Response to Tony Jones about the Resurrection

In his October 4 blog, “No, the Writers of the Bible Did Not Expect It to be Taken Literally,” Tony Jones briefly contrasts his view of the resurrection of Jesus with mine. I agree with the title of his blog, but strongly disagree with his characterization of how I see the resurrection.

His own view of the resurrection is clear: he believes that Jesus “materially rose from death” in a “physical” and “bodily” form (from his April 21, 2011 blog; italics added). He describes my view as “Jesus’ resurrection only happens in the believer’s heart” (again, italics added). He has done so before in at least one book and in a previous Patheos blog (April 21, 2011).

I have never said or written anything remotely like that. For decades, including in a blog on Patheos two years ago, I have consistently affirmed that Jesus was experienced after his death. According to the New Testament, those experiencing him included Mary Magdalene, Peter, the rest of the disciples, James, two travelers on the Emmaus Road, Paul, the author of Revelation, and more. Indeed, Paul refers to “five hundred” who saw Jesus. Of course, that is a round number. But it clearly means many.

The most dramatic example is Paul himself. Though not a follower of Jesus, he experienced Jesus after his death as not only alive but as “Lord.” So vivid and powerful was the experience that it transformed Paul from being a persecutor of the Jesus movement to its most important apostle to the Gentile world. Yet Paul did not experience Jesus in a material physical bodily form. According to both Acts and his letters, it happened in a vision; those with Paul did not experience what he had experienced. Does Jones imagine that a vision means that for Paul, the resurrection of Jesus happened only in Paul’s heart?

I do not understand why Jones misrepresents my understanding of the resurrection. Perhaps it’s because the only two options he has considered are that it either happened in a physical bodily way or else it happened only “in the believer’s heart.”

But are those the only two options? I think not. There are experiences of God, the sacred, and the risen Jesus that are very real, even though they are not the kind of experiences that could be videotaped. To reduce such experiences to something that happens only “in the believer’s heart” is to accept the widespread modern Western view that only “physical” events are real. Jones suggests that my understanding of the resurrection flows out of my acceptance of the modern scientific world-view. Perhaps the shoe is on the other foot. Or, more charitably, despite our differences, perhaps we both walk in modern shoes.

Note that Jones does not simply believe that the resurrection was material, physical, and bodily, but insists that it must have been so. Though I disagree I am happy to say to him and others who hold this view, “Believe whatever you want about whether the resurrection of Jesus was in material physical bodily form” – which I understand to mean that it was an event that could have been recorded by a news crew if they had been there. Believe whatever you want about that. Now let’s talk about what the resurrection of Jesus means.

It means at least the following. Jesus lives: he is 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.”

I do not understand how this view can be construed as meaning that the resurrection happens only “in the believer’s heart.” I don’t get it.

I end with a question: what is added to the meaning of the resurrection by believing, as Jones does, that it happened in a material physical bodily way? In short, what’s at stake in the difference between my view (as described by me and not by him) and his view? Do our differences matter? And if so, how?

  • Michael Schertz

    As part of the death of God “camp” I find both of these notions insufficient. Neither gets to the core of what Christianity means. Tony’s idea of the resurrection hinges on whether or not there was some bodily resurrection that occurred in our time and space. Ultimately what we are left with is Jesus as a sidekick to “deus ex machina.” Dr. Borg’s notion is a more palatable resurrection for modern man. So we don’t need a bodily resurrection, but a shared experience. Either way we’re trying to keep the idea of transcendence alive. Tony’s more conservative approach and Borg’s liberal approach serve the same purpose, to elimate death, and turn the horror of the cross into a victory story. Theology of this kind, whether from fundamentalists or groups like the Jesus Seminar/AAR and so on fail to realize there is no ‘big Other’. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is not only the death of God as seen in religion, but more importantly, the death of the Signafier who signifies everything else.

    • Toy Adams

      I have to wonder if there isn’t something here deeper than just the desire to revert our attention into our radical responsibility in immanence. Transcendence that points back to immanence isn’t an enemy of DofG, nor is it still operating on a “dues ex machina”. This weakened transcendence is not the likes of the divine vending machine, but it rather could be called the ‘depth’ of the immanent rather than transcendence. Also it doesn’t make promises, but rather issues a challenge. The Cross is a horror story, and whether or not it can lead to a victory against injustices like it rests solely on us: will we listen to the blood cry out? Also, the curtain ripping, being seen as the father tearing his garment, in anger toward Roman injustice, seems to me, a powerful metaphor pushing the reader toward action–or immanent responsibility. Will we partner with God is stopped further horrific events like we saw on the cross? Only then will we share in the New Being exemplified on Easter. I still hold to the notion, as does Dr. Borg, of a real God, and I don’t find that to be an issue in my desire for political revolution, or radical social change. It actually seems as if it would motivate one more to know a real calling was placed on their lives, for if I’m just being inspired by a story of some, nearly allegorical, kenosis, then I probably won’t be quite as charged about it. So, I ask, what is the point in further burying any and all notions of transcendence with the DofG, after the death of the “dues omnipoten”, this all-powerful being that wants you to have nice things in an afterlife, if not the mere shock delivered by such bold statements?

      • Michael Schertz

        I am familiar w/ this Tillichian “ground of being” theology. Now, as much as I admire Tillich/Bonhoeffer, the issue I find is they’re not going far enough. The same holds true for Dr. Borg in my opinion. For me, this “ground of being” theology still promotes the notion of a big Other of Signifier. The cross is the self-annihilation of transcendence in all forms, a fully dialectical death that creates not a resurrection but a “dark night of the soul.” I cannot see theology being able to move forward w/out this fully dialectical death of God. As I stated, what we’re left with otherwise is Mark Driscoll or this liberal palatable idea of Christ that ditches the apacolyptic message of Christ. BTW, love ya Toy!

        • Toy Adams

          I am awfully incredulous toward this line of thinking. It seems you are merely trying to end all meta narratives with, yet another, meta narrative.
          Love ya too man!

    • Diana Wright


    • Muzi Cindi

      “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”

      Is this not what we all FEAR? We then hold on to BELIEFS, in order to deal with this fear of NOTHINGNESS?

  • Tony Jones

    Professor Borg, I am honored to be in dialogue with you. Here’s my response:

    • Gene Stecher

      Dr. Borg and Tony Jones, I would suggest that, as per Paul, the terms
      “spiritual,” “body,” and “heart/experience” are not competitive, but
      are continuous with one another. Crucified limited body is replaced by
      spiritual unlimited body (1 Cor 15,
      e.g.) which is revealed in personal experience (Gal 1, e.g.). Spiritual
      body reality eliminates motivation by the arena of law. Law-flesh-works
      is replaced by Spirit-faith-fruits. Terms like “limited,” “physical,” or
      “material” would
      apparently be relevant only to the precrucifixion Jesus: “we once
      Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.” (2
      Cor 5:16).

  • ChuckQueen101

    Dr. Borg, I can only speak for myself as a self-identified progressive Christian. I don’t think the differences matter much at all. What can we really know about the resurrection? Not much. The disciples believed that the risen Jesus appeared to them; that he was alive. And out of that faith came an emerging and rapidly developing Christology. Resurrection is about vindication and was one of the apocalyptic beliefs to arise in Judaism out of an oppressive context. For me, the resurrection is about God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and message (the kingdom of God), and his commitment to speak truth to power and commitment to a nonviolent life embodying love of God and love of neighbor. It was vindication of his commitment to the poor and to restorative justice. The resurrection points to Jesus as the archetype of true humanity and the incarnation of divine love/compassion. What else matters?

  • Andrew Dowling

    I concur with your viewpoint. I think the biggest argument against a literal bodily Resurrection is found in the Bible itself, due to the widely inconsistent accounts of the Resurrection and (notably) their extreme brevity. If this is a literal body raised from the dead that hung around for 40 days, why not a whole book describing the acts and sayings of the Resurrected Jesus? Why just a few paragraphs (if that)? In the most detailed accounts (which were also the latest to be composed) in Luke and John, how to explain the disciples not recognizing the physical body at first? Or the ability to walk through walls/appear and disappear. The apologetic answers from the likes of Craig are thin and weak.

    I also think the idea of the God “up there” intervening to produce such a miraculous occurrence creates severe ethical dilemmas. If God can work in this way, the problem of evil becomes even more severe.

  • BrotherRog

    IMO, emergent Christian pundits like Jones would do better to criticize folks like
    Mark Driscoll, than folks like Marcus Borg. But speaking of redemption,
    one redeeming thing about Tony’s blog is that it may help more folks
    learn about Borg and progressive Christianity. : )

    Emergents tend to still have their evangelical over-concern with orthodoxy and particular theories of the atonement, the resurrection, etc. Would that they’d become a bit more influenced by post-modernism and see theology as poetry and embrace paradox and mystery even more.

    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

  • Doug

    As regards the resurrection, I would point out that Paul himself wrote of it as a “mystery” in 1 Corinthians 15, and spoke of the “spiritual body” — an oxymoron if ever there were one. Something incorporeal cannot have a body, nor can a body be spirit. What happened to Jesus, and what ultimately will happen to us, is a mystery. I can live with that (and die with it, too!).