From the Archive: Why It Matters that Jesus REALLY Rose

Originally posted May 4, 2009:

As often when I’m with liberal groups, Marcus Borg’s name came up early in the conversation. And, as I usually do, I took that opportunity to affirm my belief in the actual, physical, historic resurrection of Jesus, something that Borg notoriously does not do. (I wrote about my experience with Borg in my book.) Many times over the rest of the weekend, I was approached by participants on the retreat who wanted to challenge me on that — why do I think it’s so important that Jesus actually rose from the grave.

And I understand where they’re coming from, because I don’t feel the same way about the historic facticity of Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Jonah living in the belly of a fish, or Job’s family and cattle being wiped out by God. So it might seem rather arbitrary that I draw the line between some accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures, which I consider mythological (but nonetheless “true”), and the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ miracles, death, and resurrection.

via Why It Matters that Jesus REALLY Rose | Tony Jones.

  • Jacob

    Why the Question of the “Reality” of Jesus’ Resurrection Misses the Point

    Posted 6 June, 2009 – 13:06 by Jacob

    Awhile back on his Beliefnet blog, Tony Jones posted a short essay called: “Why it Matters that Jesus REALLY Rose”. Contrasting his self to Marcus Borg who denies the reality of Jesus’ physical, historic resurrection, Jones affirms his “belief in the actual, physical, historic resurrection of Jesus [bold in the original].” Thus, in an important sense, Jones is positioning his argument neatly within the liberal-conservative debate. It is a debate that hinges on the rather arbitrary idea that some words have literal meanings that point to real things and some words have metaphorical meanings that are more ambiguous and don’t correspond to real things. I wonder: which words are which? And how does one determine the difference between the two kinds of words—literal and metaphorical?

    Tony goes on to explain his position regarding the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus like this:

    Why is that important? Because I’m a real person. Because the people to whom I have ministered in Jesus’ name are real persons. We’re not hypotheses, fables, or legends. And we need real healing, all of us. While our realities may be largely socially constructed, we have real DNA, real physical, material properties.

    Thus, since the resurrection of Jesus is his defeat of death, evil, and grief, it’s important to me that it really happened. Without a resurrected Jesus, Christianity is impotent. (Exhibit A: liberal Christianity) And I don’t mean a Jesus who was “resurrected” in the Disciples’ hearts, and in my heart. I mean a real resurrection in the space-time continuum by a physical being known as Jesus of Nazareth, as 99.99% of Christians for the last two milennia have believed.

    Although Jones doesn’t define what he means by “real,” a lot hinges on this notion. It’s commonsense to know what “real” is, some might say. But I’m not so sure about that. Or at least, I’m not one to rely on some supposed special power that people call “commonsense” to get me through the day; I prefer to reflect on tradition rather than just accept it whole turkey. And accepting some notion, like “real,” on the grounds that it is “commonsense” is just such a tradition I wish to rethink.

    “Real” has a history. Did you know that? I poked around in the Oxford English Dictionary and found out that the word real was invented during the 1400s. The word “objective” was invented later that same century. So in this sense, it is anachronistic for Jones to describe Jesus’ resurrection as “real.” But even more important, I think, is this question: Why does Jones’ faith in Jesus’ resurrection depend so much on a word invented in the 15th century? Should it be?

    Whether we describe Jesus’ resurrection in terms of “real” or not, I’m willing to bet, makes little difference in regards to the transcendent God of Israel. At the same time, as I alluded to earlier, Jones’ interpretational alignment with theological conservatism on this matter does indeed make a difference. I would prefer to see Jones extricate himself from this conservative-liberal debate about the supposed realness or metaphoricalness of the resurrection story. Why? Because it misses the point.

    What is the point? Following other more consistent theological thinkers like James K. A. Smith offers an alternative response (a third way) to the conservative-liberal debate. As Smith puts it: “Even if we are confronted with the physical and historical evidence of the resurrection—even if we witnessed the resurrection firsthand—what exactly this mean would require interpretation. Only by interpreting the resurrection of Jesus does one see that it confirms that he is the Son of God (Rom. 1:4)” (Smith, 49). In other words, in contrast to Jones’ argument, the resurrection is not self-evidently real. Not everyone that I or Jones or others encounter immediately accepts the rationality of the gospel, as the New Atheists make amply clear. To be able to see, to interpret well, are matters of “grace gifts that attend redemption and regeneration (Rom. 1:18-31; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:15; Eph. 4:17-18)” (Smith, 49).

