What are we to make of the Christian who says: “I am not so naïve or literal in my understanding as to expect Jesus physically to rise from the dead. Surely the true meaning of this belief is that he continued to exist in some spiritual manner”?
Some years ago there was an Anglican bishop who was asked his opinion about the Christian belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day. The bishop said he believed in the resurrection, but not in any crude physical way. “The resurrection,” he stated, “was not a conjuring trick with bones.” What many people did not notice at the time was that this was a conjuring trick with words. The bishop, like many modern theologians, was an expert at verbal legerdemain. What the bishop meant was, that he believed in the resurrection, but not the physical resurrection. This is like saying I believe in marriage, but not a marriage where people do anything so crude as to make love.
Many modern clergymen and women understand the resurrection in this way. Like most magicians, they use this sleight of hand to mystify and entertain their audience. So on Easter Day, Reverend Mandrake will stand in the pulpit and proclaim, “Today we celebrate the glorious resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.” What he means by this is, “In some wonderful way the teachings of Jesus were remembered by his disciples after he was dead.” However, what Mrs. Bloggins in the front row thinks he means is that he believes that Jesus’ body was brought back to life miraculously; that his disciples saw it, put their fingers in the nail holes, and watched him eat a breakfast of broiled fish and toast. With this verbal trick, Rev. Harry Blackstone Jr. is able to please both Mrs. Bloggins and the bishop. In other words, he is able to fool everybody—even himself.
A plain thinking person might be excused for distrusting the clergyman: “He has said one thing, but means another!” It is then understandable when the ordinary fellow in the street puts the modern clergyman in the same category as the politician, the used car salesman, and the snake oil man. It is easy to criticize this clergyman for being dishonest, but we must forgive him. Like the naked emperor’s courtiers, he has only believed what he has been told to believe. Furthermore, the modernist bishop and his clergy sincerely believe that by saying one thing and meaning another in this way that they are being more honest. So the bishop might say, “I am not so naïve or literal in my understanding as to expect Jesus physically to rise from the dead. Surely the true meaning of this belief is that he continued to exist in some spiritual manner.”
The problem is the old either-or dilemma. Those who deny the physical resurrection in favor of a spiritual meaning assume that those who believe in the physical must be so dumbly awe-struck by the miracle, that they miss its spiritual meaning. This is a mistake. The joy of believing in the physical resurrection is that you can believe in the spiritual meaning too. In fact, the spiritual meaning of the resurrection is dependent on the physical event. It is the physical fact of the resurrection that makes the spiritual aspect jump up and dance a joyful jig. In the same way, my marriage has spiritual meaning because my wife and I enjoy making love. You could say that it is only because a husband and wife make love that they understand love.
Anyway, aren’t you suspicious of any theory that is all “spiritual”? It is too ethereal and otherworldly. Any religion which “spiritualizes” away the physical aspect indicates a negative attitude to the physical side of life. This negativity towards anything physical was made famous by a third-century thinker called Manichaeus. His followers were called Manichees, which makes them sound like a cross between a sea cow and a Chinese fruit. Despite the strange name, they believed something that is very easy to believe: that the physical is filthy and vulgar and nasty while the spiritual is clean and ethereal and nice. But I am suspicious of things that are easy to believe. If they are easy to believe it is all too likely that they are comfortable, and if they are comfortable they do not really smell true.
Manichaeus concluded that the physical was inferior because he thought that Satan had stolen particles of light from the world of Light and imprisoned them in man’s brain. The object of religion was to liberate these particles of light from their sordid physical captivity. The way to release the light imprisoned in the brain was to suppress the sordid physical realm with extreme asceticism. I doubt that the Anglican bishop I mentioned was a Manichee in the respect that he went in for extreme asceticism. The man I have in mind was plump, and somewhat of a bon vivant. I can hardly imagine him sacrificing his dining rights at high table to sit in a snowdrift in his underpants in order to liberate the particles of light from his brain. However, inasmuch as he found the physical resurrection of Jesus to be distasteful he was a Manichee.
I use the word “distasteful” because I suspect that educated and sophisticated people deny physical miracles not so much because they are incredible, but because they are an error in taste. It is true that physical miracles are embarrassing. There is something mad, subversive and unpredictable about miracles, and I wonder whether intellectuals deny them simply for this reason. However, the threat of being embarrassed is itself an embarrassing thing to admit, so they devise intellectual reasons for not believing in the miraculous. The most famous foundation for this denial is the philosophy of David Hume, who simply asserted that miracles are impossible because miracles cannot happen. This bald statement is then taken as a watertight philosophical conclusion. It seems leaky to me.
Doesn’t this depend on your prior assumption? Hume assumed that the physical universe ran like a clock according to fixed and unalterable principles. Therefore miracles were impossible. If something seemed to be miraculous it was simply because we hadn’t yet figured out how it fit into the machine of the cosmos. But if the universe is actually expanding, as we now think, doesn’t that indicate that it is not quite so fixed as we thought? Perhaps the cosmos is more like rubber than concrete. If that is so, then the unpredictable is possible and strange things can happen. If the universe is elastic, then rather than miracles being an aberration from the natural order, they might well be an ordinary, but unpredictable part of it. To look at it another way, the universe might be more like a party than a stage play.
