There has been a fine old spat in the Church Times over a
letter from a reader who suggests that the Resurrection of Jesus was nothing to
do with his body, which remained dead, but that it meant, for the disciples,
that “he was still with them in spirit”.
The reader, Antony Alexander, was prompted by an article in the paper which observed that resurrection was something “that happens to a body, the body of Jesus in the tomb”. “Such doctrines certainly bear the imprimatur of hoary antiquity,” Mr Alexander responded, “but are they acceptable to a modern generation that has spent years studying science and the laws of nature at school?”
He then sketched out a scenario in which the disciples contemplated the fact that “their beloved Leader had been crucified and was no more. They then began to realise, however, that the reality of Christ was spiritual.” He was “still with them in spirit as much as he had ever been”.
The following week, Edward Nugee, a barrister, wrote to say that “unless one is going to discard the whole of the first few chapters of Acts and much of Paul, it is obvious that on the first Easter Day, Jesus made it clear beyond argument that he was alive.”
On the same page, Canon R H W Arguile remembered that “a former colleague, now a Roman Catholic priest, told me of his shock when he discovered, as a curate, that his vicar meant by 'Christ is risen’, very much the same as saying 'Che lives’.”
It is not as though no one had thought of the “spiritual” sense of the Resurrection before. There was a good deal of this sort of thing a century ago. But it is far more interesting to see how such ideas were dealt with much nearer the time of Jesus.
About the year 110 there were plenty of people around who had spoken to Jesus’s disciples. One of them was Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, today just in Turkey, near the border with war-torn Syria. He was condemned to die in Rome, and, with his mind suitably concentrated, wrote seven short letters on his journey to meet the beasts that would tear him apart.
In his letter to the people of Smyrna, Ignatius declared that Jesus “after his resurrection was still possessed of flesh, and I believe that he is so now”. Ignatius quoted Jesus’s words after his Resurrection (depicted, above, by Piero della Francesca, in about 1465), as reported in the Gospel of Luke: “Lay hold, handle me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit.”
Naturally, someone today who thinks it wrong to believe in the bodily resurrection may refuse to believe in the veracity of the Gospel accounts. But the earliest generations of Christians, like Ignatius and his friend Polycarp, and the next generation, Irenaeus and his contemporaries, did believe that the Gospel accounts were true. In any case, they accepted the evidence of the disciples, who had been alive a generation or two earlier.
For Ignatius, quite a lot rode on the question of whether Jesus had risen again in the flesh. His own body was soon to be ground up by the teeth of lions, like wheat, as he wrote. If Jesus had not risen in the flesh, what hope had Ignatius?
If all of Ignatius that was to survive was his “spirit”, then it could neither see nor hear, neither imagine anything nor have any emotions. These all depended on his body rising again. If God could not bring about the resurrection of Jesus, his Son, the rest of us would have little chance.
If Jesus’s human soul alone survived his death, that wouldn’t be much help. If the spirit that survived his death was God in heaven, well, he was there before ever Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It’s Jesus alive as a whole human being, body and spirit, who offers hope.
A phrase in the Creed that Christians say each Sunday states that they believe in “the resurrection of the dead”, indeed look forward to it. Perhaps some skate over it. But it is the only way that in the course of time they will be able to follow Jesus.