The Resurrection - Spiritual or Physical?


On 29 April 1984 the Bishop-designate of Durham, David Jenkins appeared on Channel 4's Credo religious TV programme. The journalist Philip Whitehead was interviewing David Jenkins, the Bishop-to-be, and asked him about "the most important miracle in the whole story of Jesus, the story of the Resurrection."

His question was simple: "Do you hold the view that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven?" The reply was as follows:

"Well, I hold the view that he rose from the dead. The question is what that means, isn't it? I think I should like to say that it doesn't seem to me, reading the records as they remain in both the Gospels and what Paul says in 1 Corinthians, that there was any one event which you could identify with the Resurrection. What seems to me to have happened is that there were a series of experiences which gradually convinced a growing number of the people who became apostles that Jesus had certainly been dead, certainly buried and he wasn't finished. And what is more he wasn't just not finished but he was "raised up", that is to say, the very life and power and purpose and personality which was in him was actually continuing and was continuing both in the sphere of God and in the sphere of history so that he was a risen and living presence and possibility."

A little later, the Bishop-designate of Durham was being interviewed on the BBC. This time the interviewer was David Brown. He referred to the empty tomb and said that the new bishop seemed to be saying that it is not essential for a Christian to believe in the empty tomb of Jesus. To which David Jenkins replied:

"Well, that is absolutely right, because even if you did, no single historical fact can be certain. And secondly, no single historical fact can prove anything. I mean, historical facts are a matter of probability and doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to do with assurance that the people who bear witness to these facts have a conviction which we can share."

And when the interviewer mentioned the virginal conception of Jesus and his empty tomb and asked: "isn't their inclusion in the New Testament ... evidence of certainty", the Bishop-designate replied:

"Certainly not! There is absolutely no certainty in the New Testament about anything of importance."

Following these claims, a number of clergy in the North East of England especially, but also throughout England, attempted to stop the appointment of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham. This was without success.

However, subsequent action that was taken in the General Synod was successful. It reversed the theologically liberal conclusion of the House of Bishops that the empty tomb only "expressed the faith of the Church of England". The House of Clergy and the House of Laity both voted that the empty tomb "was the faith of the Church of England".

But the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins continued to sow doubts when in office. His conclusion was this:

"I personally do not know whether the grave was empty or not. The evidence of the texts, the nature of the tradition and the general facts about the way people all over the world rapidly believe appropriate stories to support the religious beliefs leave me wholly uncertain about the Empty Tomb as literal historical fact."

To counter David Jenkins false teaching I was asked to write a book (The Church of England - where is it going?) and one or two shorter pieces. I have included one of these below under title The Empty Tomb.

Tom Wright

Then following what I have written, I have included a piece by the present Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, under the title What happened at the Resurrection?

This is a scholarly piece that I consider helpful and that I am grateful Tom Wright has written. He teaches the very opposite to his predecessor and robustly defends the empty tomb and the "bodily" resurrection of Jesus. When Tom Wright was Bishop-designate in 2003, he wrote this article for the Church Times. The editor of the Church Times kindly has given his permission for it to be included in the Coloured Supplement (the Church Times can be accessed on the web at

A number of people are currently in disagreement with Tom Wright over his criticism of the new "Covenant for the Church of England" signed by many evangelical church leaders, including John Stott. This "covenant" is seeking reform in the light of the heretical teachings of some of the bishops. I, too, as a signatory to the covenant, disagree with what Tom Wright has written. But I always remember J.C.Ryle's comment when Ryle was writing about Paul's strong disagreement with Peter at Antioch. That was when Peter seemed not to have grasped the true meaning of "justification by faith". You read in Galatians 2 how Peter had so got things wrong that he refused to eat with the Gentiles. Ryle writes:

"who does not see, when he reads the history of the Church of Christ, repeated proofs that the best of men can err? ... The Reformers were honoured instruments in the hand of God for reviving the cause of truth on earth. Yet hardly one of them can be named who did not make some great mistake."

