Biblical Background.

In all but the latest parts of the Hebrew Bible, the concept of resurrection was applied not to the life of the individual after death but metaphorically to the renewal of Israel corporately after the return from exile (see Isa. 26.19; Ezek. 37.1–14, where the resurrection language, especially in v. 13, is clearly metaphorical). In apocalyptic literature, beginning with Daniel 12.2, resurrection language is applied literally, denoting coming to life again after death through an act of God in a transcendental mode of existence beyond history. This new existence, however, is not conceived in an individualistic fashion; it is the elect people of God (Dan. 12.1) who are corporately resurrected. The transcendental character of this resurrection life is indicated by such similes as “shine like the brightness of the sky” (Dan. 12.3).

Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, a concept couched in apocalyptic terms and involving a new cosmic order. It was to arrive shortly; God was already at work in Jesus' ministry to bring it about. Jesus' proclamation thus implied impending corporate resurrection of the people of God, or at least of those who responded positively to his message. In the controversy with the Sadducees, Jesus used a simile reminiscent of Daniel 12.3 to describe the transcendental character of the resurrection life; the resurrection will be “like angels in heaven” (Mark 12.25). Critical scholarship regards the predictions by Jesus of his own resurrection (Mark 8.31; etc.) as creations of the post‐Easter community after the event. Since, however, Jesus' preaching of the kingdom implied resurrection, there can be no question that he foresaw the corporate resurrection of God's people as lying beyond his own death (Mark 14.25). But there is nothing in his authentic preaching to suggest that he expected an individual resurrection for himself.

The Easter Event.

It is in this framework that the Easter event should be understood. Jesus appeared alive to his disciples after his crucifixion. The earliest record of these appearances is to be found in 1 Corinthians 15.3–7, a tradition that Paul “received” after his apostolic call, certainly not later than his visit to Jerusalem in 35 CE, when he saw Cephas (Peter) and James (Gal. 1.18–19), who, like him, were recipients of appearances. The early community adopted three models to interpret this fact: rapture, resurrection, and exaltation. According to the first model, Jesus was “taken up” (Acts 1.11; Luke 9.51; Mark 16.19) or “received” in heaven (Acts 3.21; see Ascension of Christ). According to the second, God “raised Jesus from the dead” (1 Cor. 15.4, where the passive “was raised” is a divine passive denoting an act of God; cf. Acts 2.24). The third model, exaltation, is found by itself, without a preceding reference to the resurrection, in a pre‐Pauline hymn (Phil. 2.6–11). The letter to the Hebrews operates almost exclusively with the exaltation model (a reference to the resurrection occurs only in the benediction at Heb. 13.20). In Acts, exaltation occurs in combination with resurrection (2.32–33; 5.30–31). In John, the exaltation language is applied both to death and to resurrection (3.14; etc.). Of these three models, resurrection is the one that proved most persistent; it either absorbed or replaced the others. Its advantage was that it brought out the corporate and cosmic significance of the Easter event. Jesus was raised by God as the first and determinative instance of the resurrection of the elect people of God and the renewal of the whole cosmos (1 Cor. 15.20, 23). His resurrection will make possible all the other resurrections that will occur at the end.

The resurrection, while a real event according to the unanimous testimony of the New Testament, is not historical in the sense that ordinary events are. It occurs at the point where history ends and God's end‐time kingdom begins. And it is not in itself an observable occurrence. No one saw God raise Jesus from the dead. Nor can it be verified. In a sense, it is an inference from the disciples' Easter visions (and to a lesser degree from the empty tomb; see below).

The Easter Traditions.

The early community, beyond asserting in its proclamation that God raised Jesus, further organized the appearances in lists (1 Cor. 15.3–8; cf. Mark 16.7; Luke 24.34). It did not at this stage tell stories of the appearances, probably because the recipients found themselves at a loss to find language to express the ineffable (as is probably the case with Paul). The word “appeared” denotes a visionary experience, for the same word is used of angelic appearances (Luke 1.11). On the other hand, the appearances are not to be downgraded as mere subjective experiences or hallucinations. The word “appeared” denotes a disclosure from God in heaven. The most accurate description of the appearances would be “revelatory encounters.” They revealed Jesus as alive.

The appearances had several effects. First, they restored the disciples' faith and hope in Jesus (cf. Luke 24.21, which accurately captures the mood of the disciples after Good Friday). Second, this faith was expressed by means of christological titles: God had vindicated Jesus and made him Lord and Messiah (Acts 2.36). Having deserted Jesus at his arrest, the disciples were now reassembled and welded into a community that soon described itself as the church, that is, God's end‐time people. Third, their Easter faith impelled them to embark on a mission, first to Israel, and ultimately to the gentile world. Fourth, the leaders of the mission became apostles, which is to say, envoys, sent ones.

