“Christ is risen! … He sure is!” (Easter memories and thoughts)

Years ago I took a theology class to an Eastern Orthodox Easter divine liturgy. The cathedral was packed, but I had called ahead and my friend, the dean of the cathedral, had reserved seats for us in the back (as requested). I had told my undergraduate theology students not to go forward for the eucharist but to wait and go forward for the bread of fellowship after the service or at the end of it. A kind usher came to us and instructed us to stand and join the whole congregation in moving forward to the front. I had forgotten to tell the students what to say when the priest, in this case the dean, offered the bread and said “Christ is risen!” The people in front of us were quiet as they whispered “He is risen indeed,” so the young student from California who led our procession didn’t hear the response. I saw her step in front of Father Wojcik as he handed her the bread of fellowship and said “He is risen indeed.” She took the bread, looked at him and said “He sure is!”

Father Wojcik got a good laugh out of that. Later, during the question and answer time, he made clear to us that her response was entirely appropriate and he enjoyed it because it was unexpected and unusual–out of the routine.

I have many good memories of Easter but many of them include snow and darkness. You see, I grew up in the Upper Midwest and often Easter was during winter–and I mean winter as in weather: cold, limited sunlight, wind, snow.  More often than not our (my brother’s and my) “Easter egg hunt” had to be held indoors. Our church always held an “Easter Sunrise Service” early on Easter Sunday morning. After that we retired to a large room with a kitchen attached in the nearby “Settlement House” for breakfast. (That room served as our church’s fellowship hall.) Then came Sunday school and worship.

One year, when I was a child and Easter came later than usual, when it was really and truly finally spring, our Easter Sunrise Service was held outdoors–in a cemetery. The pastor, my father, obtained permission from the cemetery. The sun began to rise as we stood there singing “Low in the grave he lay” and then “Up from the grave he arose!” The focus of the service that Easter was on the dead all around us being raised to new life–just like Jesus.  (My mother’s grave was near where we stood, so that made it especially meaningful and memorable.)

This past week, during “Holy Week,” I heard one of the best sermons on the resurrection, our resurrection (because of Jesus’ resurrection), that I have ever heard. The preacher was my colleague Joel Gregory, a true pulpit master. Not many preachers can move the congregation to tears one moment, laughter the next, and deep thought the next. Joel’s focus was 1 Corinthians 15:44 and 2 Corinthians 5:1. His sermon sparkled with intriguing illustrations and stories from his own ministry but also with references to theologians such as Oscar Cullmann (famous for rejecting the “immortality of the soul” as a Greek doctrine in favor of the “resurrection of the body”).

I especially appreciated that Joel emphasized that Jesus’ resurrection body was and ours will be “spiritual bodies,” not “physical bodies.” Paul’s phrase is σῶμα πνευματικόν and he contrasts it with “physical body.” Resurrection is not resuscitation of a corpse–even to everlasting corporeal existence (unless “corporeal” means simply “bodily”). Not long ago I preached at a church whose statement of faith, printed in the bulletin, included belief in a “physical resurrection.” I find that many conservative Christians think the resurrection body will be material. Joel made clear he wasn’t talking about us becoming “ghosts” or phantoms. But neither will we (nor was Jesus) revived corpses. What we will be is a mystery; we can’t really understand it except to say there will be continuity and discontinuity between our present bodies and our resurrection bodies.

Just hours after hearing that chapel sermon I led my students in discussion of the theology of Paul Tillich. (I wrote the chapter on Tillich in Stan Grenz’s and my 20th Century Theology book [IVP 1992] and have recently rewritten it for the forthcoming The Journey of Modern Theology.) Although Tillich had many great ideas, he was most to be pitied because he did not believe in a resurrection of the dead. When he died he probably believed in reincarnation, but it’s impossible to know for sure. (According to his wife she “read him over” using The Tibetan Book of the Dead at his request.) Tillich agreed with Bultmann that the resurrection of Jesus was a “restitution of faith” in the lives of the disciples. We look forward to no bodily resurrection (according to him).

