It is widely held within Christian circles that the resurrection of Jesus was an event that involved the physical resurrection of Jesus’ crucified body. That is, Jesus is believed to have physically died and then physically risen back to life three days later, leaving his grave clothes behind him in an empty tomb.
Indeed, this belief is so foundational to Christianity that many would argue that one could hardly call themselves a Christian if they denied the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection. Most modern Christians, of course, do not conceive of their own resurrection as a physical one; instead, they assume that when they die, their spirit will go to heaven. In the Middle Ages, mainstream Christianity conceived of Jesus’ Second Coming as a time when all those who had died in Christ would come rising out of their graves, but in the modern age, this has more or less been replaced with the idea that our souls simply go to heaven upon our deaths. It has been my experience that only the most fundamentalist branches of modern Christianity still widely believe in a physical resurrection at the end of time.
Be that as it may, the idea that Jesus’ resurrection was a physical one is still widely believed and vitally important to many Christians.
Debates about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection were a central part of the emerging Christian religion in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and were ultimately put to rest by the ecumenical councils of the 4th century which asserted that Jesus’ resurrection was a physical one, and which outlawed as heretical any group or text that suggested otherwise.
Although discussions continued on a small scale among philosophers and mystics throughout the intervening centuries, it was not until the development of modern Biblical scholarship in the 19th century that debates about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection started up again on a wide scale.
Despite the fact that scholars and historians have been debating this issue for the last two centuries, most of this debate does not seem to have filtered down into the pews of most churches. I certainly have not administered any scientific polls on the topic, but it has been my overwhelming impression through a lifetime of involvement in various churches that most Christians do not give much thought to whether Jesus’ resurrection was physical or spiritual in nature. Most seem to see the issue of resurrection as an issue about whether it happened or not. Either Jesus was physically raised from the dead, or the stories about resurrection are simply unreliable myths. In my experience, the nature of the resurrection is not at issue among most Christians. They accept on faith that the resurrection of Jesus happened, and for them, “resurrection” unquestionably means a physical reanimation of a dead body.
My purposes here are not to argue whether the resurrection happened or not. There is a time and place for that debate. My purposes here are to discuss the traditional viewpoint of a physical resurrection, list its strengths and evidentiary support, provide commentary on its weaknesses, and ultimately draw a conclusion about what the earliest generations of Christians most likely believed about Jesus’ resurrection.
Evangelical New Testament scholars (and, of course, many theologians) generally agree that the earliest Christians came to believe that Jesus had been physically resurrected from the dead. In fact, for scholars like N.T. Wright and William Lane Craig, this is one of four “widely accepted facts” of Christian history. They substantiate this position by pointing to a number of clues.
First, they believed so strongly that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead that they were willing, themselves, to die for the belief. No one would have died for a belief in a spiritual resurrection. The motivation, these scholars contend, would not have been strong enough.
Second, the Gospels universally agree that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. An empty tomb implies very strongly that when the Gospel writers spoke of resurrection, they were talking physical resurrection, not spiritual. Otherwise, Jesus’ fleshly body would have still been inside the tomb. The tomb need not be empty if the resurrection was only spiritual in nature.
Finally, they argue that no 1st century Jew would have conceived of resurrection as anything other than a physical resurrection. This is perhaps their foundational claim when suggesting that the earliest Christians believed Jesus had been physically raised from the dead. They point out that Jewish resurrection theology developed in the last two centuries before Jesus’ birth, and it was a theology that asserted a general resurrection of observant Jews at the end of time. God would justify the world – right all the wrongs – by raising back to life those Jews who had died in the faith. Central to this theology was the belief that the dead body would physically come back to life, rising up out of the ground to live eternally in a world justified by God. Thus, “resurrection” to 1st century Jews – such as those Jews who made up the earliest generations of Christians – must by necessity have meant a physical resuscitation of a dead body.
While these arguments are certainly historically reasonable, I believe there some weaknesses that are important to discuss.
First, the assertion that the earliest Christians were willing to die for their belief in the physical nature of the resurrection.
