Friday, March 25, 2016

Parsing the Resurrection of the Christ

Christian communities in the West celebrate Easter this year on Sunday March 27, but the Easter celebration in Orthodox Christianity will not happen until May 1, 2016.  Easter, as virtually everyone in this country knows, celebrates the revivifying of the dead Christ.  At some point between 26 and 36 of the Common Era Jesus was crucified near Jerusalem (Mark 15:22; John 19:17-20) under the administration of the Romans. There are no eyewitness accounts describing either crucifixion or resurrection that are contemporary with the event. The earliest mention of the resurrection is little more than a formulaic confession, which is thought to derive from the early Palestinian Christians, some 20 years or so before Paul; he quoted the brief confession in a letter (ca 50):
            I have delivered to you [the Corinthian Christians] as of first importance what I also received,
            That Christ died for our sins
                        according to the scriptures,
            and that he was buried,
            and that he was raised on the third day
                        according to the scriptures,
            and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (1 Cor 15:3-5 RSV).
The confession is frustrating in its lack of detail.  It doesn't describe specifically what the disciples saw; did Christ appear bodily (compare, Matt 27:51-53); did they have a vision (Acts 9:10, 17), or a dream (Matt 1:20-21)?  Did they see a spirit (Luke 24:37) or a phantom (Mark 6:49)?  Perhaps they only saw his "angel" (Acts 12:15)?  The nature of the experience is conditioned by what they saw, or thought they saw.
            Paul himself had no personal knowledge of what had occurred earlier except for what he learned through the confessional report.  He himself claimed, however, to have had an experience similar to what is suggested by the Palestinian confession (1 Cor 15:8; Gal 1:15-16), but he does not describe this experience further (but compare another claim, 2 Cor 12:7-9).
            Paul's early analysis of the post-crucifixion "sighting" by the Palestinian followers of Christ finds it to be a spiritual experience, which specifically denies that the Christ was seen in some sort of bodily state (1 Cor 15:44, 50).  In short, the physical remains of the Christ had been transformed (1 Cor 15:20, 51-53), and he came forth a "life-giving spirit" (1 Cor 15:21-22, 45).
            Some twenty years or so after Paul, the gospel writer we call Mark in describing the origins of the gospel that his church preached (Mark 1:1) reports only that Jesus was raised (16:6); there are no reports of sightings. Only an empty tomb and the promise that he could be seen in Galilee (16:7) greeted the mourners coming to the tomb that first Easter morning; it was a terrifying experience (16:8).  Towards the end of the first century the resurrection state of the Christ has become something more substantial than a vision, dream, or bodiless spirit. In the romantic accounts of the later gospels he was described as being seen in a bodily state (Matt 28:9; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-29).  In the early 2nd century such statements suggesting a bodily state were seized upon to argue that "he was in the flesh even after the resurrection" (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans, 3:1-3).
Is the resurrection of the Christ an historical event?  A reported sighting of a dead person following his burial is not what we usually think of as an historical event—that is, as an event open to verification by a neutral third party.  The witnesses to the resurrection (Peter and the disciples, Paul, and the others he reported having seen him [1 Cor 15:6-8]) all shared faith in Jesus as the Christ, and, hence, are scarcely neutral third parties).  The historical event of Easter is that they claimed to have seen him. That they claimed to have seen him is open to historical verification. What they claimed to have seen is a part of a salvation or theological history (a history that traces out the claims of the perceived acts of God in human history).  It is not a common human experience that people are raised from the dead by the activity of God.  People that die remain dead.  Hence, it is only the claim that God has intervened in human history and performed a miracle by raising Jesus from the dead that is verifiable as historical event.  The resurrection itself is a part of a theological history.  What can be observed by anyone should not be confused with what can be seen only by a few.  In this case what the few saw they saw with the eye of faith (John 20:3-9); the many, however, see with the natural eye.
How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
"Parsing": to sort into its component parts.
Roy W. Hoover, "Was Jesus' Resurrection an Historical Event? A Debate Statement with Commentary," The Fourth R 23.5 (September-October 2010): 5-12, 24.
Charles W. Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 1-13.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

