Easter, thugs and meanings

Hi Ian,

I heard on TV a preacher who said that Jesus’ resurrection was a great story, a symbolic thing, that ‘hope is unquenchable’.  I’ve heard you say it is historic, real, flesh coming alive – which is a bit of stretch to believe. Is this preacher trying to be relevant or is he saying it never really happened? If its the latter, is he still a Christian or has he gone over to the dark side? 🙂


Hi Max,

I cant comment on which side he is on, Max, its too stressful trying to be the judge of humankind. Here’s an article by Rod Marsh a good dude from south coast Western Australia.


“Christ is risen” the Minister shouts. The congregation enthusiastically responds, “He is risen indeed!”

I know that among the Ministers who made that wonderful proclamation on Easter Day there is considerable variation as to what they mean by “Christ is risen” and I suspect this is no less true of the congregational beliefs when they respond “He is risen indeed!”

Some Ministers and people are definite and decisive advocates for a historically verifiable miracle of a ‘physical’ and eternal resurrection of Jesus body. Only this, they maintain, does adequate justice to the biblical text, the divine nature of Jesus and the faith of the church. Only such a resurrection of Jesus’ body gives adequate witness the power and intention of God in the death of Jesus. To clinch the argument (they think) Paul is confidently quoted: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins”. If you cannot or will not believe in a bodily resurrection, too bad. Try harder, for without such a “childlike” faith, you will not enter the Kingdom of God (a veiled, or sometimes explicit, threat of eternal punishment if you can’t get your head around a physical resurrection).

Other Ministers and people, however, see no necessity nor any possibility that they could believe ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ and tell us that, in the resurrection of Jesus’ body, the insistence of a supernatural, intervening deity to vindicate Jesus is unbiblical, unnecessary and totally unbelievable. Rather they confess “Christ was raised from the dead” and is indeed the basis for our faith, but this must remain a mystery of divine action in Jesus. Something transformative for the first disciples did indeed happen, but to define and limit this to a bodily resurrection is ignorant fundamentalism. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus means we acknowledge “the disciples’ experience of new life in Christ” as the basis for the church. To require belief in a resurrected body of Jesus is to add burdens of “believing impossible things” to true faith in Christ. Spong[1] (Resurrection: Myth or Reality?) follows John Robinson (Honest to God and But That I can’t Believe) in seeing literalist interpretations of the resurrection as major barrier to genuine faith. God is not that sort of God and does not demand that we ‘leave our minds at the door’ of the church (as Val Webb said recently). There is a plain difference between metaphor and reality and the resurrection of Jesus is clearly a metaphor. In the resurrection of Jesus we see (in metaphoric form) God’s victory of light over darkness, justice over injustice and love over hate. The resurrection is God’s invitation to join the universal proclamation that Jesus is now Lord, not Caesar nor the principalities and powers of this age. Whether Jesus’ body rotted in a common grave or his bones still lie interred somewhere in Palestine is of no relevance to faith in the resurrection of Jesus, they assert.

I confidently predict that this debate will go on, and on and there is little chance that either side will convince the other to change their views. Most of the congregation, I suspect, sit somewhere in the middle wondering what all the fuss is about. In this paper I will call those in the church who believe in the bodily resurrection (BR) of Jesus, BRs and those who believe in the non-bodily resurrection (NBR) of Jesus NBRs. I have chosen the terms NBR and BR to affirm that both sections believe they believe in the resurrection of Jesus. At the congregational level the passions which are ignited on both sides of this debate indicate this disagreement is not slight, but fundamental.

I think the reason for the passion in this debate is that our worldview is fundamental to our understanding of ourselves, others, the world and who God is. When that is threatened by alternative views it provokes a steely response to protect and reinforce our understanding as the only ‘right’ ‘true’ ‘biblical’ or even only ‘possible’ belief. So literalist BRs are condemned as obscurantists, out of date, irrelevant, foolish ‘fundamentalists’ who at one and the same time bar people from a reasoned faith and who obscure and misdirect the mission of the church. ‘Liberal’ NBRs are condemned as those deny Christ, destroy the Good News and deny the love and power of God’s work in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Such a salvationless message is the reason for weak and declining the church which becomes a beggar that can only say “dunno” when a beggar asks where to find bread.

