The ‘literal flesh-and-blood’ resurrection is the heart of my faith

Appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene after resurrection, Alexander Ivanov, 1835

There has been a great deal of discussion about a provocative Easter Sunday column by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, in which he interviewed my friend, Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary and a distinguished professor of theology.

At the start of the interview, Mr. Kristof asks Professor Jones several questions about the resurrection. Is it necessary to believe in a “literal flesh-and-blood resurrection”? In response, she focuses on the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb. But Mr. Kristof pushes her on the question: “Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome?”

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Her answer, which raised a few hackles online, should be quoted in full:

For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.

Let me offer my own perspective on this.

I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. And I do not see that as any sort of parable or metaphor. This is, frankly, the very heart of my faith. Also, I do not believe that we can or should reduce the great mystery of the resurrection to an experience that occurred within the community. This is what some contemporary theologians have posited: that Christ “rose” within the community. Theological approaches differ, but, in essence, some theologians offer the story of how, as the disciples came to reflect on the life and death of Jesus Christ, he became “present” to them in a new way, through the Spirit. This, in turn, empowered them to proclaim the good news of his Gospel. Some theologians offer this as a more credible or contemporary way of understanding the “resurrection.”

I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. And I do not see that as any sort of parable or metaphor.

But there is a problem with this idea of the resurrection as the after-effects of a “shared memory.” Certainly, after the resurrection and the ascension the disciples would have “remembered” Jesus, and certainly they may have had powerful Spirit-filled experiences as they did so, often as they gathered in community. But, to my mind, only something as vivid, dramatic and, in a word, real as the multiple appearances by the risen Christ could have moved the disciples from abject fear (cowering behind closed doors) to being willing to give their lives for Jesus. Nothing else can credibly account for the transformation of terrified disciples into willing martyrs.

Moreover, for the disciples to have somehow found a body in the tomb would indeed mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead, which would negate the message of Easter. The tomb, as the Easter narratives recount, was empty—something that initially filled the disciples with fear and confusion.

But what did Jesus’ “glorified body” (the term many theologians use today) look like?

The glorified body is something no one had encountered before—or has since.

That is much harder to explain, and perhaps this is some of what Professor Jones was driving at. In some Gospel accounts, the physicality of the risen Christ is emphasized (“I am not a ghost,” he says in one passage). In others, he seems ghostly (for example, his sudden appearance in a room where the doors are locked). Likewise, in some Gospel narratives, the risen Christ is recognizable (e.g., the Breakfast by the Sea and the appearances in the Upper Room). In others, the disciples find it hard, almost impossible, to recognize him (e.g., Emmaus).

To me, this indicates the radical newness, the complete novelty, the unrepeatable quality, of what the disciples were experiencing. The glorified body is something no one had encountered before—or has since. (To anticipate the obvious objection: Lazarus was raised from the dead but would later die. He was raised by Jesus in his still all-too-mortal body.)

So it is not surprising that the disciples could not comprehend the experience of the Risen One. Likewise, decades later, the Gospel writers naturally struggle to describe it. It looked like a ghost, but it didn’t. It was easy to recognize him, but it wasn’t. But all the post-resurrection appearances agree on one thing: It was Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus calling her name because she knew who it was already. The risen Christ is identifiable with Jesus of Nazareth. “He is risen,” they say— not “A new person is risen.” He is Jesus.

For me, the best summary of this idea comes from Stanley Marrow, S.J. In his commentary on the Gospel of John (Paulist Press), he links Jesus of Nazareth with the risen Christ. I return to this passage often:

The Risen Lord had to be recognizably and identifiably Jesus of Nazareth, the man whom the disciples knew and followed, whom they saw and heard, with whom they ate and because of whom they now cowered behind closed doors. For him to have risen as any other than the Jesus of Nazareth that they knew would void the resurrection of all its meaning. The one they had confessed as their risen Lord is the same Jesus of Nazareth that they had known and followed. Showing them ‘his hands and his side,’ which bore the marks of the crucifixion and the pierce of the lance, was not a theatrical gesture, but the necessary credentials of the identity of the risen Lord, who stood before them, with the crucified Jesus of Nazareth whom they knew.

He is, in a word, risen.

