“Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6).

Each of the four Gospels announces that the tomb in which the crucified Jesus had been buried on Friday afternoon was empty on Easter morning. Their testimony is supported by the primitive preaching recorded in Acts: “his flesh did not see corruption” (2:31), and echoed by the apostle Paul who, in agreement with the Jerusalem apostles, wrote that “Jesus died, was buried, and rose again on the third day” (1 Cor. 15:3–4, 11). By an action of God the Father, the tomb wherein Jesus had been placed was emptied of its contents, and Jesus, body and soul, was raised to newness of life, his earthly body having been transformed onto the eschatological plane. Through the clarity of their testimony and the spiritual power of this truth upon Christians from then until now, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has been the historic conviction of the church and the normative meaning of the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, “… on the third day he rose again from the dead.”

Despite this evidence, there persists an effort to dematerialize belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Last year a novel appeared by Charles Templeton entitled Act of God. It tells a story about the discovery of Jesus’ body and the church’s attempt to keep news of this from the general public. More intriguing than the novel itself—its plot centers upon precisely that supposed discovery which the historical evidence assures us did not occur—has been the reaction to that possibility by liberal churchmen. Ernest Howse, for example, a long-time pastor of the Bloor Street United Church in Toronto, explained in a newspaper column that Templeton’s central hypothesis held no cogency at all for him, since the discovery of Jesus’ bones would have no effect whatever upon his belief in Jesus’ “resurrection.” People only feel threatened by such a possible discovery, he feels, if they confuse poetry with fact, when they would do better to recognize that whatever happened to the body of Jesus could have no effect upon the spiritual and moral impact of his life, which has been effective across the centuries. Howse believes in the “resurrection” of Jesus, but not in the physical sense.

Harvard theologian Gordon D. Kaufman expresses a similar conviction. While recognizing that the earliest Christians themselves believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus who died on the cross, Kaufman finds it impossible to agree with their interpretation (their belief being caused by hallucinatory visions of the risen Christ). Instead, he posits a continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith of a rather different kind. In his opinion, the central claim of the church in proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection was “that the God who had been acting through Jesus’ ministry and especially in his death was still actively at work in the community of believers.” Not the transformation of Jesus’ body, but the continued effectiveness of God’s action, he claims, is the theologically important point they wished to make. Kaufman, to his credit, is not denying that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the conviction about God’s continued activity were closely connected in the minds of those earliest Christians; he feels simply that for him as a modern theologian they are not inextricably connected. In his view, the true meaning of the historical event called “Jesus’ resurrection” concerns not the fate of Jesus’ body, but the ongoing divine work of redeeming mankind. He holds that resurrection faith can be safely dematerialized without doing serious damage to the real significance of that event (Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective, pp. 411–34, 467f.).

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It is thus common to encounter liberal Christians who, rather than believe the New Testament claim as it stands, regard faith in the risen Christ as independent of the empty tomb, which is taken to be unessential and separable from the article of faith itself. God did not need, it is argued, the relic of Jesus’ earthly body in order to establish continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith; there was no requirement for the tomb to be empty for God to be able to raise Christ to new life.

We must now ask how this position was reached, and what our attitude to it should be. It is surprising to find belief in Jesus’ resurrection interpreted in a manner foreign both to the plain teachings of the New Testament and to the ordinary meaning this word conveys. Why would anybody want to confess the resurrection of Jesus in so misleading and even deceptive a way?

Several of the reasons usually advanced are so weak as to suggest that real reasons lie deeper. We will allude to three of these.

1. It is common to find reference to conflicts and inconsistencies that are said to exist in the resurrection narratives. At a number of points the details in one of the accounts do not match up precisely with details in the others. Less often mentioned is the fact that the differences involved are relatively slight, and can be harmonized without much strain. Their existence may actually enhance the credibility of the reports by removing any suggestion of collusion between the various witnesses. This is certainly no reason for abandoning what the four Gospels all unequivocally state in perfect agreement regarding the bodily resurrection.