Alongside the lists of appearances there existed a story of the empty tomb (Mark 16.1–8 par.). This story apparently was part of the passion narrative, and functioned as the framework for the angelic proclamation of the resurrection at the conclusion of the reading of the passion during the Christian passover. Its presence in at least two traditions (Mark/Matthew and John; behind the Lucan account there may lie yet another independent version) indicates that the basic nucleus of the tradition, that certain women discovered Jesus' empty tomb on the Sunday after his death, is very early, despite its absence from Paul. There is also indication that the disciples verifed the women's discovery (Luke 24.12, 24; John 20.3–10). Probably this followed the disciples' return to Jerusalem, after their visions in Galilee; they must have welcomed the empty tomb as congruous with the Easter faith, which they had already arrived at through the visions. The empty tomb did not create the Easter faith, and in any case it is in itself an ambiguous fact, susceptible of other explanations alluded to in the New Testament itself (e.g., Matt. 27.64; John 20.15). The Gospels, however, are at pains to insist that the women took note of the tomb on Good Friday evening, and therefore did not go to the wrong tomb on Easter morning (Mark 15.47 par.).

Appearance Stories.

Mark, generally regarded as the earliest Gospel, originally contained no appearance stories, but merely pointed forward to subsequent appearances in Galilee (16.7). Appearance stories seem to have grown up as isolated units (pericopes), like the bulk of the gospel material. Inevitably, what was originally indescribable came to be described in earthly terms. The risen Christ talked, walked, and even ate with the disciples, as he had while on earth (Matt. 28; Luke 24; John 20; 21; Mark 16.9–20). Clearly, the only way the postapostolic community could construct appearance stories was to model them on the stories from the earthly ministry. These stores were more than simple narratives, though. They were expressions of the impact of the appearances, as they were first experienced by the original recipients and as the community subsequently came to understand them. This impact is expressed in the words attributed to the risen one. They include a missionary charge, a command to baptize, a promise of abiding presence or the gift of the Spirit, instruction about the fulfillment of biblical promises in his death and resurrection, the assurance of his presence in the breaking of the bread, and finally the hope of his coming again. The church and its whole faith and life are seen to have originated in the Easter event.

A particularly acute problem is created by the portrayal of the physical reality of the Lord's risen body in some of the later stories. This seems to run counter to the earlier tradition (see above), to Pauline teaching on the nature of the postresurrectional existence (1 Cor. 15.35–49), and to the categorical statement in 1 Corinthians 15.50. We must ask, however, what exactly these narratives are saying. Their purpose is to assert that, in the resurrection, Jesus did not leave his earthly life behind but took it with him. As a result, his whole “being for us,” which characterized his earthly ministry and which culminated on the cross, are forever present and available to us. The wounds of the nails and the hole in his side are still there in the risen body (John 20.20, 24–29). These stories are not to be dismissed merely as later materializations, for they convey important truths about the resurrection. In the risen one, the incarnate, earthly, crucified one, with all the saving benefits that result from his being in the flesh, is present for us.

The Resurrection of Believers.

With all the concentration of the later Easter narratives upon the personal fate of Jesus, it must never be forgotten that resurrection is a corporate event. Jesus was raised as the firstfruits. Believers share in his resurrection initially through baptism. Paul is very cautious about this: believers share his death but their resurrection is conditional upon their present obedience and will not be complete until the parousia or second coming (Rom. 6.3–11; 1 Thess. 4.15–17; see also Biblical Theology, article on New Testament).

The deutero‐Pauline Colossians and Ephesians are less cautious. Colossians asserts that we are already risen with Christ through baptism, though this risen state carries with it present moral responsibilities and its full consummation is not realized until the end (Col. 3.1–4), while in Ephesians believers are already raised to life and made to sit at Christ's right hand in heavenly places (Eph. 2.5–6). Ethical obedience is still required in Ephesians, as the exhortation in chaps. 4–6 shows, and there is still a final consummation (Eph. 4.13). Similarly, the Fourth Gospel teaches that resurrection and eternal life are already realized for believers (John 5.24; etc.), though here again there is a future consummation to be awaited (John 6.39; etc.). The corporate and cosmic dimensions of resurrection are thus never completely lost in the New Testament.

See also Afterlife and Immortality; Easter


Reginald H. Fuller