Christians generally regard Jesus’ resurrection as a Christological sign, as a marker of his deity. By rising from the dead, Jesus disclosed his true identity, not as some condemned preacher from Nazareth, but as the God of Israel, the only one capable of overwhelming death with life. Now recognized as God, believers turn to this Jesus for divine aid.
The Resurrection before the end
Yet this is not, I would argue, the meaning given to the Resurrection by the New Testament authors. No single passage argues for Christ’s divinity in this way—with recourse to the Resurrection.
Instead, for the earliest Christians Jesus’ resurrection signified two key insights: the one, indeed, Christological, and the other, eschatological.
- Christology—The Resurrection meant that Jesus was the Christ. The man mockingly crucified as “king of the Jews” was in fact the king of the Jews. Jesus was, despite appearances, Israel’s anointed king, the Davidic Χριστός. He was “made” Messiah (Acts 2:36, cf. Romans 1:4) and “begotten” to divine sonship (Acts 13:32-33, Hebrews 1:3-5, cf. Psalm 2) by resurrection from the dead. Now sealed with God’s approval, Jesus would be the eschatological agent through whom came judgement, kingdom, and resurrection.
- Eschatology—The Resurrection meant that the time was short. It signaled the advent of great apocalyptic upheavals. In Christ’s resurrection, the first fruits of the end had ripened; soon the whole tree would be ripe (cf. Romans 13:11-12). Moreover, by raising his servant from the dead, God had given “assurance to all” that he had “fixed a day” on which he would “judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:30-31).
Christ’s resurrection thus answered two questions pertinent to apocalyptically-minded Jews:
- When will God turn the wheel of history to redeem his people and establish a just order over the earth? The answer provided by the Resurrection was Right now.
- How, or rather, through whom, will God build and rule his kingdom over the nations? The answer provided by the Resurrection was Through Jesus, the anointed king and exalted Lord (cf. Psalm 110).
Neither of these questions, as one might gather, were theological in scope; neither concerned the identity or nature of Israel’s God.
Rather, the Resurrection answered long-held eschatological, even political, problems. Why do the kings of the earth “set themselves against the Lord and his anointed?” (Psalm 2:1-2), for instance. Or, How long will the wicked possess the land? (cf. Psalm 37:8-13). It was questions such as these that gave meaning to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension among the first believers.
The Resurrection after the end
Since Christians have by in large abandoned the urgency of earliest Christian eschatology and its worldly preoccupations, Jesus’ resurrection has been made to take on new meanings—meanings relevant in non-apocalyptic contexts.
The Resurrection has, for one, been retooled as an antidote for existential worries. It no longer assures the churches that they will outwit and outlast the hostile pagan order, but assures the believer that he will obtain a fulfilling life after natural death.
The Resurrection has, in the second place, been appropriated for the cause of Nicene Christology. It no longer confirms Jesus’ role as the messianic deliverer of the last days, but confirms his role as the creator God, the author of eternal salvation.
It should be taken as a great paradox of history then, I think, that as Christendom was erected over the idolatrous nations of the Roman world—this in accord with early Christian apocalyptic expectation—the political conditions that gave rise to the apocalyptic narrative collapsed. The social, religious, and political discontent that once fueled eschatological fervency failed when the emperor confessed Christ as Lord, bestowing upon the churches security, legitimacy, and prestige. The Resurrection of Jesus, like most other apocalyptic myths announced posthaste by the first Christians, was at this time not merely reinterpreted—the eschaton now safely relegated to the distant future—it was, by the force of history, transformed into something else entirely.