Physical Facts of Easter
By David Feddes
Easter is as real as eyebrows and toenails. Easter is as real as chin and elbows. Easter is as real as nose and ears. Easter is as real as mouth and stomach, skin and hair, eyes and cheekbones. On Easter the dead body of Jesus Christ came to life with all parts working perfectly. Easter is not just a spiritual state of mind or a deep feeling of faith. Easter marks a physical event, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A popular Easter song says, “He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. He lives, he lives, salvation to impart. You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” There’s a lot of truth in that song: Jesus really does walk with his people today and live in their hearts by his Holy Spirit. But Easter isn’t just about Jesus living in my heart. Easter is about Jesus having a heart of his own that really pumps blood, a stomach of his own that can really take food. The risen Jesus has fingers and toes, ribs and muscles, and every other body part. Easter isn’t just about Jesus living in me; it’s first of all about Jesus living in his own body.
On the first Easter, Jesus’ friends had a hard time believing that he had come alive and that his body was real. It was hard to believe, even when he came and stood among them.
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence (Luke 24:36-43).
Easter is as real as flesh and bones, hands and feet, teeth and tongue and broiled fish.
Jesus’ resurrection means more than his body coming back to life, but it doesn’t mean less than that. Jesus’ resurrection body has a glorified quality that surpasses what his body had before his death. Jesus’ resurrection body cannot suffer or be killed; it has strength and immortality which it did not have before. The resurrection of Jesus involves more than just his old body getting back its old life and former powers, but it certainly doesn’t involve less. Jesus’ body really did come alive and leave the tomb. He lives in his immortal body still today, and he will go on living forever. In the Bible Jesus says, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever” (Revelation 1:18). Jesus lives, and his resurrection body means that our bodies will also be resurrected someday.
Some preachers and scholars say that we shouldn’t believe in Easter as physical fact but only as a spiritual change in outlook. They say that Easter is really about how faith rose in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples, not about how the body of Jesus rose from the dead. But that’s nonsense. Faith didn’t rise in the disciples until they saw and touched the risen Jesus and shared food with him. It was the physical fact of Jesus’ resurrection that produced their spiritual faith.
But there are faithless leaders today who won’t face physical facts. They won’t believe the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They say it’s too simple and shallow to believe that the physical body of Jesus came back to life and is alive right now. They say that their view of resurrection as a spiritual ideal is much deeper than the belief that Jesus’ body was physically raised to life. Their view is deeper–of course it’s deeper, because a grave is deeper than a throne! But let’s not be so deep. Jesus’ body isn’t deep in a grave; he’s high on a throne.
We don’t need deep thinkers who falsely teach that Jesus’ body remains deep in the grave and that the bodies of all humanity will remain deep in the grave. We need the physical facts of Easter: Jesus lives! His body is as real as chewing and swallowing broiled fish. Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, he ascended bodily to heaven, so we can’t see him physically now. But Jesus’ living body is real and physical at this very moment, and his resurrection matters not only for our souls but also for our bodies and the entire physical creation.
I live in the Chicago area, where Joseph Sprague is a bishop in the United Methodist denomination. Bishop Sprague doesn’t believe the physical facts of Easter. In a speech to students at Iliff School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary for training future pastors, Sprague said, “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but I cannot believe that his resurrection involved the resuscitation of his physical body.” Sprague said that literal belief in bodily resurrection is “the kind of idolatry from which I dissent.”
On the first Easter, Jesus told his disciples, “A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” But Bishop Sprague contradicts Jesus and says Jesus’ flesh and bones did not return to life. He even calls it idolatry to believe the physical facts of Easter. How brazen can he be? This man rejects the bodily resurrection of Jesus, he rejects biblical, historic Christian truth, and then he accuses genuine believers of idolatry. What’s really idolatry is worshiping something you make up instead of worshiping God as he is. Bishop Sprague is guilty of idolatry for having his own made-up religion.
Bishop Sprague doesn’t take the biblical gospels as factual records of who Jesus really was and of what he really did and said. For example, Sprague says of the gospel according to John, “Jesus simply did not preach, teach, or describe himself as John suggests.” Now, how does the unbelieving bishop know this? John was Jesus’ constant companion and dearest friend. John knew Jesus better than anyone who ever lived. And yet Bishop Sprague, who has no living connection to Jesus, claims to know more about Jesus than Jesus’ dearest friend knew.