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Rhett Segall
2 months 3 weeks ago

The key question according to scripture scholar Raymond Brown (RIP) is not whether my faith would be demolished if Jesus' bones were discovered but whether the apostles faith would have been. Brown asserts that their faith was radically connected with the actual body of Jesus rising. This is underscored well by Fr. Martin's assertion: "Moreover, for the disciples to have somehow found a body in the tomb would indeed mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead, which would negate the message of Easter." Fr. Martin illustrates this with the many appearances of Jesus. Indeed our faith is an apostolic faith which, to be sure, must be personally appropriated.

J. Calpezzo
2 months 3 weeks ago

I read Kristof's interview, and while I think he is a great man, he is more of a Jeffersonian-Jesus-Without-the-Miracles guy. I agree with much of what was said in the interview, but like you Father James, I go all the way. Sometimes these guys let their intellects get in the way. Theories abound (and yes in theology too), but I always look to the source documents of Middle East history, the Old and New Testaments being among them. Jesus was born of a virgin, lived, died on a cross, and rose again. It seems pretty clear....and his disciples gave their lives that the memory live on. That's enough for me.

Patrick Nugent
2 months 3 weeks ago

As usual from Fr Martin, a splendid article, but with two uncharacteristic and horrifying problems. (1) The term “glorified body” is not just used by “some theologians.” It is shorthand for the whole second half of 1 Cor 15 which discusses in some depth (and a generation before the Gospels) the nature of the resurrected body—including that of Jesus. The idea of Jesus’ flesh-and-blood resurrection, while traditional and (in my opinion) true, has to be understood in light of PAUL’s explanation of the glorified body. The mandate is biblical, not the invention of “some theologians.”

(2) “Unrepeatable”?? Are you kidding? Please refer to the first half of 1 Cor 15. The whole point of the Resurrection, for Paul, is that Christ is raised as “the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep.” Paul is at great pains to argue, at some length, that Christ was raised from the dead so that WE can and will be raised from the dead. Even if you disbelieve that Jesus was, or that we will be, raised bodily, you have to account for 1 Cor 15. Unrepeatable?? Even the Baltimore Catechism made this clear.

Or does Fr Martin believe that the bodily resurrection of Christ is real, but that of the rest of us is only a metaphor or parable? Then he has a different kind of theological problem and his theological argument for Jesus’ resurrection is undermined. In that case, Prof Jones (whom I admire though often disagree with) has a more consistent position.

Those of us who admire America and Fr Martin from outside the Church expect both to give better evidence of thoughtful Biblical literacy than the popular imagination usually accords to Catholics.

Maria Alderson
2 months 3 weeks ago

THANK YOU FATHER. I went through an "it was just a shared memory" phase regarding the Resurrection. Now I just chuckle at Crossan and the rest of them.

Michael Ward
2 months 3 weeks ago

Bravo Father Martin!!! With the caveat that it is "repeatable" in that it is the place "where he is going" that we hope to "one day be" as he offered to Master offered to Thomas. Thanks for picking up the challenge of this NYT piece.

Tom Beckwith
2 months 3 weeks ago

Seven Stanzas At Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

—John Updike

Robert Lewis
2 months 3 weeks ago

I was going to say something, but Updike says it well enough. I will only add, however, that, for me, the Shroud of Turin is the irrefutable Fifth Gospel.

Tom Beckwith
2 months 3 weeks ago

Yes

Brien Doyle
2 months 3 weeks ago

All this discussion is moot as no gods have ever been proven...

All this is silly philosophical rubbish....

Tom Beckwith
2 months 3 weeks ago

An accurate challenge to the conversation.

But then, we're not talking about philosophy, are we?

We're not operating on philosophical principals; if we were, we would, indeed, be talking—in your words—rubbish.

But we're not.

We are making assumptions (oops, too philosophical!); we're making statements about the very nature of reality. These statements have not been derived by syllogism or enthymeme; they are a product of supernatural revelation which produces a coherent and accurate explanation of human behavior while establishing our lives individually and corporately in a cosmos ordered and redeemed by God through his own voluntary actions.

Your statement that "no gods have ever been proven" and hence this discussion is "philosophical rubbish" is rather naive. Nobody who believes in God is particularly concerned with proving that God—or any gods—exist. That's just silly.

And you, Brien, are failing miserably if you are attempting to prove that God does not exist.

One of the really funny things about engaging in this sort of conversation is that it reveals more about you than it does about your intellectual integrity. It all begs the question: why, if all this conversation is moot and silly philosophical rubbish, did you even bother to post those comments in the first place?

What does it matter to you? If it doesn't matter, why don't you find a website dedicated to breeding guppies or something?