Peter, obviously, later changed his mind; and obviously I hope Tom Wright will change his mind about the covenant. What he says, however, about the Resurrection of Jesus should be judged on its own merits.

"THE EMPTY TOMB" by David Holloway

The Resurrection - the New Testament doctrine of the Resurrection, not a post-modern reconstruction of it - lies at the heart of the Christian faith. "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). But was this not just a "spiritual" resurrection of Jesus rather than a "physical" resurrection?

Of course, the Resurrection of Jesus was not a crude resuscitation of a corpse; it was a glorious transformation. In that sense his old "flesh and blood" (to use Paul's phrase) did not inherit the new order of "the Kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 15:50). But what Paul implies and the New Testament elsewhere makes quite clear is that on the first Easter morning Jesus' tomb was found empty; and it was found empty because Jesus had risen. To suggest that it does not matter if the bones of Jesus are still in the soil of Palestine is clearly contrary to the plain meaning of the texts and is, therefore, dangerous heresy and needs to be opposed.

People who still want to use the language of "resurrection" while denying the empty tomb have to say that the empty tomb is a myth. That is to say, they present it as a story concocted to illustrate the meaning of "resurrection". But that is not what the Bible teaches. According to the text of the Bible, the empty tomb is clearly not just an illustration of the meaning of the Resurrection; it is the evidence for the Resurrection.

If you believe the empty tomb is merely a visual aid, it will be of no essential significance. Belief in it, even though well grounded, will be held to be secondary or optional. That is the view of the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. He argued that the empty tomb is a symbol of "the assertion, made by God and received by faith, that in this world, through this world and beyond this world we may be sure that in the end, love succeeds, love brings it off, love has the last word. Jesus, the flesh and blood expression of down-to-earth love is at the very 'right hand of God'."

But that is to destroy meanings. The words sound so good (if you can understand them), yet they reduce the Resurrection to a platitude about love. Yes, "love" is vital. God, indeed, is love. But the Resurrection of Jesus is saying more than just that - true though it is.

It was the philosopher Wittgenstein who said that you could trace the breakdown in religious belief to a "credit rating decline" in the concepts that we use. Such reductionism has been and is destroying the credit rating of the Resurrection.

This "new theology" is not the position of the Christian Church down the centuries. It is not the faith that countless men and women have lived and died for. They knew that had the tomb not been empty everything that they affirmed would have been falsified. If Jesus' remains had still been in the tomb, only the extremes of Gnosticism could have believed that death had lost its sting and the grave had lost its victory.

The New Testament

How, though, can we be sure that the tomb was empty? Is the evidence of the texts not rather weak? The main textual evidence for the empty tomb is there in the Gospel narratives - the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But the argument is sometimes put forward that the Resurrection accounts are all so different and therefore cannot be reliable. What do we say to this?

It is true that the Resurrection narratives are different in the four Gospels. But the basic difference lies in the accounts of the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, not in the accounts of how women (and others) found the tomb of Jesus empty. It is not at all strange, in any case, that the Gospel writers have different accounts of the appearances of Jesus to his disciples. Different apostles most probably reported different appearances on different occasions. On the other hand, it is quite remarkable how similar the accounts of the empty tomb are in all four Gospels. There is an amazing unanimity.

The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all agree on three things:

1) that some women, including Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb of Jesus on the first day of the week and found the stone rolled away from the tomb's entrance;
2) that a young man (or some angelic presence) explained what had happened, saying, "He is risen, he is not here";
3) that the women were frightened and left the tomb.

When we look at John 20:1-2 we find that the fourth Gospel also fits in with this outline. The only difference there is that the angelic interpreter has not been mentioned - but two angels are mentioned in verses 11-13, when Mary is back at the tomb.

It is quite clear that the Gospel writers were drawing on different sources and different accounts of the Resurrection, but these sources all agree over the empty tomb. Mark's Gospel is generally reckoned to be written in the 60s of the first century AD. But the information he (and the others) drew on was preached, remembered and probably recorded much earlier. As late as AD 56 when Paul was writing 1 Corinthians, we are told that many of the disciples who had seen Jesus after the Resurrection "are still alive" (1 Corinthians 15:6). It is unthinkable that any eyewitnesses would have allowed an empty tomb tradition to develop so uniformly if it was fiction.