One of the strangest Easters in my life was when I was a Ph.D. student at Rice University in Houston. The chairman of the Religion Department, my mentor Niels Nielsen, was preparing me to go to Germany to study for a year with Wolfhart Pannenberg who was the subject of my dissertation project. I had to raise some of the money myself, but he set up appointments with several wealthy women who had contributed to such fellowships for Rice students in the past. On Easter Sunday afternoon, 1981, I drove into an estate owned by one of the wealthiest women in the world. The estate was in Houston–hidden in one of the most luxurious neighborhoods of the city. The mansion was so decrepit that I wasn’t sure it was where she lived. Eventually she came to the door and bid me enter. She had been cutting white lilies from her garden and had some in her hand. After our strange conversation she handed one to me and said “This is to remember the resurrection of the spirit, not the body.” During our conversation I found out that she had been a close friend of Tillich’s and he was even buried on property she owned in Indiana. She had a special “roofless chapel” built for his burial site. She was a leader of Houston’s Jung Society (dedicated to the study of Carl Jung’s philosophy). She was one of the strangest people I have ever met, but she gave me some money to go study with Pannenberg, so I’m grateful to her.

Last evening, this Easter weekend, I attended one of the best Easter musical events ever at a church near where I live. It’s an unusual church: independent Pentecostal and Anabaptist. I don’t know of any other like it. The church has about a thousand members. There were approximately 1,500 people there last evening and most of them were not church members but guests. (Most of the church members voluntarily step aside to allow guests to have the seats. The choir, orchestra and singers put on the concert for church members another time.) As I looked around I saw many local dignitaries–judges, newspaper publisher, college presidents, etc. (Last year a former president and his wife and one of their daughters was sitting near us at the concert.)

I was moved to tears by a soloist’s (accompanied by the almost 100 voice choir and approximately 50 piece orchestra) rendition of “I See a Crimson Stream of Blood.” (The musical selections are about the cross and the resurrection.) She sang with passion (and great talent!) but it was the words that moved me.

For much of my adult life I have attended churches that rarely sing about the blood of Jesus. I grew up in a form of Christian life that talked and sang and preached about “the blood of Jesus” much. Whenever my family got in the car to go on a trip my stepmother would “plead the blood of Jesus” over the car (for protection). I tend to think now that was a kind of magic, but it was well intended. But it seems to me we contemporary evangelicals have become squeamish about the blood of Jesus. We substitute “death” for blood or avoid mention of his “blood” altogether.

Now anyone who knows me knows I’m not one of those fundamentalists (do these even exist anymore?) who insist that every sermon, every testimony must include mention of the “blood.” But have we gone to the other extreme? I think so.

I don’t hold with magical, mystical ideas about the blood of Jesus as in “The Chemistry of the Bood” by M. R. DeHaan–a famous radio preacher of the 1950s. There was nothing special about the “chemistry” of Jesus’ blood. It was ordinary human blood.

However, I wonder what motivates us, contemporary evangelicals, to abandon all mention of the blood. (I once led an informal hymn and gospel singing event with colleagues at an institution where I formerly taught. Some of them would not sing about the blood or even play their musical instruments for songs I chose that included mention of the blood of Jesus!) To me, when I was growing up, talk about the “blood of Jesus” made his death more realistic. Without it I would have been tempted to think he, being God, just sort of fell asleep or died a painless death, not the hideous death he actually suffered and died.

Anyway, I don’t see our abandonment of the “language of Zion” (as one of my seminary professors called it) as a good thing. Sure, it needs translation for the uninitiated. But Scripture itself is full of mention of Jesus’ blood. So is Christian tradition. I suspect we thin out our Christianity by making it less offensive to tender sensibilities. For me, “the blood of Jesus” is part of a “thick description” of Christianity–more profound and meaningful than Christianity bled dry of everything offensive.