If this were a website about being gay, and you were railing against it, I'd suggest going to a gay bar and wait to be picked up.

Brien, your first mistake was posting here. We've got your number. He loves you more than your imagination can fathom. And, once you have been reconciled to God, just imagine how much fun you can have annoying your atheist intellectual friends?

paul Veliyathil
2 months 3 weeks ago

If Jesus is "flesh and blood alive" he needs a physical space to live, food to eat etc. For something to be real it doesn't have to be physical. For me Jesus is REAL as gravity is real but not "physical". The only "flesh and blood" resurrection for me is the human being in front of me, behind me and around me because of my belief that "whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did it to me".

Joris Heise
2 months 3 weeks ago

At 82, my view has arrived at a conclusion parallel to your, but definitely different, and I share it not to disagree with you, but perhaps to enrich your own understanding. I think that the history and its current subtext of video-tapable truth is misleading, The four disparate versions (3--if you consider Mark's ending a borrowed editing of the others) made me realize that the apostles, the recalling communities, and the eventual writers did not think in terms of "video-tapable" at all, but were more aware than we are of the Person, the Character, the "individualized human nature" of Jesus (and every one else). Jesus Lives is more important, inthe end, than that "he has been raised." It is the truth that is important to us when you stop to think about it. Seeing Jesus in our neighbor's stigmata of mental illness, brown skin, retardation, poverty, etc--is simply more important than the "video-science-history" that we consider so important. In short, He has been raised--and lives in our lives among us--just seems to me to completely overshadow the biblical accounts, and make them not irrelevant, but significantly less important than they seem today. I write a daily religious blog, shared by only a few (it is really my effort to challenge myself with what I disagree with that triggers what I write to increase my faith:

To this day, of course, people dispute the Resurrection of Jesus. Some dismiss it as fable and imagination; some rationalize and deny its reality; still others avoid any position about it altogether—neither affirming nor denying—"I just don’t know.”
Which brings us back to faith. Real faith lies within the core of your soul—where what motivates you to love and hate, greed, lust, open-heartedness, ambition, courage, compassion, authenticity and so on struggle one with the other.
Faith is a courageous commitment that the Person of Jesus—his Good Nature, His humane caring, His creative insights into us, His peaceful acceptance of our Father’s world—these live now in the world. Your faith says that He appears to us, too, though we do not easily recognize Him, in the wounded folks around us, in shamed folks excluded and disdained as He was. His very Person moves among us.
Faith sees the Person of Jesus in the neighbor who needs you, the aged parent alone on a cross of pain, isolation and loneliness., or a “different” person you meet in life as you go along and who greets you—and you show that person honor and respect, no matter how uncomfortable you feel.
Faith wakes you up to others, forces you to tell the truth, inclines you to humble yourself, and, all around, to reverence Life around you. Faith enables you to accept the truth revealed (however distasteful), and the Struggling going on in everyone else, in all your family, all your brothers and sisters in the whole wide world.
Faith tells you truth that is unseen by others; in that direction lies your peace.

karen oconnell
2 months 3 weeks ago

my position is '''anything is possible!'' personally, i find it irresponsible to accept 'word for word' something that is so out of the norm, that happened more than 2000 years ago... that has been written and rewritten by so many in so many languages. (i held on to Santa Claus long after i had ''rethought'' the situation-- i held on just so as to not hurt my mother! i promised myself that i would never do that again.) something extra happened following Jesus's death on the cross. what that was is not clear - at least to me. whatever it was that happened changed his disciples/apostles/friends forever. that is the important part. (so...no matter what people say, Santa Claus does not exist. but: millions of loving people do exist whose only wish is to please the little ones before them. i would say that the latter is the more important of the two positions.

Todd Witherell
2 months 3 weeks ago

Questioner: I am from Christianity Today magazine. Do you or do you not believe in the literal, physical, historical Resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Karl Barth: Did you say you are from Christianity Yesterday? (And he refused to answer the question)

Andrew Strada
2 months 2 weeks ago

It's like asking a software salesman if his software has a certain feature or not. If the first word out of his mouth is not "Yes", then you can assume his answer is "No". By refusing to answer the question, I believe that Karl Barth in fact did answer it.

Steve Magnotta
2 months 3 weeks ago

Amen.

Al Cannistraro
2 months 3 weeks ago

I find it telling that Fr. Martin chose to comment on the beginning of the column, regarding the historicity of the Resurrection, and not on the end of the column, regarding the need for further Christian reformation and even wholesale re-framing and re-thinking.