Paul, however, as someone is bound to point out, does not mention the empty tomb. True, but he implies it. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 he speaks about the basic core of the Gospel: "that Christ died ... that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day ... and that he appeared [to various disciples]."

This early "creed" thus focused on the burial as well as the death of Christ. As Professor F.F.Bruce says, "Burial emphasizes the reality of the resurrection which followed, as a divine act which reversed the act of men." It points to the empty tomb. We have to say that what was raised was what was buried - i.e. the body of Jesus.

Note, also, that Paul specifies that the Resurrection happened on the "third day". What could give rise to this specific date except the discovery of the empty tomb? Had there been no empty tomb but only visionary experiences, there would be no possible reason for such an emphasis on the "third day".

More importantly, this "basic core'" or "creed" of belief made it clear that Christians believed and must still believe both "that he was raised on the third day" and "that he appeared". The appearances by themselves are not the gospel or good news. Some of the early disciples thought they were just having a psychic experience (Luke 24:37). But together with the empty tomb - a resurrection that reversed the burial - the appearances pointed to the true nature of Jesus' Resurrection: it was a "bodily" resurrection. Certainly, in 1 Corinthians 15.51, Paul presupposes "bodily change": "We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed." He may not explicitly have mentioned the empty tomb - instead he took it for granted, as any Jew would have done in talk of "resurrection". Unlike the Greeks, the Jews did not see a person as a soul entrapped in a body awaiting release at death. Rather, they saw a person more as "body and soul" together. The great hope then was for a resurrection that included the body.

There are two further questions we must ask over the empty tomb. First, a very simple question: Why did the Jewish authorities never produce the remains of Christ to silence the Christian movement once and for all, if in fact Christ's body was still in the tomb or had been removed? The only explanation which has maintained its credibility over the centuries is that there was no body for them to produce, because of Jesus' bodily Resurrection.

Secondly, if the Resurrection does not encompass the transformation of the physical body, what do we say in the final analysis about this material universe? What ultimately happens to this universe of space and time? Is it all just some great mistake that God tries to forget? That was the Gnostic heresy - to say "matter is bad or mistaken".

John Polkinghorne, formerly Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, then ordained and then President of Queens' College, Cambridge, says, "No! It is not a mistake." And the key is the Empty Tomb. "The Empty Tomb," he writes, "says to me that matter has a destiny, a transformed and transmuted destiny, no doubt, but a destiny nevertheless. The material creation is not a transient, even mistaken episode". That was Paul's view also. He saw Christ's Resurrection as the "first fruits". Ultimately, he said, the creative power of God will transform the whole material universe: "The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).

[The above is an extract from my book Church and State in the New Millennium (London, HarperCollins, 2000, pp 201-205) - DRJH]


In a dark room down an alleyway, four or five men hide in fear. Somehow they have escaped – it was a crowded festival, and the guards couldn't keep track of so many prisoners – and for the last three days they have been holed up. They know how it ended: their leader was dragged through the streets at the end of the triumphal procession, tortured, and executed. They had heard the shouting, full of blood-lust, celebrating the empire's destruction of its (supposedly) dangerous opponent.

The year is 70 AD; the empire is, of course, Rome; the dead leader is Simon bar Giora, whom the Romans saw as "king of the Jews". I've invented the escaped prisoners to raise the question: what would they think and do next?

If we were to believe one strand in New Testament scholarship, and quite a bit of popular thought both inside and outside the Church, they might suffer from "cognitive dissonance". They might find it difficult to come to terms with Simon's death. And (as a friend said to me the other day) the idea of resurrection was, in any case, "in the air". Mightn't they have begun to say that he'd been raised from the dead?

