To encourage Christianity’s acceptance by a pagan world, the early institutional church “baptized” many pagan customs, forms and names, mixing old with new and infusing Christian meanings. The word “Easter” itself had pagan origins, as did its association with bunny rabbits and colored eggs. Today, all those origins are long lost in the mists of ancient history. For most Christians, Easter is a special day to remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the very core of the Christian gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-5).
Without his resurrection, Jesus is no more Savior than any of us, and we all remain sinners without hope (1 Cor. 15:14-19). But God did raise Jesus from the dead, bringing a new creation to light with Jesus the prototype of a new humankind (1 Cor. 15:20-23). Think about that for a half-second, and you realize why Peter and Paul didn’t have to wear bunny costumes to attract attention. But although Jesus’ resurrection is central to Christian faith, there is much confusion about it even within Christian circles. In the remainder of this essay, we consider three particular areas of misinformation.
To begin with, it was not some bodiless spirit of Jesus that rose, but a whole Jesus in a human body that could be recognized and touched by those who knew him before (1 Cor. 15: 5-7; John 20; 1 John 1:1-4). Jesus not only was raised, he also appeared to witnesses — alone and in groups, by day and by night, inside and out of doors. His appearances were not mere wish become imagined reality. The witnesses were often surprised; some doubted, demanding further evidence. They later testified everywhere that they had encountered Jesus, with a conviction so strong that they finally died rather than recant.
Jesus’ religious adversaries had no concern about a “spiritual” resurrection; they obtained a sealed tomb and Roman guards to prevent a missing body (Matt. 27:62-66). The educated Athenians would not have blinked at a gospel about a soul leaving the body, a notion native to their own pagan philosophies, but when Paul announced a Risen Jesus of Nazareth, they understood the difference and some immediately mocked (Acts 17:29-32).
A new kind of body
But Jesus did not come back from death, just as he was before. Rather he came forth on the other side of death in a glorified body, the same model we will receive one day, but a body just the same. Paul calls it a “spiritual” body, speaking of its composition, not its form. Our present body is “earthy,” made of dust — a poetic term for the oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and assorted trace elements that constitute it, all being “from the earth.”
The resurrection body consists of heavenly “elements,” and it is described by words like imperishable, glory and power. (1 Cor. 15:42-49). But it is a real body involving a whole person. It is not an apparition or a specter, no phantom or Casper the Friendly Ghost. This goes without saying in biblical thought, which has no place for meaningful human existence without a body. Although believers who die are somehow “with the Lord,” they are incomplete until they receive a body in the resurrection (Phil. 1:21-23; 2 Cor. 5:1-5).
A group activity
Finally, resurrection is a corporate or group affair that involves Jesus and every person whom he redeems. (The unredeemed will also be raised — mortal, for judgment and condemnation — but that is not what we are discussing in this essay.) Jesus’ resurrection was not an isolated event. It was the first in a long series. Imagine Jesus and all his people holding numbered tickets, with Jesus’ ticket marked “No. 1.”
The Resurrection started nearly 2,000 years ago when God called “No. 1” and Jesus rose from the dead. Then, in keeping with his plan announced through the ancient prophets, God paused — until a time known to him alone (Psalm 110:1). When that time arrives, God will resume the Resurrection with “No. 2” and all the numbers that follow. This means that we do not experience resurrection as soon as we die. Rather, we sleep in Jesus until he returns. Then we will rise together and meet him all at once (1 Cor. 15:50-55; 1 Thes. 4:15-18). Knowing these things, let us encourage each another and serve God steadfastly in strong hope (1 Cor. 15:58; 1 Thes. 4:18).