All four gospels of the New Testament (NT) culminate with narratives about Jesus’ death, his bodily resurrection from the dead, and his disciples’ discovery of his empty tomb. And all of these gospels further relate several post-resurrection appearances of Jesus which occurred during the next forty days. During those times, Jesus’ disciples literally saw, touched, and talked to him, and they even ate and drank with him (e.g., Matthew 28.9; Luke 24.39-43; Acts 10.40-41; cf. John 20.27; 21.15).
Despite the difficulty in harmonizing these reports in order to provide a historically-accurate composite, Jesus’ resurrection was so critical to the subsequent development of Christianity. C.H. Dodd, perhaps the UK’s greatest New Testament scholar during the twentieth century, says of Jesus’ resurrection, “It is the central belief about which the church itself grew, without which there would have been no church and no gospels.” And William Lane Craig, an authority on Jesus’ resurrection, explains, “The origin of Christianity therefore hinges on the belief of the early disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead.”
Many Christians, and some of their best-selling authors, go a step farther by claiming that Jesus’ resurrection indicates he is God. Paul Little says, “Jesus’ supreme credential to authenticate his claim to deity was his resurrection from the dead.” Lee Strobel asserts, “The empty tomb,… is the ultimate representation of Jesus’ claim to being God…. the supreme vindication of Jesus’ divine identity.” And the UK’s Alister McGrath, perhaps the world’s leading conservative, Evangelical theologian, insists, “The central and decisive Christian doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ is grounded in his resurrection from the dead.” Those who make this assertion usually do so arbitrarily, thus providing no rationale and or biblical references for support.
Nearly all contemporary Bible scholars who also believe Jesus is God would disagree that Jesus’ resurrection indicates he is God. N.T. Wright, generally recognized as the world’s leading Jesus researcher, alleges that it is “a frequent misunderstanding” that Jesus’ “resurrection somehow proves Jesus’ divinity.” He says of Judaism in the time of Jesus, “resurrection was what was supposed to happen to all the dead, or at least all the righteous dead, and there was no suggestion that this would simultaneously constitute divinization.” He adds, “When the New Testament predicts the resurrection of all who belong to Jesus, there is no suggestion that they will thereby become, or be shown to be, divine. Clearly, therefore, resurrection by itself could not be taken to ‘prove’ the ‘divinity’ of Jesus; if it did, it would prove far too much. The over-simple apologetic strategy one sometimes encounters (‘he was raised from the dead, therefore he is the second person of the Trinity’) makes no sense.”
Indeed, it would “prove too much” and “make no sense” by requiring that when God resurrects his deceased people at the end of the age, it would prove that they, too, are Gods, which is ludicrous. And those who make this assertion avoid discussing this obvious implication which it evokes.
The early Jewish Christians preached that Jesus’ empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances verified that God had vindicated him. They further claimed this as evidence that he was the Christ, the Son of God, but not that he was God (Acts 2.31, 36; Romans 1.4). These positive maxims were the heart of their message. Wright calls this connection “the key move in early Christology.” James Dunn concludes, “The belief that God raised Jesus from the dead is, if anything, of even more fundamental importance to Christian faith than the belief in Jesus as the Son of God.”
Dunn makes this statement because most Christians have differed from the early Christians, as portrayed in the NT, by believing that Jesus’ status as the Son of God indicates that he was and is God. They assert that Jesus eternally preexisted as God, being the ontological Logos-Son of God, and that at his birth he became a God-man, which they call “the incarnation.” But the NT often identifies Jesus as the Son of God without indicating that it means he was God. In fact, the Gospel of Luke relates that Jesus is the Son of God merely because of his virgin birth. For we read therein, “And the angel answered and said to her [Mary], ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God’” (Luke 1.35).
The book of Acts in the NT reveals that Jesus’ apostles made his resurrection the chief cornerstone of their faith as well as their evangelistic message. They never preached that Jesus was God but that God raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 2.24, 32; 3.15, 26; 4.10; 5.30; 10.40). And despite Jesus saying in John 10.15-18 that God had given him the authority to lay down his life and take it up again, the early Christians never preached that Jesus actually raised himself from the dead. In fact, Jesus’ resurrection depended upon God the Father, and this dependence further indicates that Jesus was not God. Sometimes, his apostles mentioned that they were eye-witnesses of the risen Jesus (e.g., Luke 1.2; Acts 1.8; 2.32; 3.15; 10.39-41; 1 John 1.1-3).
Subsequent church fathers generally erred by reversing this proclamation. They asserted that the foundation of the Christian faith is the incarnation, that God became the man Jesus, so that Jesus was and is God. So, they made Jesus’ resurrection a secondary element in their message. They reasoned that Jesus being God was more important to Christian faith than his resurrection.
No NT author ever indicates that Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, or heavenly session indicates he was God or that it resulted in some kind of divinization or deification of him or a reclaiming or reactivation of deity or any attributes of deity, as if to confirm the later Nicene Creed that Jesus was “very God of very God.” And there is no biblical evidence suggesting that the essence of the post-Easter, heavenly Jesus is any different from that of the pre-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus was no more than a man, and the same is true of the post-Easter, heavenly Jesus. The only difference is that the pre-Easter Jesus had a physical body that was subject to death, whereas the post-Easter Jesus has a resurrection, spiritual body that is glorified, immortal, and eternal, so that it cannot die. But none of this, including Jesus’ sitting beside God on God’s heavenly throne, indicates that Jesus is God.
In sum, Jesus’ resurrection indicates his dependence upon God, which always affirms he is not God. For, Jesus was not sovereign in rising from the dead. The one and only Almighty God–of whom the Apostle Paul says “who alone possesses immortality” (1 Timothy 6.16)–accomplished his will by means of his Holy Spirit in raising his beloved Son, Jesus, from the dead.