Another Easter Sunday has come and gone, but the debate about the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection continues to be pondered and debated, affirmed and denied.
One way to evade the issue is to generalize the resurrection, much as the President did last Saturday in his weekly radio address.
“Christ’s triumph over death holds special meaning for Christians,” the President said. “But all of us,” he continued, “no matter how or whether we believe, can identify with elements of His story. The triumph of hope over despair. Of faith over doubt.”
There is value in this approach, and I have often talked about “the Resurrection principle,” including on this blog (here). But that doesn’t really solve the problem about the factuality or actuality of Jesus’ resurrection.
Christians, past and present, have made two serious mistakes in explaining the Resurrection. On the one hand, many conservative/fundamentalist Christians have tended to interpret the resurrection too literally. That is, they have asserted the physical resurrection of Jesus.
But the resurrection of Jesus is quite certainly something different than—and far more important than—the resuscitation of a corpse.
On the other hand, many progressive/liberal Christians have tended to interpret the resurrection in a completely non-historical manner. That is, they assert that the resurrection of Jesus was an inner psychological, existential, or spiritual experience of the early Christian believers that had nothing to do with the crucified body of Jesus.
This is a matter I dealt with in my book The Limits of Liberalism. Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, for example, contends that the resurrection of Jesus occurred in Galilee, rather than in Jerusalem. That is because there was nothing “objective” that happened in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and buried. The “resurrection” was only something subjective that happened in the hearts and minds of the apostles who had fled to Galilee.
Spong and other liberals talk about resurrection, to be sure, but it is a watered-down resurrection, one devoid of any factuality or any “taint” of the miraculous—except in the sense that the Apostles “miraculously” experienced the spiritual presence and ongoing influence of the crucified Christ in their hearts as they were imbued with new faith and courage to carry on the teachings of the Jesus movement (see The Limits, p. 137).
I find the ideas of the British scholar N. T. Wright in his new book How God Became King (March 2012) to be much more satisfactory. An excellent, and succinct, summary of that book can be found here.
Wright, whom I also mentioned in a post about the Resurrection last April (here), rejects what he calls the “reductionist project” of liberal scholars. And I think Wright is right. In order to affirm the liberal position, all that one has to do is accept the Enlightenment paradigm—and deny/reject the New Testament witness, the primary creeds of the Church, and the central affirmation of the Church from the beginning until the present (except for the liberal minority).
As someone wrote in an e-mail last week, there is “a whole lot of mystery involved” in the story of the Resurrection. I fully agree. Let’s not miss the power of that story by trying to explain the Resurrection as either a physical occurrence or as just an inner, psychological experience.