Easter Sunday

April 16, 2006
See Also: 

Nance 2006
Sauter 2003

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 25:6-9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Reading 3: 
I Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
Reading 4: 
John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8
By John B. Cobb, Jr.

The Christmas story and the Easter story are the most joyful of the Christian year. In the first we celebrate the incarnation, in the second the resurrection. These are among the most distinctive of Christian doctrines, perhaps the most distinctive.

The truth of the former does not depend on the story. We affirm that we encounter God in Jesus, not because we know anything about his birth, but because Jesus does mediate God to us. The Christmas stories are beautiful ways of thinking of that great fact. They make vividly evident that God does not favor the rich and the powerful of this world, for example.

But John, the gospel that most strongly emphasizes the incarnation, says nothing about Jesus’ birth. Neither does Mark, the earliest of the synoptic gospels. Outside the Synoptics, the New Testament does not refer to Jesus’ birth. Matthew and Luke tell very different stories. The church has, with some difficulty, integrated them into a single narrative. We can be very grateful for these stories that have enriched the Christian imagination and communicated profound truths to many generations of Christians. We can hardly regard their historical accuracy as important for faith.

Is Easter similar? Do we affirm the resurrection because of our experience of the resurrected Christ? Or is it important to believe that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection are based on historical fact? Christians disagree on this.

There is, in any case, one important difference between Easter and Christmas. The rise of the resurrection faith involved the belief that Jesus had appeared to his disciples after the crucifixion. It is probable that without some experience of the risen Christ, however we are to think of it, the disciples would not have initiated the movement that became Christianity. Whether or not they are important to us today, historically they were of great importance.

There are resurrection stories in all the gospels. The resurrection is central to Paul. For him it is certainly a great symbol, but it is also a great Fact.

However, when we turn from this consensus to the facts about this Fact, we find even greater diversity than in the Christmas stories. If historical accuracy is not important to us, we can weave all the accounts together in a single narrative ignoring contradictions among them. As in the case of the Christmas story, this approach makes a moving story that includes many valuable lessons. But if we want to make a reasonable judgment about the facts behind the stories, we will need to engage in more critical study.

The stories of Jesus’ birth seem to have played no role in the first generation of believers. Whether there were any historical memories behind the stories is questionable. With the resurrection, the situation is very different. We have the first-hand testimony of one writer, Paul. One of the passages assigned for this Sunday is his identification of others who had seen the risen Jesus. Paul lists the appearances as follows: (1) Peter, (2) the twelve, (3) more than five hundred, (4) James, (5) all the apostles, and (6) Paul.

We may take Paul as our most reliable source as to the nature of the appearances, but he gives us little description. In Galatians he speaks of God revealing his son to him. In the current passage he discusses the nature of resurrection in some detail, indirectly indicating what he experienced. What appeared to him was not a perishable physical body but an imperishable spiritual one with heavenly glory. The analogy of the seed and the plant suggests that there may be very little resemblance between this state of glory and our present condition.

For any further understanding of Paul’s experience we are dependent on Luke’s two accounts in Acts. According to these stories, Paul experienced a brilliant heavenly light accompanied by the voice of Jesus. Paul understood the light to come from the resurrected Jesus.

For Paul the meaning of the resurrection appearance was that God had glorified the Jesus whose followers he was persecuting. This fact required a deep reversal of his thinking. Paul now taught that those who share in Jesus’ faithfulness, Jesus’ suffering, and Jesus’ death will also share in Jesus’ resurrection glory. This is the heart of his gospel and cannot be separated from his understanding of the resurrection. Since he listed the appearance to himself along with the other appearances, it seems probable that he thought they were similar.

However, in the biblical accounts, even in the Acts account of Peter’s experience, the other appearances are depicted as quite different. Peter describes the resurrected Jesus in much more physical, earthly terms. “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.”

In this account the resurrected Jesus is on earth rather than in heaven and acts in quite physical ways. The meaning of the appearance for Peter was also different from that for Paul. The resurrected Jesus is not the first fruits showing us what all believers can anticipate in the end. Instead he commands Peter and his companions to preach that Jesus has been ordained by God as judge of all.

Our lectionary gives us a choice between two gospel accounts. The Marcan one is limited to the first ending. This affirms that Jesus is risen and gives the risen Jesus a physical location in Galilee. The young man in the tomb promises that there will be appearances there, but the fact that the women do not tell anyone leaves the reader in some suspense as to whether any appearances would occur. It is a startling ending for those expecting the resurrection stories to be the capstone of the narrative. It must have been felt to be quite unsatisfactory in the early church as well, since a second ending was added.

It would make more sense for the new ending to have replaced the earlier one, since it directly contradicts it. In the first ending, three women, including Mary Magdalene, enter the tomb and see a young man who tells them Jesus has gone to Galilee where he will appear to the disciples. He instructs the women to tell the disciples, but they are too afraid to do so. With that negative comment, the story ends

In the second ending Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. She tells the disciples, who still do not believe until Jesus appears directly to them. There is nothing about Galilee. This second account must have been added by someone familiar with the stories in the other gospels. It points to them without recounting them.

