Without spiritual symbols informing our lives, we are incomplete beings. The temptation is, in our hyper-rationalistic, literal world, to strip symbols of their significance, and understand everything in binary terms: as true or false, as scientifically verifiable or not, as history or myth. Most of the time this approach is preferable. My dad is a geophysicist. He calculates the probability of oil being in one place as opposed to another. This is done by sending acoustic energy into the ground, and then analysing the data collected back. Algorithms are built which take that data and turn it into sound pictures of what is beneath the surface. Oil rigs cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and so before they embark upon building one, one needs to be sure there is oil there - though 100% assurance is never possible. Growing up, as you might imagine, with all this as the backdrop upon our lives, it informed the way I thought about the world. In the same way that the oil was either there or not, I believed things could only be true or not. And it was just a case of collecting enough data and asking the right questions, and though I could never be 100% sure, if I was meticulous enough, I could be correct within a negligible margin of error. I could have a working model which was reliable.
Today is Easter Sunday. Today is about resurrection. For most Christians, it’s about the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus 2000 years ago. A man, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and on the third day he rose again. At university, when I began to think about the topic of Jesus’ resurrection systematically, I approached the problem in the way my dad approached finding oil. My first assumption was it must be either true or false. Either Jesus did bodily resurrect, or he did not. And though I could not be 100% sure in my conclusion, the data would surely point me in one direction or another. The data in this case was historical evidence. What was the historical evidence that Jesus came back to life? With this line of enquiry, however, one quickly runs into a lot of problems. There is a lack of evidence. Indeed, the only evidence available comes from the New Testament itself, and so, the whole topic shifts quickly towards the question - to what extent can we take the various accounts in the Bible to be historically credible? There is a huge amount of scholarship surrounding this question, and a great deal could be said on this. We certainly don’t have data as reliable as that data my dad worked with when finding oil. But scholars agree that the New Testament can, to an extent, be trusted as historically credible, in part. Which is to say, some of it is more credible than other parts, and that statement comes with a lot of caveats.
Broadly speaking, earlier accounts are seen as more reliable. However, the more explicit resurrection accounts that we find in the Gospels, such as the famous ‘doubting Thomas’ account, in which Jesus invites Thomas to touch his pierced body, that account only appears in the Gospel of John, and as such can be seen as a later myth, John being the last book to be written. That doesn’t mean we can just dismiss Jesus’ resurrection however, as there are much earlier references to it. It’s debatable which book in the New Testament was written first. My money is on 1 Corinthians, which was written by Paul, which, unlike the Gospels, was written in living memory. Towards the end of 1 Corinthians there is a part which reads: “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me”. This little part in 1 Corinthians is thought to be very early, because it reads almost like a creed. It is likely that this pithy statement was a faith pronouncement memorised to express the faith of the earliest Christians, perhaps formulated less than ten years after Jesus’ death. As such, many scholars have concluded that at the very least, early Christians did believe they experienced the risen Christ. It’s difficult to dispute that. What is far less clear, however, is in what sense they experienced the risen Christ.
What does it actually mean to say he appeared to such and such a person? Here are a group of individuals, having some kind of collective experience. Now the jump that people often make at this point is to assume that this collective experience is seeing Jesus walk and talk to people in the flesh. After all, that is what the accounts in the Gospels point towards. But the earliest accounts from 1 Corinthians (as I’ve read), and Paul’s other letters make no such claim. It's far more ambiguous and more in keeping with some kind of spiritual encounter with Christ. Indeed, the appearance of Jesus need not mean a reanimation of the body, but rather, a sense of hope found in hopelessness, a sense that what Jesus stood for can carry on in us despite his death, a sense of Jesus’ spirit finding some form almost tangible amongst us. The time that elapses from that credo I read out in 1 Corinthians - ‘that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve’ etc. - the time between that and the account we find in the Gospel of John, of Jesus in the flesh appearing amongst the disciples, and Jesus inviting Thomas to touch his pierced side etc., is a period of about 100 years. In other words, the accounts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection are evolving, and they’re evolving fast. They’re being shaped into a more compelling story.