Or perhaps (corresponding to another regular theory about Easter), as they waited and trembled and whispered psalms, they had a new sense of God's presence. They felt loved and forgiven. They felt God somehow with them – or Simon himself with them. Perhaps one of them had a powerful vision of Simon himself, smiling and talking to him. Strange things like that happened in the first century, as they do today. This might have made them say that he'd been raised from the dead.

No. When we examine what first-century Jews believed about death, life beyond, and resurrection, these theories don't work. Many a Jewish leader was killed by pagans; in no case, except for that of Jesus of Nazareth, did anyone say thereafter either that he was the Messiah or that he'd been raised from the dead. Escape with your life if you can; find another Messiah if you dare; pray and fast and wait for God's fresh comfort and hope – but don't say he's been raised from the dead. He obviously hasn't been.

"Resurrection" had a clear meaning in the first century: a new bodily life after a period of bodily death. It never referred to "life after death", as it often does in today's misguided Christian usage. Still less was it a word for "His cause continues," or "He's gone to heaven." The word had this meaning for pagans, who, from Homer to Pliny and beyond, routinely denied that it happened (with Platonists insisting, in addition, that it was undesirable).

Many first-century Jews, nourished on Daniel 12 and martyr-legends, affirmed resurrection; many questioned it, or didn't bother either way. Judaism could also use "resurrection" language as a metaphor, not for a blissful life after death, but for the this-worldly concrete events of return from exile (Ezekiel 37), interpreted in this case as release from foreign domination.

The Jewish belief was, though, modified in six striking ways:

1 Resurrection was one point among several on the Jewish spectrum of belief. It was virtually the only option in Christianity.
2 Resurrection was important in Judaism, but not that important. It was central and vital in early Christianity.
3 Jews saw "the resurrection" as a single event, happening to all at the very end. The Christians declared that it was a two-stage event: Jesus first; others later.
4 Judaism never described the resurrection body in detail. The early Christians insisted that it would be a transformed physicality: neither a mere resuscitation to the same kind of life as before (the new body would not suffer or die), nor an abandonment of the body to corruption and decay, while the "real person" (the soul, perhaps) went off elsewhere. That would mean that death was merely reinterpreted not defeated.
Paul's language about the "spiritual body" in 1 Corinthians 15 has often been misunderstood. He doesn't mean "a person made of spirit", i.e. "a non-physical person", but "a new body animated by God's Spirit", as in Romans 8.9-11.
5 The Jewish metaphorical use of "resurrection" to denote "return from exile" virtually disappears in early Christianity. Instead, we find a different metaphorical use: to refer to baptism and holiness (e.g. Romans 6). "Resurrection" refers to actual persons and events, not simply to states of mind, even when used metaphorically (that is, when actual final resurrection is not in mind). It remains anchored to two central doctrines: God as creator and God as judge. God will put the world to rights, and will rescue creation from corruption, not leave it to rot.
6 No one in Judaism ever supposed the Messiah would be resurrected. This was basic to Christianity from the beginning; the resurrection demonstrated Jesus to be Messiah, and therefore the world's true Lord.

These developments were mutations from within Jewish belief, not transformations of Jewish ideas into a pagan framework. Together with the other extraordinary events of early Christianity, they force the question why?

The answer all the early Christians gave, of course, is that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed raised from the dead. They clearly meant by this that, soon after his shameful, violent death, he was bodily alive again.

"Resurrection" did not mean that he had been "raised to heaven", as people sometimes say. They had other language for that. Nor did it mean, as some have urged, that, over a long period, they had an increasing conviction of Jesus' being "alive among them", guiding them, and so forth, without anything happening to his corpse.

It may be Spring, but we should resist the call of the cuckoo at this point – not because we are clinging to old-fashioned dogma in the teeth of modern scholarship, but because serious historical investigation about what Jews and Christians said and meant in the first century rules out that interpretation. From the beginning they said, and meant, that Jesus had been raised bodily.

The stories they told are, of course, fascinatingly confused and elusive? How many women went to the tomb? Did the appearances happen in Galilee (as Mark seems to imply), in Jerusalem (as Luke says), or both (as Matthew says briefly, John more fully)? Piecing together the stories is like figuring out what precisely happened when Karl Popper met Ludwig Wittgenstein on 26 October 1946.

