrevocable, for God as well as for man. Above all, he is not satisfied that the scientific conception of the world and of God is the correct one. Therefore the alleged scientific objection falls to the ground.
A second objection is that the Scriptural records of the resurrection cannot be harmonized to produce a full and satisfactory narrative. Discrepancies seem to arise at many points. Some writers make great play with these difficulties and suggest that the whole historical foundation is insecure. Two replies may be made.
First, the records agree as to the main facts. The discrepancies are only in respect of details. Second, the “discrepancies” are, historically, a guarantee of authenticity. The resurrection records strongly suggest eye-witness accounts, i.e. events as seen from a definite point of view. Where three or four eye-witness accounts of the same event exist, the difficulty of reconciling all details is immense, for any event considered in detail is amazingly complex. But the broad features are securely established. So it is with the resurrection and the resurrection narratives. The events of the first Easter Day cover several hours. At certain points certain people were caught up in the drama. Those points differed—sometimes by large, sometimes by very small intervals in respect of time—and the angle of vision differed accordingly. From the records left it is impossible to reconstruct the whole story, reconciling all the details, but it is possible to know what the event was, and to be certain as to its main features.
Historically, the facts of the resurrection are as secure as any other facts. They cannot be explained satisfactorily except in terms of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Science and Biblical criticism offer objections, but these do not and cannot do away with the essential facts. The objections are valid only for those who in any case and on other grounds adopt a view of God and of the world basically opposed to the Christian. There are some who will not believe even though one rose from the dead. But for those whose hearts and minds are open, reasonable grounds for belief in the resurrection of Christ exist; and the fact may be proclaimed without shame.
The Meaning of Christ’s Resurrection
Accepting the facts as recorded in the Gospels, we face the overwhelming truth that one Man, after death and burial, came back to a recognisable state of being, in which there was identity with earthly life, and yet difference from it. This truth carries with it a significance far beyond that of any other truth of history, with the sole exception of the incarnation and the death of Jesus. Without this truth, the Christian structure collapses. With it, a new meaning is given to the world and to individual life.
1. The resurrection means, generally, that God controls and directs the world. When the heavens and the earth were made, God had not exhausted His creative power. He put forth that power again in raising Jesus Christ from the dead. The fact that neither nature nor science can reproduce the work stamps it as an act of the Lord of science and nature. The laws of nature are not final laws, but created laws. Nature is not a closed system, self-sufficient and self-governing. Nature is the creation of God. God stands above and beyond all natural and historical events, over-ruling according to His own will and intervening according to His own purpose. Man does not rule himself, nor is he ruled by nature, nor by blind fate, but by God.
2. More particularly, the resurrection marks out Jesus as the Son of God (Rom. 1: 4). The fact that God chose this Man and not some other man is not the result of caprice. Jesus Christ came into the world with great claims. He appropriated to himself vast and far-reaching prophecies. His personality, His preaching, and His works to a certain extent authenticated His claims. Yet when His mission ended in the seeming disaster and tragedy of the Cross, the disciples and onlookers can hardly be blamed for failing to recognize the triumphant accomplishing of His task. The resurrection made all the difference. In it God set His seal, as it were, upon the person and work of His Son. The claims which Jesus had made were seen to be true claims. His life fell into proper perspective. Looking back today, we see without difficulty that Jesus was indeed the Son of God and the Saviour. God raised Him from the dead.
3. The resurrection authenticates not only the person of Christ, but also His work. It is the guarantee that at Calvary, Jesus bore fully and finally the penalty of sin, defeating the twin-enemies sin and hell. Without the events of Easter morning, Good Friday could have had no other meaning than the victimisation of a good man and the triumph of selfish and wicked policies. No matter how innocent that man, his death could never be interpreted as an offering for the world’s sin or as a triumph over the forces of evil. It would have been a noble death for truth, a triumph of principle, a martyrdom—no more. But when Jesus rose the third day, recognized with power as the Son of God, then everything appeared in a new light. God was in the world. The death of Jesus was a purposeful death, with a cosmic—indeed, an eternal, significance. God in man had done something for man which altered his whole outlook and destiny. In the resurrection the work of salvation reached its climax and received its attestation as a perfect work of God.
