There’s a party game in which someone whispers a message into another person’s ear. Then that person whispers what she heard to the next person. After the message has been passed on in this way to various members of the group, the last person reveals what has been transmitted. Then this message is compared to the one that was originally sent. Almost always, there are differences between the original message and the one the last person receives. Sometimes the differences amount to a few humorous alterations. But in other cases, the original message has disappeared completely. There are various reasons why the changes occur, but one of them has to do with the human tendency to construe what we hear in ways that fit with our preconceptions.
Sometimes on Easter Sunday, the message I hear in churches seems a little like one that has been passed on in the party game. In this case, it is not that the message is entirely wrong, but it has gone through filters we apply that have changed it in significant ways. The message we get on Sunday morning often sounds something like this: Jesus was raised from the dead, so now we can be assured that we will live after we die. That’s a message that can be seen as part of the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus. But it’s a truncated version of the message New Testament writers were sending. First, the message has been taken to be primarily about life after death, and not about a change of the world we are living in now. Second, it is understood as about what happens to individuals, rather than a transformation of the whole created order.
I’ll start with a clarification. The idea of resurrection was a Jewish way of thinking about life after death that shouldn’t be confused with the view that a person’s soul continues in some form after death. In Jewish thought resurrection meant a kind of reconstitution of the person in bodily form. To many people of the time, this idea seemed absurd. When Paul brings up the idea of resurrection at Athens, some people are not interested in listening to him anymore. There may be life after death, they probably think, but it won’t be resurrection.
The idea of resurrection for Jews developed during the period between the last writings of what Christians call the Old Testament and the New Testament era. Some Jewish reflection during this period was motivated by the question of what would happen to those who had died as martyrs in defending the Jewish people. Some conservative Jews regarded the idea as a new-fangled innovation that should be rejected because it wasn’t in their scriptures. But among many Jews, resurrection came to be understood as something that God would do at the end of time.
When Christians proclaimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they were declaring something that, given this Jewish background, was startling: that the resurrection expected at the end of time had begun in our time in one specific instance. What God would ultimately do for all, had been done in Jesus. But the meaning they found in this event goes far beyond thinking that life after death is secured. For them, the resurrection of Jesus furnished proof that Jesus was God’s Messiah after all, and they also saw it as a sign of the kind of transformation of the present world that Jesus had talked about.
The crucifixion had seemed to bring an end to any hope that Jesus might be the Messiah. But when his followers became convinced that Jesus had been raised, they saw this event as a vindication of all that Jesus had been saying and doing. Despite the crucifixion, he was the one through whom God was bringing the kind of restoration Jewish prophets had anticipated. Paul takes the resurrection of Jesus to be the model of what God will ultimately do in transforming the world.
So, here’s the point. It is a distortion of the New Testament message to understand the significance of Jesus’s resurrection as primarily about what happens when an individual earthly life ends. It was understood to be about a transformation of this world that God is bringing about that extends beyond the fate of individuals to include all of creation. Paul called this work of God a new creation. Physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne speaks of it in terms of the created order being “suffused with the divine presence.” Jesus’s resurrection is understood in the New Testament as an initial phase of what is coming when human beings respond to God in a way that makes available new powers through which they can fulfill their intended purpose of ruling over the rest of creation.
For early Christians, accepting the resurrection also meant thinking that Jesus had been elevated to a position of supreme authority over this world. Earthly rulers may claim authority, but they should be regarded as usurpers; Jesus is the true king. Being his follower meant joining a community in which it was accepted that his authority and the way of life he initiated would ultimately lead to the downfall of the existing order of things.
Claims that the resurrection has occurred often seem incredible because they go against our ordinary understanding of how the world works. In a way that is just the point. The resurrection is a kind of signal of a new order that God is bringing to replace the old familiar one. An early resurrection story describes two disciples who do not recognize the resurrected Jesus as being “slow of heart.” Whether we see the signs of a new world may depend not just on our ability to evaluate evidence, but on whether our hearts are open to the possibility.
For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 17 (The Resurrection) in Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith.