Monday, April 25, 2011

Meanings of the Resurrection

In honor of Easter, I want to reflect a bit on the symbolism of the resurrection story. I don't mean to offer an apologetic for the resurrection. That is, I don't intend to defend the reasonableness of believing in it--which I think is something that, as I mentioned in a comment on an earlier post, can only be done as part of a much broader project of reflecting on the value of holistic interpretations of lived experience. What I offer here is simply a reflection on what, symbolically, the story of resurrection means for Christians.

Like the symbol of the cross, the symbol of the empty tomb is polysemic—that is, it is heavy with a diversity of meanings. In its simplest terms it announces, “Death is not the end!”

Paul was arguably the first to develop a theological elaboration of this meaning. In terms of Paul’s teachings, Jesus’ empty tomb declares that Jesus has forged a pathway through death—past the final end of mortal existence—and established on the far side of that end a new beginning, a new life which has no end. For Paul, Jesus is the “firstfruits” of a general resurrection. And by such a general resurrection he had in mind an awakening from the “sleep” of mortal death, one in which all of us are brought into a new existence freed from the specter of death (see I Corinthians 14-22).

In conceiving of this triumph over death as involving a bodily resurrection, the tradition has affirmed the value of embodied existence. The tomb is empty because Jesus' new life was not achieved by abandoning his body but by reclaiming it--but reclaiming it in a redeemed form, that it, redeemed from its limitations, its fragility and propensity for degeneration. The message is that, despite its finitude, despite the evils that assail our material reality, there is an essential goodness to the physical universe, to our bodies and our embodiment, that deserves respect. Disdain or disregard for the physical world is not appropriate.

Taken in relation to the cross, the empty tomb has further meanings. It declares that what is conceived from a terrestrial standpoint as ultimate and total defeat, as final humiliation, is none of these things from the divine standpoint (and hence from the most complete, enveloping, and hence truest standpoint). Crucifixion, after all, was not merely a means of killing that involved intense physical suffering before death. It was also a graphic means of intimidation and a tool of public degradation. Human beings were treated worse than things—not merely as something to be used, but as objects of contempt. The purpose of crucifixion was to express towards a human being the very antithesis of respect.

To have the power to crucify another human being was to have the power to take away their lives in a manner that first stripped them of everything that gives life any value. And it was, at the same time, an act of triumphantly crowing over one’s victim—displaying for all the world to see just how helpless, just how disgraced, one could make another human being (before ultimately turning them into a thing in truth, that is, a corpse).

The empty tomb symbolically represents what such efforts at mortification achieve from God’s ultimate standpoint. We might express it as follows: “Look into the tomb and you begin to see what you’ve accomplished by such exercises of power. The tomb is not merely empty. It has been emptied. In the place of a corpse there is new life, eternal and incorruptible.” The empty tomb erases the pretentions of coercive power to define human worth. It declares that the use of force to degrade and destroy is less than impotent. It has become the means whereby the intended victim has been exalted, whereby the target for destruction has been made indestructible.

Take another step back, looking at the empty tomb in relation to Jesus’ life and ministry, and we see a related message. In his ministry, Jesus faced human forces that wielded enormous terrestrial power: the power to crucify. As He began to teach—as He preached against the injustices of His age, as He lifted up the poor and rebuked those who profited at their expense—He gradually and cumulatively earned the enmity of the privileged.

And so the power to crucify was turned against Him. And in the face of that power--the power to kill in the most brutal and humiliating way--what did Jesus do? Did He flinch? Did the fear of death--the fear of death imposed by the wielders of secular power--silence Him? Did He stop "preaching truth to power"?

On the contrary, the gospel narrative is a narrative of unflinching and persistent insistence on doing the right thing, saying the right thing, following the path of truth and love, regardless of the costs. And in the face of such a commitment to the good, the threat of death is impotent. For it is the threat of violence that tyrants use to control others. Actual violence is done only to intimidate those who remain alive--or when efforts at intimidation fail. This is the key: killing in the face of unswerving allegiance to the good is an expression of failure. Tyrants kill those that cannot be controlled by the fear of death. Their killing is an expression of their impotence, like the tantrum of a child who is thwarted.

But the vividness of killing--especially for those who fear death--often masks this impotence, this failure. The empty tomb exposes it. It declares that when we live as Jesus did, with a commitment to the good that does not bow to the fear of death, then the good has triumphed over the forces of this world that rely on the threat of death. When people of good will act with unflinching love in the face of the power to crucify, when the power to crucify is utterly stripped of its capacity to change our allegiance to the good by even the tiniest fraction, then death has lost its hold on the living. The tomb is empty.


  1. Eric,

    I enjoyed this immensely,


  2. thank you for this. I think, what would I do in such circumstances,if i was literally faced with torture and horrible death, would I be able to go thru with it looking into the face of death...and still hold onto what i beleive is true and right.. I might just be really tempted to change something and justify myself in order to save my skin. I think there is a light years wide gulf between jesus's being and myself. I ask him for his life each day.

  3. Eric,

    For me the most relevant meaning of the resurrection is that God not only exists but is present in our lives, that the way to salvation is open, that the Kingdom is in view. To affirm that Christ is risen is to affirm the living and interacting presence of God. I wish Christians were less preoccupied with the afterlife, and more with the here and now, and what Christ’s work means for the here and now. As for the afterlife we may trust that God will take the most perfectly loving care of us always.

    I’d like to comment on a bit you wrote in your article, namely that Jesus did not stop to preach truth to power. Perhaps I misunderstand how you mean that phrase, but in my understanding Jesus did not even offer non-violent resistance to the powers that be. He didn't speak truth to power but truth to the weak. He lived as if the power of men did not exist at all; He lived as if He was already in paradise. Not in that He ignored the pain around Him, but that He did make no distinction between the oppressed and the oppressors, and loved and helped all without distinction. Which is probably what most irked the powerful. For the power of men can deal with the power of men; that’s what that power is about. But the power of Christ, the power of truth, is to not at all resist evil. At least that's my understanding of the radical nature of Jesus' ethical teaching.