    So, it is not a matter of literal or metaphorical, conservative or liberal, real or fake—rather, it is ultimately a matter of interpretation. We “can properly confess that we know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, but such knowledge rests on the gift of (particular, special) revelation, is not universally objective or demonstrable, and remains a matter of interpretation and perspective (with a significant appreciation for the role of the Spirit’s regeneration and illumination as a condition for knowledge). We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity” (Smith, 121).

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    I don’t think the physical resurrection matters primarily because of the “realness” that was questioned as a viable concept by Jacob in the previous comment. If we take Paul’s statements at face value, redemption itself hinges on the factuality of the Father vindicating the Son and together with Him all the statements made about the meaning of the cross.

  • Pingback: Dear Tony: So why does it REALLY matter? « Nekkid Resurrection

  • http://mustardseedventure.org/ Robert Perry

    I enjoyed this post. I love the work of Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar. But I do think (following in part the arguments of William Lane Craig) the historical evidence supports an actual resurrection. I am a very unconventional follower of Jesus. I don’t believe he died for anyone’s sins. I don’t believe he was born of a virgin. But I do believe there was an empty tomb, and that the empty tomb was a real-life demonstration of the truth of his core message.

  • Jacob

    To be clear, I am not arguing against believing these things. My point is that that belief is an interpretation–it is not a grasping the The One True Reality. As John D. Caputo says in his discussion of the empty tomb, one’s stance in relation to these biblical words is a moment of undecidability, when the reader must choose one way or the other–that is the act of faith.

    I want Tony to push his faith and pull away from the conservative-liberal debate that defines and confines contemporary public discourse.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh

    Jacob, I’m not too fond of arguing within well known theological leanings and schools of thought myself (especially when the purpose boils down to maintaining allegiance to one’s own tribe). But neither the label “conservative” or “liberal” is really the point. We have actual historical data to deal with here, no matter how one wants to interpret them. We have claims of eye witness accounts and a clear emphasis within the earliest apostolic proclamation how these encounters with the risen Jesus impacted those individuals and how it shaped their interpretation of these encounters and the consecutive preaching of Jesus as Lord.

    If someone wants to question the integrity of the accounts themselves or re-interpret them in a different way, it’s up to that individual. But I don’t see how that interpretation could maintain a claim to be “Christian” when it’s contrary to the core of Christian tradition and belief shared in all 3 major strands of Christianity – or how it could maintain any meaningfulness and relevancy of Christian empowerment and hope.

    If all that’s left is idealism and ethical orientation, we may as well pack our bags, close our churches, and quit praying in my humble but accurate opinion! ;-)

  • http://mustardseedventure.org/ Robert Perry

    I expect I have stumbed into the wrong discussion, but I’m with Josh: There is actual historical data here to deal with. I personally find it persuasive, and rather stunning.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    Maybe Jacob could clarify where exactly he wants faith pushed towards to. What would be the “meta-position” beyond the polarities of mere facts and their meaning and how could one claim to have reached that vantage point?

    Personally, I’d like to hear from Jacob how he would deal with the issue of authority in this whole context of defining the gospel with the cross and resurrection at its center. If all interpretations are JUST THAT – including the original apostolic interpretation of the events – is there any “norming norm” left and do we allow the narrative and the overarching emphasis within the narrative to shape our personal belief, or is everyone just supposed to pick and chose according to his own preferences and likings?

  • Jacob

    The historical information that keeps being mentioned is not uninterpreted, raw, or brute facts that exist independently of us speakers/observers.

    The question is: Do words evoke meaning or do words reflect objective reality? I bet they evoke meaning and have no necessary relationship to features existing independently of me the speaker/observer. Notice that I said that I bet, which is not a claim to know or a claim to have grasped the Truth. It is a bet, an act of faith on my part.

    I want the faithful to push the logic of their faith perspective. That means that I want believers like Tony to not pull back when it comes to talking about God–to not slip into philosophical/theological realism when he talks about God and slip back into a practice oriented philosophy/theology when he talks about other aspects of life. Be philosophically and theologically consistent.

    In the words of Caputo: “In the case of religious faith…this means that faith is faith only when we are stretched buy it, so that the more credible a thing becomes the less faith is required to believe it, while the more incredible it becomes the more it is worthy of or at least requires faith.”

    Saying that faith is a matter of accurately grasping the uninterpreted historical data (as if the data speaks for itself) is akin to saying that faith in Jesus is a hypothesis that can be tested and proven true or false.

    I would assert that faith is neither an ideal nor is faith a hypothesis. Faith is a living tradition and set of relationships closely tied to some community of believers.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    Jacob,
    It’s true that as soon as raw data are being communicated there is always interpretation involved. The question is whether Christian faith has any meaning WITHOUT the raw data of an empty tomb (or if it would be unaffected if the human remains of Jesus’ body were found today).

    If you were to step on a frozen lake without knowing the thickness of the ice, a certain amount of faith would be required to take that step into the unknown. In the end it doesn’t matter however whether you had big faith, small faith or no faith whatsoever. If the ice is not thick enough to hold up your weight (the independent raw data) you’re going to break in.

    So let’s put aside for a moment the question how consistent Tony is philosophically. I’d just like to know whether YOU think it matters that Jesus rose from the dead or not, and if it doesn’t matter why you would think so.

  • Jacob

    Of course Jesus’ resurrection is significant in my life. The significance of Jesus’ resurrection for my life, however, has nothing necessarily to do with an objective set of events.

    There is nothing that says faith in Jesus has anything necessarily to do with the correspondence theory of truth, which is my basic point.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    If it isn’t necessarily connected, does that mean it could also function without the objective event preceding it?

    I would say it can’t. It may still be a “faith” but not Christian faith the way the New Testament narrative frames it.

  • http://mustardseedventure.org/ Robert Perry

    I will speak for myself. I want to believe something that is real. I want my belief to correspond to something that is objectively out there (referring to the correspondence theory of truth). For that reason, for me, Jesus IS a hypothesis to be tested. And I personally think we should test the whole ball of wax of tradition against the historical evidence. I don’t care about tradition–human traditions are notoroiusly subjective and fallible. And while being part of a community of believers is important and vital, I don’t want to simply join in a very old case of groupthink. I’d like to know what Jesus was really about, what HE thought he was about, and what really happened. And I don’t care what has to go by the wayside in the pursuit of that.

  • Jacob

    “If it isn’t necessarily connected, does that mean it could also function without the objective event preceding it?”

    You are presuming there is an objective event preceding it. I don’t make that presumption.

    I prefer to say that people have been evoking Jesus’ resurrection and it has been impacting peoples’ lives for a long time.

    Nowhere does the Bible say the resurrection was objective. Rather, you have people talking about the resurrection. They evoke it. Tell stories about it. Describe how it has shaped their lives.

  • Jacob

    Robert, as long as you are explicit and comfortable framing your faith as a hypothesis, then you have no qualms from me.

    I don’t go down that path.

    Faith in Jesus, for me, is not a matter of testing the truth value of some claim against the empirical data.

    Faith and science, while similar in that they both are rooted in certain presuppositions, are not the same thing–I would argue. Scientists cannot determine if a belief in God, much less a belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God, is true or false.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    “I prefer to say that people have been evoking Jesus’ resurrection and it has been impacting peoples’ lives for a long time.”

    Evoking something that has no correspondence to actual events in space and time has no relevance for me. I might as well believe in Dawkin’s hypothetical teacup orbiting the earth.

    Why should I worship a man who died like all others and never left the grave?

    Yes, I’m making a presumption. Yes, I’m betting on something to have happened (and not just evoked). But I’m betting on what I would deem “sufficient evidence”. Nothing else really explains the rise of Christian belief and particularly belief in a physical resurrection apart from the actual events being reported.

    And nothing else would give me hope and reason to believe that everything has changed and will be changed because of Jesus.

  • Jacob

    To be clear, I didn’t say Jesus was a man like all others and never left the ground. Nowhere did I say that.

    And to be clear, if asserting that Jesus’ resurrection corresponds to objective events independent of interpretation gives you hope and reason, then by all means make that bet.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    Jacob,
    Let’s not separate what obviously belongs together.

    True, you nowhere said that Jesus didn’t rise physically. But you didn’t affirm it either. You still haven’t affirmed it.

    I may be wrong but I’m still getting the vibe from you that the event itself is irrelevant, only the message (the interpretation of the event) is. The message is what gives hope.

    And I say – pardon the expression – it would be hogwash if the event has no objective quality to it APART from our interpretation.

    There aren’t many hills I’m willing to die on when it comes to doctrinal disputes. But a faith without insisting on an ACTUAL resurrection is not an option for me, nor is it an acceptable option for any proclamation or teaching that professes to be Christian.

  • Jacob

    It seems to me that you are keeping separate what should be combined: the event is not independent from the interpretation of it. As Cleophus indicated, what happened in the tomb was not so clear. People were confused. It took a bit of time before an interpretive narrative was put together–that narrative is the narrative of Jesus’ resurrection.

    So, I affirm and try to embody the resurrection of Jesus in my life.

    Let me ask you: if the event is objective and separate from our interpretations, then how do you get outside of your interpretation and access the objective reality. How do you access the objective? How do you get outside of your interpretive perspective? How can you so confidently pronounce about Objectivity?

    Willing to die for one’s faith is far more important than demanding that one’s faith and doctrine have some objective and certain ground–in my view. Or as Walter Bruuggemann said:

    “In Christian faith, the specific form faith takes is of a certain ilk, practiced from a certain perspective that one embraces in the face of other, rival perspectives…. This posture does not claim to be objectively true, but it claims to be a position where one will stand at cost and at risk, so that in the end, the test of its validity is no longer logic or fact, but the expenditure of one’s own life, which is the only thing that finally has worth.”

    My point is that there are other, legitimate options for faithful followers of Jesus. Objectivity may be a doctrinal requirement for you, but not for me.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    “Let me ask you: if the event is objective and separate from our interpretations, then how do you get outside of your interpretation and access the objective reality. How do you access the objective? How do you get outside of your interpretive perspective? How can you so confidently pronounce about Objectivity?”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “accessing” the objective. I simply stated that Christian faith needs to incorporate both components (objective reality and the interpretation of that reality) or it isn’t biblical faith at all. I’m not trying to pronounce something out of thin air but I do contend that this is the biblical pattern. No facts – useless faith (my paraphrase of 1 Cor.15:14).

    Sure, one could say that Paul’s statement is an interpretation in itself. But there’s no denying that his statements regarding the resurrection are placed in the context of intersubjective verifiability (think of it as a court case with witnesses and corroborative evidence – 1 Cor.15:3-8), something that doesn’t amount to absolute proof but high probability.

    And whenever we place trust in someone, it’s in most if not all cases on the basis of high probability. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to waste your time defending someone’s faith in the tooth-fairy based on no access to objective facts outside subjective interpretation, would you?

  • Jacob

    For me, the question is simple: Is faith in Jesus dependent on claiming objective events independent of interpretation happened?

    I say “no.” You seem to be saying “yes.”

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    That would be a misunderstanding of my position. It has nothing to do with claiming or not claiming.

    What I AM saying is this: if Jesus did not physically rise from the dead (independent of whether people believe it happened or not), faith has no foundation to stand on. It would fall into the same category as superstition.

  • Jacob

    “If Jesus did not physically rise from the dead (independent of whether people believe it happened or not), faith has no foundation to stand on. It would fall into the same category as superstition.”

    How is it that you think that you’re the arbiter of what counts as legitimate faith?

    Clearly not everyone who has faith in Jesus shares your view. Do you think that you have the authority to define them as having an illegitimate faith? I don’t.

    This is one of the reasons this type interaction goes nowhere. Our interaction has devolved down to you defining what counts as legitimate faith in Jesus and you implying that all others are wrong–including me.

    I have faith in Jesus and it does not hinge on objective events that presumably exist outside human interpretation. Deal with it.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    If you think I misrepresented Paul’s argument, please show me where. If I didn’t, your argument is actually with him, not with me.

    And as far as arbitration is concerned, I have no interest in judging what will pass in the end as authentic faith or not. That is for the Lord to decide, not for me.

    All I know is: there are all kinds of “faith” out there. The question whether a faith is misplaced or not, depends on the authenticity of the object (in this case the person of Jesus Christ and His claims), not the sincerity of a person’s faith or even the pragmatic argument how much that faith has helped him or her.

  • Jacob

    “All I know is: there are all kinds of “faith” out there. The question whether a faith is misplaced or not, depends on the authenticity of the object (in this case the person of Jesus Christ and His claims), not the sincerity of a person’s faith or even the pragmatic argument how much that faith has helped him or her.”

    You’re exactly right! There are lots of kinds of faith out there. And to be clear, I never said that faith was authenticated by sincerity or pragmatic argument.

    All that I have said is that one should be consistent in their faith perspective–you seem to be giving me a lot of grief for following a consistent perspective in my faith; a perspective that happens to be different than yours.

    If you look more closely, I have said that what authenticates faith is one’s commitment unto death. After I die, I don’t know what will happen. I have faith.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ Josh Mueller

    Jacob,
    Our main disagreement (if I see this correctly) is whether the term “independent” could / should be applied to the event of Jesus being raised from the dead or not.

    What I hear you saying is this: the empty grave as raw data is meaningless. It is in the interaction with the living Christ (i.e. faith) through which we are being transformed, not through some “scientific” evaluation that proves the grave was indeed empty.

    If this all you’re trying to say, I have no quarrels with that. I’d support that statement 100%.

    So why am I still insisting that the raw data matters? Let me give it one more try to explain the reason:

    If on that first Easter morning Mary had decided not to go to the grave, would it still have been empty? Absolutely! It is an event that took place independent of anyone’s faith or doubt. The whole point of the Easter encounters is God’s reality breaking into and through doubt, fear and unbelief in an unexpected way. Faith is being created by that reality outside our own horizon meeting us in unexpected ways.

    It’s the risen Jesus who creates faith, not faith that creates a risen Jesus. That’s why the reformers insisted on the term “extra nos” (“outside of us”). Faith is carried by the facts, not the other way round.

  • Jacob

    “Our main disagreement (if I see this correctly) is whether the term “independent” could / should be applied to the event of Jesus being raised from the dead or not.”

    I would agree that the word “independent” plays a big role in our disagreement. But I would emphasize that the word “independent” is closely associated with a ongoing philosophical debate: do words reflect objective happenings? Or do words evoke meaningful relationships? These are, logically speaking, two distinct views here. In philosophical terms, it may be termed the difference between nominalism and essentialism.

    I do not presume that words reflect objective happenings. I argue that words are symbolic practices that have no necessary correspondence to events outside themselves. You are arguing along a different route, it seems to me. There is no way to consistently reconcile the two.

    “What I hear you saying is this: the empty grave as raw data is meaningless. It is in the interaction with the living Christ (i.e. faith) through which we are being transformed, not through some “scientific” evaluation that proves the grave was indeed empty.”

    What I hear you saying is that you can somehow get beyond the stories that historians, theologicans, archaeologists, believers, etc tell and somehow can speak about what really happened. I don’t think that that is possible. All we have are the stories. We cannot replay history. You are in no position to speak with certainty about what happened in the tomb. You have faith–and saying that Jesus was resurrected is a statement of that faith. It is not an empirical claim that can ultimately be corresponded to objective events–for those events can never be replayed.

    “So why am I still insisting that the raw data matters?”

    Because you presume you can grasp or access the raw data, as if the data existed outside of the stories about the event. But how did you come to know about Mary? Were you there? No, you can only rehearse, agree with, or disagree with the stories that you have learned and that your community of believers regularly tell one another.

    “It’s the risen Jesus who creates faith, not faith that creates a risen Jesus.”

    Do you not make some kind of choice in the matter? Are you not an agent? It seems to me that the act of believing in Jesus is the act of faith–an act that you make. Jesus may well be the object of your faith, but your faith could be placed in any number of other objects–as so many peoples’ faith is in fact placed in objects other than Jesus. You choose to put faith in Jesus. That faith is an act made possible by Jesus.

  • Jacob

    “What I hear you saying is this: the empty grave as raw data is meaningless. It is in the interaction with the living Christ (i.e. faith) through which we are being transformed, not through some “scientific” evaluation that proves the grave was indeed empty.”

    In general, I think that “data” is meaningless–humans attach meaning to the world around them. We can systematically study that meaning making process and we are part of that meaning making process.


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