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2. Another reason regularly heard is the claim that the apostle Paul meant something quite different by his use of the term resurrection than the Gospel writers did. Not only does he fail to mention the empty tomb, the argument goes, but he also thinks of resurrected existence in radically different terms from that of flesh and blood (1 Cor. 15:50); the raising of Jesus’ body could not have been of any interest to him in the light of his theology of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

The point, however, is far from decisive. Why should Paul juxtapose “he was buried” and “he was raised, and the life to which it was raised was on a higher plane than the flesh and blood plane on which it existed earlier? A bodily resurrection is indeed assumed, too, both in his teaching on baptism in which a body is symbolically buried in water and raised up out of it (Rom. 6:4), and in the promise he gives that our lowly body will be changed to be like Christ’s glorious body through the power of God (Phil. 3:21). There is no compelling reason to interpret Paul in any other way than as giving yet another powerful witness to the reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ.

3. Still another reason sometimes advanced suggests the possibility that the Jewish mind had no other concept available to it for expressing victory over death except resurrection, so Christian faith got conceptualized in this way even though there was no factual basis for it. This objection is simply inaccurate. In the book of Wisdom, survival after death of the just is described in terms of immortality granted by God—a concept not confined to Jews of the Diaspora (Wisdom 3:1–8). Had the early Christians merely wanted to say that Jesus was alive in the spiritual realm after his death they could have said so without dragging in the notion of resurrection, whose sharp meaning would have introduced serious misunderstanding.

Many other weak and ineffective reasons are advanced to sidestep belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but it is all too apparent that the real reasons are philosophical and theological, not empirical and historical. Let us look at the latter.

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The true reason why liberal theologians seek to sidestep the strong New Testament witness to the bodily and physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is an unbiblical philosophy of religion at work in their revisionist theologies. It stems from a humanistic view of history, which makes the event of resurrection unacceptable because it is incredible. Such an assumption makes necessary a novel reinterpretation of faith divorced from fact. Bultmann with admirable plainness states what others often seek to conceal: “A historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable” (Kerygma and Myth, p. 42). Bultmann’s presupposition derives from David Hume and Ernst Troeltsch, and involves a narrow conception of historical reality that excludes from the outset the credibility of the resurrection claim. Pursuing this line of thought, a person is faced with two alternatives: either to turn away from a Christian position, or to revise his understanding of faith so that it can exist unthreatened by the denial of its factual basis. If faith can just be detached from the relativities and naturalistic tone of ordinary history, it can flourish free from any falsification of the type Templeton proposes in what Francis Schaeffer has called its “upper story,” unassailed by any of the acids of historical criticism.

How attractive such a proposal must seem to those who desire to maintain faith but who cannot bring themselves to accept the historical conditions on which the New Testament says faith must rest! It enables them to escape from the skeptical consequences of their own humanistic criticism while holding onto the subjective benefits of faith, simply by divorcing the gospel from its historical foundations. All they must deny is the truth Paul stated: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). According to this new view, faith and fact are not so precariously joined.

A biblically oriented Christian, however, must ask whose logic is better, Paul’s or Bultmann’s. Quite apart from the question of Paul’s infallibility as an apostle of Christ, is it not plain that the New Testament as a whole supports his argument? None of the biblical witnesses place the saving acts of God in a realm detached from ordinary history; none of them locate faith at the level of subjective meaning indifferent to matters of fact. However attractive for apologetic reasons the new proposal may at first appear, it is surely utterly wrong-headed and the results are ultimately disastrous. There is only one history, and the Bible declares that God raised up Christ in that very realm—not in some misty supra-history running parallel to it and never intersecting with it. Evangelical Christians ought to reject the positivistic assumptions that take history to be a closed continuum of cause and effect which disallows the freedom of God to act in history for the salvation of mankind and open their minds instead to the glorious possibility that historical reality is the way the Bible describes it. When the gospel was first preached in the Roman Empire, its acceptance involved the repudiation of all manner of spurious notions about the universe that were rampant in the hellenistic world. So today, where the gospel of Christ is preached, the demand is made that positivistic assumptions about history be put aside and the magnificent truth about God’s powerful intervention in the midst of it be accepted in its place. To the person in this frame of mind the claim about the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a glorious truth, not an awkward embarrassment.

