Sunday, April 5, 2015

Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light

 Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Easter is about resurrection and is the focal point of the Christian religion.   It is about faith and belief in a miracle that is beyond reason, but not unreasonable.  Jews and Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet, but not as the risen Christ; and while Muslims do not believe in the resurrection, they believe that Jesus will return on the last day to usher in God’s kingdom.    

            Something truly miraculous happened on that first Easter.  Many who had been skeptical of Jesus as a messiah became believers, but the nature of the miraculous event and its meaning were unclear until the Apostle Paul articulated the atonement doctrine.  From that ancient time until now that doctrine has remained at the foundation of Christian beliefs and creeds.

            Paul was a Pharisaic Jew who understood blood sacrifice as an atonement for sin and believed in the resurrection of the dead, and he was expecting a messiah who would soon usher in God’s kingdom on earth.  It was no surprise that Paul understood the crucifixion as God’s blood sacrifice of his Son as an atonement for original sin, and that God resurrected Jesus Christ to sit at His right hand and return at the end times to usher in God’s kingdom on earth. 

            Paul’s atonement doctrine fits squarely within his 1st century Jewish theology, but outside that context it is both inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus and with what we know of history.  While the atonement doctrine asserts that God sacrificed Jesus on the cross as an atonement for sin, Jesus echoed earlier prophets in emphasizing mercy, not sacrifice.  According to Jesus God’s forgiveness of sin was available for the asking and did not require a ritual blood sacrifice, and Jesus taught his disciples to follow him as the word of God, not to worship him as God’s Son.

            The accounts of events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus as reported in the Gospel accounts are inconsistent with it being a divine sacrifice orchestrated by God.  Those accounts indicate that religious leaders felt threatened by the radical teachings of Jesus and convinced Roman authorities to execute him as an insurrectionist.  Another anomaly is that Paul and the early Christians were wrong in their belief that Christ would return in an apocalyptic Parousia in their lifetimes to usher in the kingdom of God on earth. 

            Today we can see the resurrection in a new light.  Without Paul’s atonement doctrine the resurrection can be understood as God’s validation of the teachings of Jesus as the Logos, or the living word of God (John 1:1-14).  That would make belief in the teachings and example of Jesus, rather than in Jesus himself, as the way, the truth and the life and the only way to salvation (John 14:6).  If God is love (I John 4:16-21), then the new command of John’s Gospel to love one another (John 13:34) is at the heart of the Logos, and to emphasize the divinity of Jesus Christ at the expense of the word of God is to distort God’s truth.  

            Needless to say, that understanding of the resurrection would have changed history with a different kind of Christianity.  As it was, passages from John’s Gospel (John 3:16 and 14:6) have been routinely cited out of context to require belief in the divinity of Jesus and the atonement doctrine as the only way to salvation, and that denigrates the teachings of Jesus.    

            The Nicene Creed and The Apostles Creed are traditional creeds that assert belief in mystical matters derived from the atonement doctrine and theological speculation rather than the teachings of Jesus; and putting exclusivist church doctrine ahead of the teachings of Jesus has caused many Christians to become disillusioned and leave the church as Nones.  

            Robin R. Meyers has stated the problem in the title to his book, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus(HarperOne, 2009).  It is not a new idea.  Deists of the 18th century like Thomas Jefferson and Biblical scholars like those of the Jesus Seminar have all shared a belief in the moral teachings of Jesus as God’s truth while being skeptical of exclusivist church doctrines.

            Islam has similar problems.  Christianity and Islam are competitive religions that seek converts based on exclusivist belief systems that promise salvation to believers and eternal condemnation to unbelievers; yet both religions recognize Jesus as a teacher of the word of God and consider the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor as a common word of faith.  Even so, it is unlikely that either religion will promote loving their unbelieving neighbors as themselves since that would negate their exclusivist beliefs (in Christianity the belief that Jesus was the word of God made flesh, and in Islam that the Qur’an is the word of God made book), and those exclusivist beliefs give each religion a competitive advantage over the other.

            In a world of increasing religious pluralism it is critical that the exclusivist doctrines of Christianity and Islam be subordinated to the moral imperative of the greatest commandment to love our unbelieving neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus taught in the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  Only then can the light of God’s love dispel the darkness of exclusivist religious beliefs and all believers be reconciled into the family of God.  Then God’s kingdom can come and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

            It is time to see the resurrection in a new light, one that can dispel the darkness of religious exclusivism.   Easter is a time for new beginnings and spiritual rebirth.  The Hymn of Promise states it well: In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be; in our death a resurrection, at the last a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.   Easter promises hope for the reconciliation of all people of faith.  It is a time for us to experience and share the regenerative power of God’s love, and it is not limited to Christians.

Notes and References to Resources:

This topic is related to Lesson #17 on Life after death and the resurrection in the J&M Book at page 74; on the Islamic understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, see commentary on Jesus on the cross in the J&M Book at pages 203-208.  The Gospel of Mark has no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, and the accounts in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are unique and uncorroborated in the other Gospels.  

On Paul’s understanding of resurrection, see I Corinthians, chapter 15; and on his understanding of atonementas it applied to the crucifixion and resurrection, see Romans 3:21-26.

On the end times, see the J&M Book at page 183. 

On Jesus’ preference for mercy, not sacrifice, see Notes to Promoting Religion through Evangelism, posted February 8, 2015.  

On love over law, see blog posted on January 18, 2015. 

On the new command of John’s Gospel, the J&M Book at page 325; on Jesus as the Logos and the way, the truth and the life, see Faith and Eternal Life in the J&M Book at page 394.

On religion and new beginnings: salvation and reconciliation in the family of God, see blog posted January 4, 2015.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith and the story of the good Samaritan in Luke’s version, see blogs posted on January 11, 2015, and on January 25, 2015.  

On Christian creeds and exclusivism, see The Rest of the Storyin the J&M Book at pages 333 and 334.

The Hymn of Promise(by Natalie Sleeth, 1986) is at page 707 of The United Methodist Hymnal

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