Unification Theology

by Young Oon Kim

The Risen Jesus

Jesus' message and mission resulted in the creation of the Christian Church in spite of the crucifixion. How could this occur when Jesus had hopelessly failed to get what he aimed for, as Kiing asks. 77

The historical enigma of Christian origins forces one to look at the New Testament claims of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Because some of his contemporaries asserted that they had seen the risen Jesus, a new religion appeared on the scene. The condemned heretical rabbi and executed political rebel was henceforth hailed as Israel's Messiah. But what does it mean to say that Jesus was resurrected?

Christian laymen and most clergy insist that the resurrection is the 78 core of the New Testament faith. Quoting St. Paul, they say that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is vain (I Cor. 15:17). Why is the Easter faith so crucial? Several reasons are usually given:

1) Jesus' resurrection gives irrefutable proof that man has an immortal soul. Christians believe in eternal life because of what occurred the first Easter. 79
2) The resurrection was such an astonishing miracle that it validates the divinity of Jesus. Since the tomb could not hold him, he must be a supernatural figure: the Son of God, the Logos which was with God from the beginning, or the second person of the Trinity. As the Fourth Gospel reports, when doubting Thomas saw the body of the risen Jesus, he exclaimed, "My Lord and my God" (Jn. 20:28).
3) Since Jesus conquered death, man's greatest enemy, the Church offers a religion superior to all possible rivals. While non-Christians revere a dead Buddha, Moses, Muhammad or Confucius, Christians worship the ever-living Jesus Christ. This would seem to demonstrate Christianity's supremacy.
4) Nothing but the resurrection could have restored the disciples' faith in Jesus after the shock of the crucifixion. When Jesus was arrested and executed, in the eyes of his followers the coming of the kingdom appeared hopeless. It was therefore necessary for these disillusioned, frightened men and women to see Jesus victorious over death in order for them to become apostles of a new religion. 80
5) The resurrection was needed for the disciples to recognize that Jesus was truly the Messiah. Once they were convinced that Jesus had really been raised to God's right hand, they could proclaim his messiahship in spite of everything that had happened at Calvary. Because of the resurrection appearances, Jewish Christians could believe in the astounding fact of a crucified Messiah. Even though the condemnation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin and his crucifixion by Pilate might seem to disprove the messianic claim, when God raised Jesus from the tomb, Jesus became victorious over his earthly foes and justified his mission. 81
6) Most recently, theologians have interpreted the resurrection in terms of first-century apocalypticism. Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom was at hand. When the disciples saw the risen Jesus, they were convinced that his resurrection was certain proof of the universal resurrection of the dead soon to take place when the kingdom arrived in all its glory. 82 These six interpretations are commonly used to show the centrality of the Easter faith. With this background material, let us consider Jesus' resurrection in detail; for increasingly the doctrine of his physical resurrection and ascension is questioned these days.

To understand the resurrection one must carefully examine the New Testament accounts of the Easter appearances. Unfortunately, our Biblical sources reveal "insuperable discrepancies and inconsistencies ' " to use Hans Kfing's words. The Biblical narratives are so conflicting that it is impossible to harmonize them. The Gospels do not agree about the people involved. They contradict each other over the locality of the events: Galilee or Jerusalem. Finally, they conflict over the whole sequence of Jesus' appearances. In Mark the women see a young man dressed in a white robe at the empty tomb. In Matthew this youth becomes an angel. But in Luke, there are two men in dazzling apparel at the tomb. In Matthew the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples only in Galilee, yet in Luke he is seen only in the Jerusalem area. Furthermore, the Pauline account of the appearances diverges markedly from those in the four Gospels.

Pannenberg's explanation of the Easter faith is useful because he sees the resurrection stories in light of the original Christian apocalyptic expectation. 83 What do the experiences of the risen Jesus imply in the context of the disciples' belief in the imminent kingdom of God?

1) For the primitive Christian community, says Pannenberg, Jesus' resurrection indicates that the End-time has arrived because the messianic age would begin with a universal resurrection of the dead. Jesus was raised as the first fruit of all those who have fallen asleep (I Cor. 15:20).
2) When God raised Jesus from the dead, He confirmed Jesus' message and justified his earthly mission. God acted dramatically to put His stamp of approval on Jesus and condemn his opponents.
3) Because of the resurrection, it became possible to identify Jesus with the coming apocalyptic Son of Man.
4) If Jesus was raised, then God had been ultimately revealed in his teaching and person. The glory of God was truly manifested in the earthly form of Jesus.
5) Since Jesus was raised from the dead, Gentiles as well as Jews should be welcomed into the dawning global kingdom of God.

With the continued delay of the Parousia, the original apocalyptic significance of Jesus' resurrection underwent considerable revision. We see evidence of this change in the Synoptics written a generation or more after the crucifixion. Mark, Matthew and Luke each fit the resurrection appearances into his specific theology, as Norman Perrin 84 shows. Mark (without the later addition after 16:8) tells about the women at the cross, the women at the burial and the women at the open tomb. This Gospel contains no appearance of the risen Jesus. The women find a young man at the tomb who tells them that Jesus is no longer there but that Jesus will be with the disciples in Galilee. For Mark the apocalyptic hope still dominates the horizon. There is no need to stress anything but the sure belief in the coming of the Son of Man, a 85 message to be carried to the Gentiles (symbolized by Galilee).

