Reflecting on the Resurrection part 2

Resurrecting space for belief

Easter is a big deal. Passages like Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15:13-15 (NIV) tell us:

13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.

As I a pastor I looked forward to Easter so much. I knew, however, that we would have  visitors, family members, and friends who would come to our services out of relational obligation or for social interest in the event. I knew that some of these would not believe in the literalness of the resurrection of Jesus’ body. 

I always had to think through how I was going to talk about this in a way that was both faithful in proclamation for us as a community of faith, while also attempting to be invitational and sensitive to potential objections or barriers from our guests.I have no interest in apologizing for what we believe as a faith community. But neither do I want to dogmatically push an ancient worldview that may, to the listener, be suspicious at best and incompatible at worst.
In light of the conversation that we have been having with Philip Clayton [around his new book] and my articulation between the miraculous and the ‘super’natural–  the resurrection takes on an interesting twist.

Here is the thing: as in so many aspects of our modern life, we exist in a world dominated by dualism and presentation designed for polarity.  The resurrection is no different. The two options seems to be:

A) it happened literally just like the Gospel accounts portray
B) the laws of physics can not be broken by even God and so the Gospel accounts are literary creations designed to portray theological themes.

I get both of those perspectives. I myself have no problem with the bodily resurrection as a miraculous event that carries deep theological implications (like prolepsis, ontological priority of the future, etc.)

But … in the same way that Jesus’ walking on water is not the POINT of that story. The point was to hear the word of Christ “be not afraid” . It was not simply to understand the physics of how Jesus might have walked on the water or to add it to a checklist of things you must believe even if you don’t understand them.

This is where Clayton’s idea is so powerful. 

In  Acts 9, Paul experienced Jesus post-ascension and he was also powerfully changed. It was that same guy (now named Paul) who penned the words that I quoted earlier (1 Cor. 15) .  But Paul did not encounter the biological body of Christ. He experienced something we can call the ‘real presence’ of Christ.


Various options are open to those who accept this hypothesis, which we might call the personal but nonphysical theory of Jesus’ post-mortem presents. There can be no talk of proof here, but there may be ways of showing that, at least in principle, a real albeit nonphysical presence of a person after death is compatible with the presumption against miracles to which the problem of evil let us in chapter 3.

One of these approaches involves postulating that the early disciples must have experienced a certain kind of event that no longer occurs today. Advocates of this view seek to do justice to the indications in the New Testament texts that, even if Jesus remains somehow present, the nature of his presence changed radically after the finite series of events that occurred soon after his death. They reason that something must have been different in the days or weeks after Jesus’s death, even if what occurred did not involve the resuscitation (even in some significantly transform condition) of the physical body.  – Predicament of Belief p. 97

My question is ‘why could that not have been what the disciples experienced?’ I know full well that the more progressive members of the Homebrewed community will say ‘Duh – we have held this for a long time.’ Please understand A) I was certainly not raised to think this way and did not know it was even an option B) most of the people I know and talk to panic when something like this is proposed.
I want to be clear: I am not trying to get everyone to believe this option. I am simply trying to highlight an alternative to the modern either-or argument that is stuck in an endless round-and-round stand off.

My only point is that those who buy into this third (real presence) option count as “believing in the resurrection”.  Those who subscribe to a literal-physical option often claim that only their option (#1) counts as legitimate. Those who hold to option #2 roll their eyes and look down their nose (not easy to do at the same time) at those who have not accounted for the literary devices employed in the Gospel accounts.

I’m interested in the ‘Big Tent’ here. To get there we must first concede that the point of the text is not about physics or biology. Even if we hold to that element of the story, we  have to remember that understanding or believing in the physics is not the point. To experience the risen Christ and be changed by that presence is the point.

So I wanted to ask
  1. What have you found helpful to include in the conversation that I am leaving out?
  2. What seem to be the sources of folks’ major hesitations that I have not accounted for?

I could really use some help thinking this through. Since I left behind my Josh McDowell evidence that demands a verdict and my Lee Strobel case for the resurrection, I am working diligently to both think and present a broader approach without going all the way to Marcus Borg-land.


