The New Bible Dictionary
edited by F.F. Bruce and others (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1962)
RESURRECTION. The most startling characteristic of the first Christian preaching is its emphasis on the resurrection. The first preachers were sure that Christ had risen, and sure, in consequence, that believers would in due course rise also. This set them off from all the other teachers of the ancient world. There are resurrections elsewhere, but none of them is like that of Christ. They are mostly mythological tales connected with the change of the season and the annual miracle of spring. The Gospels tell of an individual who truly died but overcame death by rising again. And if it is true that Christ’s resurrection bears no resemblance to anything in paganism it is also true that the attitude of believers to their own resurrection, the corollary of their Lord’s, is radically different from anything in the heathen world. Nothing is more characteristic of even the best thought of the day than its hopelessness in the face of death. Clearly the resurrection is of the very first importance for the Christian faith.
The Christian idea of resurrection is to be distinguished from both Greek and Jewish ideas. The Greeks thought of the body as a hindrance to true life and they looked for the time when the soul would be free from its shackles. They conceived of life after death in terms of the immortality of the soul, but they firmly rejected all ideas of resurrection (cf. the mockery of Paul’s preaching in Acts 17:32). The Jews were firmly persuaded of the values of the body, and thought these would not be lost. They thus looked for the body to be raised. But they thought it would be exactly the same body (Apocalypse of Baruch 1:2). The Christians thought of the body as being raised, but also transformed so as to be a suitable vehicle for the very different life of the age to come (1 Cor. 15:42ff.). The Christian idea is thus distinctive.
I. Resurrection in the Old Testament
There is little about resurrection in the OT. That is not to say that it is not there. It is. But it is not prominent. The men of the OT were very practical men, concentrating on the task of living out the present life in the service of God, and they had little time to spare for speculation about the next. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that they lived on the other side of Christ’s resurrection, and it is this which gives the doctrine its basis. Sometimes they used the idea of resurrection to express the national hope of the re-birth of the nation (e.g. Ezk. 37). The plainest statement on the resurrection of the individual is undoubtedly that in Dn. 12:2, ‘many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt’. This clearly envisages a resurrection both of the righteous and of the wicked, and it sees also eternal consequences of men’s actions. There are other passages which look for resurrection, chiefly some in the Psalms (e.g. Pss. 16:10f.; 49:14f.). The precise meaning of Job’s great affirmation (Jb. 19:25-27) is disputed, but it is difficult to think that there is no thought of resurrection here. Sometimes the prophets also give utterance to this thought (e.g. Is. 26:19). But on the whole the OT says little about it. This may, perhaps, be due to the fact that some doctrine of resurrection was found among such peoples as the Egyptians and Babylonians. At a time when syncretism was a grave danger this would have discouraged the Hebrews from taking too great an interest in it.
During the period between the two Testaments, when that danger was not so pressing, the idea is more prominent. No uniformity was reached, and even in NT times the Sadducees still denied that there was a resurrection. But by then most Jews accepted some idea of resurrection. Usually they thought that these same bodies would be brought back to life just as they were.
II. The resurrection of Christ
On three occasions Christ brought back people from the dead (the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus). These, however, are not to be thought of as resurrection so much as resuscitation. There is no indication that any of these people did other than come back to the life that they had left. And Paul tells us explicitly that Christ is ‘the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor. 15:20). But these miracles show us Christ as the master of death. This comes out again in the fact that he prophesied that he would rise 3 days after he was crucified (Mk. 8:31; 9:31; 10:34, etc.). This point is important. It shows Christ as supremely the master of the situation. And it also means that the resurrection is of the very first importance, for the veracity of our Lord is involved.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified, that he died and that on the third day the tomb in which he had been placed was found to be empty. Angels told certain women that he had risen from the dead. Over a period of some weeks Jesus appeared to his followers from time to time. Paul lists some of these appearances but he does not explicitly mention the empty tomb and some scholars accordingly suggest that it was absent from the earliest tradition. But it may be fairly countered that Paul implies that the tomb was empty. What else does he mean by saying that Jesus ‘was buried, that he was raised on the third day . . .‘ (1 Cor. 15:4)? The express mention of burial is pointless if he does not have the empty tomb in mind. And it is referred to in all four Gospels. It must be accepted as part of the authentic Christian tradition. Some have suggested that the disciples went to the wrong tomb, where a young man in white said, ‘He is not here’, meaning ‘He is in another tomb’. But in the first place this is pure speculation, and in the second it raises all sorts of questions. It is impossible to hold that the right tomb was completely forgotten by all, friend and foe alike. When the first preaching laid such stress on the resurrection we can be sure that the authorities would have spared no effort in the attempt to find the body.