Whereas Mark saw the resurrection only as a prelude to the Parousia, Matthew has the risen Jesus commission his disciples to found the Christian Church. Now that Jesus is risen, their job is to make disciples of all nations. No matter when the Parousia comes, the Christians' present task is to plant churches throughout the world. For Matthew, the risen Jesus is continuously present in his Church. With little interest in the apocalyptic hope, Luke also centers his concern on the ongoing witness of the Church. As Jesus lived by the Spirit of God, his disciples receive the Spirit to give them power and inspiration for their mission. Therefore, Luke suggests that the risen Jesus meets Christians in the eucharistic breaking of bread, helps them to understand the Old Testament scriptures, and baptizes them with the Holy Spirit. 86

But whatever the original disciples and the evangelists may have believed, did Jesus really rise from the dead? If so, how did the resurrection take place? To answer this question it is important to distinguish between two forms of the Easter tradition. Our oldest source, a tradition quoted by Paul in 56-57 A. D., speaks only of visions of the risen Jesus. Paul compares the earlier appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his own vision on the Damascus road. Quite significantly, he does not refer to the various stories of the empty tomb. Hence one can accept the possibility that the disciples received parapsychological visions without believing in the historicity of the physical resurrection of Jesus.

This, however, does not necessarily imply that the appearances of the risen Jesus were only subjective hallucinations. We now know enough about psychic phenomena to recognize that credible reports of 87 appearances of the dead are fairly numerous. Why then do so few theologians use parapsychology to explain the risen Jesus? Mainly because to do so would seem to deprive Jesus of his uniqueness. Conservative Christians prefer to assert that Jesus' resurrection was a supernatural event which proves that he was not merely human. For them, as for the New Testament writers, the resurrection is inextricably linked with Jesus' divinity.

Nevertheless, some Biblical scholars and theologians are inclined to distrust the historicity of the empty tomb narratives as well as the later New Testament tendency to portray the physical nature of Jesus' resurrection. Various efforts have been made to affirm the essential truth of the resurrection without insisting upon Jesus' corporeal resuscitation. 88 Bultmann, for instance, states that Jesus is risen in the kerygma because the Word of God he proclaimed remains alive in the continued preaching of the Christian community. 89 Another possibility is to say that the New Testament resurrection stories are poetic, metaphorical interpretations which express the continuing validity of Jesus' cause. To say that Jesus is risen means that what he stood for is still true in spite of the crucifixion. Therefore the resurrection appearances were intended to revive, reinforce and revitalize Christians' faith in Jesus' Way, Truth and Life. This view can easily be connected with the later faith that the Church is now the body of Christ, the continuation and extension of the incarnation. Where the Church is, there is Christ, still alive, still at work, still praying that God's will be done on earth.

From 1964 to 1968 the German churches were embroiled in controversy over the importance of Jesus' resurrection for the Christian faith. One of the leading participants, the New Testament scholar Willi Marxsen, contended that a variety of opinions could be held about the risen Jesus. For the evangelicals, to believe in the resurrection meant that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. For others, equally Christian, Jesus rose in some spiritual sense. 90 He arose in the hearts of his disciples or he is risen in the proclamation of the Church (Bultmann). For Marxsen, the Easter faith meant to believe like Jesus that, contrary to appearances (i.e., the crucifixion), God can do anything. To affirm the resurrection is the New Testament way to profess limitless faith in God in this world and utter confidence in Him for the future. 91

77 Ming, Op. cit., pp. 344-345.

78 Jurgen Moltmann, for example, declares that Christian faith stands or falls with the reality of the raising of Jesus by God. A Christian faith that is not a resurrection faith can be called neither Christian nor faith (Theology of Hope, 1967, pp. 165-166).

79 Norman Pittenger states that belief in immortality is supremely founded upon the victory of Christ over death (The Approach to Christianity, 1939, p. 121).

80 Emil Brunner writes that the appearances of the risen Lord brought the shattered and scattered disciples together after the catastrophe of Calvary and formed the real foundation for the Christian Church (Dogmatics, vol. 2, 1952, p. 366).

81 Ethelbert Stauffer calls the resurrection appearances evidence that God fulfilled His Old Testament promises in Jesus and brought His Messiah through the darkness of night to the light of day (New Testament Theology, 1955, p. 136).

82 See our later comments on Wolfhart Pannenberg's view.

83 W. Pannenberg, Jesus, God and Man, 2nd ed. (1977), pp. 66-72. 84 N. Perrin, The Resurrection According to Matthew, Mark and Luke (1977).

85 Jews called Galilee "Galilee of the Gentiles" because of the mixed blood of the inhabitants since the Assyrian conquest of Israel and also because Galileans were seldom strict observers of the Torah regulations.

86 Lk. 24:27, 30; Acts 1:5.

87 M. C. Perry, The Resurrection of Man (1975), pp. 18-39, considers the parapsychological evidence. For liberal Protestant views, see Kirsopp Lake, The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1907), and Maurice Goguel, The Birth of Christianity (1953), pp. 30-81.

88 See Andre Malet, The Thought of Rudolf Bultmann (1969), pp. 155-162.

89 H. Ki Ang describes the empty tomb stories as "legendary elaborations of the message of the resurrection" (On Being a Christian, p. 364).

90 For example, Tillich says that the concrete individual life of the man Jesus is raised above transitoriness into the eternal presence of the Spirit. Resurrection then refers to Jesus' "spiritual presence" not to the fact that his body was revived or that his individual soul reappeared after death. (Systematic Theology, vol. 11, p. 157).

91W. Marxsen, The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (1970), pp. 16, 188. Cf. his essay in C. E. D. Moule, ed., The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ (1968).

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