When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning he rose as the beginning of the new world that Israel’s God had always intended to make. That is the first and perhaps the most important thing to know about the meaning of Easter.
Of course, I have said “when,” not “if.” I have argued in detail elsewhere that the only possible explanation for the rise of Christianity, and for it taking the shape it did, was that Jesus of Nazareth, three days after being very thoroughly dead (Roman executioners were professional killers, and didn’t let would-be rebel leaders slip out of their clutches), was found, by his followers, to be very bodily alive again. His tomb was empty; had it not been, his followers would have believed they were seeing some kind of apparition. Such things were well known in the ancient world, as in fact they are today. Equally, they really did see, and touch, and share food with Jesus as a real, bodily presence; had they not, they would have concluded that an empty tomb meant that the grave had been robbed. Such things were better known in the ancient world than they are today. The combination of empty tomb and definite, solid appearances is far and away the best explanation for everything that happened subsequently.
Solid? I heard someone say. Didn’t they tell stories about this risen Jesus going through locked doors, not always being recognized straight off, and eventually vanishing upwards into thin air? Yes, they did, and we have to take those stories seriously too. They don’t correspond to what first-century Jews, the majority of whom believed in eventual resurrection, would have thought “the resurrection” would be like. (For one thing, they never imagined that “resurrection” would happen to one person in the middle of time; they believed it would happen to all people at the end of time. The Easter stories are very strange, but they are not projections of what they’d always hoped would happen.) The stories don’t fit, in fact, into either of our regular categories. We tend to divide things up into two: solid, physical objects on the one hand, and evanescent insubstantial “objects” or appearances, such as (so we imagine) ghosts. But the stories of the risen Jesus have a different quality altogether. They seem to be about a person who is equally at home “on earth” and “in heaven.” And that is, in fact, what they are.
Remember that “heaven” in biblical thought is not a long way away from “earth.” In the Bible, “heaven” and “earth” are not like oil and water, resisting one another and separating themselves out. Most people in today’s Western world imagine that “heaven,” by definition, could not contain what we think of as a solid, physical body. That’s because we are Platonists at heart, supposing that if there is a “heaven” it must be nonphysical, beyond the reach of space, time and matter. But supposing Plato was wrong?
Supposing, in other words, that the ancient Israelite scriptures were right, and that heaven and earth were after all the twin halves of God’s created reality designed eventually to come together. Supposing that what has kept them apart all this time is that the human creatures who were put in charge of the “earthly” part of this creation had rebelled, and that their rebellion had generated a sufficient head of steam for “earth” to declare independence, the desire to rule itself. And supposing that this self-rule had become extremely powerful, keeping the two spheres separated and effectively tyrannizing over “earth” with the regular weapon of the tyrant, that is, death itself?
And supposing then, that the creator God had finally come in person to break the tyrant’s weapon and inaugurate the new world in which the original purpose of creation would be fulfilled after all? That is what the early Christians believed was going on when they met Jesus, very much alive again and appearing to be equally at home in “heaven,” where they couldn’t see him, and on “earth,” where they could. . . . What we are witnessing in the resurrection stories—which, obviously, are quite unlike any other stories before or since, and which therefore invite the skepticism they have received as much in the ancient as in the modern world—is the birth of the new creation. The power that has tyrannized the old creation has been broken, defeated, overthrown. God’s kingdom is now launched, and launched in power and glory, on earth as in heaven. . . . A new power is let loose in the world, the power to remake what was broken, to heal what was diseased, to restore what was lost. The kingdom which Jesus had inaugurated strangely, mysteriously and partially within his public career, through his healings, feasting and teachings, was now unveiled in a totally new dimension. If we think of Jesus during his lifetime in the way we have done throughout this book, and then ask about the meaning of Easter, the answer is obvious. This is the real beginning of the kingdom. Jesus’ risen person body, mind, heart, and soul, is the prototype of the new creation. We have already seen him as the Temple in person, as the Jubilee in person. Now we see him as the new creation in person.
From Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. Copyright © 2011 by N. T. Wright. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.