How early Christians grappled to accept the idea that Jesus returned from the dead.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
March 20 2008 6:55 AM

That Curious Idea of Resurrection

How early Christians grappled to accept the idea that Jesus returned from the dead.

Also in Slate: James Martin discovered why Easter never became as commercialized as that "Santa" holiday. Andrew Santella asked if it's OK to "modernize" the Stations of the Cross.

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In Christianity's first few centuries, when believers often suffered severe persecution and even the threat of death, those who believed in Jesus' bodily resurrection found it particularly meaningful for their own circumstances. Jesus had been put to death in grisly fashion, but God had overturned Jesus' execution and, indeed, had given him a new and glorious body. So, they believed that they could face their own deaths as well as those of their loved ones in the firm hope that God would be faithful to them as well. They thought that they would share the same sort of immortal reaffirmation of their personal and bodily selves that Jesus had experienced. Elaine Pagels, a scholar of early Christianity, has argued that those Christians who regarded the body as unimportant, perhaps including "Gnostics," were less willing to face martyrdom for their faith and more willing to make gestures of acquiescence to the Romans—for example, by offering sacrifices to Roman gods—because they regarded actions done with their bodies as insignificant so long as in their hearts they held to their beliefs.

By contrast, Christians who believed in bodily resurrection seem to have regarded their own mortal coils as the crucial venues in which they were to live out their devotion to Christ. When these Christians were arraigned for their faith, they considered it genuine apostasy to give in to the gestures demanded by the Roman authorities. For them, inner devotion to Jesus had to be expressed in an outward faithfulness in their bodies—and they were ready to face martyrdom for their faith, encouraged by the prospect of bodily resurrection. Indeed, Christian martyrs are pictured as engaged in a battle with the Roman authorities (and the Devil, whom Christians saw as behind Roman malevolence toward them), with the martyrs' bodies as battlegrounds in which the integrity of their person and their personal salvation could be lost or retained.

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Historically, then, how Christians have understood Jesus' "resurrection" says a lot about how they have understood themselves, whether they have a holistic view of the human person, whether they see bodily existence as trivial or crucial, and how they imagine full salvation to be manifested. Does salvation comprise a deliverance from the body into some sort of immediate and permanent postmortem bliss (which is actually much closer to popular Christian piety down the centuries), or does salvation require a new embodiment of some sort, a more robust reaffirmation of persons? This sort of question originally was integral to early Jewish and Christian belief in the resurrection. In all the varieties of early Christianity, and in all the various understandings of what his "resurrection" meant, Jesus was typically the model, the crucial paradigm for believers, what had happened to him seen as prototypical of what believers were to hope for themselves.