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  • Rob

    Wait–no physical resurrection!?! ‘Spiritual’ bodies? So I guess that means that Jesus’ physical body is still in the grave and the wounds he showed Thomas were duplicates?

    • rogereolson

      Where did I say anything to justify that conclusion? I specifically said there is “continuity and discontinuity” between the body that is buried and the resurrection body and I affirmed the empty tomb. And I cited the Greek of 1 Cor. 15–“spiritual body” is the only right English translation of soma pneumatikon.

      • Rob

        A physical body was placed in the grave. The tomb was empty, thus something happened to that physical body. I take it that the physical body was resurrected. If that physical body was not resurrected, where is it?
        Jesus showed Thomas wounds in his hands. The only plausible explanation for that demonstration is that those wounds were the very same wounds that Jesus received on the cross–physical wounds to a physical body. If the wounds Thomas touched were not the same wounds because they were not the wounds of a physical body, then Jesus was deceiving him. It seems that the point of that episode is to show that it was NOT a merely spiritual resurrection.
        I am saying that what went into the grave is what came out. What went into the grave was physical. Therefore, what came out was physical. It was obviously enhanced or perfected, but it was the same body. I don’t think that the soma pneumatikon denotes a difference in substance because it is contrasted with the soma psuchikon “Εἰ ἔστιν σῶμα ψυχικόν” and ‘psyche’ just means ‘soul’. If the comparison were one between two substances, both bodies would be non-physical! Of course, the Greeks had a word for physical or natural and it was ‘physis’ and Paul doesn’t use it.

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Thanks, Roger, for your reflections on Easter. That spontaneous, uninstructed affirmation of faith–“He sure is!”–sounds the right tone for the day. Amen!

    One observation: You mention the sermon in which the preacher emphasizes Paul’s distinction between our mortal bodies as “physical bodies” (or “natural bodies” as some translations have it) and our resurrection bodies as “spiritual bodies.” Actually, Paul himself (if the extant Greek text is to be trusted) did not make that distinction–that distinction is introduced by English translations.

    Paul does speak of the resurrection body as a pneumatikon soma–a pneumatic (“spiritual”) body in 1 Cor 15:44. But he does NOT refer to our mortal bodies as a “physical body” (or “natural body”). Rather, he calls it a psuchikon soma–a psychic (“soulish”) body. Had he wanted to call it a “physical body” (or “natural body”) he could easily have done so in Greek–phusikon soma. (Cf. Rom 1:26-27, where Paul uses phusikos to refer to “natural” sexual relations–sexual relations according to the order of nature.) But he didn’t. He calls our present bodies psuchikon, not phusikon. I suggest that Paul’s evidently deliberate choice of language be taken into consideration when interpreting what he meant.

    Given this, one might argue as follows: The contrast that Paul intends to make is not between spirit and matter, but (it would seem) between two different ways of matter being formed or organized–whether by “soul” (psuche) or by “spirit” (pneuma). Such a reading would not diminish the sense of a mysterious transformation in resurrection to which Paul points in 1 Cor 15:52-53, but would shift the emphasis. The resurrection body is a body (corpus, as the Vulgate has it), just as the mortal (“sown”) body is a body (thus, continuity) but they are organized on fundamentally different principles (thus, discontinuity)–the “sown” body is organized by “soul” (psuche) while the resurrection body is organized by “spirit” (pneuma). This is no small difference: one might argue (per Aristotle) that all living things, humans included, are organized (formed) by “soul” (psuche) such that “soul” is a principle common to both humans and animals (this is reflected in the Vulgate translation of psuchikon soma as corpus animale–anima is the Latin word for “soul” from which we derive our English word animal). The transformation from a soul-organized to a spirit-organized body by resurrection would thus signify a substantial break from the present organization of the human being. Now, for sure, this would signify a break with the “natural” (phusikos) order of things–biological reproduction generates bodies formed by psuche (“soul”) not penuma (“spirit”), such that the transformation of resurrection cannot be accomplished through the natural order (i.e., it is impossible according to the “laws of physics”–a mystery!). But, and this is the key point here, this does not necessarily signify a break from material reality. Indeed, one might argue, if God has created matter (as Scripture and Creed affirm), then God’s intent to redeem and renew creation (“all things” as Paul puts it) includes the redemption/renewal of material reality. Thus, we might expect, God’s purpose to make “all things new” entails the renewal not the annihilation of the soma (corpus) of the human being.

