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Resurrection of Christ

The belief that Jesus Christ had really died upon the cross and had been raised by God to life in a new sphere is central to the NT and was constitutive of the Christian Church. Its importance for the historical and theological assessment of the truth of Christianity today is generally recognized as being paramount. There was little teaching about resurrection in the OT. After death, men were thought to go to Sheol, the place of the departed, to an unsatisfying sort of existence (Ps. 88). But it was realized that God was there (Ps. 139:8) and there was therefore hope of deliverance (Ps. 16:10). Specific ideas of resurrection are found in Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2, where there is a connection with the thought of judgment.

There are also instances of life being restored to dead children by Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:32- 36), but they resume the same sort of life that they had before. The instances of the raising Jairus's daughter and the son of the widow of Nain in the gospels (Mark 5:35-43; Luke 7:11-17) belong to the same category, though raising the dead is quoted by Jesus as being one of His messianic works (Matt. 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23). Even the raising of Lazarus, who had been in the tomb for four days, was a restoration of him to the life that he had before (John 11:1-44). It is in a sense a dramatic foretaste of the resurrection of Jesus, but it has a different nature. By the time of the ministry of Jesus there had been some development in Jewish thinking beyond the OT, but Pharisees* and Sadducees* were divided about the doctrine of resurrection (Mark 12:18-27; Acts 23:6-8).

Jesus' own teaching about resurrection was largely concerned with predictions that He Himself would rise from the dead (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34, etc.). The use of the phrase “after three days” located it as a definite action in the sphere of history. Many passages in the synoptic gospels about judgment may be taken to assume the idea of resurrection, but only in Luke 14:14 is recompense at the resurrection made explicit. The only discussion of resurrection occurs in the answer to the trap question of the Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27). John's gospel records teaching about the resurrection of life and the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28f.), and Mary of Bethany voices a belief in the resurrection at the last day (John 11:24). Jesus, however, claims to be the Resurrection and the Life, operating in the present as well as in the future (John 11:25f.).

The vague hopes and dim foreshadowings that had gone before are replaced in the apostolic proclamation by the certainty of resurrection because of the certainty of the resurrection of Christ. The qualification for apostleship was to have been a witness of the resurrection (Acts 1:22), and the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead was at the center of the preaching of the apostles, whether by Peter at Jerusalem (Acts 2:29-32) or by Paul at Athens (Acts 17:30-32). Paul states that the point of first importance in his teaching was the death and resurrection of Jesus, with its attestation (1 Cor. 15:3-11). It is of course to the gospels that we must go for a fuller account of the resurrection.

There is no description of how it happened in any of the canonical gospels. They all agree in referring to two things-the empty tomb and the appearances to the disciples, though in the case of Mark, the original ending of which may have been lost, the latter is predicted and not described in the authentic text (Matt. 28; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24; John 20-21). The accounts differ in detail as to the number of women who went to the tomb, and concerning the inclusion of a reference to an angel (Matthew), a young man (Mark), or two men (Luke) to give them a message about the resurrection. Mark predicts and Matthew describes an appearance in Galilee, while Luke records appearances in Jerusalem and John includes appearances first in Jerusalem and then in Galilee. It is possible to make some sort of harmony of the accounts, but this is speculative and it is more important to see the basic agreement in essentials, together with an uncontrived variety of presentation which does much to suggest experience rather than propaganda. The narrative as we have it in Mark gives a vivid impression of the resurrection representing the end, for it is the breaking in of the world to come. Matthew stresses that the permanent presence of the risen Christ is connected with the world-mission of the church, and Luke likewise sees the resurrection as a key piece of the framework of redemption history which is to be continued through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In John the resurrection brings everything to a climax (John 20), but the appendix to the gospel is a reminder that there is work to be done before the final consummation (John 21).

The consequences of the resurrection for the present and the future are worked out in the epistles, particularly in Paul's magnificent exposition in 1 Corinthians 15. It is a guarantee of the efficacy of the Atonement and the sure pledge of the resurrection of believers in the future. This must be distinguished from Greek ideas of the immortality of the soul because it implies that the present physical body is the seed of the future “spiritual body.” It is a clear proof of the reality of the new order of creation and the ultimate victory of God in Christ. Elsewhere the Christian is said to have gone through an experience similar to Christ's, symbolized in baptism (Rom. 6:1- 11; Col. 2:12), and this means the ability to have heavenly aspirations (Col. 3:1) and to enjoy the power of the risen Christ (Phil. 3:10).

From the earliest times there have been those who have been unwilling or unable to believe in the resurrection of Christ. Alternative theories have included the suggestions that He never really died, that the women went to the wrong tomb, or that either His friends or His enemies stole the body. None of these suggestions will bear critical examination or account for the extraordinary psychological and moral change induced into so many different people and with such lasting effects in the face of those who had every reason to discredit the belief if they could. Nor will it do to believe in some sort of spiritual presence of the risen Christ without the raising of His body from the tomb. History, theology, and experience combine to show that “the glorious fact is that Christ did rise from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20, Phillips).

B.F. Westcott, The Gospel of the Resurrection (1866); W. Milligan, The Resurrection of Our Lord (1881); W.J. Sparrow Simpson, The Resurrection and Modern Thought (1911); P. Gardner-Smith, The Narratives of the Resurrection (1926); A.M. Ramsey, The Resurrection of Christ (2nd ed., 1961); O. Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (ET 1958); W. Kunneth, The Theology of the Resurrection (ET 1965); C.F.D. Moule (ed.), The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ (1968).