What happened at the resurrection of Christ and how can we envisage our own resurrection?
Gottfried Hutter, Munich, Germany, 11_03_09
Most exegetes regard St. Luke’s report about the two disciples who, after Jesus’ death, walk back to their hometown Emmaus (Lk 24,13-35) as fictional. Yet the story is perfectly suited to transmitting an understanding of the central Christian mystery: the resurrection of Jesus.
This story can help quite secular people to understand what “resurrection” means and what Christianity is all about. Through this story even unbelievers can be touched deeply, in a theologically impeccable manner.
Of course, I cannot know precisely what happened back then. But I can try, on the basis of assumptions we today make about our experience, to re-enact the sequence of thoughts and emotions the Apostles must have experienced, and to understand how their impressions – since they felt so real – could in later re-narrations take the shape of bodily appearances of the resurrected, as well as finding symbolic expression in the stories of the empty grave:
There are two apostles, who don’t understand the world any more, and there is a stranger who knows nothing about Jesus, but who otherwise understands plenty – making for an auspicious occasion.
Since the stranger has not even heard of Jesus they need to explain everything, including those things they don’t understand themselves –mainly two things: how was it possible for Jesus to heal the sick, and why did he have to die?
While talking about the healing miracles they also told the stranger how Jesus had said to them that they could perform even greater wonders than he had done. They had been unable to believe that because in their view only a messenger of God could perform miracles, and not an ordinary human being.
Since the stranger knew nothing of all this, he asked them to tell in detail what Jesus had done. First, they told him, Jesus said to the sick person: don’t be afraid! And then: God has forgiven your sins long ago, you are now completely free of them and pure! Then he touched them, saying that they would now be healed while he continued to touch them. That is when it happened. The sick persons could clearly feel themselves recovering, and then they were well. All these details the stranger had to draw laboriously out of the two men because they could see no correlation between the healings and Jesus’ words and actions. They perceived Jesus, the sick person, and the miracle, but failed to make the connections.
Next, the stranger, who had great understanding, talked with them about why people fell sick. He asked them if they had noticed that people become ill after being hurt emotionally. No, they had not noticed that, but as the stranger explained it to them it sounded logical, and they began to get a glimpse of the powers Jesus had apparently used in his work of healing.
This glimpse is an important clue to understanding what happened during the supper at Emmaus: as the guest, the stranger was given the seat of honor at the table. Jesus had also sat there whenever he was visiting. Now the stranger sat there and he did what the person who occupies this place is expected to do: he recited the blessing and then he divided the bread, giving a piece to each one of the participants in the meal.
What happened at that moment we all know from our own experience: an image from their memory slid over the image of the stranger. They saw Jesus sitting there – “but only for a moment”, the story says. Since we can’t suppose that the man dissolved into thin air after that moment, they must then have seen the stranger again. But in that moment something emerged that we today would call a “spiritual experience”.
Right there the disciples must have had very deep insights like these:
<![if !supportLists]>1. <![endif]>First they realized: Jesus is dead and he will never come alive again. The dead never come back, never!
<![if !supportLists]>2. <![endif]>While again engulfed in sadness, the memory of the conversation on the way returned and focused on Jesus’ saying: you can do even greater things than these! As though from afar this sentence drew nearer and a hint of what Jesus might have meant crept in upon them.
<![if !supportLists]>3. <![endif]>This insight was completely new to them, but it kept growing and led gradually to total recall of the experiences they had lived through with Jesus, and that crescendo did not stop until it crystallized into absolute certainty: Jesus really had meant them. They were to take over his task; they were to become his true successors! And with that, Jesus became fully and wholly present for them. He, who was dead, was now alive again – not as before, in the flesh, but within them. And there he would remain, forever!
That is how I see the experience of the disciples. The experiences of Peter and the other apostles must have been similar. – And we can easily surmise how the apostles filled the time between Easter and Pentecost.
Comparing this view of the Easter-experience with what Jesus himself had said about the resurrection we will see that this is not just a psychological interpretation; it conforms completely with Jesus’ own view of resurrection.
In response to the Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection of the body, Jesus had said: The resurrected will be “like angels” (Mk 12,25-27). But what are angels like? Are they like cute Baroque cupids or are they as Jehovah’s Witnesses picture life after death? I fear that the Christian religion has become strange for many people in our time because too many theologians have not continued to develop into fresh insights.
Jewish theology may be able to help at this juncture because Jesus was certainly a master of it. And Jewish theology – and kabbalah – simply describe angels as essentially “thought structures”.
This statement is as easy as it is logical: for readers of the Bible, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are clearly thought structures. There can be no doubt about that. And as thought structures they are (at least for those who understand their intentions) vitally alive, just as Jesus is wholly alive – even after his physical death – for those who understand his intentions.
Those who understand his intentions are being moved by him. And what is moving these people is not pity for someone in pain. That wouldn’t be understanding. Understanding means seeing what Jesus saw: that a specific belief can indeed move mountains.
It was through their belief in their Promised Land that the Israelites found it.
It is through his belief that a sick person can indeed become well.
It was through his belief in men’s potential that Jesus posthumously transmuted his fearful disciples into his true successors.
