As the season of Easter continues, it might be helpful to engage a question that we do not often ask: why did the Jewish religious authorities reject the resurrection of Jesus? We read in Matthew 27:63 – 65: “Sir, they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So, give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’ ‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘God, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’
Why the anxiety about the possibility of the resurrection? To understand this question demands an understanding of what resurrection faith came to mean for Israel. Without delving into much of Old Testament theology on this question, it might suffice to state the following: Firstly, resurrection was not an early aspect of Israel’s faith. It took time and maturity before Israel came to the consciousness of what we retrospectively understand as resurrection faith. In fact, the question of evil and justice, particularly, moral evil, constituted an integral part of the maturation process: will there be some accountability for the suffering of the innocent in this world? In other words, if bodily death meant the end of human existence, wouldn’t that imply that people who did evil will go unpunished? And what does this say about the sense of justice that humans have always believed in? Hence, Israel’s faith in life beyond the tomb, as it grappled with the question of evil, (which is the absence of the good), and justice, found itself in a position that is similar to the concept of the immortality of the soul that was already present in Greek philosophy (Plato’s Republic, Plato’s Apology and Plotinus’ Enneads, for example). It was with the post-exilic writings particularly Second and Third Isaiah and Ezekiel, and that latter experience as contained in the Book of Maccabees and Daniel, that one encounters a mature development in Israel’s faith, about bodily resurrection.
But there was a specific element to Israel’s resurrection faith, which sheds light on the anxiety and eventual rejection of the resurrection of Jesus by the religious hierarchy: bodily resurrection (which is the faith of the New Testament), was supposed to mark the end of world history. In effect, though Israel had come to an understanding of the resurrection, their resurrection consciousness was very specific: when history ends, the dead will rise and be with God forever. Bodily resurrection thus meant that time (a creation by God) and space (another creation by God), would cease to be. And yet, here was this Carpenter’s Son making a claim to resurrection without a concomitant eschatological (end of time) dimension!
To put it simply for my mother to understand, if Jesus Christ rose on Easter Sunday, then there could not be an Easter Monday, talk less of an Easter Octave (the eight days following Easter Sunday). Easter Sunday would have marked the end of the world. But Jesus rose from the dead and history continues! This is the dilemma that the Jewish faith faces when confronting the resurrection of Jesus: How could Jesus of Nazareth be risen and the world not come to an end? What do we make of the understanding that resurrection was supposed to be the key to the resolution of the question of evil, suffering and justice? These questions, and more, should shed light on the hesitation of Judaism regarding the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In this light, the rejection of the resurrection of Jesus by Jediasm is consistent with Jewish logic of resurrection.
But it is precisely this dilemma that the full meaning and depth of the resurrection emerges, in that with the resurrection of Jesus, a new, utterly new dimension and meaning of evil, suffering and justice comes into being. The resurrection of Jesus teaches that God does not have to wait for history to come to an end before God does something about evil and suffering in the world. By raising Jesus from the dead, God has shown that God’s power is not limited by space and time (à la Kant). God can do something about human evil, suffering and pain. This is the sense in which the resurrection of Jesus becomes a programmatic experience for the present. In the resurrection of Jesus, therefore, the future is present. Augustine of Hippo was therefore right in his presentation of time in the Confessions: in God, the past is past of the present; the future is future of the present, for past and future are all present in God.
Easter, therefore, is about the present. Easter is a program for the present, a program which boils down to this consciousness: to allow the power of God to work in the here and now, to touch all the areas of my present life, to guide my present existence. Easter means that God’s power has rushed into human history. Easter means that God could not hold God’s self in the face of human suffering. Easter implies that God hastens, God could not wait for history to end to help human beings, because love has quick steps, love wants to do the good for the beloved, and to do so quickly. On this note, the reason for the rejection of the resurrection (that is had to wait till the end of history or the end of the world) becomes the central nexus for the proper hermeneutic of God: God is God because God hastens to help us in the present. Precisely in this way, the Sacred Name given to Moses (Exodus 3;14) – I shall be with you in the manner in which I shall be with you – (YHWH), finds its greatest realization with Easter: God is with us, not in the future, but now. And because God is with us now, Easter remains a program for the present-continuous tense of human existence.
By Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai