This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity comes from Jason, and it’s a doozy:
Hello Tony, I’ve been reading your Questions that Haunt Series for a while now and I thought I’d submit my own. If I’ve understood what you’ve written correctly, you, like me, are a largely materialist Christian. “Souls” probably don’t exist, metaphysics is largely unfounded speculation, and heaven and hell seem more and more like abstract concepts than real places.
But also, like me, you seem to still affirm the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus, as well as most, if not all, of his other miracles. I feel a strong pull in this direction but I don’t know how I can honestly live there. It feels like straddling the fence to affirm the miraculous and yet denounce all the metaphysics around it.
Of all of the issues this might raise though, the one I keep getting hung up on is Jesus’ resurrection. If his resurrection was bodily and we believe that, yet we don’t believe in other “planes” of existence (a heaven where spirits and angels float around like glowing light bulbs) then where did the resurrected Jesus go? I suppose a similar problem crops up with all of his miracles but for whatever reason they don’t bother me as much. I suppose it is because I hold the resurrection so dearly that the idea of denying Jesus anywhere to lay his resurrected head bothers me the most. Thanks I really enjoy your work, -Jason
You responded in the comments. Thanks.
Especially with what’s gone on this week on the blog, answering this question is intimidating. Let me start by giving a couple caveats: 1) I had honestly never really considered this question before Jason’s question came in. Probably, I should have, but I haven’t. So my answer will be provisional, a first crack at a vexing question. And 2), as such, it will likely be disappointing to some of you. It seems that the pressure is higher than normal this week, since I have again professed how central I consider the material resurrection to be.
Jason, you’ve asked the question in exactly the right way, I think. I, too, am troubled by my own predisposition to accept Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection, yet harbor my own suspicions about all metaphysics. It seems inconsistent, even unfair to do so. Yet that’s where I currently sit.
Most people, it seems, fall to one side of that fence or the other. If miracles don’t happen and the physical limitations of the universe are not routinely broken by God, then a material resurrection seems to be an unthinkable exception to these rules. On the other hand, those who affirm that Jesus rose in some material way tend to think that he went somewhere upon his ascension. Rarely in theology do the horns of a dilemma show themselves so sharply.
I think that this is not Scylla and Charybdis. There is a not a “third way” between these two poles. If there were, I suppose it would be something like this: Jesus came back materially, walked and ate with his disciples; but when he “ascended,” he became pure spirit, and that is how he now exists. That’s not very satisfying.
The resurrection on Easter morning has nothing to do with either the revivification of the body of Jesus of Nazareth nor of the immortality of the soul or logos that dwelt therein. Instead, the resurrection is the victory of God, creating something new (Christ) out of something old (Jesus). That is, the resurrection is essentially an eschatological event — it is an inbreaking of God’s future.
Key to the resurrection is that it is an event without analogy in history. As such, we struggle to find metaphors for it. It is not like other resuscitations or revivifications. It’s also not like more commonplace mystical encounters or ghostly apparitions. Christians instead claim that the resurrection is unique in all of history. Wherein lies this uniqueness?
Let me propose that the resurrection of Jesus is not only without analogy in history, but that it is ontologically unique. I mean that in the resurrection, God is doing something wholly new. (Here, it would serve us well to disabuse ourselves of the prefix “re-” in “resurrection.”) There is a foretaste of this at the Transfiguration, at which Moses and Elijah appear side-by-side with Jesus, and Jesus himself takes on a visage that seems otherworldly to the disciples. But it happens conclusively at the resurrection, when God inaugurates a new ontology — an ontology in which death is overcome, and hence unknown.
Think of it this way: In the incarnation, God indwelt a human being in the course of history. In the resurrection, Christ is an incarnation of the future.
The Risen Christ is the ontology of the not-yet.
The biblical narrative is rife with the language of anticipation surrounding the resurrection. Even in their first response to the empty tomb, the disciples want to go to Galilee to wait — they have a sense that something eschatological is about to happen. Later, Paul writes that Christ is the “firstfruits” and a “down payment” on what is to come.
Jason, here’s my answer to your question: When Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected as the Risen Christ, he came from the future of God’s Promise, and that’s where he went to dwell upon the ascension. From there, Christ is beckoning us, even pulling us, into God’s beautiful, eschatological future. Thus, Christ continues to be Messiah, even after the resurrection. He is the promise of our future, and his resurrection is a promise of a new ontological reality that awaits us.
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