This is more of a historical assumption based on Church tradition than anything else. In fact, we know very little about what actually became of the disciples and followers of Jesus who started spreading his message after his death. That they were profoundly changed by Jesus seems apparent. But that they went to their deaths for a belief in physical resurrection is not. Our sources that discuss the deaths of some of the disciples are not Biblical sources, and are not early sources. Instead, they come from writings of early Church fathers, writing, in most cases, a century or more after these disciples had died. Even Paul’s death, which is widely understood to have occurred as a martyrdom in the mid-60’s C.E., is not described in any of the texts of the New Testament – not even in Acts, which was certainly written after his death, and which otherwise gives the story of his life. Based on the lack of early sources for traditions about the deaths of the earliest Christians, it is by no means certain that they actually went to their deaths for the message of Christianity.
And that, of course, does not even address whether they died believing Jesus had been physically resurrected. Craig, Wright, and others argue that no one would have died for a spiritual resurrection, but this seems to be an unsubstantiated opinion. In my mind, if a man was convinced that Jesus had been resurrected by God, this would be sufficient motivation for martyrdom regardless of whether it was understood as a spiritual resurrection of Jesus’ soul or a physical resurrection of Jesus’ body. Ultimately, the meaning would be the same – Jesus was raised by God (either spiritually or physically), and so we too will be raised.
Second, the empty tomb tradition. On the surface, this seems to be a fairly strong argument. The earliest Christians must have been talking about physical resurrection; otherwise, there would have been no need for an empty tomb.
It is important first to note that Paul, our earliest source for the resurrection, does not ever mention a tomb, empty or otherwise. Our earliest surviving source for an empty tomb tradition does not come until the Gospel of Mark, about 40 years after Jesus’ death. Yet, perplexingly, folks like William Lane Craig argue that Paul is, in fact, our earliest source for the empty tomb tradition! The only comment that Paul ever makes about Jesus’ burial is simply that Jesus “was buried” (1 Corinthians 15:4). He does not say, or imply, the method of that burial, whether inside a rich man’s tomb, or in a common grave.
It is noteworthy, however, to point out that the word Paul uses here (the Greek word thapto) meant, quite literally, to bury something in the ground. It is used 11 times in the New Testament, with all the occurrences happening in the Gospels and Acts, the one exception being Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians. Every time it is used, it is used when referring to the burial of a person in a grave. When the Gospels speak of Jesus’ burial in a tomb, they use a different word – the Greek word thithemi. This was a verb that literally meant “to lay” to “to place.” The Gospels never say Jesus was buried in a tomb. Instead, they assert he was placed in a tomb. Grammatically speaking, you do not bury something in a tomb. Burying implies putting a body in the ground, not in a sepulcher. So if Paul’s phrase “was buried” implies anything at all about the type of burial, it implies a burial in the ground, not the placement of a body in a tomb. In my opinion, it is clear that Paul either did not know anything about a tomb tradition surrounding Jesus (which seems unlikely if it were a fact of history), or in fact no tomb tradition existed at the time Paul was writing.
Scholars, like John Dominic Crossan, who doubt the empty tomb tradition point out that we know from countless secular sources that criminals who were executed by the Romans were not given the luxury of a private burial. They were either left, quite literally, to the dogs, or otherwise thrown into a mass grave. The likelihood, these scholars argue, that Jesus was given an honorable burial in a tomb is very low, given the historical context. Added together with Paul’s simple comment that Jesus “was buried,” as opposed to “was placed in a tomb that was later found empty,” it seems likely that the empty tomb tradition is a later development in Christian history.
But putting Paul’s story aside, there can be no question that the Gospel writers depict Jesus being laid in a tomb which was later found empty. Even if this is only a legendary development, how can that be reconciled with any argument suggesting that the earliest generations of Christians (including the Gospel writers) conceived of resurrection as anything other than physical? Again, a spiritual resurrection would have left the body in the tomb; it would not have been empty.
Scholar and theologian John Shelby Spong, drawing on the work of British scholar Michael Goulder, offers an interesting hypothesis. He argues that the Gospels were not works of factual journalism, nor were they ever intended as such. Instead, he argues that the Gospels were literary creations, told in the Jewish scribal tradition of midrash. Midrash was a writing style that was prominent during the era in which the Gospels were written, and it involved a creative re-telling of modern events against the backdrop of the collective Jewish past. Important figures would have their stories retold through the lens of important figures and events in Jewish scriptures.
Thus, it was a creative and literary overlapping of reality and fiction, history and imagination, and its purpose was to convey spiritual truths which could not otherwise be captured with normal language.
