By Kenneth Tanner
I find it amusing, this great befuddlement that befalls some intelligent Christians when it comes to the definition of resurrection. On Holy Saturday the New York Times published an interview with the president of Union Theological Seminary in which she mentioned Christian “obsession” with the physicality of our Lord’s resurrection.
Count me among the obsessed.
There are so many witnesses in the New Testament but John’s testimony that Jesus Christ ate with his disciples, and his words to his disciples in Luke that “a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have,” takes the guess work out of it. This is someone who remains flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone “beyond” death, the grave, and hell.
Yes, the body of Jesus Christ walks through walls and vanishes and – before resurrection – walks on water. There is great mystery here, no doubt, but we are talking about embodied mystery.
One does not have to be a skeptic or a confused cleric – this is not only about a class of over thinkers – misunderstanding of the resurrection is ubiquitous among a wide variety of believing American Christians, who have a tendency to make a ghost of Jesus, who tend to think of Jesus as disembodied in eternity, a state many American Christians consider superior to embodiment.
Americans in general have a fundamental philosophical misapprehension of human nature that assumes we are mere ghosts in machines, spirits in a material prison. Whereas Christian anthropology trusts – insists – that our created earthiness is essential to our humanity, now and for eternity; that one does not have resurrection without a body, even if that body has a transfigured physics.
As Cyril of Alexandria reminds us, echoing Paul, if Jesus does not rise again in a body of flesh – not only for a moment but forever – then death is not defeated, neither is the sin that bound in the grave and in hell everyone who shares human nature.
Jesus Christ ascends in the flesh, transformed somehow, yes, but still bearing the scars of his torment on the body Mary gave him. This is what makes the Son’s ongoing intercession for humanity so intimate and real.
As a fellow human in eternity Jesus Christ is our mediator and advocate, made like his brothers and sisters in every way so that he might be One who rules and judges those whose existence he understands from the inside, because he lived our human story with us in the most vulnerable, authentic, and beautiful way.
In Jesus Christ, God has a mother and a betrayer. In Jesus Christ, God has scars and God has memories of meals and laughter with his friends, and cold nights huddled in cloaks against the desert air; he recalls storms at sea and a grinding emptiness in his guts, dried tears on his face, at the tomb of his friend. In Jesus Christ, God knows hunger and thirst and loneliness and pain. In Jesus Christ, God knows the human devastation of disease and poverty.
And the first Christians are clear about this: the one human nature we all share has been rescued from death by the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only for a moment but forever. This is not a small matter where different opinions and perspectives are allowed.
You can struggle with its enormity and not comprehend it (who does), and doubting is part of being human – the “ants in the pants” of faith, as Frederick Buechner reminds us – and talking about and debating the mystery of it all is part of having faith in community with other persons, but that resurrection – Christ’s and ours – involves cells and skin and eyes and tongues and hearts and lungs (“he breathed on them”) and empty tombs – because transfigured material bodies have somehow escaped them – is a settled matter for Christians.
Yes, it is spiritual and mysterious and beyond science and nature, yes, he hides the fullness of his resurrected glory from his disciples (who could yet bear it?), and, yes, the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is an apt metaphor now for existence and nature and our personal struggles – yes, now death is the not the end of anything or anyone, resurrection is – but resurrection as a word has that “power” because death is defeated when this one human is raised bodily and brings all our bodies with him.
Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. His writing has appeared in Books & Culture, The Huffington Post, Sojourners, National Review, and Christianity Today. This article appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Good News. Artwork: Jesus and the two disciples On the Road to Emmaus, by Duccio, 1308–1311, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena. Public domain.