Jesus is not Superman, or: how to understand the resurrection properly

I have been thinking about the resurrection. Specifically, I have been pondering the way in which it is so commonly misunderstood and that this misunderstanding is a real barrier to our mission. It prevents us from sharing what is genuinely exciting about the resurrection.

Consider: Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that in the course of this film – well, in the course of this four hour televisual marathon – Superman, who dies at the end of Batman v Superman, returns to life and joins his comrades in order to defeat the bad guy at the end.

Now this ‘hero dies and comes back to life’ trope is very, very common in our stories, and in the stories of most human cultures. After all, if you have a settled agrarian civilisation then the phenomenon of crops dying in Winter and regrowing in Spring is both remarkable and something to be thankful for. If this is the horizon of your moral imaginary then it makes sense to have stories about dying and coming back to life. Let’s call these stories ‘Phoenix’ stories.

The story of the resurrection of Jesus is not a story like this. It is not the story of a hero dying and coming back to life. It is not a Phoenix story. This requires some explanation.

In the Phoenix story there is usually no sense that the hero is in fact immortal – no suggestion, for example, that Superman is in fact immortal. To be immortal in the relevant sense would rather remove any sense of jeopardy in the drama.

More than this, even if Superman was immortal, there is no sense that Superman’s existence was anything other than in the flow of time. Superman is still an actor within time, simply (if immortal) an actor over an incredibly long stretch of time.

When Superman comes back to life, what we have is a resumption of what was previously possible. The life of Superman is interrupted by the awkward fact of death, but once death is overcome then the previously normal is re-established.

Superman is a Phoenix. The Phoenix dies and then comes back to life. The much larger pattern within which the Phoenix lives and dies and rises continues on.

[Aside #1 – I’m extremely interested for GRRM to finish Winds of Winter, so I can see what happens with a certain character, keeping in mind GRRM’s musings about Tolkien and Gandalf.]

[Aside #2 – the restoration of normality after the intrusion of the monstrous is a classic horror movie trope, and profoundly conservative.]

So if the resurrection of Jesus is not like that of Superman – or any other Phoenix character – then what is being claimed?

This is what I claim: Jesus actually died on the cross. The death of Jesus is not something that is ‘undone’ by the resurrection. There is no return to the status quo ante. Jesus does not resume his previous life. The previous normal is not re-established. This is not a conservative event. This means that the interactions of Jesus with people after the resurrection are not, strictly speaking, actions within time so much as the interruption of time by the eternal. Now, just to be cautious – I want to say that people who acted in time had temporal experiences (talking, eating etc), but that Jesus was not acting within time in the way that any other mortal person acts within time. Those who experienced Jesus after the resurrection experienced his eternal nature, his risen nature, not a reanimation of his mortal nature.

The core truth of the resurrection is the revealing of Jesus’ true nature – his eternal life as Son of the Father.

I think of it a little like this: a mortal life might be represented by a V to represent birth, dashes to represent life, and an A to represent death, viz:


or a longer life


A Phoenix life might be shown with an interruption, like this:


Or if there are several Phoenix moments, then like this:


and so on.

My point is that the life and resurrection of Jesus looks like my first example, not like my last.

Instead of the Phoenix life, the resurrection is the V—–A rendered eternal. Or, to put that a little differently, it is the demonstration that the A is not the end.

This is why it is true to say that ‘death has no dominion’ over Jesus. Jesus has already died, and he cannot die again. He cannot die again for he no longer exists within the time-bound mortal frame; he is eternal. He lives. Not life after death, for however often a Phoenix might rise, but… eternal life, sub specie aeternitatis, at the right hand of the Father.

And where He goes, so may we now follow.

Jesus lives! thy terrors now, can no more, O death, appal us;
Jesus lives! By this we know, thou, O Grave, canst not enthral us.