But if the tomb was empty it would seem that there are only three possibilities: that friends took the body away, that foes took the body away, or that Jesus rose. The first hypothesis is more than difficult to maintain. All our evidence goes to show that there was no thought of resurrection in the minds of the disciples, and that they were men without hope on the evening of the first Good Friday. They were dispirited, beaten men, hiding away for fear of the Jews. Moreover, Matthew tells us that a guard was set over the tomb, so that they could not have stolen the body even had they wanted to do so. But the crowning improbability is that they would have suffered for preaching the resurrection as Acts tells us they did. Some were imprisoned, and James was executed. Men do not suffer such penalties for upholding what they know to be a lie. It must also be borne in mind that when the Christian sect was troublesome enough for the authorities to persecute it, the chief priests would have been very ready to have paid for information as to the stealing of the body, and the case of Judas is sufficient to show that a traitor could be found in the ranks. All in all, it is impossible to hold that Christians stole away the body of Christ.
It is just as difficult to maintain that his foes removed the body. Why should they? There seems no conceivable motive. To have done so would have been to start the very rumours of a resurrection that the evidence shows they were so anxious to prevent. Moreover, the guard over the tomb would have been just as big an obstacle to them as to the friends of the Lord. But the absolutely decisive objection is their failure to produce the body when the first preaching began. Peter and his allies put great emphasis on the resurrection of their Lord. Clearly it had gripped their imagination. In this situation, had their enemies produced the body of Jesus, the Christian church must have dissolved in a gale of laughter. The silence of the Jews is just as significant as the speech of the Christians. The failure of the enemies of Jesus to produce the body is conclusive evidence that they could not do so.
Since it seems impossible to hold either that friends or foes removed the body, and since the tomb was empty, it seems that we are shut up to the hypothesis of the resurrection. This is confirmed also by the resurrection appearances. Altogether there are ten different appearances recorded in our five accounts (the four Gospels and 1 Cor. 15). These accounts are not easy to harmonize (though this is not impossible, as is often asserted; the attempt made in the Scofield Reference Bible, for example, may or may not be the right one, but it certainly shows that harmonization is possible). The difficulties show only that the accounts are independent. There is no stereotyped repetition of an official story. And there is impressive agreement on the main facts. There is great variety in the witnesses. Sometimes one or two saw the Lord, sometimes a larger number, as the eleven apostles, once as many as 500 disciples. Men as well as women are included in the number. Mostly the appearances were to believers, but possibly that to James was to one who had not believed up till that point. Specially important is Paul. He was not credulous, but an educated man who was bitterly hostile to the Christians. And he is emphatic that he saw Jesus after he had risen from the dead. Indeed, so sure was he of this that he based the whole of the rest of his life on the certainty. Canon Kennett puts this point trenchantly. He speaks of Paul as having been converted within 5 years of the crucifixion and says, ‘within a very few years of the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus was in the mind of at least one man of education absolutely irrefutable’ (Interpreter, 1908-9, p. 267).
We should not overlook the transformation of the disciples in all this. As noted before, they were beaten and dispirited men at the crucifixion, but they were ready to go to prison and even to die for the sake of Jesus shortly afterwards. Why the change? Men do not run such risks unless they are very sure of themselves. The disciples were completely convinced. We should perhaps add that their certainty is reflected in their worship. They were Jews, and Jews have a tenacity in clinging to their religious customs. Yet these men observed the Lord’s day, a weekly memorial of the resurrection, instead of the sabbath. On that Lord’s day they celebrated the holy communion, which was not a commemoration of a dead Christ, but a thankful remembrance of the blessings conveyed by a living and triumphant Lord. Their other sacrament, baptism, was a reminder that believers were buried with Christ and raised with him (Col. 2:12). The resurrection gave significance to all that they did.
Sometimes it is said that Christ did not really die, but swooned. Then in the coolness of the tomb he revived. This raises all sorts of questions. How did he get out of the tomb? What happened to him? Why do we hear no more? When did he die? Questions multiply and the answers do not appear. Some have thought the disciples to have been the victims of hallucination. But the resurrection appearances cannot be so explained. Hallucinations come to those who are in some sense looking for them, and there is no evidence of this among the disciples. Once started they tend to continue, whereas these stop abruptly. Hallucinations are individual affairs, whereas in this case we have as many as 500 people at once seeing the Lord. There seems no point in exchanging a miracle on the physical level for one on the psychological level, which is what this view demands.
