What possible difference could it make to my life today that some rabbi died on a cross and then came to life again — 2000 years ago? “Not only is the assertion of the resuscitation of a corpse incredible… but still more pressing is the question, So what? … What difference can that make to my existence, or to the social, political and environmental problems of contemporary [humanity]?”
In my previous article, I concluded that what happened to Jesus is a mystery of faith. But now I want to explain that it is a mystery, not a myth or legend. All of those things that Christians call mysteries of the faith have an anchor in the material world. For instance, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is not proof of God, but we all agree that there is a universe that began from an event we call the Big Bang.
Similarly, what happened to Jesus has an anchor in history. To begin with, “Something” happened to the disciples that enabled them, impelled them to go forth into “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and away to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 8). This is a historical fact, “an x”. I am convinced that the first disciples had extraordinary experiences with Jesus alive and not dead, as all the canonical and non-canonical gospels assert, and that part of these experiences was that the tomb in which he was laid after his crucifixion was empty.
The heart of it
Now we come to the heart of the matter. Was the Risen Jesus seen, or did he appear? Were the resurrection “meetings” with Jesus’ physical reality, or did he appear to the disciples in a more or less visionary fashion, a “Christophany”, a revelatory mystery? Textually, the word opsthe translates both as seen and appeared: ὤφθη Κηφᾷ… ὤφθη ἐπάνω πεντακοσίοις … ὤφθη Ἰακώβῳ…ὤφθη κἀμοί — “he appeared to Cephas…appeared to five hundred…appeared to James…appeared also to me.”
Again, so what?
There is the thick strand of scripture that sees the resurrection of the dead at the end of time: on the Last Day. Until then, we “sleep”, “awaiting our own joyful resurrection” on that Day. By the third century, thinkers were beginning to wonder about an afterlife. However, as Peter Carnley notes, “classical Christian theology of the afterlife represented, for example, by Augustine or Thomas…