With this in mind, Spong argues that the empty tomb tradition began as midrash on the Jewish festival of Tabernacles. This was a harvest festival that involved setting up booths, or tents, in the wilderness to reenact the lifestyle of the Israelites in the Exodus period. At the end of this week-long celebration, the Jews would ritually “emerge” from their booths, drawing parallels with the Israelites of the Exodus finally emerging from their tent-dwelling in the wilderness into a new life in the Promised Land. The midrashic parallel between this tradition and the empty tomb of Jesus should be clear – like the celebration of Tabernacles, Jesus emerged from his booth into newness of life.
The aforementioned Crossan, and other scholars like Marcus Borg, make similar points, arguing that the Gospels are parabolic in nature. Thus, it may be that the empty tomb stories were intended to be parables conveying the idea of dying to the old self and being born again into the new, leaving the old life (the tomb) behind.
Ultimately, it is the difference between interpreting the Gospel stories as metaphor, midrash, and parable, versus interpreting them as literal, journalistic accounts of events that occurred in history. When you read the Gospels through the lens of the former, it is easy to understand how empty tombs and spiritual resurrections – two seemingly poorly-matched bedfellows – could have gone hand in hand. If empty tomb stories are midrash or parable, then they do not necessitate a physical resurrection.
Finally, the foundational argument of evangelical New Testament scholars: that no 1st century Jew would have conceived of resurrection as anything but physical.
Like the argument about the empty tomb, this seems, on the surface, to be a rather solid argument. There can be no question that 1st century Jews conceived of resurrection as a physical event that happened to the flesh and blood body. The body would literally be raised back into life. This is widely known and understood from Jewish sources.
The question, then, is not whether 1st century Jewish thought conceived of resurrection as physical; the question is whether a group of 1st century Jews might have broken from this tradition. And in that context, the assertion that the earliest Christians would not have broken with this Jewish tradition is a spurious one, for at least two reasons.
First, to suggest that a group of people – even 1st century, pre-Enlightenment people – could not have reinterpreted a deeply-held bit of theology is simply not supportable by all that we know about human nature. The fact that Jesus clearly broke with, and reinterpreted, many ideas within Jewish scripture is evidence enough of this fact. If Jesus could do it, so could his followers.
This, then, leads to the second point: is there any textual evidence to suggest that the earliest Christians tended to break with deeply-entrenched Jewish thought?
The answer to that question is, of course, a resounding and unequivocal “YES!”
In fact, the entire Christian religion is a break with deeply-entrenched Jewish beliefs. The earliest Christians, following in the tradition of their master, broke in many profound and dramatic ways with traditional Jewish theology. They came to reject Old Testament dietary restrictions; they came to believe that the kingdom of God was for all people, not just Jews; and most importantly, they completely altered Jewish messianic thought.
This last point is the most significant. Jews conceived of the Messiah as a conquering king, a man who would come from the genetic line of David and restore the Jewish kingdom to its former glory, overthrowing earthly oppressors (like the Romans) and inaugurating a new Golden Age of Jewish history. This was a piece of Jewish theology that was just as entrenched, and just as widely understood, and Jewish resurrection theology.
No one – certainly no evangelical – argues that the earliest Christians did not dramatically break with Jewish Messianic thought when they came to believe that the Messiah was an illiterate peasant from the backwoods of Galilee who was executed as a criminal. This was such a profound break with Jewish Messianic expectations that the Jews and Christians became bitter enemies by the end of the 1st century.
If the earliest Christians could break so intensely with Messianic theology, is it so difficult to imagine that they could not have also broken with resurrection theology?
The fact is, when seen contextually, it is insupportable to suggest that the earliest Christians would only have viewed resurrection as a physical event. If they could claim that the Messiah – someone who was supposed to be a conquering king – could instead be a peasant teacher who was executed as a criminal, they could most certainly claim that resurrection was a spiritual event and not a physical one.
There is still one important question to be asked, however. Did the earliest Christians break with traditional Jewish resurrection theology, and is there any evidence for such a claim in our Biblical texts?
I have already pointed out that our earliest Biblical source is the apostle Paul, and that Paul mentions no tomb, empty or otherwise. Paul does, however, talk about resurrection and even goes so far as to list those whom the resurrected Jesus appeared to. This is found in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul states that Jesus appeared to Peter and the twelve disciples and a group of 500 people, among others. He concludes his list of those the resurrected Jesus appeared to with himself. This is a vitally important clue.