Some of the greatest minds of the day were present when Wittgenstein brandished a poker and then left the room, but they could never agree afterwards what exactly had occurred (see David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein's Poker: The story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers, Faber, 2001). Confused reports of surprising events don't mean that nothing happened.

The stories themselves are surprising in several ways. One regular theory suggests that they were made up many years later to legitimate or defend an idea of "resurrection" to which the Christians had come, not because of happenings three days after Jesus' death, but because of a combination of new-found faith, spiritual experience, reflection on the scriptures, and church controversy.

There are several features of the stories themselves, which make this virtually impossible.

1 Unlike the rest of the Gospels, not least the crucifixion narratives, the stories are devoid of biblical reference, allusion and echo. They read, not as reflective pieces mulled over with a Bible in hand, but as breathless, pre-reflective accounts. As dramatic anecdotes, they retain for ever (except for very light editing) the form and content they had in their first, and then frequently repeated, tellings.
2 The stories all highlight the initial place of the women. By the mid-second century, Celsus was pouring scorn on them for this reason (women were not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world). But already by the mid-first century, the "official" account of "the gospel", as in 1 Corinthians 15.4-8, had screened out the women and inserted James the Lord's brother, a central early-Church leader who isn't mentioned in the Gospel resurrection stories.
One might imagine one evangelist inventing stories about the women to boost their claims to leadership. We cannot imagine all four doing so, and so differently, unless there really were women who really did find an empty tomb, and whose testimony was discovered to be true.
3 The portrait of the risen Jesus is not at all what we would expect. He is "physical"; he can eat, be touched, and leave behind not only an empty tomb, but, at Emmaus, a loaf broken but not consumed. But the same stories speak of his not being recognised, his coming and going through locked doors, and finally his ascending into heaven.
Had Luke and John been writing (as many have asserted) to combat the idea that Jesus wasn't really human, they have shot themselves in the feet with both barrels. What the stories do not say is equally remarkable. Had they been invented on the basis of Daniel 12 (the best known Jewish "resurrection" text), they would certainly have had Jesus shining like a star. Their portrait of Jesus is impossible to account for unless it reflects actual memories that surprised the early disciples as they surprise us.
4 Almost everywhere else in early Christianity, mention of Jesus' resurrection is closely linked to the Christian's future hope (final resurrection, after a period of being "asleep" or being "with Christ").
It is astonishing – and deeply challenging to half our Easter hymns and sermons – that none of the Gospel Easter stories so much as hints at that. The emphasis is on the most basic message of Easter: God's new creation has begun, and Jesus' followers are its agents, not just its beneficiaries. The stories don't say: "Jesus is raised, therefore we will go to heaven and/or be raised from the dead"; they say: "Jesus is raised, therefore we have a job to do."

So if the stories are early (albeit written down later), what can the historian say about them? The normal rationalising proposals, as we saw, fail at the level not of dogma but of history. History demands two things: that the tomb really was empty on Easter morning, and that Jesus' followers really did meet him alive again. How do we explain that? Historians often speak of "inference to the best explanation". The best historical explanation for the origin of Christianity is that the stories are basically true.

The shrill, relentless modernism that opposes this conclusion needs to be confronted head on. It isn't a "modern" discovery that dead people don't rise. Aeschylus and Pliny knew that just as well as Richard Dawkins. Modernist intellectual imperialism tries to do to the Christian gospel what modern geopolitical empires try to do to countries they imagine to be a threat. The resurrection grounds the Christian challenge to both.

Death is the last weapon of the tyrant: beware of those who want it to remain unchallenged. Jesus' resurrection, precisely because it is the start of God's new creation, is the foundation, not for an escapist, other-worldly theology, nor one wedded to outmoded dogma, but for one that generates and sustains the lasting work of God's kingdom within real human history. Resurrection is the ground of Christian hope for life before death, as well as beyond it.

[The above is an article by Tom Wright in the Church Times, Easter 2003.]

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