The church’s worst enemies are not atheists or members of other religions. The church’s worst enemies come from within and use positions of leadership to distort and destroy the truth of Christ. Sprague denies the real God and the real Jesus. The Bible tells of many amazing miracles Jesus did, but Sprague says, “Jesus did not possess trans-human, supernatural powers.” The Bible says that Jesus died “as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10), but Sprague says that it is at best superstitious and at worst idolatrous to believe that Jesus died to atone for our sins and rescue us from God’s wrath. Sprague even says it’s wrong to think of God as a personal being who hears prayers and responds personally. “God is not a supreme being out there in the beyond,” Sprague says. “Rather, the word ‘God’ is the sound image we humans employ to point to the very essence of it all.” As “the essence of it all,” God infuses everything with the “Jesus power,” “the Christ essence,” which “drives creation’s evolution.”
The bishop claims his approach is necessary for educated, intelligent people to believe the gospel. But what educated person who knows language and logic will be drawn to such tangled teaching? Who can make sense of, let alone believe, oxymorons such as a resurrection where the body isn’t raised, or “creation’s evolution,” or a god who isn’t a personal God? Part of Bishop Sprague’s problem is that he can’t seem to think clearly or speak plainly. The other part of his problem is that what he does manage to communicate is heresy.
I wish this was just one maverick trying to cause a stir, or that it was a problem that affects only one denomination. But the truth is that various liberal preachers and professors on church payrolls in various denominations have been saying such things for well over a century. They often use Christian-sounding words, but these double-talkers give the words totally different meaning. They don’t believe the church’s biblical teaching, but they still seek positions of power in the church. People in the pews go on paying their salaries, often not knowing what their leaders are really saying in their books and seminary classes.
In fairness I’m happy to say that many United Methodist Christians are genuine followers of the living Lord Jesus. When they find out what some faithless leaders are saying, these Christians are outraged. Also, some faithful United Methodist pastors object to the errors of Sprague and others like him.
But many leaders pretend there’s no problem, others agree with the heresy, and the church’s power brokers keep Sprague in his position as bishop and even help him spread his views. A denominational seminary invited Sprague to lecture and gave him the opportunity to influence future preachers with his ideas. To spread Sprague’s ideas further, the United Methodist denomination’s publishing house, Abingdon Press, published his book Affirmations of a Dissenter a few months ago. Meanwhile, those who want the bishop and others like him to be removed from church leadership are often labeled troublemakers.
Some defend false teachers by insisting on tolerance and absolute freedom of thought. But what if the head of a cancer-prevention group urged people to smoke cigarettes? Would he be allowed to stay in his position for the sake of freedom of thought and speech? No, if he wanted to say such things, he would need to do so somewhere else, not as the spokesman for a cancer-prevention group. He would be more effective as an advertiser for a tobacco company. Likewise, if a church leader wants to deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus, he is not fit to lead Christians whose entire faith depends on the risen Lord Jesus. Such a leader fits better in the company of antichrist.
It makes about as much sense for a church to have a leader who openly denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus as it makes for a church to have a known child molester in charge of the children’s program. The Bible speaks of faithless leaders as “savage wolves” who “distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). The Bible says, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh”—that is, born in the flesh, crucified in the flesh, risen in the flesh, returning in the flesh”—many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist… Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (1 John 2:7,11). Bishop Sprague and those like him are wrong. Whatever religion they’re promoting, it’s not Christianity. The church stands or falls with the physical facts of Easter.
Flesh, Not Metaphor
Don’t listen to unbelieving leaders. Listen to a better pastor and scholar from an earlier age, St. Jerome. Jerome translated the Bible into the common language people were speaking, and his translation became known as the Vulgate. As a Bible-believing Christian and follower of Christ, Jerome knew the physical facts of Easter and taught the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Jerome wrote, “As Jesus showed them real hands and a real side, so he really ate with his disciples… talked with men with a real tongue… with real hands took bread, blessed and broke it, and was offering it to them.” To those denying that Jesus rose in a real body and saying that Jesus only appeared as vision without physical reality, Jerome thundered, “Do not put the power of the Lord on a level with the tricks of magicians, so that he may appear to have been what he was not, and may be thought to have eaten without teeth, walked without feet, broken bread without hands, spoken without a tongue, and showed a side which had no ribs.”
