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Making Sense of Jesus’ Resurrection in 2019

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Chapel of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, Jerusalem

Chapel of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, Jerusalem

When Easter comes each year, I’m reminded that I don’t have all the answers! I have so much more to learn, and I keep searching. There’s something about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that speaks to the deepest corners of my spiritual/religious/existential being.

I have imagined the horror his disciples must have felt. I have tried to imagine the feelings of his mother. I keep re-imagining what Mary Magdalene must have experienced when she found Jesus early on that first Easter morning. I even thought about the Romans who crucified thousands of Jews with the hope of just silencing them. I’ve also wondered what it would mean if the whole story weren’t true at all. What if it never happened, and the early Christians just made up the story? Since I don’t know the answers to all these questions, the annual celebration of Easter continues to grab my attention. In the midst of all these questions, I am convinced of one thing: each of us conceives and experiences the resurrection of Jesus in a unique way, and I believe that was probably true of the early followers of Jesus too. Maybe that means we can all experience it in different ways in our own life time, and we can learn from each other.

This year, I’m appreciating the ‘maturing’ experience of the people associated with the Gospel of John. Arthur Dewey’s 2017 book, Inventing the Passion, explains it in detail and gives me more reasons to believe in the resurrection at the same time more doubts about it creep around the edges. How to explain this paradox?

First, Dewey demonstrates the evolution of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. That helps me understand why I tend to doubt the historical truth of a single narrative telling ‘the facts’ about it. Dewey points out that in fact, there is surprisingly little historical record to go on. But by the time the first gospels were written, the Jesus followers needed more explanation about the sufferings of Jesus and even their own! Larger numbers of Jews had recently been crucified, and the Temple had fallen just before Mark wrote his gospel. So the first telling of the crucifixion story in the New Testament fit well with earlier stories in Hebrew texts about the suffering of a just person – such as Joseph and his brothers, the stories of Esther and Susana, and episodes in Daniel 3 and 6.

(In fact, I recommend reading Dewey’s whole book to get more of the history and flavor of the development of these stories! It’s a fascinating read.)

How did this bring me back around to my faith in the resurrection? Even if the stories about the crucifixion were contradictory or embellished, the fact is that there was something important about the meaning of Jesus, told in so many ways, because a more mature understanding of it continued to evolve. The Gospels don’t need to be eyewitness accounts for me, when I realize that the stories told from many perspectives shed more light on its importance in my life today.

A couple of points from Dewey that resonate with me today:

  1. The story of crucifixion was not a fabrication to condemn Jews (or God or anyone else), but to make sense of the deaths of those who died (or die) innocently.
  2. Have I ever experienced suffering when I was innocent? What about others I love? I’d say ‘yes’.

And the clincher comes for me – this year, anyway – with the realization of the message in the Gospel of John. It does appear to move to a more mature position, beyond the earliest tellings of the story. In the Gospel of John, the juxtaposition of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus with his own being ‘lifted up’ (i.e. crucifixion and resurrection) presents an interpretation of resurrection here and now in the present, rather than at the end of time. He said to his friend (and Lazarus’ brother) Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

I love Dewey’s summary of the death of Jesus from the Gospel of John: it “reveals the divine communication of self-giving. What is revealed in the final scenario is self-giving of the life of divine intimacy. Everything, even his mother, is given into the arms of the Johannine community. Everything is poured out, not as redemption, but as life itself” (155).

Whatever way historians, empirical scientists, theologians, or anyone else wants to describe what happened at the end of Jesus’ life, it opens my eyes to something greater than the mundane, supporting my own understanding of the kind of life Jesus pointed to here and now.