But there's another attack that it faces. Some will say it's "true" even though Jesus' body never moved after his death. His resurrection, they claim, was a "spiritual" resurrection — a statement of the continuation of his influence or of his elevation by God after his death. This is the kind of attack that N.T. Wright wrote The Resurrection of the Son of God to address.
The book is made up of five parts; the first three show that "resurrection" always means a bodily resurrection, not a spiritual one. Wright goes into
"We cannot stress too strongly that from Homer onwards the language of ‘resurrection’ was not used to denote ‘life after death’ in general, or any of the phenomena supposed to occur within such a life. The great majority of the ancients believed in life after death; many of them developed ... complex and fascinating beliefs about it and practices in relation to it; but, other than within Judaism and Christianity, they did not believe in resurrection."It's only when you come to the Gnostics in history that you begin to find this idea.
"These documents are attempting to retain a key Christian term while filling it with new content. ‘Resurrection’ and its cognates never meant, in either pagan or Jewish usage, what these documents make it mean; the only explanation is that they are loath to give up the word, because they want to seem to be some type of Christian, but are using it in a way for which there is no early warrant."You might wonder if the same thing could be said about modern liberal Christians who use the term in similar fashion.
After putting to rest the idea of a non-physical resurrection, Wright turns to how the early Christians' belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus shaped their other beliefs about this — and how that constitutes "powerful supporting evidence" for what they believed happened to his body.
In short, "The early Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah; and they believed this because of his resurrection."
As a result, Wright says, the early Christians' regarded Jesus' death as a good thing and their own as inconsequential. Christian funerals became joyous occasions. And since death held no fear for them, the rulers of this world had no power over them.
Their worldview was shaped by their understanding of Jesus' resurrection and what it said about their own:
"Who are we? Resurrection people. ... Where are we? In God’s good creation, which is to be restored. ... What’s wrong? The work is incomplete. ... What time is it? In the overlap of the ages."And that worldview "finds expression in early Christian beliefs, hopes and aims."
Ultimately, "if Jesus had been raised from the dead, if the new creation had begun, if they were themselves the citizens of the creator god’s new kingdom, then the claims of Jesus to Lordship on earth as well as heaven would ultimately come into conflict with those of Caesar."
Of course, all of our information about the resurrection comes from New Testament writings that, critics tell us, evolved over time as early Christian beliefs about Christ's exaltation became a belief in his resurrection. But is that true? Wright examines the gospel accounts in detail and concludes "we find in each of the stories not so much a sign of steady development from a primitive tradition to a form in which the evangelist simply wrote down what the tradition at that point had grown into, but rather a retelling of primitive stories by the evangelist himself in such a way as to form a fitting climax to his particular book."
"[E]arly Christian resurrection-belief has a remarkable consistency despite varieties of expression, and that this consistency includes both the location of Christianity at one point on the spectrum of Jewish belief (bodily resurrection) and four key modifications from within that point: (1) resurrection has moved from the circumference of belief to the centre; (2) ‘the resurrection’ is no longer a single event, but has split chronologically into two, the first part of which has already happened; (3) resurrection involves transformation, not mere resuscitation; and (4) when ‘resurrection’ language is used metaphorically, it no longer refers to the national restoration of Israel, but to baptism and holiness."But couldn't this still be fiction, just one to which they were highly committed? "If you were a follower of a dead Jesus, in the middle of the first century, wanting to explain why you still thought he was important, and why some of your number had (inexplicably) begun to say that he had been raised from the dead, you would not have told stories like this. You would have done a better job."
The real question that skeptics and critics have to answer is, how do you explain early Christianity without a bodily resurrection? Wright says they can't:
"[T]hose who held the complex but remarkably consistent early Christian view gave as their reason that Jesus of Nazareth had himself been raised from the dead. And we have now seen what they meant by this: that on the third day after his execution by the Romans, his tomb was empty, and he was found to be alive, appearing on various occasions and in various places both to his followers and to some who, up to that point, had not been his followers or had not believed, convincing them that he was neither a ghost nor a hallucination but that he was truly and bodily raised from the dead. This belief about Jesus provides a historically complete, thorough and satisfying reason for the rise and development of the belief that he was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true lord."
So what should we say about this book? I think it's an extremely important book. Rev. Wright was definitely doing God's work when he created this thing.
But this thing is a monster. Weighing in a 700+ pages of fairly small print, even excepting the copious footnotes, this thing is a beast. I understand why he went into such detail examining every. single. reference. to resurrection in ancient history, but having done that chore, I think a "popular version" would be a great service to the church. Most people will simply never try to tackle a work this big.
However, you can create your own popular version. If you want to read it yourself — and I encourage you to do so — simply pick the parts you want to read. You don't have to read every pagan quote or follow him through every reference in the post-apostolic fathers. You don't even have to read every analysis of NT passages. Even the later sections on the resurrection's affect on the early church's understanding of Christ's identity, though much easier reading, can be picked through. Wright puts well-labeled summary sections all over the place, so you might read those and then, if interested in learning more, go back and read the appropriate sections.
Whether you read it for yourself or not, though, everyone needs to have any doubts about this matter put to rest: When the early church said Jesus rose from the dead, they meant that his body got up and walked around. That belief changed them, how they lived, and how they reacted to the world and to pain and suffering. And it can change us, too.