JESUS DIED BUT CAME BACK BUT HOW?
- What does resurrection mean today? -
That Jesus Christ died and came back to life is the most important article of Christian faith, but it is not history. Resurrection is a totally un-scientific story but conveys the very important human values essential for our existence. In a nut-shell, Easter is a message of infinite optimism, which is strictly a spiritual matter, not of science.
However, intoxicated by the power given by the Roman Empire as the state religion, the church gave itself the right to assume the divine authority, and had lived in the hallucination of entitlement to judged all aspects of human life. This was how the church often came to dismiss science as heresy for the reason that it did not conform to the stories of the Bible. It decreed that the Bible is history and science. This is how bodily resurrection of Jesus became an official doctrine and a matter of history. Thus the true meaning of resurrection was lost in a superstitious delusion.
Now the table is turned upside down, and many people think that science can answers all questions. Science has assumed the absolute authority and replaced the church of the Middle Age. Many don’t take the story of Easter seriously, because science says the dead person does not come back to life. This is shallow-minded arrogance like the church had. It shows inability to separately appreciate two qualitatively different world views. Can you imagine deciding a value of a human person by putting a price on each chemical component of a human body, calcium, carbon, iron, salt, water, etc. and adding them up? A totally inappropriate way of valuation. My worth could be less than one hundred dollars.
Faith and science do not belong to the same category therefore it is wrong to compare them. We can not dismiss other ways of viewing the world such as aesthetics and spirituality as unscientific therefore untrue or inconsequential. Another example: knowledge and wisdom belong to two different categories of paradigm. We must recognize the different categories of world views on their own merits. Then we will understand the message of Easter.
Now about Easter: one thing absolutely certain is that something extraordinary happened to a group of people after Jesus died on the cross. Nobody can explain what it was that happened. It happened simultaneously to many people and changed them completely. Disillusioned followers of Jesus had run away after Jesus was killed on the cross. But a few days later something extraordinary happened and they all came back together again. They all claimed that they saw Jesus alive. Their stories were all different, often contradictory. There is no conclusive evidence to any of them. But one thing is certain: they were transformed into completely new persons, no longer afraid not even of death. They behaved as though death was no longer the end of the story. This is the story of resurrection. We must find its meaning though it was not a historical event.
We perceive death today differently even from decades ago. Its negativity has diminished. For example, my mother died at the age 96. She was not ill. She dies in her sleep. She was happy until the end, but she was tired. Besides all her friends were gone. If she was offered a chance to live longer, she would have probably said “No thank you.” What was the point of the belief in eternal life for my Mom? What is going to happen to the traditional faith in eternal life, now that the sting of death has diminished? The question about life has now shifted to the quality of life, not its length.
Paul declared that the faith without the resurrection of Jesus is useless. (I Corinthians 15:12-14) Really? I believe in the resurrection of Christ, yes, but I don’t believe he came back into his 32 years old physical body. For me, death in the Bible meant ultimate despair, not necessarily physical death. The message of Risen Christ is a victory of faith over hopelessness. A quick survey of the passages of the Bible about the dead coming back to life has proven that point.
Throughout history, humans have been driven by three kinds of fear: the fear of hunger, of death, and of extinction of species. Now that we are getting ever closer to the resolution to all those catastrophes, thanks to progress of science and technology, the relevance of traditional beliefs are rapidly becoming redundant. We are no longer so afraid of them as our ancestors use to be. Then the question is: is the belief in next life really that important, if it is a mere revival of the dead to life? What is the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus Christ when we are not so fearful of death and not so attracted to longevity as before?
We live many more years than we have ever imagined, perhaps we live too long. For many people death can be a relief. Of course, death of the infants and the young must be avoided at all cost. But it is possible for many to live to ripe old age of 90′s into 100. The question now is more on its quality. The current debate about assisted suicide and euthanasia is a serious concern morally and spiritually. All in all, we can say, “Death has lost its sting. ” (Letter of Paul to the Romans: 13)
Let me go back to the beginning. Why was the belief in life after death (or eternal life) so universally important in many religions? It is because death use to be so ubiquitous and life so short. Many new born infants and their mothers died. If they survived the birth, they died of illness and violence, if not mal-nutrition and starvation, before they reached the age 50. Death was everywhere. It was the end. It represented despair and hopelessness. It was hell: in fact death and hell are the same one word in Hebrew language. Therefore, avoiding death was an ultimate blessing and salvation. Is it still so when some people began to live too long and are so tired to keep going?
So what is the meaning of resurrection today? Why should it be so important? What does the Bible really say about resurrection? I suggest we look at some passages to find the answer to the question: Is the Bible speaking about resurrection as the return of physical life after death? Or is it speaking about an overwhelming sense of the presence of a dead person? In other words, “Did Christ walked among people physically alive or was he like a spiritual presence, a ghost?” My answer is the latter. That is how I view resurrection: the overwhelming sense of presence of a dead person. Many who had followed Jesus Christ felt the presence of Jesus Christ so strongly that they felt he was there alive, but in actuality he was there spiritually. They came to believe that death did not kill him.
The earliest account of an incident beyond death and back to life, in the Bible, is the story of dry bones coming back into life in the Prophet Ezekiel 37. This is obviously a metaphor, a vision of hope beyond hopelessness. The bones came back to life with muscles and sinews when the word of God was spoken to them. This is the message of Easter that death can not kill spirits.
In all of the resurrection stories, Jesus the risen Christ appears and disappears from and into thin air, goes through a locked door, appeared to 500 people at the same time, and said, “You can not touch me. ” to Mary. He was in a different body. True, he told Thomas to touch his wound. But that didn’t happen: Thomas didn’t actually took the offer. He was overcome by the feeling of his presence and only said, “My Lord, my God.” Risen Christ had barbecued fish for breakfast with Peter and Andrew on a beach. But we all do that with the dead ancestors in Japan during the Obon festival, eat with them and remembering their lives. A few years later, Paul claimed that on the way to Damascus Jesus appeared to him too. Christ struck him off the horse and made him temporarily blind.
No Jesus did not come back into a physical body. All who met Christ on and after the day of Easter had a powerful sense of his presence and for whom death lost its power. The meaning of Easter is: power of faith in Jesus the Christ does not allow hopelessness. Death no longer speaks the last word. Easter is still the most important event worthy to celebrate not just once a year but on every Sunday. Sunday began not as Sabbath, but on the day after Sabbath as a weekly celebration of hope beyond hopelessness. And the standard greeting in the early church on that day was, “Christ is risen!” and responded ” He is risen indeed!” A good custom to remember when the Christians are often discouraged due to declining membership.
Ezekiel 37, Matthew 27:57 – 28:1 – 20, Mark 16 (the original Mark’s Gospel did not have the resurrection story. It is believed that this chapter is a later addition by another writer), Luke 24: 1-53, John 20 – 21, Acts 1: 1-14 and 9 :4 – 6, 1 Corinthians 15:1 – 58