No one supposes that Paul was around in Jerusalem at the first Easter experiencing the resurrected Jesus. We know from Paul’s own account, as well as from the second-hand account of his life in Acts, that Paul was a persecutor of the early Church before converting to Christianity several years after Jesus’ death. He certainly was not around at the first Easter to see the resurrected Jesus. Instead, his experience of Jesus was an ecstatic vision of Christ raised to glory in heaven. The fact, then, that Paul does not include any language about an empty tomb, and the fact that he includes himself in his list of those people that the resurrected Christ appeared to, is strong evidence that resurrection, for Paul, was a spiritual, apparitional, event, not a physical flesh and blood event. For Paul, Jesus was raised to glory at God’s right hand; he never got up out of his tomb and walked into Jerusalem.
From here, we move to the Gospels. Surely the Gospel language implies physical resurrection? In some cases, absolutely. The story of Doubting Thomas, found in the Gospel of John, is clearly a polemic against those who suggested that Jesus’ resurrection was not physical. Thomas, after all, is shown touching the healed wounds in Jesus’ hands and flanks. Yet even in that scene, the target was not people who claimed Jesus’ resurrection had been spiritual; the target of that polemic was people who claimed Jesus’ had not been resurrected, period.
In fact, most of the Gospel depictions of the resurrected Jesus seem to imply the exact opposite of a physical flesh and blood body. Jesus is able to appear and disappear. He is able to enter rooms that have the windows and doors barred. He is not recognizable to his friends and followers. He cannot be touched. He ascends into the sky.
These are all things that point strongly to an understanding that the resurrection – even for the Gospel writers – was a spiritual event, not a physical event that happened to Jesus’ body. And while both Luke and John have scenes that depict a human-like resurrected Jesus, demonstrating that his resurrection was real as opposed to myth, these Gospels are also the two sources that have the majority of the “ghostly” or “apparitional” language about the resurrected Jesus. It is Luke and John who say Jesus is not recognizable. It is Luke and John who say that Jesus appears and disappears. It is Luke and John who say that Jesus shows up inside rooms that have the windows and doors barred. It wasn’t that the Gospel writers couldn’t make up their minds about whether Jesus’ death had been physical or spiritual. It was that they were telling some stories with a human-like resurrected Jesus to contradict those who suggested Jesus’ resurrection was not real. Even in the Doubting Thomas story, prior to Jesus showing his pierced hands to Thomas, Jesus appears like a ghost amidst the disciples in a room that was otherwise locked down. Clearly the Gospel writer did not envision the resurrected Jesus being a flesh and blood body.
In the end, it is my opinion that the earliest generations of Christians probably did not conceive of Jesus’ resurrection as being physical in nature. They broke with Jewish traditional thought in a variety of ways, including on the subject of what resurrection meant. They believed that Jesus had been raised to the right hand of God. They did not believe, I am increasingly convinced, that Jesus’ actual body had reanimated.
With this conclusion in mind, what does this mean for Christian theology and beliefs? Well, frankly, not a thing. Is there really any difference, after all, in a spiritual resurrection and a physical resurrection? Does it really matter whether Jesus’ actual body came back to life, or whether it was simply his spirit – his self-aware nature – that was resurrected into eternity? In my opinion, the answer is no, it does not matter. Ultimately, it is important only because it helps us to move closer to the truth of what the earliest forms of Christianity looked like, and how the earliest Christians believed and behaved.
There is one issue with this assertion, however, that is important to note. And it centers on reliability.
If Jesus was only spiritually raised, then how could there have been any eyewitnesses? His tomb (or grave) would still have been occupied. No one could have proved anything because no one would have actually seen anything. You cannot witness a soul being glorified to heaven, after all. A spiritual resurrection would seem, at the very least, highly suspicious. One can imagine a 1st century discussion of the matter between a Christian and a pagan.
Christian: Jesus was resurrected from the dead, so we know that we can be raised too.
Pagan: How do you know Jesus was raised? Did you see him?
Christian: Well, no. I know he was raised because I just…know it.
Pagan: But how do you know? Aren’t his bones still lying there in his grave?
Christian: It’s the only thing that makes any sense. If Jesus was the Messiah, and I believe he was, then God must have raised him. The Messiah can’t get executed without actually doing anything first. Besides, Bill and Joe and Fred saw visions of Jesus at God’s right hand. So his soul must have been raised.