But many scholars today deny outright the possibility of a physical resurrection. They may lay it down that ‘the bones of Jesus rest in the soil of Palestine’. They may say that Jesus rose into the kerygma; the disciples came to see that he had survived through death and that they could thus preach that he was alive. Or they may locate the change in the disciples. These men had known Jesus to live in true freedom and now they entered that experience for themselves. This meant that they came to see that Jesus was not dead but a living influence. There are two big difficulties in the way of all such views. The first is that this is not what the sources say. As plain as words can do it they say that Jesus died, was buried, and rose to life again. The second is the moral difficulty. There is no question but that the disciples believed that Jesus had risen. It was this that gave them their drive and it was this that formed the theme of their preaching. If Jesus was in fact dead then God has built the church on a delusion, an unthinkable conclusion. Moreover, such views ignore the empty tomb. This is a stubborn fact. Perhaps it is worth adding that these views are quite modern (though occasionally there have been forerunners, cf. 2 Tim. 2:17f.). They form no part of historic Christianity, and if they are correct nearly all Christians at all times been in serious error concerning a cardinal doctrine of the faith.
III. The resurrection of believers
Not only did Jesus rise, but one day all men too will rise. Jesus refuted the scepticism of the Sadducees on this point with an interesting argument from Scripture (Mt. 22:31-32). The general NT position is that the resurrection of Christ carries with it the resurrection of believers. Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’ (Jn. 11:25). Several times he spoke of raising believers up at the last day (Jn. 6:39-40, 44, 54). The Sadducees were grieved because the apostles were ‘proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead’ (Acts 4:2). Paul tells us that ‘as by a man came death, by a man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:21f.; cf. 1 Thes. 4:14). Likewise Peter says, ‘we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Pet. 1:3). It is plain enough that the NT writers did not think of Christ’s resurrection as an isolated phenomenon. It was a great divine act, and one fraught with consequences for men. Because God raised Christ he set his seal on the atoning work wrought out on the cross. He demonstrated his divine power in the face of sin and death, and at the same time his will to save men. Thus, the resurrection of believers follows immediately from that of their Saviour. So characteristic of them is resurrection that Jesus could speak of them as ‘sons of God, being sons of the resurrection’ (Lk. 20:36).
This does not mean that all who rise rise to blessing. Jesus speaks of ‘the resurrection of life’ but also of ‘the resurrection of judgment’ (Jn. 5:29). The plain NT teaching is that all will rise, but that those who have rejected Christ will find the resurrection a serious matter indeed. For believers the fact that their resurrection is connected with that of the Lord transforms the situation. In the light of his atoning work for them they face resurrection with calmness and joy.
Of the nature of the resurrection body Scripture says little. Paul can speak of it as ‘a spiritual body’ (1 Cor. 15:44), which appears to mean a body which meets the needs of the spirit. He expressly differentiates it from the ‘physical body’ which we now have, and we infer that a ‘body’ answering to the needs of the spirit is in some respect different from that which we now know. The spiritual body has the qualities of incorruptibility, glory, and power (1 Cor. 15:42f.). Our Lord has taught us that there will be no marriage after the resurrection, and thus no sexual function (Mk. 12:25).
Perhaps we can gain some help by thinking of the resurrection body of Christ, for John tells us that ‘we shall be like him’ (1 Jn. 3:2), and Paul that ‘our lowly body’ is to be ‘like his glorious body’ (Phil. 3:21). Our Lord’s risen body appears to have been in some sense like the natural body and in some sense different. Thus on some occasions he was recognized immediately (Mt. 28:9; Jn. 20:19f.), but on others he was not (notably the walk to Emmaus, Lk. 24:16; cf. Jn. 21). He appeared suddenly in the midst of the disciples, who were gathered with the doors shut (Jn. 20:19), while contrariwise he disappeared from the sight of the two at Emmaus (Lk. 24:31). He spoke of having ‘flesh and bones’ (Lk. 24:39). On occasion he ate food (Lk. 24:41-43), though He cannot hold that physical food is a necessity for life beyond death (cf. 1 Cor. 6:13). It would seem that the risen Lord could conform to the limitations of this physical life or not as he chose, and this may indicate that when we rise we shall have a similar power.