[part 1 can be found here] 


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David Smith
David Smith

Like Travis, I'm going to cop to being an armchair theologian (with little or no qualifications).  I haven't read Clayton's book yet, so apologies if he works through all this.   I also don't have a problem with either explanation, as both the physical and real presence camps are supported by the text.  Christ is portrayed as physically resurrected to the disciples, and yet to Paul (and Stephen), he was revealed as a voice or vision.  It is only our obsessive need for harmonizing the different appearances that causes the problem, especially when they are clearly deliniated by an explaining event, the ascension.    If Christ reveals himself to each of us in different ways today, why is it a problem that he might have done so then?   My problem with most resurrection talk is justifying it with the events of Jairus' daughter and Lazarus, and not just Jesus.  In calling resurrection a political/hopeful event, what does it mean for these two who died of natural causes (an indicitment of Roman Medicaid)?  If resurrection was just a literary/theological device, then why the heavy emphasis on the physicallity?  If Jairus, Mary, & Martha only experienced "real presence" of their loved ones, then why did that merit inclusion as gospel testimony?  And what the heck happened in Matthew 27:51-53, the Rapture? I console ego's desire to make sense of it by reminding myself that Christ's resurrection occurred on the 8th day, and not within the constraints of all knowledge and logic. With God all things are possible, even when I don't understand. Peace

Da stand das Meer
Da stand das Meer

Dear Bo, Many thanks for this helpful double post. The section concerning the resurrection in 'The Predicament of Belief' is really worth reading as a highly cogent and stimulating presentation of various live options for contemporary consideration. I'd tend myself to side with the view of the Resurrection of Jesus as an act of New Creation which cannot be encompassed by the parameters or described in the language of old creation - as Tripp pointed out in one of your TNTs. You can call it the inbreaking of the eschaton into time if you're into that kind of language. If you go this route, looking at the Resurrection in terms of the 'violation' of the present laws of physics (i.e. of old creation) would seem to be a category mistake operating from the questionable assumption that natural laws are 'things' fixed by some kind of eternal decree rather than non-exhaustive human descriptions of the regularities we observe in nature from our own finite standpoint. If we look at the future as radically open/evolving, there is no reason to presume that the lawlike behaviour of the natural world is set in stone. That's only the case if we think the world is a totally closed causal system, which is debatable scientifically as well as theologically. Additionally, it's perhaps worth pointing out that the Resurrection impacted the disciples in a radically transformative way precisely because it was a 'singularity', a 'uniquely unique' event - so unique as to compel them (in a wholly Jewish framework!) to worship the risen Christ; as Pannenberg points out in his writings on science, the scientific method is set up to deal with repeatable phenomena, not singularities. So don't expect it to be able to handle the resurrection of Jesus. Like Cameron when commenting on part 1 of this post, I'm very attracted to Polkinghorne's position on logical grounds; it's enough to have had experience of accompanying anyone whose final years are affected by a degenerative mental condition to realize that if God doesn't recreate the 'information pattern' of the whole personality after death then we're all in big trouble. In many cases, when an individual dies, the sad and sobering fact is that there really is very little left in human terms - and certainly nothing that can be 'resuscitated'; cremate someone, scatter their ashes to the four winds, and even the DNA is gone ... This is one of the reasons why looking at Jesus's resurrection in terms of resuscitation is also very problematic. Yes, it's true that the Gospel accounts are written in such a way as to stress that his risen body was in some sense physical (presumably in order to counter certain tendencies towards docetism in the early Church), and the elements of continuity with Jesus's pre-Easter body (the wounds in his hands and side) are evidently critical for the Gospel writers. It cannot however be the case that the resurrection of Jesus - and by extension our own - was DEPENDENT on the preservation of his physical remains, as this would imply that he could not have been raised if his body had been, say, eaten by dogs ... which would seem absurd. This strongly seems to suggest that the wounds on Jesus's risen body were essentially 'pedagogical', i.e. that the risen Christ wanted to show his identity as the Crucified to the disciples in a way that could not be assimilated to a visitation from a 'spirit'. Put more speculatively, there's a case for saying that the post-Easter Jesus appeared to the disciples in a recognizably physical form for their sake, not as a result of the necessary spatio-temporal limitations of his body (against which the Gospel narratives appear equally determined to speak). Our language really is inadequate to describe the experience of those who encountered Jesus between Resurrection and Ascension. As long as we recognize that, perhaps the question of whether we talk about a 'physical' or a 'spiritual' presence is irrelevant (if we want to affirm 'physicality' we can only do so in a way that is qualitatively different from our normal use of the word). What was critical for the disciples was the question of the continuity of identity between the pre- and post-Easter Jesus, and that for them the encounter was not less but in some ways MORE real than their prior experience of him. Shalom, Peter B.

