For those who are not interested in Easter at all, this post will not matter. Also, for those who do celebrate Easter, but as a family (non-religious) holiday, or fertility festival, this post is not relevant either. I have no quarrel with these views, I merely am not addressing them here. Fertility festivals and family holidays can be very fine things, but I want to write on the importance of Easter as a commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus.
Let me state clearly that I affirm the resurrection of Jesus. There is, however, a twist. I do not believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. That is, I do not believe that on the third day the body of Jesus was physically transformed and his tomb found empty.
The reasons I doubt this are lengthy and complex and I will here only summarize them: 1) most crucified victims were not buried, and if by rare chance one was they were dumped in a common or shallow criminal's grave. The burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea reads like a contrived tale to (a) save Jesus from this fate, and (b) help account for the resurrection in narrative terms. 2) The stories read like symbolic accounts. The resurrection is said to happen at sunrise, there are angels, the stone is magically "rolled away." This reads like legend. 3) The appearance stories in the gospels cannot be harmonized and are the clear inventions of their authors' theology. 4) It seems clear to me that by presenting the stories as they do, the gospel writers did not intend to convey literal fact. 5) Paul, our earliest Christian writer and a self-proclaimed "witness" of the risen Jesus says nothing about an "empty tomb," and strongly indicates that the resurrection of Jesus - whatever it was - was not the transformation of a corpse.
Nevertheless, I don't want to press this issue. If you believe that Jesus really did bodily rise up from the dead on Easter Sunday, and the tomb was really empty, then fine. I have no desire to combat that belief. My question is this: can the resurrection of Jesus be affirmed by one who does not believe the empty tomb story? Who does not affirm bodily resurrection?
I believe that it can.
Here is how I understand what the earliest followers of Jesus were saying: When Jesus was crucified they were afraid and they fled in despair, but they soon found that the power that they knew in Jesus was still present in them! Not only that, they felt that it was still Jesus bringing this power. That is, the earliest followers of Jesus were somehow aware (visions were most likely involved here) that Jesus was still with them, empowering them to do what he did; to heal the sick, condemn injustice, champion the poor, and include the outcasts.
I do not mean by this that they merely continued Jesus' mission or that his teaching or ideas lived on. Rather, I mean to say that the disciples of Jesus felt the "living presence" of Jesus empowering them to do as he did, and this forced them to say "Jesus lives." Jesus, they now believed, was "with God" and "with them." And I believe they were right.
Don't get me wrong, I have no idea what happens after death. I do not think traditional views of heaven and hell are likely to be true. And I have no idea if any of our personality survives death, in fact I lean against that. But I do think that something of the essence of what we are is eternal and not merely mortal. It is this contact with and experience of the eternal aspect of Jesus' being that caused his disciples to say "He is risen!"
But "Jesus Lives" is only half of the Easter proclamation. These disciples affirmed also that "Jesus is Lord." For them, Jesus did not merely continue to be with them, but to call them and challenge them, and bring to them the very being and power of their God. The risen Jesus challenges those who encounter him to radically reorient themselves; not only his presence but his call to mission is the heart of Easter faith.
I do not profess to know what kinds of experiences these disciples had. I was not there, and what we have (other than Paul) are the purely symbolic accounts in the gospels. But I am convinced that they experienced the real presence of the real Jesus as a compelling power within themselves.
The success of the Jesus movement resulted in the fact that these experiences of the "risen Jesus" were not isolated, but could be had by others. Christians who had never known Jesus during his life, could and did experience him as a "living power" calling for their authentic response.
And what was the call of Jesus? The call to "follow him." And this meant, a life committed to forgiveness, inclusion, compassion, healing, non-violence, social justice, and peace. It is this life that the risen and living Jesus still can bring to those who look to him, and to me this is what faith in the resurrection of Jesus means.
So, what happened to the body of Jesus? Presumably one of the few horrid fates that befell most crucifieds. But it is irrelevant. As the gospels rhetorically ask us, "why do we seek the living among the dead?" The spirit of Jesus lives on calling us. If we answer that call he can empower us to walk as he did and follow his way.
He is risen indeed!