IV. Doctrinal implications of the resurrection
The Christological significance of the resurrection is considerable. The fact that Jesus prophesied that he would rise from the dead on the third day has important implications for his Person. One who could do this is greater than the sons of men. Paul clearly regards the resurrection of Christ as of cardinal importance. ‘If Christ has not been raised,‘ he says, ‘then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. . . . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor. 15:14, 17). The point is that Christianity is a gospel, it is good news about how God sent his Son to be our Saviour. But if Christ did not really rise, then we have no assurance that our salvation has been accomplished. The reality of the resurrection of Christ is thus of deep significance. The resurrection of believers is also important. Paul’s view is that if the dead do not rise we may as well adopt the motto ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (1 Cor. 15:32). Believers are not men for whom this life is all. Their hope lies elsewhere (1 Cor. 15:19). This gives them perspective and makes for depth in living.
The resurrection of Christ is connected with our salvation, as when Paul says that ‘Jesus our Lord was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom. 4:25; cf. 8:33f.). There is no need here to go into the precise significance of the two uses of ‘for’. That is a task for the commentaries. We content ourselves with noting that the resurrection of Christ is connected with the central act whereby we are saved. Salvation is not something that takes place apart from the resurrection.
Nor does it stop there. Paul speaks of his desire to know Christ ‘and the power of his resurrection’ (Phil. 3:10), and he exhorts the Colossians, ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above . . .‘ (Col. 3:1). He has already reminded them that they were buried with Christ in baptism, and in the same sacrament were raised with him (Col. 2:12). In other words, the apostle sees the same power that brought Christ back from the dead as operative within those who are Christ’s. The resurrection is ongoing.
Bibliography. W. Milligan, The Resurrection of our Lord, 1883; J. Orr, The Resurrection of Jesus, 1909; W. J. Sparrow-Simpson, The Resurrection and Modern Thought, 1911; P. Gardner-Smith, The Narratives of the Resurrection, 1926; K. Barth, The Resurrection of the Dead, E.T. 1933; A. M. Ramsey, The Resurrection of Christ, 1946; G. Vos in PTR 27, 1929, pp. 1-35, 193-226; N. Clark, Interpreting the Resurrection, 1967; W. Marxsen, The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, 1970; L. Coenen, C. Brown in NIDNTT 3, pp. 257-309.
[A VERY DIFFERENT VIEW]
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
resurrection, a rising to life from death. The concept of resurrection is derived from Jewish apocalyptic literature. In earlier ot writings there is no belief in life after death (Ps. 115:17). When eventually this belief developed it was in the form of the resurrection of the dead, rather than of the immortality of the soul (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2). Resurrection is to be distinguished from resuscitation or reanimation of the physical body. It denotes a complete transformation of the human being in his or her psychosomatic totality (1 Cor. 15:53-55). This is expressed in a number of metaphors. The resurrected will shine like stars (Dan. 12:3). They will be like the angels (Mark 12:25). Resurrection was thought of not as an event for each individual at death but as a corporate event. God would raise all of the elect at the end of history.
The Resurrection of Jesus: The post-Easter proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus is to be seen in the context of this apocalyptic hope. Jesus’ resurrection is an act of God. God raised the Son from the dead as the first fruits in anticipation of the general resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). The resurrection of the believers would follow as a result of Christ’s resurrection (1 Cor. 15:22).
Earliest Traditions: The earliest traditions about the Easter event are not to be found in the appearance stories at the ends of the Gospels (Mark 16:9-20, though part of the canonical text, is not part of the original Mark). They are all later developed traditions emanating from subapostolic times. The earliest witness we have of the Easter event is to be found in 1 Cor. 15:3-8. Paul wrote this account around a.d. 55 and was quoting what he delivered to the Corinthians when he founded that community ca. a.d. 50. But, vv. 3-7 were already a tradition Paul had received from others who were Christians before him (v. 1). This takes us back to the time of his call to be an apostle (ca. a.d. 33) or at the latest Paul’s visit to Jerusalem ca. a.d. 35 (note that the two persons mentioned in vv. 5 and 7 are the same persons Paul saw on that visit, Gal. 1:18-19).
From 1 Cor. 15:3-8 we learn that faith in the resurrection was based not on the empty tomb, which Paul does not mention, but on the appearances of the Lord. The word used for ‘appeared’ is the same Greek word used elsewhere for visionary experiences. We may today characterize these experiences as revelatory disclosures from the transcendent realm. No distinction was drawn between the resurrection and ascension. The appearances are manifestations of the resurrected and already ascended Christ from heaven.
