Today, I continue the discussion begun in Part I: how the early church understood resurrection, and how we can think about resurrection in today’s world. Is resurrection a mere dogma, without meaning for modern people who pride ourselves on thinking rationally, or is it a present reality with power to change our lives?
In these reflections I continue to rely on Pheme Perkins’ book, Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection, (Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1984).
The people of the early church expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes; resurrection was part of the new creation that they would enjoy upon Jesus’ return, and it did not contradict their reality. Since they believed that their evil world would end soon, resurrection posed no dilemma for them; in fact it solved the problem of how to live in an evil world. But when believers saw life go on far beyond the lives of the first disciples, when the gospel writer John proclaimed resurrection in a world where it seemed that the only thing transformed was Jesus, believers had to ask: what is the reality of resurrection in a world where nothing appears to have changed? In the first century, when the idea of angels and a separate, divine realm was prevalent, it was easy to think that salvation could be a passing from this world to some other world. The crucial question for them was how to move to the next world. They were not concerned with the destiny of this world.
In our time, theologians reject as false the “two world” image of salvation, the image of “this world vs. the next world.” Easter shows us that divine and human histories are united. God’s saving action in history is brought to its completion in the history that is actually ours, and not in some other dimension. The earthly life of Jesus is not over and done with but is completed and eternally valid. Incarnation is ongoing; the risen Lord continues to act on behalf of humanity. (Perkins, 409)
Today, we acknowledge that resurrection is about the salvation of this world, our bodies and all persons, not about a transfer out of this world to some other world projected by human imagination. The ancient Greek philosophers who so influenced early Christian theology believed that reality lay in a realm beyond our senses. In the modern era we consider reality to be what humans can see, hear, and manipulate. This view may leave us with the uneasy feeling that all language about the divine is only a fairy tale. It does not feel real. Thus we tend to think of resurrection as something like a near-death experience. We are looking for some material proof that we continue to have the same sort of existence after death that we have now. And we imagine that the life of the risen Christ is the same sort of continuation. But such human imaginings can’t be adequate to proclaim resurrection, since resurrection presupposes the transformation of creation beyond our present experience. (Perkins, 398-99)
So if the human imagination can’t proclaim resurrection, what can? Is resurrection irrelevant, a myth, like Gnosticism, left over from the early church? If we can’t imagine resurrection, how can we proclaim it? All of this discussion of theologians and church history can seem very removed from our experience. If we take it on faith that resurrection is central to our Christianity, what difference does it make to our daily lives?
In the coming weeks, we will explore the answers to these questions. In Part III, I’ll discuss how Christ’s Resurrection enables us to participate in the Eucharist and in God’s plan for full communion of all creation.