Crossan and Borg move on from the Passion to a discussion of the resurrection. They view the resurrection not from the Gospels’ scenarios, but from Paul’s perspective, “without presupposing the gospel accounts.” They cite Paul’s primary resurrection testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8:
He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
The authors identify what they call “three surprises” in this passage:
1) Paul claimed that his conversion experience on the road to Damascus occurred at least several years after the forty days of appearances reported in Acts. This proves that Paul thought that such experiences of the risen Christ were continuing instead of being limited only to that brief time period.
2) Paul’s descriptive language concerning the resurrection is associated with visionary phenomena:
“He repeatedly uses the verb ‘appeared’ not only for the experiences of Peter and the rest, but also for his experience, suggesting that they were in this sense similar… they were not the kinds of experiences that could have been photographed, as a literal-factual reading of the gospel stories would suggest. To call them visions is also not to demean them, as if they were ‘only’ visions. Nobody who has had a vision would ever say it was ‘only a vision.’ Rather, Paul’s experience of the risen Christ carried the conviction that he was real and could be known – but real need not mean a transformed corpse whom others would have seen if they had been there.”
Thus, Paul’s conviction that God had raised Jesus was grounded in his personal experience. For Paul, the risen Christ was an experiential reality.
3) Although Paul thinks that the resurrection somehow involves bodies, he also insists that the “resurrection body” is not simply the pre-death body resuscitated:
What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
“The resurrected body – including the body of Jesus – is a spiritual body: raised imperishable, raised in glory, raised in power. Clearly the resurrected body is not simply a physical body restored to life. Then Paul adds: ‘It is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit (15:45). The risen Christ is a life-giving spirit, in whom we might “live and move and have our being”.
“…Resurrection is not about coming back to life in a form similar to one’s form before death. Rather, the difference is as great as the difference between a seed that is sown and the full-grown plant that emerges.”
Hence, Pauline resurrection is not dependent on a tomb being empty on Easter morning, or on what may have happened to Jesus’ corpse after he died. Like Jesus’ redemptive death, his resurrection is a parable of God’s love for humanity, and it is based not on physiology, but on spirit – which is “life-giving”. It is also about God’s distributive justice, not his retributive justice: raising Jesus up was God’s response to the oppressive domination systems that killed Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection is a parable about the indominatability of the Kingdom that he preached during his life, its Spirit-nourished resiliency now transferred to the believer.
For Paul, life in the risen Christ – similarly to life in the dying Christ – is overwhelmingly spiritually transformative. 2 Corinthians claims:
All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another: for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (3:18)
We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. (4:16)
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. (5:17)
The parallels to Paul’s presentation of Jesus’ death as a participatory sacrament are obvious:
“…Paul’s understanding of sacrificial atonement must be emphatically distinguished from Anselm’s interpretation of it as substitutionary sacrificial atonement. Indeed, Paul’ls own interpretation of Christ’s execution was as a participatory sacrificial atonement. That is why, in Romans, having mentioned ‘Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood’ in just one verse (3:25), Paul does not develop that further, yet spends a whole chapter on our participation in Christ (6:1-23).”
Paul’s entire soteriology is centered not in “belief about” Jesus’ death and resurrection. Rather, it is centered in an active, inward, sacramental participation in Jesus’ dying-and-rising. Jesus’ resurrection is not an event that happened “back then” and “over there”. Resurrection-conviction is not a mere “belief about” something that happened once to only one individual. It is a continuing, living reality which participants have experienced and engaged in, from Paul’s day up to the present. It involves acting on Jesus’ “Way” of dying to an old self, identity and way of life, making his dying-and-rising our own, and being born into a new self, identity and way of life. It satisfies the “Way” of ego-surrender and transformation found in all spiritual traditions.
Easter, therefore, with its celebration of the risen living Christ, is equally a celebration of humanity’s spiritual transfiguration from an old life centered in the anxious, grasping “egoic” self into a new life centered in Spirit and lived out in God’s Kingdom. It is not an otherworldly superstition or burdensome myth. It is a partaking in God’s own life, and a participation in God’s own nature, as described in 2 Peter 1:3-4:
His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life…through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.