Though there are no doubt those among us who would not believe on any amount of evidence that something so unusual as the resurrection could happen, there are countless others who are asking perceptive questions: What happened on that first Easter morning? Why would the disciples go to their deaths making such an outrageous claim? And why does the rise of Christianity remain a challenge unanswered?
Such questions are a good starting point for anyone, and often—like the resurrection for those who first beheld it—the questioner is moved quickly from historical matters below to matters far above. As N.T. Wright notes:
“[T]he challenge [of the resurrection] comes down to a much narrower point, not simply to do with worldviews in general, or with ‘the supernatural’ in particular, but with the direct question of death and life, of the world of space, time and matter and its relation to whatever being there may be for whom the word ‘god,’ or even ‘God,’ might be appropriate. Here there is, of course, no neutrality.”(1)
The earliest creeds confess Jesus as one who “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…. [And] on the third day he rose again.”(2) The writers of these creeds confessed the suffering of Jesus as a datable event, his crucifixion as an occurrence in history. Even “three days later” is a confession of a historical, quantifiable occasion—albeit an occasion wholly unprecedented.
Unlike modern presuppositions might project, there is absolutely nothing abstract about the details confessed by those who first beheld the risen Christ. Yet the resurrection of Jesus was clearly not viewed as a static fact either, a fixed event both occurring and remaining in history. Their confessions included a keen understanding of implication: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe…” says Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:14. The resurrection of Christ was seen an eschatological event with both clear consequences and necessary responses. It was a phenomenon that was actively interpreted in the backdrop of the very anticipation that beheld it.
The details of death, burial, and the third day confessed of Jesus in the earliest creeds are similarly followed by certain understood implications. Jesus is now “seated at the right hand of the Father.”(3) The resurrection verified Jesus’s ties with the Father as well as his claim to divine authority. This rabbi who was accused of blasphemy for calling himself equal to God was now shown by God to be speaking the truth. “For God raised him from the dead,” writes Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:10. Far from the rebel Jesus was accused of being, the risen one and his claims to the Father were in one instant, visibly and unmistakably, confirmed by the God of Israel.
Thus, it is also confessed of Christ: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”(4) For those who first beheld it, the resurrection is clearly not seen as a one time event. There are ways in which it informs the future and, indeed, touches all of history. As theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg writes, “Through his resurrection from the dead, Jesus moved so close to the Son of Man that the insight became obvious: the Son of Man is none other than the man Jesus who will come again.”(5) For the disciples, this meant the beginning of all end events—the arrival of the time of judgment as well as the universal resurrection of the dead. In the words of the Athanasius Creed: “All men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works.”
In the eyes of Jesus’s beholders, the resurrection had clear implications for our own bodies, lives, and deaths. Paul is similarly bold in his application: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). As the fulfillment of apocalyptic hope, the risen Jesus is understood as the one who ushers in the future resurrection promised to all of God’s people.
The resurrection is so much more than an event in history, but that it is an event in history is what allows us—indeed, requires us—to answer the very question Jesus first asked his disciples: Who do you say that I am? However we answer this question, there is, of course, no prospect of neutrality.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) N.T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 712.
(2) Excerpt from the Apostles’ Creed. Similar wording is found in both the Nicene Creed and the Creed of Athanasius.
(3) The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed
(4) The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed
(5) Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus, God, and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 68.