What If…No Resurrection?

Some time ago there was a burst of controversy about whether the bones of Jesus, Mary of Magdala and their "son" had been discovered in one of the thousands of ossuaries buried throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding territories. Comments ranged all the way from self-assured claims of Discovery Channel producers to the angry denunciations of fundamentalist Christians. There were more measured but still largely negative reactions from respected, mainline Scripture scholars and archeologists.

At first glance, producers of the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus seemed to be taking advantage of the wind at their backs generated by Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, and its film version. Predictions are always risky, but this latest controversy will have a short shelf life. But the theological questions posed by Dan Brown and the hypothesis underlying the Discovery Channel documentary are very different in kind : though clearly related.

The novel claims Jesus was married, while the documentary takes the marriage for granted and casts doubt on the even more basic belief that Jesus rose from the dead. It was controversial enough to acknowledge the possibility that Jesus was married without compromising his divinity : although no evidence whatever exists for such a marriage. But far more is at stake in a denial of the Resurrection.

After all, the Resurrection is at the very heart of Christian faith and hope. "If Christ is not raised," Paul declares, "your faith is meaningless and you are still in sin" (1 Corinthians 15:17). The promise given us is that those who die and are in effect buried with Christ will also rise with him to newness of life (Romans 6:3-11). Because of the Resurrection we have been born anew "into a living hope" (1 Peter 1:3). Moreover, the Spirit could not come until Jesus was raised and glorified (John 7:39, 16:7). The first thing the Risen Christ did when he appeared to his disciples behind locked doors was to breathe the Spirit upon them (John 20:19-23).

At the core of this faith and hope is the conviction that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us (2 Corinthians 4:140, and that those who believe in the Risen Jesus will themselves be raised on the last day. To be sure, belief in the Resurrection is an expression of faith. It is not grounded on scientific evidence : which is not to say that this belief is without any rational basis whatever. For in fact there occurred a remarkable and wholly inexplicable change in the disciples (some 500 in all!) who claimed to have "seen" the Risen Christ. Many willingly accepted martyrdom rather than deny him or his resurrection from the dead.

Perhaps some modern Christians concede the Resurrection may have been a miracle happening only to the disciples and not to Jesus himself. The faith of such Christians would not be troubled if in fact Jesus' bones were indeed discovered twenty centuries later. But those at the opposite end of the spectrum insist the Resurrection consists of the :coming to life" of Jesus' corpse in such a literally realistic fashion that the event could have been filmed or photographed had the technology existed at the time.

Yet if this were the case, why is it that Jesus' own disciples did not recognize him when he stood before them after his death on the cross (Luke 24:16; John 20:14; 21:4), and why did some doubt that it was actually he (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:41)? Mark explicitly says the risen Jesus appears "in another form" (Mark 16:12), and Paul insists Jesus underwent a marvelous transformation, having taken on a "spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:42-45).

In the end however, the Resurrection is not about bones. It is about the transformation of ones life. Faith in the Resurrection requires us to live as Jesus did, dying to oneself for the sake of others in the hope of rising again. We affirm this at Easter.

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