    I put all this forward only as a suggestion. As a philosopher, my role is to help the church think through the possibilities. I leave it to the theologians to decide which is true. 🙂

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I am aware of that interpretation, but I think it is too complex to read into what Paul said. Paul’s use of the Greek word “physis” is variegated. Some places it means physical as in material and some places it means fallen nature. The entire context of 1 Cor. 15 makes me believe he was distinguishing between ordinary material, physical bodies (that die) and supernatural bodies (such as Jesus possessed after his resurrection) whose nature we cannot really comprehend but are not physical, material in any sense we can think of. But I said the preacher said resurrection bodies are not ghosts or phantoms either. They are real bodies, but different from these we now possess.

      • Darrin Snyder Belousek

        Yes, I concur that Paul intends to say that resurrection bodies will be, in some respect, unlike anything we know in nature. That, I take it, is the point of his preceeding analogies involving seeds and plants, different kinds of animals, and heavenly bodies–resurrection bodies will transcend our present bodies just as the plant transcends the seed, just as heavenly bodies transcend earthly bodies in “glory.” Indeed, we might infer, Paul intends to say that our resurrection bodies will be more real, not less real, than our present bodies. That said, I wonder which is the more complex reading of Paul–that resurrection is a transformation of the material-physical body (an “Aristotelian” reading, suggested in my comment) or that resurrection is an abandonment of the material-physical body (a “Platonist” reading, suggested in your reply). There has certainly been a Platonist bias in church history on this question, so much so that a Platonist reading of Paul now seems “simpler” or more “natural” than any alternative reading. But I would like to see that view defended and not assumed.

        • rogereolson

          I thought I made clear that I believe the resurrection will be a transformation of the physical body. Otherwise why would Jesus’ tomb have been empty?

          • Darrin Snyder Belousek

            Yes, you have made clear that you think the resurrection will be a transformation of the physical body…but the question I am raising concerns the result. Unless I have greatly misunderstood you, that transformation as you understand it (i.e., as you read Paul) will result in a non-physical, non-material body (i.e., the “spiritual body” will not be material-physical “in any sense we can think of”), in which case the resurrection leaves the realm of material-physical reality behind.

            I don’t relish in mincing words, but here I think precision is needed: When I speak of a transformation of the material-physical body, I intend a “transubstantiation” (if you will) of the body, a fundamental reorganization of the material stuff, the result of which will be an outwardly sensible body (which, the Gospels testify, was true of Jesus’ resurrection body) but a body whose inner/underlying (“essential”) reality has been completely changed (such that it is imperishable, as Paul testifies). Now, perhaps you intend to allow a wide latitude of possibility in your qualification “any sense we can think of,” but that phrase taken literally excludes all that we do know of physical-material bodies (e.g., that they are outwardly sensible).

            I myself don’t know (much less claim to know) which way it will be. Paul’s terse and provocative statements leave much unclear–of necessity, this is a “mystery” as he said! I simply would suggest that we not close off possibilities on the basis of common presuppositions.

  • I live near the Roofless Church and Paul Tillich Park! There’s a big bust of Tillich’s head in the park and large stones with Tillich quotes inscribed on them. I go there from time to time. It’s a beautiful town (New Harmony, IN) founded by George Rapp and “Harmonists” (a pietistic, communal group) in the early 1800’s.

    I went through a period when I read all of Tillich’s writings. Like you said he had some interesting ideas. I know I benefited from the study. I remember being struck by the fact that he simply dismissed the bodily resurrection of Jesus as being absurd (in SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY). No argument needed. It was simply not possible to believe it happened. How different when I later turned to Pannenberg and read of his conviction that the best explanation of early Christian proclamation is that there was a bodily resurrection.