It should be noted that both BRs and NBRs take deep and justifiable offence at these caricatures. I submit that neither are truthful portrayals of others’ beliefs. If following Jesus has taught us anything it is that if progress is to be made by the church’s mission to proclaim Jesus is Lord in word and deed then the way we treat one another is essential part of true discipleship. The Uniting Church in particular values diversity and it is in debates surrounding the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus that the Uniting Church could and should show the way in managing diversity with deep respect for all people concerned. We could take for our example the frank but respectful interchanges between Tom Wright, Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg as models that could be followed. None give major ground but each treats the others’ person and arguments respectfully.

Dom Crossan, when debating Tom Wright, was deeply troubled by those BRs who wished to deny him a place as a committed disciple of Jesus (because he “denied” the bodily resurrection of Jesus). Incidentally he did not include Tom Wright[2]. Crossan proposed that a sharp distinction between ‘mode’ and ‘meaning’ could provide a way forward. Crossan thought they should concentrate on what they believed in common: that mode of Jesus’ resurrection emphasised that it happened (their disagreement about mode was not whether the resurrection happened and was a transformative event for the disciples) and they already agreed on the meaning for then and now (Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is). Crossan went on “What has to be taken literally and what has to be taken metaphorically – it is a perfectly valid debate…but… the question of meaning – spell out the implications from your reading (literal or metaphorical)… could it be that we overlap tremendously in the question of meaning?”[3] Crossan then proposes an explicit meaning for Jesus’ resurrection: “How are we going to take back the world from the thugs?” But Wright will have none of it. He calls this view “muddled” because only the mode of bodily resurrection carries the meaning:“Jesus is now Son of God”. Wright will not admit that mode is irrelevant. Crossan, however, cannot accept Wright’s thoroughly Jewish reading of Jesus[4]. So the impasse remained.

In his books, Wright argues a strong case (historically) for their being no other possible, let alone reasonable account for the sudden and dramatic rise in Christian belief in the first century. The BR is, for Wright, the only adequate explanation. On a Jewish understanding, Jesus’ tomb must be empty if we claim to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. The only sense the New Testament uses the word ‘resurrection’ is to indicate a transformed body[5]. George Caird says “no Jew would have used the word ‘resurrection’ to describe an afterlife in which the physical body was left to the grave”. Crossan (I think wrongly) argues for a different basis for understanding the historical Jesus and hence the NBR and the rise of belief in Jesus as Lord. However there appears to be an unbridgeable gap between the earliest written evidence we have (Paul) and the conclusions Crossan draws. Crossan fails to explain how the significance the earliest believers attached to Jesus’ person, death and resurrection (Philippians 2, 1 Cor 1,2 and 15) became attached to a wandering Cynic teacher[6].

I wish to make some further observations concerning the weaknesses of the NBR case. I do this because it is the more extreme proponents of this understanding (eg: Spong) seem to think that the BR case has no basis in fact and is irreducibly obscurantist.[7] The basis for Spong’s claim is his pre commitment to “Scientific reasoning” or more accurately “scientism”. But an overtly materialist view of reality like Spong’s (and Dawkins) is seriously open to question. Firstly, if used consistently, it excludes human knowing in areas of the arts, religion, history, ethics etc. and grants the only ‘certain’ knowledge to the scientific method. Since Science cannot pronounce on, for example ‘the Mona Lisa as a beautiful painting’ or ‘racism as wrong’ whole areas of human knowledge are either denied, excluded or demoted from the status of ‘knowledge’. Such a premise a priori excludes considering a unique and unrepeatable event as possible like BR (because of the premise that such things cannot happen). On such a basis, any author’s opinions are reduced to mere assertions. The contextual evidence gathered by N. T. Wright[8] is in stark contrast to Spong’s assertion. These show that BR, for Jesus and his people, is the only currently proposed premise capable of explaining the facts of Jesus’ Jewish origin and the rise of Christian faith in the first Century. Many New Testament scholars, historians and theologians admit this evidence but choose to deny a BR because this is a “bridge too far” for their minds to cope with. That’s fine, but they should not deny to BRs their beliefs as both biblical and rational. These beliefs are ‘evidence based’ faith. The evidence is historical and not subject to the rigorist proof demanded by the scientific method. But, I contend, it is real knowledge like God’s love for me.

In addition Wright cogently argues that by writing the ‘story’ the synoptic evangelists were ‘intending to refer to historical events’ because the fulfilment of Israel’s story must be ‘within history’ or it is no fulfilment at all[9].He further claims that only by a pre-existing belief in Jesus as “Son of God” (in the messianic sense not, of course the Chalcedonian sense) which was held and taught by Jesus (?) and treasured by the community (?) provides sufficient basis for the resurrection faith of the earliest Christians. He asks, “could the belief that someone had been raised from the dead….have produced the results it did – unless certain things were known, and continued to be known, about the one who had thus been raised after having been crucified?” [10] Often BRs are labelled with a Dawkins’ type definition of faith, “believing things without reasons”[11]. But Wright’s observations above could lead one to conclude that it is not only fundamentalists to whom faith is belief without evidence. It is NBRs who seem, at least historically, to be making a giant leap between their view of the ‘historical’ Jesus and what, from earliest times, seems to be the view of the earliest Christians. On the other hand, there seems to be a direct historical link (at least according to Wright’s evidence) on cogent first Century evidence.[12] The choice seems clear to me: BR or NBR, story or metaphor? The BR story may not carry much credibility for those, who in our deistic modern age, are influenced by scientism, but it is at least historically tenable enough to question whether we are genuinely open in our worldview.

Not only has recent research by historians led to a more ‘respectable’ historical basis for BR, there are also good philosophical and theological reasons supporting the BR of Jesus. It seems that the metaphorical approach by NBRs leads inevitably to a theology where the biblical god is assigned to gnostic, neo-platonic, deistic irrelevance. This fits in well with a neo Epicurean age like ours, but it seems to me an inevitable outcome when the one God who created all things, who is ‘husband’ and ‘father’ to the covenantal people is turned into an absent, irrelevant, ‘concept’. When the BR is ‘reduced’ from a story which is central to our world and our story and turned into to a metaphor of transformation (NBR) then god also is driven from our lives, the world and the universe and resides a long way away in a Platonic irrelevant universe. Such a deistic god seems to be an inevitable destiny of the divine when the ‘materialistic’ god of science supplants the creational, covenantal god of the Jews, Jesus and the early Christians. This link between a creating, loving, relational god and the world makes the two key Christian doctrines of incarnation and BR essential and foundational Christian belief. This is the reason that Rowan Williams (unfashionably) maintains that ‘the empty tomb is essential for God’s relationship to the world’[13]. Or take John Updike’s poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” [14]. He makes this same point when he says “It was as His flesh; ours” (incarnation) and “Let us not mock God with metaphor” (resurrection) and “Make no mistake: if He rose at all/it was as His body;/if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules/reknit, the amino acids rekindle,/the Church will fall..”

Wright concludes “The claim of Christianity from its earliest days, and subsequently, is that the creator of the world, the god of Abraham, has revealed himself through Jesus, and through his own spirit, in ways which disallow the various pagan claims – and also those of a Judaism that rejects Jesus.” He sees alternative views of the god(s) of our time as “dominated by neo-Epicurianism with its distant unknowable divinities” and the BR as a foundational part of the action of the creational, covenantal God of the Bible in space and time. I think this important because I believe that not only is the BR of Jesus fundamental to our understanding of God, it also provides, what I believe, is the only clear basis for the sacredness and value of human life and that of the world. Where else has there been better revealed to us that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God… there lives the dearest freshness deep down things;[15]” than in the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. The BR provides knowledge that God loves this world (really) and has given that task too to those who claim to love God.

I can understand the many believers who agree with Crossan, Borg and many others who see the resurrection of Jesus as a miracle of perception and renewal for those who have eyes to see, a truly marvellous metaphor. Such views are widely supported amongst modern disciples of Jesus and it is futile, ignorant and uncharitable for the more conservative sections of the church to ‘excommunicate’ these brothers and sisters in Christ. I think that denigration of these fellow disciple is inappropriate and unfair. In addition we note that their views do seem to be more palatable in this modern age. However, I cannot join the ranks of the NBRs. Why? Because God has asked me to join in the mission to reclaim this world for its Rightful Owner and ask with Crossan, “how are we going to take back the world from the thugs?” But for me to join that mission I choose to believe that God really (not metaphorically) encountered the world in Jesus’ life and death and has already really (not metaphorically) begun the new creation of a very real, tangible world in Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. Matter matters to God.

Jesus died. The old creation died with him. Jesus rested with God on Holy Saturday. This was the final Sabbath of the old creation. Then on Easter Day Jesus rose bringing a new birth for transformed creation. The first day of a renewed world. The day of worship. Now we who died with him, rise too to new life and the dawn of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Rod Marsh https://www.facebook.com/rod.marsh.313


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