Mainline Protestant Channel
The Resurrection of Jesus: Physical/Bodily or Spiritual/Mystical?
A Physical/Bodily Resurrection?
Because of the common meaning of "physical/bodily" in modern English, I do not think the resurrection of Jesus means this. Physical/bodily means fleshly, molecular, protoplasmic, corpuscular existence.
But the risen Jesus is not in this sense a physical/bodily reality. The resurrection stories in the New Testament make that clear. The risen Jesus appears in a locked room (Jn. 20). He journeys with two of his followers for a couple of hours and is not recognized, and when he is recognized, he vanishes (Lk. 24). He appears in both Jerusalem (Luke and John) and Galilee (Matthew and John). He appears to Stephen in his dying moments (Acts 7). He appears to Paul in or near Damascus as a brilliant light (Acts 9). He appears to the author of Revelation on an island off the coast of Turkey in the late 90s of the first century (Rev. 1).
These texts are not about Jesus being restored to his previous life as a physical being. If such events happen, they are resuscitations: resuscitated persons resume the finite physical life they had before, and will die again someday. Whatever affirming the resurrection of Jesus means, it does not mean this.
Moreover, what would it mean to say that the risen Jesus is a physical/bodily reality? That he continues to be a molecular, protoplasmic, corpuscular being existing somewhere? Does that make any sense? How can the risen and living Jesus be all around us and with us, present everywhere, if he is bodily and physical?
A Mystical/Spiritual Resurrection?
I also decline this option because of the widespread associations of these words in modern English. To call something "mystical" or to say "sounds like mysticism" commonly means that you don't need to take it seriously.
And given the modern world-view in which the physical and material are assigned a greater reality than "the spiritual," to speak of the resurrection of Jesus as "spiritual" assigns it a lesser and commonly unimportant significance. It's "just spiritual," not really real.
This is unfortunate, for the ancient meanings of "mystical" and "spiritual" suggest a reality that is more important, more significant, than the space-time world of our ordinary everyday experience. In the pre-modern meanings of "spiritual" and "mystical," the resurrection of Jesus was both: the spiritual is about "the really real" and the mystical is about knowing, experiencing, "the really real."
The central meaning of Easter is not about whether something happened to the corpse of Jesus. Its central meanings are that Jesus continues to be known and that he is Lord. The tomb couldn't hold him. He's loose in the world. He's still here. He's still recruiting for the kingdom of God.
Marcus J. Borg is professor emeritus in the philosophy department at Oregon State University, where he held the Hundere Chair in Religion and Culture, and author of the New York Times bestselling Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity, The Last Week, and Jesus. His new book, Speaking Christian, has just been released by HarperOne.
Borg was an active member of the Jesus Seminar when it focused on the historical Jesus and he has been chair of the historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical Literature. Visit the author online at http://www.marcusjborg.com.