The Problematic Resurrection

In Long Night’s Journey into Day: Life and Faith After the Holocaust,[1] A. Roy and Alice Eckardt contend that Christianity in the post-Holocaust world must come to greater terms with its inherent Jewishness. Say the Eckards, “the Christian revolutionary will insist upon a genuine reaffirmation of Jewishness, which entails radical historicalness” (Eckards, 125). While Judaism has always maintained its fundamental belief in the meaningfulness of history, with the event of Jesus Christianity has come to under-emphasize history in favor of a more spiritual understanding of the world, and in so doing has effectively denied a fundamental trait of its Jewish roots. This devaluation by Christianity of the relative importance of history, contend the Eckards, is deeply problematic for Christianity: “the fact stands that a widely accepted theological schema gnaws at the vitals of the Christian church, a schema according to which, in effect, the Cross-Resurrection-Parousia is made into a solely decisive series of events, salvationally speaking” (Eckards, 126-127). According to this view, the Resurrection is an event which transcends history and takes precedence over it. All of history is measured in relation to the Resurrection, and no single historical event or series of events can be understood to meet or supersede it in significance. With the Resurrection, Christianity places itself “above” history, and history in a sense ceases to matter to it. As the Eckards put it, “Christianity itself becomes a wholly transcendent ‘reality,’ which moves in entirely ‘spiritual’ ways above the flux of history” (Eckards, 127). 

Hence, the issue of historicalness becomes a significant point of contention between Christians and Jews: while Jews continue to firmly believe in relating to God within the realm of human events, Christians implicitly deny such Jewish historicalness insomuch as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the defining event of the Christian tradition, is ahistorical. But the Eckards are not merely pointing to a difference of opinion here between Christians and Jews regarding the significance of history. Rather, they are suggesting that this leaning of Christian theology towards transcendental spirituality is something of a theological aberration, a risky and potentially harmful deviation from the truth. The Eckards claim that “this Christian outlook easily turns into forms of absolutism and triumphalism, or of particularism wearing a camouflage of universal truths” (Eckards, 127). For the Eckards, the potential harmfulness of this Christian outlook, or its deeply problematic nature, has not so much to do with the Resurrection as such, but rather with the implication of the Resurrection that regardless of what happens in history, the most significant event of all was and shall always remain the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the significance attributed by Christians to other historical events (such as the Holocaust) shall always be limited or reduced so as never to equal or surpass the Resurrection in terms of ultimate significance. Furthermore, since the Resurrection is transcendental and fundamentally pro-Christian, Christians can only understand the rest of world history in the specifically pro-Christian terms the Resurrection dictates. 

But for the Eckards, the ahistorical nature of the Resurrection raises some important questions about the Resurrection as such. Say the Eckards, “there are grave questions respecting what it means to talk about the reality of the Resurrection” (Eckards, 128). To the Eckards, the Resurrection is historically suspect insomuch as it lacks a certain verifiability. Given this questioning of the historical validity of the Resurrection, the Eckards would appear further to be suggesting that the absolutism and triumphalism which Christians naturally derive from their understanding of the Resurrection may in fact be unwarranted. Rather, Christian absolutism and triumphalism could now be viewed as the undesirable side-effects associated with an essentially manufactured proposition. 

To the Eckards, the truth is “that it is the teaching of a consummated Resurrection which lies at the foundation of Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism,” and that “the Resurrection is the relentless force behind every other Christian derogation of Jewry” (Eckards, 130). Hence, the Christian Resurrection, with its denial of the significance of historical events and the aura of absolutism which emanates from that denial, constitutes a formidable obstacle to Jewish-Christian relations. From the Christian perspective, that is to say the perspective deeply informed by the consummated Resurrection, the theological significance of the Holocaust is lessened in relation to the Resurrection. As the Eckards explain, the Christian equation of “the suffering and death of Jesus with the torment of hell” implies that the Jewish struggle during the Holocaust, albeit severe, cannot constitute hell as such. The category of hell in this case is reserved for the suffering and death of Jesus alone. For the Eckards, this Christian position does not constitute theological truth, but rather a distortion of the meaning of history. More importantly, it motions towards the potentially harmful effects of the Christian premise that the most important and significant historical event (i.e. the Resurrection) has already taken place. No subsequent historical event, regardless of the degree of human suffering associated with it, can ever hope to assume the same degree of significance as the Resurrection. 

From all of this the Eckards conclude that the time has come for a Christian reaffirmation of Jewish historicalness. For the Eckards, this reaffirmation of Jewishness has radical implications: “Jewishness means a denial of any consummated Resurrection, until this time in history and beyond today” (Eckards, 129). For the Eckards then, due to the centrality of the Resurrection within the Christian faith, for the reaffirmation of Jewish historicalness to be effective such a reaffirmation must be understood as affecting first and foremost the Christian understanding of the Resurrection as a consummated event. The Eckards further contend that it is only by way of a revision to this most essential of Christian doctrines that there can be any hope of a genuine rediscovery of Jewishness within Christianity: “the one place for the reaffirmation of Jewishness to happen, if it is to happen at all, is in connection with the momentous and all-determining tenet of the Resurrection” (Eckards, 128). For traditional Christians, this proposed shift in thinking about the Resurrection put forth by the Eckards is no minor task. As even the Eckards admit, strength and good courage will be needed by Christians in this endeavor, particular in light of the words the apostle Paul: “’If Christ had not been raised,… your faith is in vain’” (Eckards, 128). 

In Faith and Fatricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism,[2] Rosemary Reuther echoes some of the concerns put forth by the Eckards regarding the historical status of the Resurrection without necessarily concluding, as the Eckards do, that the idea of a consummated Resurrection should be done away with entirely. Says Reuther, in speaking of the Resurrection, “the objectivity of this event can never be verified. To the outsider it must appear perhaps even as a collective ‘wishful thinking.’ To those who experienced it, it represented the dramatic influx of new understanding, the starting point for a new beginning” (Reuther, F&F, 69). For Reuther then, as for the Eckards, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ remains historically suspect, but nevertheless, to Jesus’ first disciples this redemptive event meant that “Jesus was ‘the stone which the builders rejected,’ but who now ‘has become the head of the corner ‘(Ps. 118:22)” (Reuther, F&F, 72). 

In highlighting this scriptural claim that Jesus Christ became the “head of the corner,” Reuther is motioning towards the same Christian theological absolutism and triumphalism that the Eckards speak of in their thesis.  As Reuther explains, with this promotion of Jesus to the “head of the corner” it became necessary for the followers of Jesus to defend this promotion of Jesus against those who would hear nothing of it, and who in fact had a vested interest in denying it (namely, the unconverted Jewish communities). Says Reuther, “hypocrites, blind fools, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, serpents, off-spring of vipers, and children of hell are among the epithets heaped upon the rival interpreters of the tradition in the Gospel of Matthew” (Reuther, F&F, 75). And building on this initial vilification of the unconverted Jews, the Church eventually positioned itself as the absolute authority in matters pertaining to God: “the church alone is the true Plant (Israel) of God, while all the rest belong to that plant which had not been planted by God and which will be rooted up and thrown into the fire (Luke 13:3; John 15:1-6)” (Reuther, F&F, 75). 

Much like the Eckards, Reuther also motions towards a need for Christianity’s self-understanding to evolve if the problems of the past, such as the Holocaust, are to be avoided in the future. In particular, Reuther identifies Christianity’s persistent need to justify its revelation in Jewish terms as the root cause of the difficulties encountered in Jewish-Christian relations. Says Reuther, “as long as ‘the Jews,’ that is, the Jewish religious tradition itself, continues to reject this interpretation, the validity of the Christian view is in question” (Reuther, F&F, 94). So, to the extent that Jews cannot be expected to willingly forgo their basic covenantal principle, the only other foreseeable solution is some Christian reinterpretation of the Resurrection such that it may not be so readily contradicted by the basic tenets of the Jewish faith. 

In their review of Faith & Fratricide, [3] Thomas A. Idinopulos and Roy Bowen Ward similarly understand Reuther’s proposal as being that Christians should “abandon a teaching about salvation wherein Judaism is negated” (Idonopulos & Ward, 204)[4]. According to  Idonopulos and Ward, “there should be no difficulty in doing this if Christians cease believing in their redemption in Christ as an accomplished fact, and begin to view it as an event to be expected in the future, in that time when all mankind, Christian and non-Christian, Jew and Gentile, will be delivered from evil” (Idonopulos & Ward, 204). In addition to confirming Reuther’s thesis, Idinopulos and Ward here seem to be perfectly echoing the thoughts of the Eckards as well. 

In his Last Letters from a Nazi Prison,[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer echoes several of the main themes presented above, albeit not in direct reference to the issue of the Resurrection. Indeed, any questioning of the historical validity of the Resurrection of the sort put forth by the Eckards or Rosemary Reuther would have arguably been quite unpalatable to Bonhoeffer. Yet Bonhoeffer’s concept of a “religionless Christianity” seems to invite the same kind of questioning that led Reuther and the Eckards to their respective conclusions. According to Bonhoeffer, “we are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all: men as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so when they say ‘religious’ they evidently mean something quite different” (Bonhoeffer, 275). To Bonhoeffer, religions are not static entities, but rather tend to follow a certain pattern of change through time. Hence, the spiritual inwardness that served the early Christians so well in their initial understanding of the Resurrection is perhaps not quite as effective when dealing with the challenges Christianity faces in today’s modern secular world. With the notable absence of God in the world today, Bonhoeffer is led to question whether in fact Christianity should even continue to depend on a particular religious premise at all. Bonhoeffer asks, “is it not true to say that individualistic concern for personal salvation has almost completely left us all? Are we not really under the impression that there are more important things than bothering about such a matter” (Bonhoeffer, 277-278)? 

To Bonhoeffer, Christian indifference to the Holocaust makes clear that we are now living in a “religionless” state. Christianity, if such a thing still even exists, has through time become progressively disconnected from its theological origins. Bonhoeffer in his own way seems to be motioning towards a prospective revolution in Christian theology no less significant than those prescribed by Reuther and the Eckards. To Bonhoeffer, a “religionless Christianity” is a Christianity that is in dire need of a new salvational principle, a principle based on God’s absence instead of his presence and on his weakness instead of his strength: “Before God and with him we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us” (Bonhoeffer, 289). Reuther and the Eckards similarly challenge Christians to seek God in places where they are not used to finding Him, and to acknowledge God’s absence by relinquishing their always comforting but ultimately detrimental belief in a consummated Resurrection. 


[1] A. Roy Eckardt and Alice L. Eckardt, Long Night’s Journey into Day: Life and Faith After the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State U.P., 1982). 

[2] Rosemary Reuther, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York: Seabury Press, 1979). 

[3] Thomas A. Idinopulos & Roy Bowen Ward, “Is Christology Inherently Anti-Semitic? A Critical Review of Rosemary Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide, JAAR 45/2, 1977, 193-214. 

[4] Although Idonopulos & Ward agree with this basic premise of Reuther’s, they disagree with Reuther that the later evolution of anti-Judaism into anti-Semitism (culminating in the Holocaust) was strictly due to the “inner logic of christology itself” (Idonopulos & Ward, 203). Rather, they point to certain historical and political events, such as the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., which significantly worsened the relations between Christians and Jews at the time. But to the extent these political and historical events occurred after the Resurrection, they do not seem to seriously interfere with Reuther’s main argument as it relates to the origin of Christian-Jewish complications. 

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Last Letters from a Nazi Prison” in William Robert Miller ed., The New Christianity: The Rise of Modern Religious Thought (New York: Dell Publishing, 1967).


2 thoughts on “The Problematic Resurrection”

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