4. The rising again of Jesus further means that the last and final enemy of the race has been defeated and destroyed. In all ages death has been a perplexity and a fear. The philosophical systems have all had to reckon with it; either holding out hopes for the continuance of life, or explaining away the necessity of extinction. Man in his rational and spiritual being has within himself the craving for immortality. Yet his personality is tied to a body which is by its nature manifestly perishable. Hence the frustration which runs through all human life. Man cherishes dreams and purposes which can never be fulfilled in this life. He is united with his fellows by bonds which he feels it impious that death should sever. Yet death stands always at the end of life as a grim and inevitable boundary. It marks the end of all human life in any form conceivable to man. It has a finality which materialism feebly but unconvincingly seeks to accept. Beyond it the natural mind knows nothing but speculation and fear.
The answer to the age-long problem has been given in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The historicity of the event ensures its reality, and lifts it above the level of pious speculation. The resurrection is the assurance that man has an eternal as well as a temporal destiny. The contradiction between the physical and the spiritual has found a solution—the removal of the sin which is its cause, and the re-creation to a new life in which the physical and the spiritual are mutually adapted to the service of God. The resurrection means that sin, which is the cause of death, has been removed by a free act of the grace of God. It means that man has been given a living and a concrete hope of achieving that perfection of being which always eludes him in this life, and which apart from Jesus Christ he can dream of but never truly await in a life to come.
The point ought to be noticed that the resurrection does not mean the lifting of man to an entirely new mode of being, but the completing of the full human personality, unmarred by sin, and adapted to the eternal world. In this connection it cannot be stressed too often or too strongly that the body has its place in the resurrection as well as the mind and soul. That is one deep lesson learned from the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. God seems almost to have gone out of His way to impress upon us the truth that body and soul are inseparable, whether in sin or in regeneration. The body ceases to be in bondage to time and space. To that extent it takes on a new quality of being. But it has none the less its real place in the new creation. Life will still be in the body, although the body will no longer suffer from that weakness to which it was subjected through sin. The resurrection is the completion of the work of redemption, the final stage of a process which began with the incarnation and reached its critical point at the cross. It marks the victory over sin, death and hell, and the consecration of human temporal life to God.
Without the resurrection there is neither assurance of forgiveness nor knowledge of a divine destiny. Faith is empty. Life is a hopeless and meaningless muddle, leading only to nothingness, futile in its conception, futile in its course, futile in its conclusion. But because Jesus Christ died and was raised from the dead, the Christian enjoys both assurance and knowledge. Even death, the last enemy, the final strong-hold of irrationality, has been overthrown. Death itself has indeed been over-ruled and consecrated, so that it becomes a way from frustration of being to fulfilment: from sin to God. Belief in the resurrection means belief in the purpose and the love of God. With such a faith, a man may look out even on this sin-shattered world unperplexed and unafraid.
The Lesson of Christ’s Resurrection
In the previous sections the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been considered in its historical and more general theological aspects. Such a fact and faith cannot, however, be without an effect upon the individual not only in thought but also in life. What ought the impact of that event to be?
The answer may be briefly summed up in this way. The resurrection ought to form the pattern to which the life of the Christian should conform. The believer is called upon to enter into the experience of Jesus Christ, who is the representative man, the Head of the new creation of God.
This participation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ takes place in three different spheres, and three different stages. All of these are symbolized in the New Testament sacrament of regeneration: Holy Baptism. The first stage is that of identification with Christ in a spiritual death and resurrection. It is the conversion and renewal of the life in repentance and faith. No man can say that he believes in the resurrection unless he knows already in his own spiritual experience the truth of it. This spiritual renewal is only the beginning, an experience by faith of the work of redemption which one day will be brought to a literal physical completion. It is the starting-point of the Christian life: the moment when in penitence the soul lets go of self and sin, and in faith turns to Jesus Christ.
