Every year, Christians from all over the world gather for Easter Sunday worship. Also known as Easter or Resurrection Sunday, Easter is the last day of a week-long commemoration of the story of the last days of jesus in the city of Jerusalem before his crucifixion and resurrection.
Most Christians refer to the week before Easter as Holy Week. In Western Christianity, Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Easter is the third day of the larger three-day festival known as the Holy Triduum, which begins on the evening of Maundy Thursday, marking the night of the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. Good Friday marks the suffering, crucifixion and death of Jesus. Holy Saturday marks the burial of Jesus in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. The festival reaches its peak early on Sunday morning with the Easter Vigil and ends on the evening of Easter Sunday.
As a Baptist minister and theologian I myself believe it is important to understand how Christians in general, and Baptists in particular, have differing opinions about the meaning of the resurrection.
While none of four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe in detail the actual event of the resurrection, they nevertheless give varied accounts of the empty tomb and appearances of Christ after the resurrection among his disciples in Galilee and Jerusalem.
They also report that it was women who discovered the empty tomb and received and proclaimed the first message that Christ had risen from the dead. These accounts were transmitted orally among the first Christian communities and later codified in the Gospel writings beginning about 30 years after the death of Jesus.
the The early Christians believed that by raising Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, God cleared Jesus of all wrongdoing for which he was judged and unjustly sentenced to death by Pilate.
By affirming the resurrection, Christians do not mean that the body of Jesus was simply resurrected. On the contrary, as a scholar of the New Testament Luke Timothy Johnson writingthe resurrection means that “[Jesus] entered into a whole new form of existence.”
As the risen Christ, Jesus is believed to share God’s power to transform all life and also shares that same power with his followers. So the resurrection is thought to be something that not only happened to Jesus, but also an experience that happens to his supporters.
Opposing points of view
Over the years, Christians have engaged in heated debates over this central doctrine of the Christian faith.
Two main approaches have emerged: the “liberal” vision and the “conservative” or “traditional” vision. Current perspectives on the resurrection have been dominated by two questions: “Was the body of Jesus literally raised from the dead? and “How important is the resurrection to those who strive for justice?”
These questions arose as a result of theological modernisma mid-19th century European and North American movement that sought to reinterpret Christianity to fit the emergence of modern science, history, and ethics.
Theological modernism led liberal Christian theologians to create an alternative path between the rigid orthodoxies of the Christian churches and the rationalism of atheists and others.
This meant that liberal Christians were willing to revise or abandon cherished Christian beliefs, such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus, if such beliefs could not be explained against the bar of human reason.
Baptist views on the resurrection
Like all other Christian denominations, Baptists are divided on the question of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Undoubtedly, what may be unique about the group is that Baptists believe that no external religious authority can force an individual member to adhere to the tenets of the Christian faith in any way. One must be free to accept or reject any teaching of the church.
In the early 20th century, Baptists in the United States found themselves on both sides of a schism within American Christianity over doctrinal issues, known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversial.
Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Liberal Baptist minister who served First Presbyterian Church and later Riverside Church in Manhattan, rejected the bodily resurrection of Jesus. On the contrary, Fosdick considered the resurrection as a “persistence in [Christ’s] personality.”
In 1922, Fosdick delivered his famous sermon “Will the fundamentalists win?” chiding fundamentalists for their failure to tolerate difference on such doctrinal issues as the infallibility of the Bible, the virgin birth, and bodily resurrection, among others, and for downplaying the larger issue of meeting the societal needs of the time.
In his autobiographyCivil rights leader and Baptist minister Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. explained that in his early teens he denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
While attending Crozer Seminary in 1949, King wrote an article try to make sense of what led to the development of the Christian doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. For King, the experience of the early disciples of Jesus was the basis of their belief in his resurrection.
“They had been captivated by the magnetic power of his personality,” King explained. “That basic experience led him to believe he could never die.” In other words, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is merely the outward expression of early Christian experience, not an actual or, at least, verifiable event in human history.
It is not clear from his later writings that King changed his mind about bodily resurrection. In one of his notable Easter sermonsKing argued that the significance of the resurrection signaled a future where God would end racial segregation.
Others within the Baptist movement disagreed. Like his fundamentalist ancestors, the conservative evangelical Baptist theologian Carl FH Henry argued in 1976 that all Christian doctrine can be explained rationally and can persuade any unbeliever. Henry rigorously defended the bodily resurrection of Christ as a historical event by appealing to the Gospel account of the empty tomb and the appearances of Christ among his disciples after his resurrection.
In his six-volume magnum opus, “God, revelation and authority“, Henry read these two elements of the gospels as historical documents that can be verified by modern historical methods.
Despite their predominance, liberal and conservative arguments about the resurrection of Jesus are not the only approaches held by Baptists.
In his book “Resurrection and Discipleship“, Baptist theologian Thorwald Lorenzen also describes what he calls the “evangelical” approach, which seeks to transcend the distinctions of “liberal” and “conservative” approaches. He affirms, with conservatives, the historical reality of the resurrection, but agrees with liberals that such an event cannot be verified in the modern historical sense.[3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]
Apart from these, there is a “liberation” approach, which emphasizes the social and political implications of the resurrection. Baptists who share this view primarily interpret the resurrection as God’s response and commitment to freeing those who, like Jesus, to experience poverty and oppression.
Given this diversity of perspectives on the resurrection, Baptists are not alone among Christians in addressing issues of practicing the faith. However, I argue that Baptists may be distinct in that they believe such matters are to be freely believed by their own conscience and not imposed by external religious authority.
This is an updated version of a piece first published on April 15, 2021.