The impact of these disclosures is: first, the conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead (note that the language used here is derived from Jewish apocalyptic literature; we might say today that God took Jesus into his own eternity); second, the consolidation of the disciples into a community, later designated ‘church’ (Gk. ekklesia), i.e., the end-time people of God; and third, the inauguration of the community’s mission to Israel and later to the gentile world.
In the Gospels: The story of the empty tomb as found in the Gospels, though in its present forms belonging to the later tradition, nevertheless appears to rest on an early report of Mary Magdalene and other women that on visiting the tomb after the burial they discovered it empty. In itself this discovery does not establish a resurrection and might conceivably suggest a mere resuscitation. It is also susceptible of other explanations, some of which are mentioned in the Gospels themselves (cf. Mark 15:47; Matt. 28:13; John 20:15). The disciples after the appearances welcomed the women’s report as congruous with their faith in the resurrection and developed the empty-tomb narrative as a vehicle for the Easter proclamation.
Later the Gospels developed appearance narratives. The effect of this attempt at narration is the growing materialization of the appearances and of the understanding of the resurrection. Jesus now walks on earth as he had walked before (Luke 24:15). He talks, eats, drinks, and invites people to touch him. The theological motivation for this materialization is often held to be anti-docetic (i.e. against the idea that Jesus was nonmaterial) but that would probably be an anachronism. More likely it originated in a profound conviction of the identity of the risen Lord with the earthly Jesus. A further effect is a growing desire to separate the ascension from the resurrection (Luke 24:51; John 20:17). This tendency culminates in Acts 1:9-10 in a period of forty days between the resurrection and ascension (a period lengthened in later apocryphal, Gnostic revelations about the risen Jesus). As treated by Luke-Acts the ascension has a double effect on the understanding of resurrection. In Luke’s Gospel it forms a conclusion to the earthly life of Jesus while in Acts it inaugurates his heavenly reign.
Bibliography Fuller, R. H. The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980. Perkins, P. Resurrection, New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.
After reading the historical scepticism described in the Harper Bible Dictionary entry above, it is well to reflect further on the historical fact of Paul's and others' total commitment to following Christ. They were bearing witness to their personal knowledge of the resurrection of Christ Jesus. Paul wrote:
I was circumcised when I was a week old. I am an Israelite by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure-blooded Hebrew. As far as keeping the Jewish Law is concerned, I was a Pharisee, and I was so zealous that I persecuted the church. As far as a person can be righteous by obeying the commands of the Law, I was without fault. But all those things that I might count as profit I now reckon as loss for Christ’s sake. Not only those things; I reckon everything as complete loss for the sake of what is so much more valuable, the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have thrown everything away; I consider it all as mere refuse, so that I may gain Christ and be completely united with him. I no longer have a righteousness of my own, the kind that is gained by obeying the Law. I now have the righteousness that is given through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is based on faith. All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life. I do not claim that I have already succeeded or have already become perfect. I keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won me to himself. (Phi 3:7-11, TEV)
Insight can also be gained from the following words of Mary Baker Eddy in her major work Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures:
They who earliest saw Jesus after the resurrection and beheld the final proof of all that he had taught, misconstrued that event. Even his disciples at first called him a spirit, ghost, or spectre, for they believed his body to be dead. His reply was: "Spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have." The reappearing of Jesus was not the return of a spirit. (page 45)
Our Lord and Master presented himself to his disciples after his resurrection from the grave, as the self-same Jesus whom they had loved before the tragedy on Calvary. (page 317)
The truth had been lived among men; but until they saw that it enabled their Master to triumph over the grave, his own disciples could not admit such an event to be possible. After the resurrection, even the unbelieving Thomas was forced to acknowledge how complete was the great proof of Truth and Love. (page 24)
Through all the disciples experienced, they became more spiritual and understood better what the Master had taught. His resurrection was also their resurrection. It helped them to raise themselves and others from spiritual dulness and blind belief in God into the perception of infinite possibilities. (page 34)
To understand all our Master's sayings as recorded in the New Testament, sayings infinitely important, his followers must grow into that stature of manhood in Christ Jesus which enables them to interpret his spiritual meaning. Then they know how Truth casts out error and heals the sick. (page 350)
Glory be to God, and peace to the struggling hearts! Christ hath rolled away the stone from the door of human hope and faith, and through the revelation and demonstration of life in God, hath elevated them to possible at-one-ment with the spiritual idea of man and his divine Principle, Love. (page 45)
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer