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?

How Robin Williams’s Suicide is Changing How I Love My Kids
The Perfect Pair of Boots and the Essential Work of Parenting
Surviving January with Help from the Danes, the Japanese, and Jesus
Believing with Our Bodies
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.

  • Thomas P Thomas

    If the claim of a physical resurrection is a falsity, then the question of life after death is relegated to the realm of beliefs/superstition. The moment that happens, the entire edifice of Christian faith and the acts that flow out of it will fall flat. For example, non violence can become a matter of strategy and not principle.

  • http://1t412.wordpress.com/ Christina

    Still thinking through this, but while I think you’re onto something about experiencing the Resurrection, any resurrection we experience right now is incomplete and partial. A deposit, if you will, a promise of the coming full Resurrection. And so Borg’s view, while it has a certain appeal for rationalists, strikes me as inadequate, because if Jesus himself was not raised materially then God has not triumphed over death and we will not be raised either. And I see the promise of the future Resurrection as pretty central to the Christian faith. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding Borg’s view, but his Jesus strikes me as no more still alive than Gandhi or MLK (who continue to inspire followers, and therefore can perhaps be said to be alive for some sense of the world, but in pretty much every way that counts are very much dead.) I’m also confused as to why Borg thinks the Resurrection can’t have been material (or does he only think that it doesn’t *have to* have been material? I haven’t read any of his works, only the excerpts in your post and Tony’s). Can God never work miracles, then?

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      All good points. I am not sure whether Borg believes a bodily resurrection DID not or COULD not happen. He does note that in the Gospels, Christ’s resurrected body doesn’t quite behave as regular bodies do: he has wounds that don’t bleed, he appears in locked rooms, etc.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Ellen, if what actually happened 2000 years ago is beside the point, then it wouldn’t matter if Jesus rose from the tomb or not. And if he did not rise from the tomb, then he did not conquer both sin and death, our hope ends with our last breath, and when I die I shall rot.
    But the evidence points to his actual bodily physical get-up-and-start-walking-around-asking-for-a-bite-to-eat resurrection. It’s not only theologically critical to the conclusion the whole Bible leads up to, but it’s either a historical fact or it’s not. We can’t have one without the other.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I agree, but am intrigued by different ways of understanding THE resurrection and resurrection more generally.

      • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

        And, as I note here, I know many people who are committed Christians who do not believe in a bodily resurrection. Which makes me wonder why they bother coming to church, and I think David Henson’s take above, on sacraments as a way to experience resurrection now, is part of the answer.

        • documentarydude

          Ellen, I don’t think most Christians, have thought hard about what they believe and why…in regards to doctrine. It’s usually not until your faith begins to really cost you something that one begins to search for why we believe what we believe..and or being confronted with questions from others or ourselves.

  • Jeannie

    Thanks for this very interesting post and discussion. I was intrigued by your statement, “The resurrection is central because I believe not merely in the resurrection, but in resurrection, period.” I see your point, but for myself, I think I’d have to affirm the opposite: “Resurrection is central because I believe not merely in resurrection, but in THE Resurrection.” Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, so even before Jesus’ own death it was apparent that resurrection was possible. But that fact alone isn’t enough for me. The fact that Jesus, God incarnate, died and rose again is foundational to my faith; if it didn’t happen, then for me the whole thing completely falls apart.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      It is foundational for my faith too, as is my belief in the ongoing possibility of resurrection. Thanks for this thoughtful response!

  • Robert Landbeck

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

    I would suggest that the significance of the Resurrection was intended to demonstrate God’s willingness to intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His Promise [called the Word] and will; paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine Will and ultimate proof!

    So how does one experience the Resurrection?

    Thus ‘faith’ becomes an act of trust in action, the search along a defined path of strict self discipline, to discover His ‘Word’ of a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power that confirms divine will, law, command and covenant, which at the same time, realigns our mortal moral compass with the Divine, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” Thus are we ‘created’ in the image and likeness of the Creator.

    ‘As in the beginning’, this is religion without any of the conventional
    embellished trappings of tradition. An individual, spiritual-virtue-ethic
    conception, contained within a single moral command and single moral Law that finds it’s expression of obedience within a new ‘Genesis’ of marriage between one man and one woman.

    I’m testing such a teaching now myself. The trials are open to anyone able to shake off their existing religious prejudices and imagine
    outside the cultural box of history. More at http://www.energon.org.uk

  • documentarydude

    have you ever seen the movie the butterfly effect-the main theme is that the main character goes back in time to change the outcome of his present home time,, but when he s back to his home time , the results are always different than what he had hoped for,and he tries a number of times to change it without success- the point being..there are fundamental structures in our earth and universe-in laws of physics.and time and space-it seems to me your saying in effect-2 plus 2-doesnt always have to equal 4- thats math- the principal of math is it’s inherent structure of law–it is constant unchangeable..if at and only one time that simple equation changes-and a different answer is the outcome…well-I think u can guess the world would be one horrible tragic mess ..; god isn’t sloppy..the laws of all things are just that –laws.. IF these laws wether SPIRITUAL or physical–that is the inherint structure of of our world’s laws set in place by their creator–{as we surely didn’t make them–we only discover them }-if they change in the most minute form , the outcome is so far removed from the original..outcome..it is a totally different creation-, plan-or result. IT matters -so fundamentally-it’s downrite scary.The spiritual plan of god in it’s inherint structure as in all laws of physics..gives us it’s desired outcome.set by it’s creator. change one fact or factor in it’s structure-and the end result is unrecognizable. Doctrine alone does not save us , it is the work and plan of god thru jesus,but this plan has an inherint structure to it..and the doctrine is the SPIRITUAL Equation. -every aspect of that equation matters .JESUS rose in the flesh…or otherwise he didn”t resurrect ,- resurrection without a body is not a resurrection…or are we going to change what words mean also.

    • andrew

      Perhaps the most observable & fundamental universal law can be stated “every action as an equal & opposite reaction” (newton’s 3rd law of motion) Everything in the universe is perfectly balanced, in equilibrium! Of course this is also observable in moral law to some extent (cause & effect) but it is the bible that really shows how God’s justice is compatible with the observable universe. It states ‘whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap’ (Gal 6:7) Regarding why the need for the Ransom arose Rom 5:12 “thru one man sin entered into the world & death thru sin”
      Rom 6:23 ‘the wages sin pay =death” Not hell! Not spiritual death! Physical death – Eze 18:4 states plainly “the soul that is sinning it itself shall die” Eccl 9:5 says the dead are conscious of nothing, Ps 146:3-5 shows our thoughts perish at death! The bible makes it clear that when God says ‘you reap what you sow’ he meant it.. & when he expressed his adherence to this law in De 19:21 : soul for soul, eye for eye, tooth for tooth he meant it too! Rom 6:7 says ‘the one who dies has been acquitted of his sin’!!!!! The scriptures are crystal clear & they mirror God’s justice. If we choose to ignore scripture that plainly shows nothing survives the death of the body, hence the need for a FUTURE resurrection then we are in effect accusing God of injustice. Belief in an immortal soul can only mean one thing – that we accept God is lying in Gal 6:7. No person deserves an eternity of anything bad for 70years in this miserable world – no matter what he has done! We are made in God’s image & judicial law has it right (it is a God given) “the punishment must fit the crime” – every action has an equal & opposite reaction – in everything!

      • documentarydude

        thanks Andrew..i don’t want to get into the details of your reply right now..but I think what your saying is the soul is not immortal and their isn’t any hell or punishment for an unsaved soul . One just dies if an unbeliever .If that was the case I likely wouldn’t be serving god..or feel any need to be saved .To prove a point ,hitler basically got away with killing millions of people,,in your senario of an unsaved person just dying and not being resurrected. WHY WOULD JESUS {god}..go to such extreme measures to provide salvation for mankind…if their wasn’t justice. We ourselves like justice in our societies. if I remember correctly it says somewhere in scripture ..hell was created for satan…and in revelation I think it says death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.Hope I got that right.I think it’s great people think about their faith and but it seems these days the fundamental doctrines are being skewed..and they are there for a good reason, We have to be careful what we believe and teach to others, as we will likekly be held responsible. Some issues of faith aren’t basic to the faith, such as healing or tongues etc.etc. but some doctrines are so fundamental…to Christianity, that it literally isn’t Christianity any more. It’s like what I mentioned in that other post that Doctrine ..is like a Spiritual LAW or equation..where if one factor changes…then that LAW produces a totally different result…I don’t think we realize were not playing with a man made story…but the very words and plan of the divine.It’s not about ego, or being right,or winning {it’s about what is the divine truth. May our lord lead us all to and keep us in his truth. .thanks again Andrew.

        • andrew

          I can imagine how you feel! My wife felt the same way. It’s all about conditioning. If our entire life we have been taught that hell represents divine justice, then of course it makes sense to us. To me for instance, the thought is absolutely abhorrent. Forever is a long time. Imagine still being punished for choices you made in a terribly imperfect world you happened to be born into in 20, 30, 40000 billion years from now! We cannot grasp such an incredible length of time. What sort of justice would that be?? A God whose very essence is love? Really? It doesn’t matter what one did (& not every person that rejects God is Hitler) you couldn’t reason the punishment fits the crime & God certainly couldn’t claim that “whatever a man is sowing this he will also reap”. The idea is not to be swayed by human wisdom. It doesn’t matter what you or I think, all that matters is what God says through his word the Bible. Take for instance this forum – arguing about the resurrection – was it physical/literal, was it spiritual?? Everybody is ‘oh I think this … I think that’ Who else on this forum is letting God’s word do the talking?? The bible tells us that 500 people witnessed it at one time (1Cor 15) What do you think they saw? The bible plainly states in Rom 6:23 that ‘the wages sin pays is death’ & in Rom 6:7 ‘the one who dies has been acquitted of his sin. This makes absolute sense in the context of Gal 6:7 & what we notice in the observable universe – that every action really does have an equal & opposite reaction! Hell is a teaching that was adopted during the great apostasy. The same apostasy that Jesus alluded to in his sermon (Matt 7) & the one elaborated on by Paul (Acts 20:29,30; 2Tim 4:3,4) Research it! Don’t let pagan church tradition mold your thinking! Remember, that most teachings in the church today have been influenced by the likes of the assembly of Nicaea in 325. That’s why most still unwittingly commit Idolatry by celebrate Xmas & buy God of fertility Easter eggs at Easter! The bible does not teach eternal hell anymore than it teaches Jesus died on good friday! Jesus himself said that the broad & spacious road leads to “Destruction” (Matt 7:13,14) It is the wise & Intellectual (matt 25:11) that teach otherwise & Satan loves this God dishonoring doctrine (1John 5:19,2Cor4:4) In conclusion you asked “Why did God got to such lengths” to redeem mankind? Because he loves us not because he is just (John 3:16

          • documentarydude

            Fear not him who can kill the body, but fear him who can cast both body and soul into hell. JESUS

          • andrew

            The Greek word psykhe & Hebrew word Nephesh as used in the scriptures show “soul” to be a person, an animal or the life that person enjoys. The vast majority of uses are in connection with the former. When considering scripture we must do so in the context of the bible as a whole. Since the bible speaks about God’s perfect justice (& we being made in his image) the dead being conscious of nothing (Ecc 9:5) thoughts perishing at death (Ps 146) the soul that sins dying (Ez 18:4) the wages sin pays being death (rom6:23)& even ‘one who dies being acquitted of sin’(rom6:7) it would be a mistake to read one passage & assume we understand the bible! The use of Psykhe at matt 10:28 is clearly used in reference with “the life a person enjoys” (please research this word further if you are interested in everlasting life – John 17:3) “hell” is a Latin word derived from mythology & adopted during the great apostasy. It is seen in every culture & pagan form of worship ever devised – but it is not biblical! At that passage a word transliterated Gehenna (used 12times in the Greek scriptures) was used. Some faithful research will reveal that this refers to “destruction” as is so clearly stated in 2 Thes 1:8 or as the second death of Revelation (now when does the word death ever conjure up thoughts of immortality?) Think about it.. why on earth did Jesus resurrect his friend Lazarus if he was enjoying his immortal life somewhere else?? Why did not one of the 9 people resurrected in the bible accounts ever come back talking about what it was like “on the other side” as one would clearly expect?? The resurrection affords the opportunity for righteous mankind (those that come to know the only true God) to live on a paradise earth forever (2 Peter 3:13)