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But why, apart from the New Testament authoritative claim and its intrinsic plausibility, is it important to hold the resurrection as an event that affected Jesus’ earthly body? Granted, the apostles believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and those who claim to be established upon the foundation of their teachings should be expected to believe it too. But what truths are there contained in this belief that move the discussion ahead to the area of its significance for us today? Why did God raise Christ bodily? There are at least three interrelated reasons.

The first is evidential in nature. The resurrection of Jesus represents the verdict of the Father upon the obedience of the Son. In that public and dramatic event God pronounced by means of a deed that transcends the alphabet of human power his approval and acceptance of Jesus’ suffering and death on behalf of the human race. It also sealed and confirmed the pre-Easter claims and activity of Jesus in which our Lord stood in God’s place and confronted mankind with his claim about the kingdom of God. Though seized and put to shameful death by wicked men, Jesus was snatched from corruption and powerfully declared to be the exalted Son of God (Rom. 1:4). Nothing less than the bodily resurrection of Jesus would have sufficed to convince his disciples of the truth of his vindication in the face of opposition and his victory over the powers of death. And according to the unanimous witness of the New Testament writers it was the fact of the bodily resurrection that convinced them. Had any of them believed that the resurrection was poetry and not fact, as Howse suggests, they would never have left their fishing nets to preach the gospel. There would have been no gospel.

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The second reason is closely connected to the first. The verdict of the Father rested upon Jesus as the Savior of sinners. It represented his declaration and assurance that the redemptive work of the One in whom we are chosen to be saved has been successfully accomplished and accepted. Jesus’ resurrection was at the same time his justification (1 Tim. 3:16) and our justification as well (Rom. 4:25). In his death Jesus was crucified as if he were a wrongdoer—indeed, as a substitute for sinners; and in his resurrection the great exchange is validated by God so that sinners who cling to him in faith rise to the status of acceptance and justification themselves because of his work (Heb. 9:26). Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24), and having put them all away forever (Heb. 9:26), received glorification in the same body also on our behalf. In the resurrection of Jesus, God raised us up to newness of life with him and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 2:6). If Christ’s body is still under the power of death, he has failed as our representative, and there is no atonement for sins. Paul made that connection clear when he said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). In short, if Christ has been raised bodily, we stand acquitted if we are related to him through faith. In not letting his chosen and holy one see the corruption of death, God fulfilled the scriptural promises by exalting and lifting up his faithful servant, so that through his vicarious suffering the will of the Lord for the salvation of sinners might be seen to have become effective.

But there is a third reason which helps to explain the basis of the two others. It has to do with the meaning of resurrection in the apocalyptic expectation, which, in contrast to the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul, hopes for the complete redemption of man, body and soul. Salvation in the light of the resurrection involves an enlargement and enhancement rather than a diminution of life. It speaks of the total transformation of the whole person in the new creation that God has promised, wherein this mortal puts on immortality and this corruptible incorruption (1 Cor. 15:53; 2 Cor. 5:4). To reduce the resurrection to an immaterial symbol of new life is to rob salvation as the New Testament understands it of the dimension of world transformation, and to push it in the direction of Greek thought. Bodily resurrection is important because it signifies the salvation of creation and creaturely existence, not simply the liberation of man’s spiritual essence. Christ’s resurrection is a promissory event, what Paul calls “first fruits,” which gives mankind concrete proof and substance to the hope entertained by the people of God for total transformation at the end of history. Through Christ, the last Adam, has come the resurrection unto life of all who are in Christ (1 Cor. 15:20–23). Although the future life will be unimaginably glorious, it will be life in space and time. And although delivered from the bondage of corruption, it will be life in the new heavens and earth wherein dwells righteousness. The real meaning of the denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is in the end a refusal of the cosmic significance of Christian salvation. It is the refusal to believe that the God who created all things is able to subdue all things and bring about a new world.

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The habitual thinking of this present humanistic age conditions us to receive with skepticism the angel’s announcement of the empty tomb. It has affected some so keenly as to lead them to deny the good news and maintain it is not so, and to cling desperately to a dematerialized resurrection concept suspended halfway between belief and unbelief. Let us not allow this world’s thinking to squeeze us into its mold, but let us arise on Easter morning to confess with joyful and believing hearts God’s victory over sin and death through the literal resurrection of the body of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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