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The Resurrection Series: The First Accounts



By Corbin Croy

One must consider the entire biblical testimony for the resurrection, but since Paul is such an important figure in this drama it is crucial to understand what he said about the resurrection and what he taught about it, in order to delve into his psyche about his own “vision from heaven.” We sampled 1 Corinthians 15 already which sums up most of what Paul believes about the resurrection which we find to be entirely consistent and more congenial toward a spiritual resurrection model than a physical-historical one. From Paul, we see no reason to think that physical regeneration or historical facticity is even a possibility when it comes to resurrection narratives. So to understand why we should even believe in the resurrection it becomes important to consider why they believed in the resurrection.

For Paul this is an interesting discussion. Paul, almost exclusively wrote about the theological importance of the resurrection. For him this was the locution of all salvation history. It marked the new creation, the Holy Spirit’s entry into our hearts, the end of law, and the possibility to have new life with God. All these ideas can be said to represent “the Gospel” which is a fundamental component to New Testament theology, which in a ways exists independent of the New Testament itself. The resurrection, though, is this concrete manifestation of the Gospel. This is why Paul was so excited about the resurrection, it took this vague and conceptual theological idea called, “the Gospel,” and it made it this concrete reality that Christians could participate in and deepen their walk and identity with God. For Paul, the question of whether or not the resurrection happened would have been a silly question to ask. Paul would have simply pointed to himself, and everyone around him who came to believe in Christ and declared, “Look the resurrection is happening all around us!”

1 Thessalonians is Paul’s first epistle. It is the earliest NT book we possess. And right from the first chapter he speaks of how he has been “raised from the dead” (1:10). He repeats this word-syntax combination again when he describes the rapture. He says that Jesus “died and rose again” (4:14). Of course, one can suggest that this passage describes bodies being lifted up to heaven, and that this would strengthen the belief in a physically regenerated body, but I would point out that Paul’s own confession of “rapture”, or “caught up” in 2 Corinthians 12:2 demonstrates that Paul had no such predilection for a bodily rapture. What 1 Thessalonians shows us is that there was clearly a “raised up” idea of Jesus Christ that explains his death. But this “raised up” belief is not entirely resurrection-like, at least it is not specifically called a resurrection until 1 Corinthians 15. The dominant language used in the NT to describe Jesus’ after-death experience is that he was “raised”.

For Paul this “raised” Jesus meant that he existed in heaven with the father. It could very well mean that Jesus’ spirit was raised to be with the Father, for He is the Son of God. There was often a Jewish tradition to see their great heroes of faith as existing on a higher plane then the rest of mortal men. For example, the Moses/Elijah experience that Jesus had with Peter and John on the mountain. So this idea of being “raised from the dead” was not too novel an idea in 1st century Judaism. It did not automatically mean that a body was physically regenerated from its previous corpse-like state. To be raised from the dead most often meant a belief that a person’s holy life merited for them their spiritual transportation to the heavenly realms after death instead of having to wait in sheol or hades.

What was most striking about Paul’s use of this term in relation to Jesus is the clear indication that Paul is evoking the Isaiah 53 suffering servant motif. Thus, for Jesus to be raised from the dead carries with it greater significance then simply acknowledging that he lived a really good life. It elevates Jesus’ status to being a salvation figure in the history of Israel, but for Paul, it was the history of mankind that was now transformed. So for Paul there is no clear indication that Jesus being “raised from the dead” is anything other then the greatest theological idea possible, meaning that Paul was not trying to convince people of the specific facts of the resurrection to prove that it happened not to long ago in Palestine. Paul was trying to convince people that the theology of the resurrection was real and authentically united us with God.

Paul begins Galatians with this same affirmation that Jesus was “raised from the dead” (1:1). He moved this phrase up from his previous epistle. Clearly Paul’s resurrection theology is becoming more developed and firmly centered around this par excellence idea about how God relates to humanity. In 1 Thessalonians Paul related the risen Christ as an escape from the evil age and from God’s wrath, and in Galatians he repeats these epitaphs, but he adds a new layer. In Galatians the risen Christ is the end of the Law. This is a powerful synthesis, and I wish I could write a whole book on the book of Galatians, because it is such a powerful argument, but what is most striking is how Paul crafts the imagery of Christ being risen into the abolishment of the Law. Paul says, “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (2:19-21).

What I find so shocking about Paul’s argument here is how entirely illogical it is. Paul is flagrantly displaying his spirituality in the face of fallacious thinking. He is basically saying that Christ had to rise from the dead to give his death meaning, but one cannot attribute the meaning of an event based on the desire one has for such an event to exist. I can no more say that the Civil War was about slavery because then the Civil War would have been fought for nothing, than Paul can say that Christ must be risen from the dead or else his death would have been for nothing. But at the same time we have a deep insight into Paul’s resurrection theology. We can blame Paul for making a fallacious argument if we think that Paul is intending to provide a non-rhetorical basis for resurrection belief, but if in fact Paul’s resurrection theology is rhetorically compatible then we have no reason to think that his argument is blameworthy. So what this passage reveals to us is a rather interesting revelation of what the resurrection meant to Paul. The resurrection was not simply Jesus being raised to live with God. The resurrection was Jesus living inside of us. The Life of Christ with God is the life which consumes us when we are directed toward God. Paul’s idea of resurrection here is that Jesus is risen, because he is alive in us!

Paul concludes from this that the law is now abolished! Now, let’s stop right here, because we have to take in the gravity of what Paul is arguing for on his major thesis in the book of Galatians. Paul is making a rhetorical argument to abolish the Mosaic Law! In what sense could this possibly succeed? Paul either believes that the case for the Mosaic Law is so weak that any theologically inspiring argument can defeat it, or he believes in his theological convictions so much that they overpower any objection to the contrary. While the historicity of the Exodus narrative can be debated today, it was almost most certainly not doubted in Paul’s time, though the most common use of these narratives was as spiritual teachings. It was most likely that no Jew doubted that Moses existed and that he heard from God on a mountain, and so on. So Paul is substituting something that he believes would have actually come from God for a theological conviction that he believes so strongly in that he can find no other source for it then from God. This is a gigantic development in Christian theology, for even if we say that the resurrection is a historical event, Paul’s willingness to abandon historical miracles for theological convictions shows that Christians for today are entitled to do the same.

Now, I am not arguing that Paul simply made everything up, because he had some profound theological insight and was able to craft into a convenient narrative that was popular at that time. Though, I admit that this argument could be made. What I am saying is that the beginnings of Christianity show no trace of being an exceptionally “revealed” religion, in that its basic tenets seem motivated by general theological arguments rather then specific events that happened independent of theological conviction. For Paul, the gospel necessarily brought one into conflict with the Law because grace is the characteristic of the Living God. Jesus’ unnecessary death and crucifixion became a watershed moment for many devout Jews who began to see the need for a paradigm shift toward grace. This moment catalyzed itself in faith of these Jews who began to experience the Living God in a new way through the death and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but for this new religious experience to have any meaning for them they had to see Jesus as being one with God. So what Paul says that Christ would have died for nothing, what he is really lamenting is that Grace must always be at the center of our religious devotion. For Paul, even sacred history becomes trivialized in the light of grace. 

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