Perhaps then, God is a God of surprises; a God who likes tricks twists in the tail, paradoxes and unexpected pleasures. Miracles, and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ, are just that sort of reversal we would expect from a good storyteller. The hero descends to the deepest depth, and at that point, he turns the plot, twists the knife and rises to triumph. Now, this historical, physical miraculous event certainly has much spiritual significance, but if you reduce it totally to spiritual significance doesn’t that rob it of the very significance you wish to give it?
Saying you believe in the resurrection only in “a spiritual sense” is not to believe in the resurrection at all, because the whole astounding and scandalous point of the resurrection is that it was physical. Two thousand years ago hundreds of witnesses reported seeing a man alive whom three days before they had seen being tortured to death. The witnesses reported being frightened out of their wits. They thought it was an apparition or a ghost, but then they saw him eat fish and bread. They touched him and put their fingers in his oozing wounds.
This is not what happens when something is true “in a spiritual sense.” When something is true “in a spiritual sense” bishops discuss it with their clergy over a glass of dry sherry. When something is true “in a spiritual sense” old ladies of both genders mutter together around crystal balls and packs of Tarot cards. When something is true “in a spiritual sense” people sit with their legs crossed and hum Hindi words together. But when something like the resurrection is true, really utterly and physically true, then people are scared. They run and weep and cry out in fear. Then, once they have grasped the reality of the event, they get on and do something. They do not do something “in a spiritual sense”; they do something real and physical and world-changing.
This is precisely what happened after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Twelve working-class men who were hiding for fear of their lives suddenly became the nucleus of a force that changed the world forever. Something must have happened, and it was not simply that “in some wonderful spiritual way the teachings of their friends continued to echo in their minds and spread around the world.” This theory reminds me of a fascinating idea of Professor Dawkins. He suggests that there is such a thing as a “meme.” A “meme” is a brain particle that transfers its knowledge to another person’s brain by some mysterious power. Through the mechanism of memes, dead people can seem to live in a vivid way even after they are dead, and their ideas may spread after they die. This is an interesting concept, and some people have found it a beautiful way to think of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
But the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is far more than either a memory or a meme. Those of us who believe, freely admit that the event is embarrassingly vulgar. We think it really happened. We believe it is a physical, historical, and actual fact like the assassination of JFK or the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Furthermore, some of us are delighted to believe that there is a photograph of the actual moment. We theorize that the darkness of the tomb acted like the inside of a camera, and the radiance of that resurrection burnt Jesus’ physical features into the inside of his shroud and that you can see the Polaroid snapshot of the event to this day in the cathedral in Turin. If the scientist tells us it is twelve hundred years out of date, we reply, “Maybe the radiation from the burst of energy that caused the resurrection threw the carbon dating out of whack. Isn’t that what you would expect from a God of surprises? He’s keeping you guessing, after all; there’s got to be some room left for faith.”
Of course, the resurrection is an astounding miracle. It is a totally unique event, but then that is the definition of a miracle—it is an unpredictable blip in the normal day-to-day running of things. From an everyday point of view, the resurrection seems incredible, but if you accept the primary doctrine of the Christian faith—that Jesus is God in human form—then the resurrection is not so surprising at all. If he really is a totally unique synthesis of divinity and humanity wouldn’t you expect something unique to happen when he died? If he really is the God-man, would you expect him to stay dead?
Belief in the physical resurrection is actually crucial to the whole Christian faith because Christianity is the reality and possibility of a new kind of human existence. Jesus rose from the dead simply because there was nothing dead about him. In other words, because there was nothing decaying and impure about him, he could not stay dead. His life was so dynamic, vital and pure that it simply had to come back again. It could not be killed forever. Instead, it bursts from the darkness of death with a life that is not less real, but more real than what we had come to expect. The resurrection of Jesus Christ comes trumpeting in with its sheer, unexpected, and blatant physical-ness, not as something unnatural, but more natural than we could have imagined. His resurrection says, “What you thought was life is a pallid reflection of life. See this resurrected body? This is what life is. It is not death. Real life cannot die.”
Furthermore, he said this is why he came: “to give life in all its abundance.” This doesn’t simply mean he comes to give everyone a happy life, it means he comes to give life itself—which by definition is the opposite of death. He offers this life to all those who wish to accept it. It is a gift, and like any gift, it must be either accepted or rejected. To ignore it is a way of rejecting the gift. Turning this fact into a “spiritual” truth is also a way of rejecting it. It is a very subtle and refined rejection—like accepting the gift, then keeping the greeting card, while you throw the gift itself away.
Emasculating the resurrection by turning it into a “spiritual truth” won’t do simply because by its very nature it cannot be merely a “spiritual truth.” By definition, it is a historical, physical event, and the documents of the early church are written to express exactly this unpalatable and socially awkward fact. This is why the first Christian theologian said in a most astringent manner, “If the resurrection did not happen, then our faith is in vain.” In other words, “If this isn’t true, then the rest of it isn’t either. Let’s not mince words and go all gooey and spiritual. Either it happened or it didn’t.”
Billions of people for the last two thousand years believe it did happen. If you’ve examined the evidence, and you think this astounding miracle really took place in a backwater of the Roman Empire around the year 33 AD, then follow the logic and become a Christian. If you don’t believe it, why then, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die. But please don’t spiritualize the whole thing. That is not one of the options.
This essay was originally published as a chapter in The Quest for the Creed: What the Apostles Really Believed, and Why It Matters by Dwight Longenecker, and it is republished with gracious permission from the author.
This essay was first published here in April 2017.
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