The Resurrection of Jesus
The most important historical event for Christians is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ—without the Resurrection, there is literally no Christianity. This is because the Resurrection is proof that God accepted Jesus death for our sins, and that we will be raised with Him when He comes again. But many Christians don’t have a clear understanding of what the Resurrection entails. For many, the afterlife entails floating around amongst clouds with harps and halos, but the biblical picture is much more robust.
What is the doctrine of the resurrection?
The New Testament actually gives us a very clear record of Christian belief about the Resurrection, and what it tells us is, by definition, normative (i.e. it gives a completely accurate description of correct Christian belief about the Resurrection). The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified died and was buried … the third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven” and asserts belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” While the Creed itself is not Scripture, it contains a summary of the Scriptures’ teaching and shows that this was one of the core beliefs of early Christianity.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus actually died on the cross at Calvary; his body was actually dead when it was wrapped in cloths and put in the tomb. When some women came to finish the burial rites several days later, the stone covering the tomb had been rolled away and the tomb was actually empty. When Jesus appeared to the witnesses of the resurrection, He had a physical form; He wasn’t a ghost-like apparition, but a person who could be touched (John 20:27); He even ate some fish to prove that He was a real physical being (Luke 24:41–43). This physical body ascended into Heaven (although Heaven is not ‘up’).
Because there are so many, it’s not possible to do more than skim the surface of the New Testament passages that deal with the Resurrection, but this will be sufficient to see the themes that arise over and over.
The Resurrection in the Gospels
During Jesus’ three-year ministry, the Bible documents several different Jewish views about the afterlife. Two dominant views were represented by the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees, who didn’t. Jesus came down squarely on the side of the Pharisees in a rare agreement with his opponents, when He answered the Sadducees’ classic conundrum about marriage in the resurrection (Matthew 22:23–33). Paul would use this same disagreement between the two sects to get himself out of hot water in Acts 23:6.
In Luke, Jesus refers to “the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14), implying that believers and unbelievers will have different resurrections. Paul echoes this when he talks about the “resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15).
Of course, the most important passages about the resurrection in the Gospels are those dealing with Jesus’ resurrection. Today we read the account of the crucifixion knowing that several verses later Jesus will be raised from the dead, so it is easy to underestimate how devastating Jesus’ death was to His followers. Jesus taught that He would be raised on the third day, but His disciples and other followers didn’t seem to be expecting that. This is probably at least partially due to how Jews viewed the resurrection in Jesus’ day. Many Jews believed in a bodily resurrection at the end of time—the Pharisees were particularly known for their belief in this doctrine. But it was a specifically eschatological (‘end times’) event; no one was expecting one person to be resurrected early!
So the disciples’ non-understanding of what Jesus was saying meant that when He died, His disciples may have thought the movement was a failure, just like other Messianic movements that had happened in the century before (Gamaliel, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, gave an account of a false messianic figure named Theudas and another named Judas the Galilean in Acts 5:35–37). At best, because the Resurrection had not yet happened, their thinking must have been cloudy. In fact, it is not until after Pentecost, 50 days after Passover when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, that Christianity seemed to crystallize and suddenly make sense to its adherents.
Even today, unbelieving Jewish people say that Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah, because God wouldn’t allow the Messiah to be killed, especially not in such a shameful way, on a cross under God’s curse. The men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35), walking away from Jerusalem close to the end of that famous third day, were clearly confused about Jesus’ death, wondering if that meant He wasn’t the Messiah—until Jesus corrected them. In fact, the Scriptures pointed to the fact that the Messiah had to die, as Jesus explained to the men on the road to Emmaus and to His disciples (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47)
Resurrection in the Church’s earliest preaching
The Church’s earliest history is chronicled in the Acts of the Apostles. The author, Luke the physician, was also the author of the Gospel of Luke. From his writings, it is clear that he had first-hand knowledge of many of the events and performed first-person interviews to double-check many of his facts. Luke wrote, “He [Jesus] presented himself alive to them [the apostles] after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (1:3). Luke is an important witness to the historical fact of the resurrection of Christ.
But Acts is particularly useful for the purposes of this survey because it records several early sermons which deal with the Resurrection. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, he says: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. … Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:23–24, 36). For Peter, the Resurrection was irrefutable proof of the truth of Jesus’ messianic claims. In Acts 3:15, 4:10, and 5:30 Peter cites the Resurrection as proof of God himself overturning the judicial condemnation of Jesus. The content in these sermons should form the context of how we understand other summary statements in the Bible, like when Luke says people “declared the Christ” or similar phrases—they preached the death, resurrection, and Lordship of Jesus!
The resurrection was a key point in preaching the Gospel, whether to Jews or Gentiles. In Acts 17, Paul uses Jesus’ resurrection as proof that God has appointed Him to judge the world. But the resurrection was a difficult point to preach in the Gentile world. At least some of the Jews expected a resurrection, so to argue that one person was raised from the dead was unusual, but at least the concept wasn’t entirely foreign. But Greeks thought that resurrection from the dead was not only impossible, but undesirable—their dualistic worldview said that when a person died, the soul was freed from the body, a much purer state than ‘dirty’ flesh. This helps explain why some mocked Paul at the Areopagus in Athens (17:32). Some of the Greeks even thought that Paul was declaring two deities—Jesus and Anastasis (the Greek word for ‘resurrection’). But regardless of how offensive the doctrine was to the Greeks, Paul refused to compromise, or even to put the resurrection at less than center stage of his preaching.