Martin’s traditional faith is simple and strong, so he likely finds it easy to assert his decision to accept Church teachings about what many find to be questionable and unsubstantiated “historical facts.” Prof. Jones, by contrast, is doing much more thinking and a lot less faithful asserting.

However, both Martin and Jones are cherry picking their facts in support of their differing beliefs. (Cherry picking in the context of all available and no longer available literature — not just canonical Scripture.)

Why can’t religion be more harmonized with modern science and philosophy, and with solid history based on good historical method — or at least try harder to keep up? I suppose the reason is that religion is more about belief than about historical reality, and Christianity assumes or asserts its own versions of history. The RC Church uses its own asserted history as a basis for asserting its own partially divine character. Belief in that character is its keystone doctrine. It all comes down to faith.

jeanne tassinari
2 months 3 weeks ago

When I observe people continually trying to “figure “ God out I see instances that remind me of the first non servium and the first humans endeavoring to equate themselves with their creator. Without the gift of faith how can we solve these issues? As a young student studying at a Jesuit university this 89 year old woman spent hours in discussions such as these. Now I only have to look at the miracles and answered prayers in my long life to acknowledge the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A little humility helps.

Adam Lewandowski
2 months 3 weeks ago

I'd love to hear thoughts on this: It seems possible to me that the literal flesh and blood resurrection of Jesus could have nothing to do with the physical remains of his body because:
1. The resurrected body was somehow different from the earthly body.
2. The remains were not resuscitated.
3. There is always a natural exchange and decay within any body with elements of the surrounding environment and so the elements would not be the same after 3 days regardless.
4. This view helps us understand how the 2nd resurrection might be possible with the atomic elements of all the saints inter-shared among people and scattered throughout place and time.

However, this view is challenged by the witness of the gospels which seem to connect the empty tomb (the absence of the mortal remains) with the presence of the risen Jesus. Also, the church's recommendation for physical burial over cremation seems to support this tradition that the two are linked.

Thoughts?

Phil Lawless
2 months 3 weeks ago

Why do people question the Resurrection of Jesus without questioning the Resurrection of Lazarus? Because Jesus was the agent of Lazarus' Resurrection, but not of his own? If Jesus was not the agent of His own Resurrection, does that mean Resurrection is the key clue to his divine nature?

I rather am of the opinion that Incarnation is the critical point of faith. It is the the justification for the Resurrection of Jes us, the final sign of His relationship with his Father, so that we may finally understand that we partake of divinity in ourselves.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
2 months 3 weeks ago

Dying you destroyed our death.
Rising you restored our lives.
Lord Jesus come in glory.

Mary Burke
2 months 2 weeks ago

Maybe I have the answer, you see I was wondering about this same question, I had never had any doubt that it was the same body Jesus was resurrected in until someone said to me how come they did not recognise Him on the road (this person was trying to push the idea of reincarnation) and I must admit I started to wonder then how could they NOT recognise Him. I think the answer was shown to me in a very real way, when, one day I entered and sat down in a tiny cafe (only about four tables) there was a woman there & neither of us recognised the other, even though we were beside each other, It was later that I realised she was my friend, & I thought that's how they didn't know Jesus even though they were right beside Him also, they weren't meant to.

Bill Mazzella
2 months 2 weeks ago

This discussion centers on the Church of Dogma rather than Jesus Crucified/resurrected. One would not lose an iota of the anointing of Jesus by just believing that Jesus rose whether physically or spiritually. Fifteen centuries dominated by power seeking bishops should make us cautious about equating dogma with the faith. From Contantine making Christianity the law of the land, Innocent III using Francis of Assissi to justify the Crusades and Pius Xii regarding the Reich's Tithe more preferable than condemning Hitler, Dogma has dominated the message of the officials of the church. Jesus is truly risen. But the Resurrection loses its thunder when the Prophets in the church lose their voice and stress dogma over seeking freeing captives, helping the blind see and preaching the gospel to the poor. Frank Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr and the American Catholic bishops pride themselves on dogma while they go soft on the scoundrel in the White House who secretly laughs at them. Jesus was expelled from the synagogue when he expressed his purpose as the ANOINTED ONE. It also gets him expelled by present day Pharisees in the Church.

Why James Martin makes this dogmatic point about physical resurrection is intriguing. Maybe he feels he owes one to the dogmatists.

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