End-of-Life Issues: Hospice, a Lingering Death, and Palliative Care

When physicians recognize that their patients who are near the end of life are suffering severe pain, they prescribe palliative care—that is, patients are made as comfortable as possible with medication, while they linger—awaiting an inevitable death.  Comatose patients, for example, may have feeding tubes inserted into their stomachs, and, unless fortunate, are housed in "nursing" homes while awaiting their end.  It is not a pretty sight.
            Prolonging a life that is clearly at its end is based on the idea that life of any quality is precious, and being alive is better than not being alive.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is believed that all life is given by God (Genesis 2:7, 21-22) and that the taking of human life is prohibited by Exodus 20:13: "You shall not kill" (usually understood as "not kill unjustifiably").  Hence all life is cherished and must be continued—including even the lives of those who are not able to reverse a painful terminal illness caused by disease.  Such persons are sedated by narcotics that hopefully render them impervious to their worst suffering, while their lives continue slowly to dribble away.  Persons who are fully cognizant of their situation and who desire help from a physician in ending their lives before the terrible suffering of their inevitable end, may or may not be able to find the help they need.  I am assuming that the decision to end life by choice is to save themselves and their loved ones the indignity of the unnecessary suffering.  There are likely other reasons as well; for example, they fear the suffering.
            Public opinion is decidedly opposed to what many consider suicide, euthanasia, "mercy killing," or even murder. Southern Baptists, for example, devote one Sunday each year to study what they call "sanctity of life" issues (sanctity means holy or sacred).  For Catholics suicide, euthanasia, and murder (1 John 3:15) are "mortal" sins (the term is taken from 1 John 5:16-17), meaning it is a serious sin for which one is condemned to hell if the sin is not forgiven.
            Christian tradition uniformly condemns suicide, although neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament prohibits it and throughout antiquity suicide was "accepted, admired, and even sought after" (A. J. Droge, "Suicide," Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6.225).  The Hebrew Bible does narrate several accounts of suicide, and those committing suicide are neither criticized nor commended by the biblical writers (Judges 9:54; 16:29-30; 1 Samuel 31:4-5; 2 Samuel 17:23; 1 Kings 16:18).
            Currently physician-assisted suicide is legal in four states (California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington); one state has legalized physician-assisted suicide by a court ruling (Montana); forty-one states prohibit it, and in four states the situation is unclear. (
            My personal view of this situation is that being conscious even with pain, is better than being insentient; or put another way, life lived with physical difficulties and pain is better than a death that instantly banishes all pain—for as long as there is life there is hope!  But I must also admit that I have been at the bedside of those who were suffering a lingering untimely death (specifically my sister and my mother, as well as others).  It seems to me that being at the extremity of life and being fully conscious of the inevitable fact that my own life is dribbling away in suffering is a very different thing than living with difficulty and pain.  Hence I cannot fault those who might choose a quick death over a painful lingering death.
            What is the state's interest in prohibiting, rather than regulating, physician-assisted suicide?  Should the state even be involved in enacting laws that prohibit people from ending life with dignity (as they might see it), and forcing them to choose between either unconscionable suffering or spending their last days in a drug induced virtual coma?
Opinions vary and are hotly debated.  How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Even to consider the question seriously starts the tectonic plates shifting beneath one's feet. If the earth passes away, it takes along with it human consciousness, history, and civilization. As unthinkable as it may be, the impermanence of the earth has been considered even by the biblical writers, although God pronounced his creative act "very good" (Genesis 1:31).  The biblical myth, however, is that God once destroyed every living thing on the earth (Genesis 7:4, 21-23), so something went very wrong.  The flood event was not understood by the writers as a destruction of the earth, but (as we would say) a global destruction of life, which God promised never to do again by floods (Genesis 9:11-17).  God promised that the earth and earthly life cycles would continue "while the earth remains" (Genesis 8:20-22), which is not quite a promise that the earth is permanent.  Hence, in this expression the biblical writer raises the specter of the earth's impermanence.
            The threats of destruction involving the earth in Hebrew Bible are usually like the flood incident—threats against a particular people for a particular reason (e.g., Zephaniah 1:14-18; 3:1-8).  The earth abides, but certain peoples are destroyed.  Even the "Little Apocalypse" of Isaiah 24-27 (First Isaiah) predicts only a devastation of the earth and not its destruction. Isaiah 65:17-20 (Third Isaiah), however, foresees a "new heavens and a new earth" and asserts that "the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind."
            Paul's letters seem inconsistent.  In one letter he suggests that even the (old) earth is anticipating redemption, because of its being in bondage to decay (Romans 8:19-23), which suggests that the present earth will continue after its redemption.  Yet in another letter he writes that "the form of this world is passing away" (1 Corinthians 7:26, 31).  The writer in Second Peter unambiguously announces the destruction of earth:
The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. (2nd Peter 3:10).
The prophetic writer, John, echoes Third Isaiah in foreseeing the advent of a "new heaven and a new earth," and echoes Paul in announcing the "passing away" of the first heaven and first earth (Revelation 21:1-4).
            Do you suppose that God's mind for some reason was changed about the creation being "very good," and as a result what began "good" in God's judgment will end up in a fiery cataclysm?  If so, why would God decide to destroy a "very good" and perfectly innocent creation?  Animals, plants, and the "material stuff" of earth are not unrighteous, evil, or unethical, and scarcely deserve punishment.  Such insentient things and creatures would scarcely even be able to appreciate that they were being punished.  Perhaps the biblical writers are wrong in foreseeing the end of the world, for they cannot actually read God's mind. When it comes to God, all of us human beings are limited and see things only "in a mirror dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12)—even prophets, preachers, and TV evangelists.
            Nevertheless, that said, the transience of our habitable blue and white planet earth has always been threatened by natural causes.  A large enough wandering comet striking earth would cause catastrophic devastation.  In 1908 a comet about the size of a football field, among other things leveled 2000 square kilometers of forest in central Siberia. Perhaps some other cosmic catastrophe might occur, such as a "super nova within ten or twenty light years of the solar system," an event that some conjecture was the cause of the passing away of the dinosaurs "some sixty-five million years ago." Super novae are huge exploding stars.
            Our Sun is a star, or put another way, the stars you see in the night sky are suns.  They have a limited life span. "Billions of years from now, there will be a last perfect day on earth. Thereafter the Sun will slowly become red and distended," on its way to becoming a red star, then degenerating to a white dwarf; ultimately it becomes a dark and dead black dwarf.  Our earth would have then long since become uninhabitable to life as we know it. Sagan's description of the death of the earth echoes Second Peter: Earth will "swelter even at the poles" and then,
The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps will melt…Eventually the oceans will boil, the atmosphere melt away to space and a catastrophe of the most immense proportions will overtake our planet.
Will we earth people be able to survive without our mother, the earth?  We were spawned millions of years ago in an earthy primordial soup of dust from the stars and nourished at mother earth's breast on our way to becoming human beings. Perhaps, we will, but what might we become without her?
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980): comets, 73-76; death of the sun, 230-32; death of the dinosaurs, 283; origins of life, 30-31; super nova, 238-39.