Let’s take another example: today's reading (John 20:1-18). It reads to us like the account of an event, but if you dig a little deeper it's clearly not. We heard, ‘But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.’ Sounds nice, two angels hanging out in Jesus’ tomb, but why, what’s the point of that? First of all, these two angels are not in the other three Gospels. This suggests it did not happen, so why would John have even include it, what is the point of this image being added to John’s resurrection account? Picture the scene. Concrete Slab, at one end a big angel, at the other end, another big angel. Does that remind you of anything…? In Exodus, Moses goes up the mountain and carves the ten commandments on stone tablets. Ultimately, those tablets are housed within the Ark of the Covenant, which is itself housed in the Holy of Holies – the innermost sanctuary of the Temple. The Ark of the Covenant symbolises the presence of Yahweh on earth. It acts as the throne of Yahweh on earth. And what does the Ark of the Covenant look like? It looks like this – a concrete slab with a big angel at one end, and another big angel at the other end. The Gospel writer is making the not-so-subtle assertion that Jesus, or the risen Christ, is now the true representative of Yahweh. It’s clever. It makes the point well, but it’s clear evidence that this aspect of the story at least did not happen. We are not supposed to be taking it literally; it’s trying to tell us something.
If you compare the various things said about the resurrection in order - first what Paul says about the resurrection, then compare that to how it’s talked about in the Gospel of Mark (the earliest of the Gospels), and then read how it’s talked about in the Gospel of John (the latest of the Gospels) - there is a clear evolution taking place. Over time the accounts are becoming far more detailed. And if you think about it, that’s quite weird. The accounts become more detailed the further from the actual events we go. The reason for that, I would suggest, is that they’re trying to build the case for Jesus as time goes on. As the early Christians are travelling around modern day Turkey and Greece, they need to make their case stronger, and so they tell stories and make rhetorical assertions to bolster the claims they’re making. A surface reading today might suggest to us that they were therefore lying, and that would be a mistake. Because to make that leap one must assume these accounts were intended to be taken literally in the first place, which I think is a mistake. Anyone Jewish in the second/third century who heard the Gospel of John talking about one angel there and another there, would have immediately thought of the symbolic significance of that language – these accounts are written to inspire us! To get us on board with the Jesus’ message, to get us to participate in Jesus’ Kingdom!
And so, returning to my original question. Back in university I set out to answer it with as much certainty as possible, assuming it must either be one way or another. Either Jesus did bodily resurrect, or he did not! I’ve come to see that question as really missing the point. If pressed I would say there is no reason to think he did bodily resurrect, but it's really a pointless assertion. The development present in the New Testament shows that Jesus’ earliest followers really didn’t care about that question either. For them such accounts were a rhetorical device. They were much more concerned with winning people for the Kingdom – getting people to participate in Jesus’ ongoing mission. My initial assumption was based on a belief about truth, that truth is a single thing, that something was either true or it was false. Rather, I think a two-truth model is superior - two truths we can label as inner truth and outer truth. And it’s when these two modes of truth are conflated that is where the confusion lies. In ancient times, in Bible times, people didn’t make a distinction between inner truth and outer truth. Jesus’ resurrection to his earliest followers was true because it elucidated a deep spiritual truth, even though today we struggle with it because it’s not a verifiable outer truth, it's not a scientific truth. Nor, however (as you sometimes get in response), is it valid to say ‘well you have your outer truth and I have mine’. The geophysicist who relied upon their intuitive sense would not get very far, which is why a complete relativizing of truth is also deeply problematic.
There is clearly a world of things which you can say concrete things about. And so one must be discerning. There is an appropriate sphere in which outer truth is king, and there is an appropriate sphere in which inner truth is king, and to conflate the two can be dangerous, and in some cases could even be fatal. And so, this Easter we practice resurrection. We affirm resurrection as an inner truth, as a mythological truth. As a symbol which points us towards an inner dimension of the self which we disregard at our own peril. To not believe in hope, in the second chance, in the redeemed soul, in the light beyond the darkness, in the ongoing community of love after your own personal death, would be an incredibly bleak world to inhabit. To not have faith in this kind of resurrection, one would, in effect, be stuck on Good Friday. Stuck in the nihilistic dread of death at Calvary, seeing no point beyond, no path through, the death of meaning, and the despair in all things. But my Easter message is that we can believe in hope, we can believe in resurrection – and we don’t have to convince ourselves of magic or the impossible to have such faith. We must merely need to be present to the spirit within us, and love one another.