The Apostle John wrote of this resurrection when he confidently affirmed that we have passed from death to life (1 John 3: 14). Jesus Christ Himself spoke of it when He insisted upon the need for the new birth of the soul (John 3: 7). Baptism seals it to the believer by the act of passing beneath the water: the burial with Christ in his death, and the re-emergence to the new life at the word of promise. (Rom. 6: 3-6). But the point is that this spiritual experience, although it may come in scores of different ways—now as a moment of crisis, now as a year-long process—this experience is in some sort fundamental to true Christianity. It is the spiritual application to the believer of the work and the power of Jesus Christ.
The second stage of participation is that of identification with Christ in a moral death and resurrection: the mortification and renovation of the life by a daily dying to sin and a daily rising with Christ. The man who in repentance and faith knows the regenerating power of Jesus Christ is challenged to apply that power to the reconstruction of his life in daily conduct. The sinful self, the old Adam as Paul graphically describes it, does not die readily. Before God it is reckoned dead. By faith it is dead, and a new self has been created. But in daily living it must be put off and the new man, the man in Christ, must be put on (Eph. 4: 20-24). That is why St. Paul, although he was assured of his justification before God, could still speak of himself as one who had not yet already attained (Phil. 3: 12). That is why Martin Luther stressed baptism as a life-long challenge.
The moral death and resurrection is a constant process, undertaken in the power of Christ, helped forward by spiritual discipline, and even in the providence of God, by trials and sufferings. It is the translation into daily moral life of what is spiritually and in faith the work of a moment. It involves a constant penitence and a constant looking to Jesus Christ. Where there is a genuine spiritual conversion the final goal is certain, although the process itself may be slow and halting. The death and resurrection of Christ is the pattern and the assurance.
The final stage of participation is the identification with Christ in literal physical dissolution, and restoration to new life, by which the Christian redemption reaches its completion. There are hints in the New Testament that some Christians, i.e. those alive in the “last day,” will avoid this final stage, and be “changed” by an act of transforming power (1 Cor. 15: 51-54). But normally the Christian does not escape, although he need not fear, this final act in the drama of salvation. He undergoes death; but apart from the sorrow of parting, the sting has gone out of it. Death is no longer a penalty. It has become a portal. The natural man shrinks from it, but the man in Christ rejoices in it. In death the process of identification with Christ is completed. That which was begun in spiritual conversion and continued in moral renovation, is fulfilled in physical resurrection. To depart this life and to be with Christ is far better (Phil. 1: 23).
The question might be asked why God allows believers to go through this final experience. Apart from the obvious counter query, as to the grounds on which they should be exempted, three very good reasons may be given. First, life upon earth for the Christian believers becomes a valuable probation. This note, which was frequently sounded in the older practical theology, has been little struck of recent years. But it belongs essentially to the Christian message. God calls men and women in Jesus Christ. He demands of them moral reconstruction. He leaves the experience of death at the end as something which gives point and seriousness to their preparation.
Second, the Christian must in all things be identified with Jesus Christ: in His death no less than in His resurrection. In so far as Jesus died, the penalty of sin has been borne. But man still bears the image of the earthly, sinful Adam. He must put off the old man physically as well as spiritually and morally, and be clothed upon with the new. The old life comes to a final end with death.
Third, the Christian has an opportunity (and duty) to testify to Jesus Christ in his life and in his death. The testimony in life does not need to be stressed, but the testimony by death is often neglected. For the Christian, death is “timely”: he believes that God over-rules it, summoning His servant according to His own plan. It is also meaningful: not a tragedy, but an event with an aim and purpose. The death of a true Christian means, not that a soul has been annihilated, not that a soul has paid the final penalty, but that the redemption and glorification of a human soul has been consummated.
All churchmen would do well to undertake again a serious study of the Christian teaching about the resurrection. A church which ignores this basic truth will be a church which has little experience of its power. It will also be a church which has no convincing answer to the arguments of the materialists and sceptics. But once Christian men gain a firm hold of the doctrine, both in understanding and in experience, they find new strength in the service of witness and in the living of the Christian life.