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Ask Dr. Cobb

May 2007 Question

Ever since I encountered Lewis Ford's account of the resurrection appearances in the chapter in The Lure of God, I have sought out process theology's answer to the question of a bodily resurrection. Currently I am reading your chapter on the resurrection in Christ in a Pluralistic Age and I was curious to see how much you have changed in the 30-plus years since that book was published. What would John B. Cobb, Jr., say today if he were in a debate with someone such as, say, William Lane Craig. What is the process approach to the resurrection of Christ?

Dr. Cobb's Response

The Easter season is a good time to reflect once more about the resurrection. It is a powerful symbol, and it is chiefly as such that it is treated in liberal churches. It is a symbol of victory over loss and defeat. The crucifixion of Jesus seemed to be a final defeat, but out of it came a movement that has profoundly affected the course of history and to which many of us look for the meaning and purpose of life. Some of us can testify to our own experiences of apparent hopelessness that gave way to new possibilities. When one is near despair, the symbol of resurrection can be a profoundly important one.

This symbol can function without regard to what happened to either the body or the soul of Jesus. For many liberal Christians, this suffices, and further questions about just what actually happened are inappropriate. At the ultimate level, I incline to support this view. Jesus called us to live from the basileia theou, the divine commonwealth that contrasts sharply with every existent social order. One can do that without knowing anything more about what happened to Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection does mean that much that, from a worldly perspective, seems impractical, even impossible, can happen and sometimes does happen.

Nevertheless, at a penultimate level, these questions remain important. I am haunted by Paul’s words in I Cor.15, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people the most to be pitied.” It reminds me of a somewhat analogous statement of Whitehead near the end of the chapter on “Religion and Science” in Science and the Modern World that apart from the religious vision “human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.”

I do not think Paul is quite right, but I still take him seriously. For him Jesus’ rising from the dead was the foretaste of a glorious destiny. What is the meaning of Christian hope if specific hopes are not underlain by an ultimate confidence? What is the basis of that confidence if it is not, as with Paul, an actual transformation of the historical figure: Jesus?

Even for Paul, the answers here could be qualified. His belief in the resurrection in general did not depend on Jesus’ resurrection. He was already a Pharisee. Although he accepted the accounts of Jesus appearing to the apostles after his death as resurrection appearances, they did not provide the model for the resurrection for which all hunger. This was not the ability to appear to living people after death. It was instead a glorious transformation into a spiritual body. His own vision on the road to Damascus was of the glorified Jesus in heaven. The fullest and clearest account of what this means for believers is given in Romans 8. It seems there that the transformation into glory is the destiny of the whole created order.

If this means that the whole created order will cease to exist and will be superseded by this glory, I am not able to follow. But it may not mean that. In I Cor.15 Paul speaks of a transformation from a physical body to a spiritual body. Did he mean that the physical body ceases to exist when the spiritual body is raised? In that case, the tomb must have been empty, but Paul never mentions an empty tomb. We will not have to break much with Paul if we suppose that the person who once existed as a physical body now exists as a spiritual one. The physical body is dead and behaves as physical things do. The spiritual body is alive and behaves as spiritual things do.

If we pursue this line of thinking it turns out that Whitehead’s vision of how all events are included and transformed in the consequent nature of God is not so far removed from the glorification of the cosmos anticipated by Paul. We can say that believers, all people, and all things, are resurrected to a glory that we share with the Jesus whom Paul saw on the road to Damascus.

I agree with Whitehead that this is of critical importance. Apart from God, all things are ephemeral. No sooner is a value realized than it passes. For a little while it lingers on in human memory, but that is also soon gone. When this is understood to be the whole story, more than one response is still possible. One is expressed in the proverb: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.” In other words, seize what pleasure you can moment by moment. The truth, we all know, is that making ultimate the sorts of pleasures possible in this context does not produce much happiness.

Another response is the Buddhist one. When one fully realizes the transience of all things, one gives up the effort to find or impose meaning. One accepts what happens as it happens, whatever it is. One thereby achieves wisdom because of one’s freedom from all distorting presuppositions. One becomes compassionate because one’s personal hopes and fears no longer block one’s openness to others.

This is a beautiful goal, rarely attained in full, but beneficial even in partial realizations. It can be appreciated by those of us shaped by the Abrahamic traditions, but it can be fully appropriated only by giving up what is central to our tradition. We seek an altered world. We bring norms of justice and community to bear in judging this world, and we seek to commit ourselves accordingly. It is this process of evaluation and commitment that is threatened when we view the transitoriness of things as the whole story. The belief that it is not the whole story, that the ephemeral world is transformed in God can ground continued evaluation and commitment within the historical process.

From a Whiteheadian perspective there is no difficulty in believing that Jesus has been glorified in this way and that this knowledge undergirds those who follow him. But did Jesus have ongoing experiences after he died on the cross? Does that matter? The New Testament accounts of the resurrection appearance certainly answer this question in the affirmative. The resurrected Jesus interacted with his disciples. His disciples were transformed from fear and despair to confidence and action.

Is there any factual basis for these stories? If not, who invented them? Conscious invention overall seems unlikely, since that would not suffice to explain the new confidence of the apostles. But if there were actual events, what was their nature. Were they convincing hallucinations? Or were they actual auditions and visions? Does it matter?

The changes in the apostles could be explained by either. In either case, they would judge that Jesus was alive again. This would mean that God had raised him and that they were called to proclaim his resurrection and to continue his proclamation. This would explain the historical phenomena. But it would do so in a way that was quite opposite from the understanding of those who were involved.

Another explanation is that the apostles had authentic experience of the risen Jesus. Unfortunately, this is too often associated with “ghosts,” which are usually understood quite negatively. But there are many convincing stories of recently deceased persons appearing to their loved ones and communicating with them. Unless one assumes that this is impossible, the most natural interpretation of the New Testament accounts is in these terms. If one accepts that such things happen, then one assumes that personal existence does not end with death. Belief that Jesus appeared after his death confirms this general belief in personal survival of some sort.

That belief, of course, also has religious importance. But it is clear that the reasoning is circular. If one believes that there is survival of death and that, at least for a short time, some of those who have died appear to those they have left behind, then one will be very likely to interpret the Easter stories in this way, as do I. If one does not believe in personal survival or the possibility of communication, one will not do so.

Precisely because there are many somewhat similar stories, the special importance of these appearances of one who has recently died depends on who it is that re-appears. Because it was Jesus who appeared to the apostles, their shattered belief that he was the anointed one for whom Israel hoped was renewed. Recollection of his words and deeds became a matter of greatest importance to them. They were now ready to accept his lordship and to give themselves without limit to his cause.

Such an understanding by no means answers all our questions. On the contrary, it opens the way to many and diverse speculations. It is very important for Christians not to attach primary importance to such questions. But it is perfectly legitimate to wonder about them and to form opinions about them. Whitehead’s conceptuality opens the door to multiple possibilities without settling the decision among them. One who judges that the apostles hallucinated is not rendered thereby a less faithful disciple. One who judges that the tomb was emptied by a strictly supernatural act of God is not thereby a better Christian. The critical issue is our discipleship, not our opinions on such matters.

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