John Contabile
John Contabile

To put it simply, either way, he came back. That seems to be the point. Whether in a physical body or a presence, either way he remains with them and us. That said, if I read Pannenberg correctly, "the power of the future" [God] reintroduced Jesus into the story. From this perspective, Jesus' role in the futurity of the Kingdom released him from death to enliven and empower the church to continue the message of the oncoming kingdom of God. His death was a contingency for the realization of the Kingdom of God. His resurrection was "the wake up call" that released the power of this historical proleptic event and pointed to the promise of the future. Apart from having been there it is indeed difficult to say with certainty what happened. The gospels say he rose, hung out for days, ate, etc... To borrow from Tripp, perhaps that was the best way the early churches could explain it so that is how we read the story today. Perhaps it was more of a spiritual presence. Maybe we will never get what it actually was until we see it, feel it and experience it in ourselves. Clearly, faith is justified in this...he's back and so is the kingdom of God!

Dan Hauge
Dan Hauge

In the first paragraph, 'one's cure of the resurrection' should be 'one's sense of the resurrection'--I have no idea what auto-correct did there.

Dan Hauge
Dan Hauge

I tend toward 'both/and' approaches to this question myself--seeing both the reality and significance for the resurrection as equally important sides of the same coin. The more I read about this, the more it seems that one's cure of the resurrection dovetails with their preferred view of eschatology. My childhood vision was the idea of us 'being in heaven with God' after we die, which shifted a la NT Wright toward the idea that God wants to redeem material creation, and our eschatological fate is to be resurrected and get to participate in a new-order embodied creation. What is interesting to me about the more progressive options is that they actually sound a little closer to my childhood visions--while still including a strong sense of renewed, just creation. There seems to be a 'two track' model, where here on earth God is gradually working toward calling this creation to a more just, peaceful order, while 'after death' existence is a purely 'other', non-material affair (I should note that process folks emphasize how their view of non-material personality is very different from neo-platonic forms, but they still seem kind of similar to me.) I guess all I'm saying at this point is that I still hold to a kind of 'new physicality' model for all creation, and so Jesus' resurrection in some 'bodily' fashion (not recessitation) has significance for me as a kind of 'preview of coming attractions'. I know this will be more interventionist than most progressives will want to go, but there you are.

Travis Mamone
Travis Mamone

Now I'm just an amateur theologian at best. In fact I often feel intimidated when I listen to you guys, because sometimes I don't understand what you and Tripp are saying. So I'm just gonna use an example from my own life. I don't have any concrete evidence that the tomb really was empty (even though I do believe it was). The way I understand the resurrection is when I look at my own life. Paul says we're both crucified and resurrected with Christ, right? Well, I've definitely seen that in my life on many occasions. Especially when I get hit with a depression spell. I experience horrible pain and suffering, and I don't think that I'm going to make it through. And yet, I make it through every time, you know? It's when Jesus shows the scars to Thomas. I can show my scars to people to show them that I've made it through. And that's why I believe in the resurrection. Because if Jesus stayed dead, then it's not much of a message, is it? It's basically saying, "Sorry kid, but your stuck with all this suffering and death." I hope that all makes sense. Like I said, I'm not a theologian, so I can't find the right words to express it.


A couple thoughts. I'm thinking that "all of the above" might be true for a lot of these discussions. Christ walking on water and telling the disciples to not be afraid (Mk 6) are, in my mind, the same message. Christ's power over the natural order combined with his record of care for them (calming the seas in Mk 4) should provide the proof that they should not fear. The context of Jesus's calming words seems important. If you've got more info on this subject in particular, please point me in that direction. Regarding the resurrection: do we have room in our traditions for a bodily resurrection AND "real presence" events? I'm honestly asking here, because I don't know. Is there room to believe that Christ was literally/physically with the Father AND appeared "spiritually" to Paul in Acts 9? If the resurrected Jesus could just "Tony Wonder" himself into a room ( ), what are his limitations? Thanks for any help you can provide in helping me think this through.