It is by recovering his innate belief in himself that a desperate person can start a new life in which his dearest dreams can come through.
Secular-minded people will have no problem with this interpretation of resurrection. It will open a door to many who can make no sense of the myth of the empty grave – for they too may yearn for a radically new life.
But it is precisely such secular people who will then be able to understand even the myth of the empty grave – as the archetypal image of how Jesus, through the very fact of his death, conquered death once and for all.
Secular people will certainly not listen to those who insist that the story about the empty grave describes a physical reality. In our scientifically-minded culture a belief in such a “reality” will be regarded as superstition and nobody is interested in that.
But those who understand Jesus’ intentions can, even in our times, become witnesses of his resurrection and can thus join the ranks of his authentic successors – which means to become as Jesus was, absolutely trusting, confident, believing in the best possible outcome, and without the least trace of superstition.
So much for the resurrection of Christ, but how about our own resurrection?
The example of Jesus’ resurrection shows that life after death and even immortality does not necessarily imply survival of the subjective consciousness. His intentions while still living his mortal life enabled him to live on beyond his death, indeed to attain immortality – but it is the thought structures of the living that kept and keep Jesus alive. Is that all? Could that mean the idea of a personal life after death is only wishful thinking?
A longing which is present in (almost) all human beings points in another direction: human beings always want to improve themselves; they wish to do things better and better. Unfortunately, one life is often not enough to become as good as one would like to be. It may be that this wish is the father of the thought, but perhaps it is a true possibility – also bearing in mind the power of belief to create reality. Certain other phenomena also seem to point in that direction. So it should come as no surprise that Jewish theology knows a concept also to be found in other religions such as Buddhism: reincarnation. Some sayings of Jesus, too, sound as though they may allude to it, but in Christianity this aspect has been relegated to the background, even though dogmatic formulations do not really exclude that the purification a man needs in order to become able to “see God”, could be accomplished by means of further lives.
In the book Exodus God says to Moses: “No man can see Me and stay alive” (Ex 33,20). It may therefore be assumed that a thorough spiritual development is needed before a man can become able to withstand the vision of God. Translated into the language of our time we might say: a person’s consciousness needs to become all-inclusive before that person can gain the vision of the All-One or else the person will be totally swallowed up by its stupendous creative energy. By nature, men aspire to ever deeper insight. It could therefore be that in the clarity of nearing his end a person will see the need for further development, and will ask the All-One for another incarnation and that this wish is granted. In the course of such an evolution, the individual’s consciousness could attain the all-inclusive and become ready for reunion with the One.
According to the evangelist John, Jesus lived in “the vision of God”, he even was one with the All-One. We might grasp how far developed Jesus’ consciousness was if we consider the movement he started – and the fact that he himself meticulously prepared it. He saw what his disciples needed in order to be able to step into his succession. He saw that they needed him to put his life on the line; only that could make them ready to commit themselves fully. What could enhance consciousness more than putting one’s own life on the line? That is, in my view, the essence of the wisdom of Jesus and of his successors, the Christians.
Consciousness such as this does not disappear at the end of one’s life – nor will it simply be transferred into the thought structures of others. A consciousness of such depth will find a way to persist. And in the end, after it has cleansed itself of all that separates, it will return to the All-One – not in order to disappear but to flow from there into a new world of a kind we cannot even imagine since what we know of our world does not provide a proper basis for such a vision. But as long as one’s consciousness still contains elements that make for separation it will need to overcome those elements. That is one’s life’s task.
We must also consider the possibility of failing in this task. According to Jewish theology such failure results in dissolution. A person who refuses to tackle his task might lose his yearning for integrity, and with that lose himself and the capacity to be reincarnated, because he has reversed the creative process. The New Testament, too, contains statements indicating such a possibility, as in the image of extinction in some kind of lake of fire (Rev 21,8).
In Judaism as well as in Christianity many testimonials about life after death remain strikingly vague. They leave much room for speculation. Since there is no one among the living who has had the experience of death there is also no clear mental picture of it.
Also the propositions about the resurrection of the dead before the last judgment remain quite vague. Only one thing is clear: there will be a weighing up of the past life and there will be a new life in a new world – which certainly will not be a simple continuation of this world. If it were just a perfected version of the old world, such a life might be quite boring, maybe as boring as the German poet Ludwig Thoma described it exactly 100 years ago in his tale of the Bavarian in Heaven.
Jewish theology therefore states that those who have perfected themselves creatively will reunite with the All-One, in order to go with their acquired capacities into that newly created world.
The Judgment of which the Bible speaks sounds like the response of the Whole to the individual. Dying, the individual will inevitably become aware of this response and see how far he/she still is from union with the One. At that point there two possibilities arise, depending on the quality of the relation between the individual and the Whole: either the energy or “fire” of the soul is able to reunite with the “fire” of the infinite or it is unable so to reunite. According to Jewish theology, if the two remain separate, the “fire” of the individual goes out. If they unite, the individual will be transformed and enabled to use the “fire” of creativity again in a completely new world.
There remains the question of the nature of the path to union. The individual will not be extinguished on that path; all in all, his/her development will always be focused on realizing the intention of the whole. – And in that focus this path could in effect be without end.