Sunday, 27 April 2008

The Resurrection of Jesus as Future Event

If tonight you heard the newsreader announce that peace reigned throughout the world you would be sceptical. If the newsreader said there was a new conflict in such-a-such country, perhaps not suspicious at all. Why? Because of precedent, or expectation based on experience. This is part of the reason why people struggle to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Their experience suggests that the resurrection of Jesus is unlikely. It does not fit their view of the world, and is without a validating precedent. (Which is also why some wish to discover precursors to the church's proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus in other religions of antiquity. A precedent is then provided, although not for the resurrection. Rather, these 'precedents' are then used as evidence to deny the uniqueness and truth of the resurrection of Jesus.)

The gospel says that the resurrection of Jesus is a unique event, without precedent in history. The resurrection of Jesus is not to be justified by historical precedent, as though it (the resurrection) needs to be ordered to the past to gain credibility. Rather, it is the other way round. In the Christian scheme of things history is to be ordered to the resurrected Jesus. (This is part of the theological meaning of "Jesus as judge".) The reason is that the resurrection of Jesus is not a past historical event to be judged by the canons of historical research. (The life and death of Jesus, and the preaching by the church of the resurrected Jesus can be so investigated, but the resurrection itself is opaque to the usual processes of historical analysis.) The resurrection of Jesus is the future (come to meet us), not one event among many stuck in the past. The resurrection of Jesus is God's action in breaking us out of the cul-de-sac of history as we have come to experience it. Which is exactly why faith in the resurrected Christ is liberating.


  1. While accepting the basic thrust of what you're saying here, readers should be aware that this position creates some profound difficulties for theology. I read somewhere (I think it was in O'Collins) that according to one early church apologist resurrection happens in the silence of God. I like that. It's suggestive, it posits a real event but it is also sufficiently non-disclosive. From time to to time, though infrequently, Pannenberg refers to the resurrection as a 'metaphor.' By this he is not intending to suggest that the event is unreal, but rather that its reality is obscured as much as illuminated by the term 'resurrection.' The inevitable cost of attempting to discuss an event that is absolutely new; that has no analogy in our history or experience, is silence. Here Wittgenstein is right. Hence the term resurrection which is 'as if' one should awake out of sleep - not to say that that's what does happen. Take the latter conclusion and then it seems to me that we are then talking of resuscitation and thereby falsifying that event referred to in the scriptures as resurrection.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for the comment, and sorry for taking so long to reply. As it turns out I have made one reply, but I am not sure where it has ended up! Perhaps for the best because it ended up a bit on the long side. So here is my shorter response.

    I begin with your final point about falsifying the resurrection. I think you are absolutely corrrect. If people think that we know exactly and literally what resurrection is, and especially if they think this because of the literal meaning of the word 'resurrection', then they are on the wrong track. However, if I am reading your comment correctly, I don't think your solution is warranted. Yes, of course, we stand in silence before God and the mysteries of faith. But this, and the impossibility of applying language literally to God (and the resurrection of Jesus) does not mean that theology is dumb. That would be to correct an extreme literalism with an unwarranted idealism. The use of metaphor does not mean that the only response is silence. There is a degree of realism possible in our theological language. If I am reading you correctly I think the problem is that you might not have a way of understanding language to be non-literal and refer.

    I like what you say about resurrection being hidden. And it all seems to fit well with what the tradition says, that is, God is more unlike than like our language of God. But again, this does not mean that realism in our theological language is impossible. So I would not think it is correct to say that if we accord our theological language a degree of realism (and truth) that "this position creates some profound difficulties for theology." On the contrary, I suspect the profound problems arise for the idealist who cannot make our language refer, for the ultimate ending place is a practical atheism. On this I refer you to Janet Martin Soskice, 'Metaphor and Religious Language', especially chap VIII; and on the resurrection as utterly unique, this is indebted to the likes of Moltmann, 'Theology of Hope', pp. 178-182.

  3. Dear Warren, I don't think I said that theology was dumb, though I can see how you may have gained that impression from my reference to Wittgenstein, which, I admit, might be a little over-drawn. But the point I was making is that resurrection is the attempt to discuss an event which is undiscussable. I certainly agree that language can be non-literal and yet refer. Why else would I have invoked Pannenberg's claim of 'metaphor.' Insofar as metaphor may be defined as speaking of one thing in terms which are suggestive of another, it seems to me that resurrection does the work of speaking of this unspeakable event in terms which are suggestive of someone awaking out of sleep (death). I don't see how this entails the denial of realism, albeit of a critical variety.

    I must say that I still hold that resurrection, at least as a phenomenon to be discussed, poses profound problems for theology, and not least for some of reasons to which you've alluded. For example, the temptation to tie literalism and reference together exclusively. Perhaps the language of praise and confession are the surest ways into the divine mystery. Augustine, who was sensitive to the problems of words and language as applied to God, certainly seemed to think so.

  4. Dear Anonymous,
    Thanks for the response and clarification. Sounds like we are in agreement. We must ensure that God is not nicely wrapped up in literalistic packages while maintaining the possibility of genuine reference. And this latter is not a back door method of achieving the former. And thanksgiving leading into the depth of silence is the mystical end of all our theology. i like it a lot. And perhaps my original post made it seem that i did not appreciate the hiddenness of God sufficiently. Not knowing who you are makes it a bit tracky to make this offer, but if you would like to write a post of around 300 words on resurrection, disclosure/non-disclosure, Wittgenstein and Augustine, I would be interested in posting it. (Although I can't guarantee it, sorry!) You could email Holy Innocents (see web page at bottom of this blog site) or, if you wish to remain anonymous, you could make another reply and i will cut and paste it into a post.

  5. Dear Warren, very nice of you to offer, but I'm happy to occasionally make comment on blogs which evoke my interest. Speaking of which, I'm still chewing over what you have to say about the Ascension. 'Somehow else...' yes, that's an interesting thought. When Ted Peters was asked whether he believed in the Ascension of Jesus he said yes. When asked, Well where did he ascend to, Peters is alleged to have replied, 'into the future.' Of course that's not so much a case of 'somehow else' as the answer to somewhere else in the sense of 'somewhen else'. What do you think?

  6. I'm sad you don't want to do a post. You could do one about somewhere/how/when else! Especially because this is getting to the edge of my theological imagination. But for what it is worth, I wonder if the transcendence of God, which is precisely that which allows God to be truly intimate in relationship with creation, could also allow the resurrected and ascended Christ to be 'somewhen' else. If past, present and future are part of the created order, then God's relationship with past, present and future transcends them. Which is not to make God utterly distant from them but give God the capacity to be present to our past, present and future simultaneously. So the resurrected/ascended Christ who is joined to the God who is somehow else, could be somewhen else as well. In other words, Jesus zooming off to 'somewhen' else doesn't sound so problematic once the transcendence of God is taken into account. Or to put it another way, if the resurrected and ascended Christ is joined to the transcendent God, then past, present and future aren't a problem.

    That's about the best I can do, I think.

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