I know it’s not Easter yet, but you might be forgiven for thinking so by the Easter displays starting to be erected the shops, but I’ve been thinking – randomly of course…What does it mean when Christians confess ‘Jesus rose from the dead’?
Harry Potter’s Resurrection Stone
I was wondering about all this when I was watching J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2. Harry gains possession of the Resurrection Stone – a small stone that purportedly could bring back people from the dead. In the event the Resurrection Stone could only bring back a shadow or an echo or the dead person. Moreover, Harry Potter knows that the Stone has no power to resurrect him once he is dead, but the Stone brings back the spirits of some who love him so that Harry will have courage when facing his apparent inevitable death.
In this final instalment of the Harry Potter series some might have thought – and some most likely did think – that possession of the Stone was enough to bring Harry back from the dead; so he could face his nemesis Voldemort without fear. If Harry should die, then that would be ok, because the Resurrection Stone will ensure that will would come back to life. In the event Harry drops the Stone.
Did Jesus resurrect himself?
But, here’s the point and the link that I made in my mind: when Jesus faces his own death does he do so knowing that he has some vaguely approximate equivalent of the Resurrection Stone within him? Does Jesus die in possession of some innate power that means he will inevitably come back to life from death? This is a big question. Did Jesus resurrect himself from the dead?
When I was just a young lad I remember being captivated by some of the great hymns that spoke about the resurrection. For example, I remember being in church while Crown Him with Many Crowns was belted out at full volume. It was great. The second verse:
Crown Him the Lord of life,
Who triumphed o’er the grave
Who triumphed o’er the grave
And rose victorious in the strife
For those He came to save:
His glories now we sing,
Who died and rose on high,
Who died eternal life to bring
And lives that death may die.
The second and third lines imply at the very least that Jesus himself ‘triumphed over o’er the grave’ and Jesus himself ‘rose victorious’. There is no indication here that Jesus needed any help from anyone or anything else.
Likewise, the easter hymn, Low in the Grave He Lay, with a slow (boring) verse but a rousing, roof-raising refrain.
Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes;
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives for ever with His saints to reign:
He arose! He arose!
Alleluia! Christ arose!
Once again there is the implication here that Jesus rose from the dead on his own steam with no help from any third party. Yes, I know I’m probably splitting too many hairs for too many people, but bear with this for just a moment. In my estimation there is a whole swathe of bible-believing Christians who would straightforwardly affirm – ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ – and assume that Jesus raised himself.
Now, the biblical text sometimes suggests that this is precisely what happened. A key example is found in the Apostle Paul’s first letter, 1Thessalonians 4:14. ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.’ The verb used seems clear enough: the subject – Jesus – died, and then using the active voice, ‘rose again.’
Interestingly, the earlier reference to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in this same letter comes in 1 Thessalonians 1:10. ‘whom he [God] raised from the dead—Jesus.’ There it seems equally clear that it was God who raised Jesus from Jesus. That is, Jesus didn’t raise himself from the dead, but being dead he necessitated a third party – in this case, God – to resurrect him. It seems to me that this is a massively important point theologically.
But elsewhere, the Apostle Paul’s long section of resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, repetitively affirms that Jesus was raised and specifically by God.
that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day (1 Cor. 14:4)
‘But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor. 15:12-17).
‘But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor. 15:20).
Jesus was dead…
First, we need to affirm that when Jesus died he was dead. That is, Jesus was brain dead; body dead; spirit dead. soul dead. The evidence of history affirms this assertion. When a human being dies they are dead, absolutely, completely and wholly dead. And for Jesus? No difference.
Humans are not naturally immortal…
Second, we need to counter the teaching that humans are immortal, and so when humans experience death, there is some part of them that continues to exist. If this were true, then it might be simple enough to affirm that when Jesus died there was something of him that continued to exist, to live, to be. I’m not sure that this is true, although I’d be perfectly willing to be proved wrong on this point. A biblical text that counters the ‘humans are to some degree immortal’ is 1 Corinthians 15:54. Here, the Apostle Paul suggests that at the point of resurrection the human being may put on immortality, but not until then. The sense here is that Paul is imagining that upon experiencing resurrection the human being will be clothed in immortality. That is, the human being does not possess immortality ontologically, but will take on immortality, or get dressed in a cloak of immortality, at the point of resurrection.
The death of the fully human Jesus…
Third, we need to counter the assertions and claims that because Jesus was God he could not die, or could not fully die. Either Jesus died as a human – precisely as you and I die or he was not fully or completely, intoto, a human being and therefore not like us. He was otherwise a superhuman, a non-human. I recognise that it is precisely here that many folk may well have a problem. The critical issue is that if Jesus was divine then surely there was at the very least some part of him that could not die. There are those who want to argue from the basis that Jesus was both human and divine and at the same time. I remember hearing a preacher state, ‘Jesus was never ever less than God and never ever more than man.’ And of course, there is a deep and profound mystery within that statement!
But, I would want to push back with the human Jesus. Whatever our faith claims about Jesus, I would assert that we cannot read back into Jesus the later creedal claims about Jesus. The Church’s later affirmations that Jesus lived as both God and man, a god-man, surely should not cloud our view that Jesus lived as a human being. And that, as fully human Jesus experienced – and naturally had to live within – the limitations of humanity. And, when Jesus died he was precisely dead.
Jesus could not resurrect himself…
Fourth – and I recognise that I am somewhat labouring the point! – but, when Jesus was dead he could not raise himself from the dead because he was dead. To assert that Jesus died must mean that he was fully dead – as I have asserted, brain dead; body dead; spirit dead. soul dead. Therefore, Jesus had no capacity to raise himself, he had no ability to do anything other than be dead.
It is God who raises the dead…
Fifth, Jesus was raised from the dead by God. This is an important point! If I am at least partially correct in what I argue here then we need to say something more about resurrection. I claim that when Jesus died he was dead, Also, that as a completely dead human being (what other type of dead person is there!?) Jesus could not resurrect himself. Nor could Jesus contribute in any way to the act of resurrection other than by receiving the life that was gifted to him.
Therefore, we need to affirm that it is God who raises the dead. When Jesus died, and when any human dies that is the end of the road. Death is the full stop at the end of life’s narrative. However, as we approach death, and, come to think of it, as we live each day, we might seek to trust that, should we die then our only hope is that God might raise us to new resurrected life.
ok. random. rambling. full stop.