Did the Resurrection Happen? And Does It Matter?

Two fellow bloggers on the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel held a polite but pointed discussion last week on whether the bodily, physical resurrection of Jesus really happened. Here are the basics of the argument; click through to read the blog posts in their entirety: Tony Jones is a Minneapolis-area theologian known for his leadership within and contributions to the so-called “emerging church” tradition. Marcus Borg is a retired theologian and member of the  1990s “Jesus Seminar”—a group of theologians who used a simple system of voting by colored beads to figure out what we can, and can’t, know about the historical Jesus. Reading Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994) was a significant milestone in my own Christian journey.

Jones wrote a post about why believing in a physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus is central to Christian faith, arguing further that Borg’s contention that the resurrection happens only “in the believer’s heart” is inadequate. Borg responded, saying that he never claimed that the resurrection happens only “in the believer’s heart.” Rather, Borg affirms that, while he does not believe in a physical, material, bodily resurrection, he is absolutely convinced that “Jesus was experienced after his death” by the disciples and Paul. Furthermore, he believes that Jesus lives as

a figure of the present who continues to be known, not just a beloved figure of the past. Jesus is Lord: God has vindicated Jesus and made him both Lord and Christ. Thus the lords of this world, including the powers that killed him and the lords of culture today, are not. Imperial execution and a rich man’s tomb could not stop him, could not hold him. He’s still around, still loose in the world, still recruiting for the kingdom of God. What he began continues. He is with us still. He is “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.”

For the record, I tend to agree with Jones’s reasons to believe that a bodily resurrection happened.  The resurrection is central to my faith, and I turn again and again to this from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15: 12–19):

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But I am drawn to Borg’s affirmation that Jesus is “God with us” and Lord regardless of whether he had a bodily resurrection.

However, as central as the resurrection is to my faith and to Christianity in general, I found myself a little irritated by the Jones-Borg conversation. Partly, it’s because I’m just not that interested in learned theologians trading intellectual treatises that would be inaccessible and uninteresting to most people sitting in church pews. To be fair, this debate, and Borg’s writing in particular, is largely very readable. But an intellectual debate, accessible or not, about whether the resurrection really happened seems to ignore something about why so many people continue to sit in church pews, week after week, when they could so easily choose to be elsewhere. They aren’t all there because they believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, that’s for sure. So what brings them—us—to worship, to sing of Jesus as savior and lord, to call on God to heal our hurts and inspire our minds, if we are not agreed, every single one of us with butt in pew on Sunday mornings, that Jesus Christ walked and talked that Easter morning two thousand years ago?

For me, the resurrection is central not merely because of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians. The resurrection is central because I believe not merely in the resurrection, but in resurrection, period. I believe that life can come out of death. I believe that light can shine in the most impenetrable darkness. I believe this because I have seen it happen in my life and the lives of others. I believe in a creator God who makes resurrection possible in every life, in every budding of tender green shoots after the deep freeze of winter, in every person who is able to grab hold of hope and joy after the worst pain and grief. I don’t merely believe the resurrection happened. I believe that resurrection happens.

So I was delighted to find another Patheos blogger weighing in on the Jones-Borg “Did the resurrection really happen?” conversation. David R. Henson is an Episcopalian (hooray!) who wrote a beautiful post in response to the Jones-Borg conversation. Among other things, Henson writes:

The Gospel stories of the resurrection are not intended to prove the resurrection happened bodily, literally, and historically. Rather, they are intended to invite us — the disciple of today — to experience the ongoing reality of resurrection.

In the easily overlooked gardener. In breaking bread with the stranger on the road. In the person who appears behind our carefully locked doors. In the hungry. In the naked. In the thirsty. In the forgotten.

What is clear from these stories and their impact is in the mysterious experience of the resurrected Christ and through participating with Christ in that resurrection experience, the disciples were transformed fundamentally.

This is how we understand sacraments — a holy mystery God invites us to experience and to participate in, and through our participation and union with God in it, we find our hearts strangely warmed, our lives transformed and entire selves changed into new creations.

And it can be a faithful, traditional, and profound way to understand the resurrection, particularly given that many of the resurrection stories tie directly to and reflect the practice of the sacrament of communion.

It strikes me as odd that these conversations about the historicity of the resurrection almost always occur outside the context of the sacraments and liturgy. But when we view the resurrection sacramentally, we come face-to-face with the resurrected Christ who has been made known to us in the breaking of the bread, in the waters of baptism, in the communal proclamation Gospels. Each Sunday, in the liturgy and through the sacraments, we experience the resurrected Christ in the here and now, in the divine elements taken into our body.

Yes. That understanding of the resurrection—as something that happened and continues to happen, as something that I experience through baptism and communion and in fellowship with my fellow church members and Episcopalians and blog readers and writing colleagues and all the other Christians whom I am fortunate to know—that not only makes the most sense to me, but makes arguments about what actually happened 2000 years ago seem a little beside the point.

What do you believe about the resurrection? Or perhaps more important, how do you experience resurrection?

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.