What matters most is not what historically happened on Easter morning to the body of Jesus but what the Easter story means.
The Easter stories in the Gospels are religious/spiritual/theological stories, not historical reports. That is not to say there are no historical echoes or reflections in the stories, but my contention is that whatever actual memories may be embedded in them, such historical recollections are irrelevant to the meaning and appropriation of these stories by people of faith.
Did the original writers/editors of these Easter stories believe the actual body of Jesus was resurrected? Did they believe the body of Jesus was changed into a different kind of body? Were these appearances like apparitions or dreams or were they something more tangible? Did the authors/redactors of these stories intend them as metaphorical narratives (like parables) teaching spiritual truth?
There is no way to know from a historical perspective how much is actually history or legend or myth, nor does it matter. Historically, about the most that can be said is that some of the first disciples of Jesus became convinced that God raised Jesus to new life because they experienced Jesus alive after his death.
Their experience of Jesus alive (whatever this may have actually involved) brought them out of their great grief and despair, igniting and fueling new faith, hope, love and courage. It’s doubtful there would have been any lasting Jesus movement if not for the Easter experience. If the Lukan account in Acts reliably reflects the key elements in the early Messianic preaching, then the Easter experience was critical and central.
Luke attributes to Peter in his first sermon on the day of Pentecost the concluding point, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted … and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. … Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him [the man Jesus] both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32-36).
Had there been no Easter experience, it is hard to imagine where the motivation and empowerment for the Messianic movement would have originated.
What actually happened is irrelevant. What matters is the Easter story — its spiritual meaning and theological significance. The resurrection stories are spiritual stories imparting spiritual truth.
In the Easter story (or stories) I see three big spiritual realities:
First, Easter was God’s vindication of Jesus and all that he valued and stood for. Jesus is affirmed as a unique embodiment of the divine (or paradoxically, what it means to be fully human) and God’s agent for accomplishing God’s will. Jesus — as boundary breaker, prophetic challenger of the status quo, radical reformer, teacher of nonconventional, counter-cultural wisdom, empathetic and compassionate healer, lover of the poor and outcast, host to all manner of sinners, liberator of the oppressed — this Jesus who died a violent death at the hands of the political and religious authorities without returning the violence or even harboring violence in his heart was vindicated by God. Easter was God’s “Yes” to Jesus’ life, teaching and vision of a world healed, reconciled and made whole.
Second, the Easter story affirms that death does not have the final word. I know that many conservative Christians have made the Christian faith all about the afterlife. For many such Christians the gospel is nothing more than a prize of heavenly glory for believing orthodox doctrines or practicing the right rituals. They regard salvation to be mostly a legal, juridical transaction of sin/guilt remission that guarantees the “believer” a place in heaven.
Progressives, like myself, emphasize God’s dream for this world and the importance of our participation in its realization, and the need for personal and communal transformation right now. We emphasize Jesus’ prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Still, I believe Easter signifies that not only will God never give up on this world, God will not allow our mortal lives to be all there is. How does love ultimately win and restorative justice prevail if there is not “more” to this life than this life? It was no doubt this sort of evolution of thought that spawned the development of Jewish belief in resurrection during the intertestamental period. Think of all the children of God who have died prematurely through disease, war, natural disaster, etc. and suffered immensely under the dominant power of oppressors. Without something “more” how would their suffering be vindicated?
While I do not agree with all of Paul’s teaching about resurrection in his letters, I think he makes a legitimate argument to the Corinthians who had collapsed the teaching of resurrection into a completely realized eschatology. They said that the resurrection is all now and this worldly. Paul argued, not so! It’s both/and. He argued that the good news cannot be all that good if our hope is confined to this world alone (see 1 Cor. 15:1-28).
Third, the Easter story evokes response. God’s “Yes” to Jesus is God’s invitation to trust in, share in and be faithful to all that Jesus lived and died for. Easter means that the work for a just, good, redeemed and reconciled world continues through us as the Spirit of Jesus fills us and expands our capacity to love and give of ourselves for the good of others.
Albert Nolan in his classic, Jesus Before Christianity, says this beautifully:
“In the last analysis faith is not a way of speaking or a way of thinking, it is a way of living and can only be adequately articulated in a living praxis. To acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and Savior is only meaningful in so far as we try to live as he lived and to order our lives according to his values. We do not need to theorize about Jesus, we need to ‘re-produce’ him in our time and our circumstances.”