Every Easter Sunday, Christian people greet each other with “The Lord is risen: He is risen indeed!”. And throughout the year, we repeat the central affirmation, that “God raised Jesus from the dead”. The claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is central to our faith. According to Luke, this was central in the preaching of the apostles (Acts 2:24,32, 3:15,26, 4:10, 5:30, 10:40, 13:30,37). It is repeated in the letters by or attributed to Paul on a number of occasions (Rom 7:4, 10:9; 1 Cor 6:14, 15:15; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:20; see also 1 Pet 1:21).
The resurrection is regarded as the pointer to a new form of life, a liberating life, lived in the transformed state of resurrected being, which was first experienced by Jesus, and which is then promised to all believers. This promise is a liberating promise. The life of resurrection is a liberating life. Claims about the resurrection also bring points of contention and discussion within contemporary Christian thinking.
Contemporary debate has canvassed a number of options as to the nature of the resurrection: Must it be in a bodily form? Was Jesus raised ‘in the memory of his followers’, but not as a physical body? Is resurrection a pointer to a transcendent spiritual dimension? What was meant by the reference to an “immortal state” in 1 Cor 15:53-54?
Some believers aggressively promote the claim that we must believe in the boldly resurrection of Jesus, that we must adhere to a literal understanding of what the biblical texts report. I prefer to advocate for ways of responding to the story which are creative, imaginative, expanding our understandings and drawing us out of our comfort zones into new explorations in our lives.
The resurrection is not directed away from this world, into a heavenly or spiritual realm. The resurrection offers us both an invitation to affirm our bodily existence in this world, and to explore fresh ways of renewal and recreation in our lives, in our society. It is about liberating life for renewal in our own time and place, here in this world.
It is the apostle Paul who, most of all in the New Testament, provides evidence for the way that early believers began to think about the central aspects of the Easter story—death on the cross, newness in the risen life (Rom 6:3-4:23, 8:6,13; 1 Cor 15:21-23; 2 Cor 4:8-12; Phil 2:5-11, 3:10-11). Paul probably did not begin such ideas; indeed, in both arenas, there are clear Jewish precedents.
The sacrificial understanding of the death of Jesus draws heavily from the Jewish sacrificial cult (Heb 2:17, 7:23-28, 9:11-14). The notion of resurrection was developed first by the Pharisees, a teaching group within the Judaism of the time (Acts 23:8). From these bases, it is Paul who most clearly and most often articulates and develops these central ideas in his writings as we have them in scripture.
These ideas sit at the heart of what traditional Christianity has regarded as its distinctive theological understanding: that God became human, suffered for us, died for us, and was raised to inaugurate the new way of being that will characterise the kingdom of God. This expression of belief comes to form the core of the emerging doctrinal self-understanding of early Christianity, into the following centuries of theological debate. It is the whole life—death—resurrection of Jesus that forms this central doctrinal core.
A further observation regarding the theological significance of Easter is the way that the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus forms the end point—indeed, the climactic moment—of the story of his life, as it is reported in all four canonical Gospels. There were about 50 Gospels written in the early centuries of Christianity, and most of them do not lead to this dramatic conclusion.
The fact that the four Gospels which were chosen for inclusion in the canon of Scripture each end with the passion and resurrection narrative, indicates the way that this part of the story of Jesus came to have a central and defining purpose in the development of Christian doctrine. “Jesus, crucified and risen” became the centerpiece of Christian theology. That is at the heart of the Easter story. That is at the centre of Christian faith. And that comes clearly into focus in this current Easter season.