Pagan: How do you know they aren’t making it up?
Christian: Because I trust them. They wouldn’t make up something like that.
Pagan: How do you know they weren’t drunk or something?
Christian: Come on, I know these guys. They’re sincere.
You can see how the discussion would play out. Could Christianity have spread as far and wide and quickly as it did if it was based only on the assumption, no matter how sincere, that Jesus’ soul had been raised to glory at God’s right hand?
And these sorts of thoughts would play out in the modern mind as well. If Jesus’ resurrection was only spiritual, how can we be sure that anything actually happened? It’s only because we have first-hand accounts from those who saw the risen Jesus that we can be certain that there was a resurrection. So the resurrection must have been physical.
The problem here, of course, is twofold. First, we can’t be sure of anything, even if we do assume physical resurrection. They might have been making it up. They might have been hallucinating. Faith is an integral part of Christian belief, and that does not change whether you assume physical resurrection or spiritual.
Second, we do not actually have any first-hand accounts from those present at the first Easter. The Gospels and letters attributed to the disciples Matthew, John, and Peter are widely accepted across the scholarly spectrum to be accounts written only in those disciples’ names, not written by those disciples. And aside from those three figures, no other text in the New Testament even claims to be written by a witness to Jesus’ life.
So most of our “first-hand accounts” are actually accounts told second- and third- and perhaps even fourth-hand.
It is interesting and profoundly important to note, however, that we do have one first-hand account of the risen Jesus. That, of course, is the aforementioned vision by Paul. So our only first-hand account of resurrection is one that speaks strongly of spiritual resurrection, not physical.
That still leaves the question of how a spiritual resurrection belief could have led to the rise of Christianity. If nothing physical had happened to Jesus’ body and no one had actually seen anything, would anyone have bought the story? We know, of course, that people did come to believe, and came to believe in multitudes. Christianity spread quickly and widely, perhaps more quickly and widely than any new religion in history, with the possible exception of Islam.
It is an interesting question, and one which cannot be answered absolutely. I do not know if spiritual resurrection would have convinced people the way that people were obviously convinced.
But to address the question adequately, it is important first to separate our 21st century worldviews from 1st century worldviews. In the modern age, we are skeptical of visions. Even among religious believers, when we hear stories of ecstatic visions, we tend to assume it is either a lie or hallucination. We understand that disease processes like epileptic seizures and other brain disorders, as well as extreme stress and lack of sleep, can produce hallucinations. I recall a teacher in high school who told a story about how he stayed up for three straight days in college studying for finals. On the third day, he specifically recalls having an hour-long conversation with his friend in the cafeteria. Yet he later learned that his friend never saw him in the cafeteria that day, and the conversation never took place. So we understand, in the modern world, the scientific processes that produce visions or hallucinations.
But when it comes to the 1st century, we are dealing with a pre-Enlightenment era that did not fully understand the mind the way we understand it today. For folks living in that primitive time period, visions were a routine and even objective part of life, and were, in fact, a way that people came to understand their God or gods. Jewish scriptures, for instance, are rife with prophets explaining their visions of God, and those visions were certainly taken as “gospel” by Jews. The same was true among pagan religions.
So it may not be so hard to imagine, given the historical, pre-Enlightenment context, that people of the 1st century might have been just as persuaded by the evidence of ecstatic visions of Jesus as they would have been by claims of a physically resurrected Jesus. For those people, an ecstatic vision would have carried the same weight as a real-world sighting. In fact, the two would not even have been fully separated in the mind of a person living in the 1st century. Their lives were lived in a God-filled world. There were no atheists in the 1st century. There were no agnostics and skeptics. Gods were everywhere, involved in day-to-day life, controlling nature, controlling politics, controlling daily life. Ecstatic visions of those gods were commonplace and an accepted part of life.
Christianity, I believe, could still have risen the way it did, even if resurrection was understood spiritually and not physically. That certainly would not be true today of a new religion based on ecstatic experience, but it would have been true in the 1st century.
In the end, there is no question that this is a topic that will continue to be debated and discussed among scholars and theologians and armchair enthusiasts like me for decades to come. Ultimately we cannot have absolute answers about anything in history, but we can study the texts and the contexts, and reach conclusions about what is probable and what is not probable. It is my opinion that it is probable that the earliest Christians did not view Jesus’ resurrection as a physical event that happened to his body, but rather a spiritual event that happened to his soul.