    I think the excessive spiritualizing of people like Tillich is what makes liberal theology so sterile. There’s no emphasis on external referents for faith. The object of faith is faith itself. There’s an air of unreality about it. The same is true of Barth’s approach in that it’s all about the discontinuity between us and God so that there’s no verification to be found in external referents. That’s what I appreciate about Pannenberg. I see him wanting to connect the inner and outer worlds. Bloesch too, in his own way, with his subjective/objective approach to faith (though I recognize Bloesch is closer to Barth, and I agree with Bloesch that the external referents/evidence don’t lead to faith but corroborate faith but I would add that they can act as a kind of pre-evangelism that can encourage people to give the gospel a fair hearing).

    • rogereolson

      For the most part I agree although my time with Pannenberg (and reading almost everything he ever wrote) convinced me he was not as clear about the nature of the resurrection as I would have liked. Empty tomb, yes. But he describes the resurrection appearances as objective visions. He used a lot of higher criticism I wouldn’t. For example, he believes the transfiguration story is a “misplaced resurrection appearance account.” And he doesn’t think the gospel’s appearance stories are reliable except for showing that something happened beyond anything ordinary or explainable using Troeltsch’s principle of analogy. As for the Roofless Church and Paul Tillich’s grave site. Yes, Rapp founded it. But he sold it to Robert Owen. The woman who gave me some money to study with Pannenberg–her husband was a descendent of Owen’s and she and he owned the park. I don’t know who owns it now. She and he are both dead now.

  • “Tillich agreed with Bultmann that the resurrection of Jesus was a “restitution of faith” in the lives of the disciples. We look forward to no bodily resurrection (according to him).”

    Roger, thanks for the ‘Old Bethany’ Easter memories! How well I remember! Please permit me to quote some of my thoughts on how the resurrection of Christ changed everything. Consider the following:

    When our extreme makeover [resurrection] is finally completed, we won’t recognize our old selves. We shall have a ‘new do’ — “we shall be like him” (1 Jn 3:2). Not only will each of us have a new look, but, so too shall God’s entire original creation be renewed, e.g., new heavens, new earth, new everything! Even the very atoms that make up the substance of the present material creation are to be enhanced with something new and better. The old atoms are subject to decay, splitting, etc., but when finished, every element of the re-creation will be eternal, spiritual and, “…the substance of things hoped for…” (Heb 11:1, NKJ).

    Then, too, the fixed laws of nature that we so often encounter in this life will be subordinated in the life to come. After his resurrection, Jesus gave us a glimpse of future reality when, against the known laws of Physics, he was able to change his appearance at will (Jn 20:14-16). On another occasion he miraculously walked through locked doors unimpeded (Jn 20:19). In his glorified state, neither locked doors nor locked hearts can successfully keep him out. The Resurrection changed everything!
    (An excerpt from the book, Dropping Hell and Embracing Grace, by Ivan A. Rogers. Available from Amazon.com, also on iPad, iPhone, and Kindle).

  • Craig Wright

    Yesterday, my daughter led our family Easter get together, with me on the piano, in singing Andrae Crouch’s “The Blood.”

  • Greg Farra

    I was surprised that the Orthodox church allowed your group to take communion. The one I went to here in Columbus practices closed communion, and I thought that was the general practice. Perhaps not?

    • rogereolson

      I said (in my story) that we did not participate in the Eucharist (communion) but only in the “break of fellowship” which is different and for everyone present.

      • Greg Farra

        I stand corrected. Your class got to take the bread that washes down, so to speak, the communion elements, but not the elements themselves.

        • rogereolson

          My understanding is that the “break of fellowship” is a left over of the “agape meal” that used to (in the early church) be the context of communion. Over the centuries, communion, eucharist, was separated from the agape meal. Thus, as I understood it within my Protestant frame of reference, what we partook was like a covered dish supper–only quicker and less filling. 🙂