Resurrection in Paul’s writings
Besides the focus on Paul in the second half of the book of Acts, Paul also wrote more than half of the books in the New Testament. He is, therefore, an extremely important figure during the codification of early Christian belief. Paul’s earliest letters, those to the Thessalonians, are dated within 20 years of the Resurrection, long before any mythology would have time to distort the historical facts of what happened to Jesus and during the time in which many eyewitnesses who could have corrected Paul’s use of facts still lived. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–14, Paul says:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
In the book of Romans, written over a decade later, he says:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his spirit who dwells in you (8:11).
It is impossible to talk about all the ways Paul uses the Resurrection in his writings without writing many, many pages on the subject, but a recurring and dominant theme is that Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of our future resurrection. The way His resurrection and ours are linked is very important.
Paul discusses this in 1 Corinthians. The Corinthian Greeks, like the Athenians discussed above, didn’t like the doctrine of the resurrection—they thought the ideal afterlife consisted of a disembodied existence. The idea that their dead body would come back to life was nothing short of disgusting to them. Some of this crept into the church in Corinth, so Paul was faced with the task of setting them straight on precisely what the hope of resurrection entailed. (I encourage the reader to go and read the whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 15, because quoting isolated verses doesn’t do justice to the progression of the argument).
Paul starts out by telling the Corinthians that if they don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead their faith is in vain. Christianity minus the resurrection simply isn’t an option—it isn’t Christianity at all. He reminds them of the Gospel that he first preached, including all of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. He goes on to say that if one person was raised, then surely God will raise others, but if Christ hasn’t been raised, then there is no Gospel. Paul establishes that Christ’s resurrection was a human resurrection—in other words, He didn’t get a special ‘God resurrection’. And Paul emphasizes that it was a physical resurrection—it was his human body that was resurrected, and we look forward to exactly the same sort of resurrection (see also Romans 6:5).
The reason we can look forward to the same sort of resurrection is that we are related to Christ, and Paul draws the analogy all the way back to Adam, our ancestor and Christ’s ancestor. Adam sinned. Therefore, we all die because we all ‘belong’ to Adam—we’re descended from him. Paul is arguing for the same sort of adoptive relationship to Christ; because Christ was raised, so will Christians be raised, because we ‘belong’ to—are saved by—Him. Paul uses a similar argument in Romans 5:12–21.
He goes on to clarify exactly what this resurrection is. It’s not something out of a zombie movie—it’s more than the corpses being re-animated. Paul uses the analogy of a seed being sown—what grows from the seed is not the seed, but there is continuity with the seed. Christians will be given an imperishable body because that is the sort of body that is appropriate for those who will inherit eternal life. See Christ as the Last Adam.
Resurrection in John’s writings
John was one of the original 12 Disciples of Jesus. He wrote one of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and penned several other New Testament books. John’s vision recorded in the book of Revelation has been interpreted a myriad of ways. Taking a position on various eschatological positions is outside the scope of this article. (Indeed, it is outside the scope of CMI’s mandate.) However, Revelation has some important things to say about the resurrection of the dead. In Revelation 20, John says:
Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received the mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (vv. 4b–6)
Given that Revelation does not talk about a ‘second resurrection’ (instead contrasting ‘the first resurrection’ with ‘the second death’ that occurs to unbelievers after the first resurrection), it seems safe to say that this is depicting the resurrection of all believers, and including them all with this group.
The resurrection is closely linked with the restoration of all creation—in the next chapter, we see the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to the restored earth, and the declaration that the dwelling of God will be with man. This is the great and final reversal of the Curse that had been applied to the universe after Adam fell—God will dwell with man just as He did in the beginning, but this time there will be no possibility of another Fall from grace. All the things that accompanied the Curse—death, suffering, mourning, and sin—won’t exist there.
Resurrection and the New Creation
The Resurrection also tells us about the sort of place where we will live forever as believers. If we are given a physical resurrection body (and a non-physical resurrection isn’t a resurrection at all; there were perfectly good ways to talk about a continuing spiritual existence if that’s all that was meant), then it follows that we will need a physical place to live, just as we do now. This implies that the New Heavens and Earth that God promises in Revelation will be a physical place, like God originally created, with no death or suffering.
The visual language of the last few chapters of Revelation are stunning. The New Jerusalem is described as a physical city (although a nearly continent-sized one), with a wall, gates, and foundations. It has the throne of God, a river of life and the Tree of Life (since the Tree was a literal tree, how can its return be anything but a literal, physical return?). Isaiah speaks about the new creation in Isaiah 65:
For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. (65:17–19)
There are obvious parallels here to the New Heavens and Earth described in Revelation 21. Isaiah continues:
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. … The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like an ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord (65:21, 25).
Scripture teaches that believers will enjoy a physical resurrection on a physical earth—the idea of floating around on clouds may be a popular image of our eternal existence, but it’s certainly not biblical.
He is risen!
The Curse in Eden meant that all of Adam’s children would die, and the world would be filled with death and suffering. But Christ’s resurrection foreshadows the ultimate overturning of the Curse and the restoration of all of Creation, as well as our own resurrection when He comes again. We die because of the First Adam, but everyone who believes in the Last Adam can look forward to eternal life in a restored creation. Amen!