If we focus on the ending that must have been original to the gospel, we can get little clue as to how Mark understood the appearances. Clearly for him the dead body has been enlivened and physically gone elsewhere. Yet the fact that Mark says nothing more about the resurrection, draws no lesson from it, and leaves the only witnesses silent about what they have seen and heard suggests that the resurrection does not have the importance for him that it had for Paul and Peter. When one compares his abrupt account of the women at the empty tomb with his detailed story of the betrayal, the trial, and the crucifixion, one wonders whether he had reacted against the proliferation of stories about the risen Jesus. He seems to have wanted his readers to be drawn into the account of suffering rather than feeling it cancelled or transcended by the resurrection. We might say that Mark’s thinking belongs, more than any other New Testament writer, to the theology of the cross rather than the theology of glory.

This leaves us with John. Here as in Mark, the resurrection experience begins with that of the empty tomb. But this is followed by a full account of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene who faithfully reports to the disciples. If we ask how John understands the nature of the resurrected Jesus, we notice that Mary does not easily recognize him. It is when he speaks that she knows him. Especially puzzling is the statement of Jesus to Mary: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father.”

A striking feature of John, that is present in other traditions as well, is that the first witness to the resurrection was Mary Magdalene. This contradicts Paul, who gave Peter pride of place. In the imagination of the early church, if not also in historical fact, a woman was the first believer in the risen Jesus and the first to proclaim his resurrection. How odd that so many Christians could think for so long that women must be excluded from the preaching role!

It is hard to say what consequences follow for John from the resurrection. John’s gospel may be interpreted as reading back into the earthly ministry of Jesus his status as resurrected Lord. But just for that reason, the resurrection does not come as a surprise or a contrast. Jesus’ nature and authority are such that one would hardly expect death to hold him.

The last verse in this chapter states the purpose of writing the book and implicitly the understanding of the meaning of the stories recounted. “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Jesus’ teaching, his miracles, his death and his resurrection all together and jointly constitute evidence that he was the Messiah, the Son of God. John does not single out the resurrection.

What does the resurrection mean to us? Do we see it, with Paul, as the assurance that if we share in Jesus’ faithfulness, our destiny is also to share in Jesus’ resurrected glory? I find this a moving understanding into which I can live and think.

However, it does not fit well with other ideas associated with the resurrection in the New Testament. For example, it is somewhat discordant with the idea of the empty tomb, an idea that Paul never mentioned. His silence may be either because he took it for granted or because it did not occur to him. My own reading favors the latter view. God gives a new body rather than changing the old one into the new. In any case the empty tomb is not important for this way of thinking. Jesus has been taken up by God into a radically different state, and if we participate in his faithfulness, we will join him there.

It also fits poorly with other accounts of the resurrection. In them the condition of resurrection is not a final glorification but an intermediate condition. In the gospels Jesus lingers on Earth to reassure the disciples, to commission them, and to empower them. There is a further stage beyond resurrection, referred to in John as ascending to the Father, and depicted in other accounts as a physical ascension.

No one would think of Paul’s vision of the glorified Jesus as a ghost story. But the other appearance stories were in danger of being understood that way. The gospels, accordingly, are at pains to insist that what the disciples saw was not a ghost, and they are right to do so. The resurrection appearances in the gospels are not ghost stories. But they are analogous to the many accounts over the years of people seeing recently deceased loved ones. Like Jesus, these deceased persons are not stopped by closed doors. Their appearance is for benign purposes.

To make such analogies is not damaging to the gospel affirmations in general. It is damaging only to later Christian attempts to use the fact of the resurrection to prove the supernatural nature of Jesus. This is not done in the Bible. These appearances prove only that some deceased people do appear to their loved ones and communicate with them. If we understand the resurrection appearances in this way, what is unique is not that Jesus appeared but what is communicated. It seems to have been these appearances that led the apostles to embark wholeheartedly on their world-transforming mission.

If we undertake the difficult task of reconciling different accounts, it is possible to suppose that the resurrection appearances were indeed of different types. It could be that for a few days or weeks after the crucifixion, beginning on Easter morning, Jesus did appear to his disciples on several occasions. I have suggested that there are analogies for that kind of appearance throughout history. It may be that somewhat later, after such appearances had ceased, Paul had a vision of light accompanied by a voice that persuaded him that what he encountered was the glorified, heavenly Jesus. Because he had been an enemy of Jesus and his followers, this vision was more radically transforming of him.

That God raised Jesus from the dead does not mean that Jesus was or is a supernatural being. It does mean that death does not have the last word, that reality is far richer than our small minds can realize. In the context of the whole story, it means that God affirmed Jesus’ message and the mission for which that message called. It means that in Jesus we find a clue to who God is. It means that Jesus’ call of the original disciples to mission is a call to us as well. It means that following Jesus is no guarantee of earthly success but that it does ground our hope of ultimate salvation through everlasting life with Jesus in God.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.