The risen Jesus is not a magician’s illusion or a ghost. He’s not a spiritual ideal or the stirring of some God-essence inside of us. Jesus is the eternal Son of God become flesh on Christmas and risen in the flesh on Easter. The Bible says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Author John Updike writes,
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
Easter is not a metaphor. Jesus’ resurrection is not symbolic language. Jesus really is alive, right now, in his glorified body. In the Apostles Creed, Christians profess faith in Jesus as God’s “only begotten Son, our Lord” and declare that “he rose from the dead.” The Creed concludes with ringing words of faith in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
Christianity is a physical faith. It also involves the spirit realm, of course, but Christianity remains a very physical faith. This physical faith is grounded in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and this physical faith sees huge spiritual significance in physical things. The fact that the Son of God united himself to a body means that God cares about the physical world and not just the spirit realm. Salvation is as big as creation itself. It touches not only spiritual attitudes such as kindness and mercy but also physical things such as flowers and puppies, rocks and trees, elephants and rivers. God created the physical world, and the resurrection of Christ sets the stage for renewing the physical world to fulfill the aim for which he created it.
The physical world in general receives new significance in the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the human body in particular is vitally important. Some philosophers have taught that the mind is all that matters, not the body. Some religions have taught that the soul or spirit is all that matters, not the body. But Jesus’ resurrection means that the body matters. The Bible teaches that we will someday have resurrection bodies like Jesus, and that we must therefore be pure in the way we use our bodies right now. We must offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).
This has a huge impact on sexual ethics. The Bible says, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? … Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit… Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:13-20).
Throughout history, false teachers who have denied the bodily reality of Jesus have also tended to deny the importance of honoring God with our bodies and have rejected the sexual ethics of the Bible. The ancient Gnostics twisted Christianity beyond recognition. They claimed special spiritual wisdom that would have special appeal for truly educated and enlightened people. They believed in a non-physical Christ, not in his bodily reality. In saying that Jesus had no body, they also said it didn’t matter what they did with their own bodies. Their sexual adventures had no lasting importance, they said, because they would be leaving their bodies behind and would never get them back. Only the spiritual mattered, not the physical. Leaders and members of these Gnostic cults saw no need for sex to be limited to marriage between one man and one woman. Promiscuity, orgies, homosexuality, bestiality—nothing was forbidden, since the body didn’t matter.
History is being repeated. In our time some church leaders deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus and go on to trash Christian sexual ethics too. Bishop Sprague, for example, wants his denomination to approve homosexuality and to bless gay marriages. Liberal theologian Paul Tillich, a powerful influence on Sprague and others, was a serial adulterer. Many who are theologically liberal in denying the physical facts of Easter are also ethically liberal in denying the physical facts of sexuality as God intends it. The Bible speaks of such people as “godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4).
The physical facts of Easter mean that all other physical facts must come under the authority of Jesus Christ. We must care for the physical creation around us, and we must take special care to be sexually pure. Christians value the body so highly that it even affects how we treat the bodies of dead people. Some religions teach that the physical world and bodies are an illusion and don’t really matter, so when someone dies, the body is burned. But Christians throughout history have not burned the bodies of their dead. They lovingly dress the body, lay it to rest in a coffin, and bury it the way they plant a seed, expecting the body to rise again when Christ returns.
Your body is not a brief, disposable part of you. You have a soul that can continue to exist when your body dies, but that is not our normal or final state. We are created as bodily persons, and now that our Savior has conquered death by rising to life in an immortal body, we can be sure that we too will have bodies that last forever. This is a thrilling promise and a sober warning.
The Bible says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13). Their souls go immediately into direct fellowship with Christ, and their bodies will someday rise again and be like Jesus’ own body. Death is still grievous, but, says the Bible, we do not “grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). The new creation will be not only spiritual but physical, and our enjoyment will be not only spiritual but physical.
On the other hand, those who reject Christ also will have a physical future, but it will be a grim one. When Christ returns, those who went through life without Christ will rise from their graves in bodies that will last forever. Those bodies will experience unending physical suffering in hell, as well as the spiritual suffering of being judged by God. In the Bible Jesus warns that if you don’t deal firmly with sin and keep your body from doing evil, the punishment is for “your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). While the source of sin is our corrupt spiritual heart, it is the body that carries out the sins of the inner heart, and so when the inner heart is judged and punished on Judgment Day, the body is also raised and punished with unending pain. Just as Easter is a physical fact, so rejecting Jesus has terrible physical consequences. Jesus spoke of hell as fiery torment and anguish that never stops. Hell is not just a state of mind or spiritual regret. It is also bodily torment.
The risen Jesus is not a ghost; he has flesh and bones. Accepting or rejecting Jesus affects our flesh and bones, in this life and in the unending life to come. Do you believe the physical facts of Easter? Are you responding with heartfelt faith and bodily obedience to the risen Lord? When your body becomes everlasting, will it be in heaven or hell? Face the physical facts today. Don’t be fooled by false teachers. Easter is as real and physical as eyebrows and toenails, chin and elbows, mouth and stomach, skin and hair. Believe in Jesus and his victory, and you will share in his victory forever.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.