Friday, March 30, 2018

Interpreting the Resurrection of Jesus

Even though today is Good Friday, this article is about the Easter story and how Jesus’ resurrection can be affirmed by contemporary people.
A Novel Interpretation
The writing of this article was spurred by my reading of a novel: Martin Gardner’s The Flight of Peter Fromm (1973, 1994). After finishing it in 2012, I wrote this in my “books read” record: “One of the most challenging theological novels I ever read. A book of great profundity and erudition.”
Last month I finished reading Gardner’s book for the second time—and I was impressed and disturbed by it again.
If you haven’t read the novel, I don’t necessarily recommend it. Why? Because debunking the resurrection of Jesus is one of the main themes of the book.
At the beginning of the novel, Peter Fromm is a precocious, fundamentalist, Pentecostal Christian boy from Oklahoma who chooses to go to the University of Chicago Divinity School. There he is “slowly but surely” led by Homer Wilson, his mentor who is a part-time professor and a Unitarian minister, to question and then to reject many of his Christian beliefs, including the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
On Easter Sunday, shortly before he is scheduled to receive his doctor’s degree, to marry, and to be ordained and assume a full-time church position, Peter preaches at his mentor’s church—and has a dramatic psychological breakdown.
Questionable Interpretations
In spite of being a minister and seminary professor, early in the book Wilson acknowledges, “I do not consider myself a Christian except in the widest, most humanistic sense. I do not, for example, believe in God.”
Homer Wilson spends considerable time discussing theological ideas with Peter, who gradually begins to discard belief in the reality of the resurrection—along with ideas about the transcendence of God. So Peter comes largely to adopt what Wilson calls “secular humanism.”
Wilson tells Peter that one who preaches to modern people has “to choose between being a truthful traitor or a loyal liar.” In order to serve in a paid church position, he believes, it is necessary to choose the latter: that seems clearly to have been Homer’s choice, and Peter also apparently comes to accept that position. The duplicity of that choice, however, leads to Peter’s breakdown.
Much of the problem in accepting the reality of the Easter story centers on the interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection as being the resuscitation of his physical body. Peter assumes that that is the view of resurrection found in the New Testament.
Of course, Peter also considers, and rejects, Jesus’ resurrection as simply the spirit or idea of Jesus being “resurrected” in the minds of his disciples.
Recommended Interpretation
My interpretation of, and belief in, the resurrection is based on firm belief in the reality of God and in transcendence. Thus, my affirmation of the reality of Easter is grounded in a worldview quite different from that of secular humanism.
If one believes, as Homer Wilson and then Peter Fromm did, that the physical world, which can be fully examined by science, is the totality of reality, then resurrection cannot be affirmed in any historical sense.
My views are in general agreement with those of the eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright as summarily presented in his book Surprised by Hope (2008), which I highly recommend.
For me, and for Wright, Jesus’ resurrection can be, and must be, understood as something other than literal resuscitation and certainly as something other than a metaphorical, completely non-historical story.
Firm belief in God and transcendence, however, makes affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection possible, understandable, and a matter of great joy and hope.
Happy Easter!


  1. Hm... "Firm belief in God"? That seems a bit too determined to me. We believe, or we don't, or so I would think.

    Indeed, I agree that a "belief in God and transcendence" is required to make any sense of the resurrection. But make it understandable? I don't think so. Clearly the biblical story, as it stands, makes little sense and cannot be reconciled with our current understanding of physical realities. Jesus shooting up into heaven, like a rocket? Not believable. But clearly, also, a whole cadre of Jesus' followers came to believe he was in some remarkable sense alive after dying, and that reality gave them a greater sense of transcendence and hope, so they put their lives on the line by that inspiration, generating the Jesus Movement and ultimately the religion with the greatest number of adherents in the world. That's not to be lightly dismissed, or so I would think.

    I don't know N.T. Wright's explanation, but if it affirms a belief and thus faith in God, including consequently a belief that our single human life is not all there is, and that we stand in a faith tradition that has a story pointing to the reality of God and transcendence, offering us hope that death does not have the final word, I can accept that. If it, though, tries to reconcile the New Testament's accounts with modern scientifically informed understanding of reality by essentially dismissing the latter as irrelevant to faith, I would rather read Martin Gardner's book and wrestle with him.

    1. Thank you for a very cogent reply, Anton.

    2. Anton, I’m not sure what you mean by “too determined,” but surely there are varying degrees, shall we say, of belief just as there are various degrees of love, commitment, or trust.

      It seems to me that belief, as the other matters mentioned, can be “firm” (strong, unshakable) or weak, tenuous, susceptible to change. (Of course, as on most matters, I see this as something that would be best considered on a continuum rather just one way or the opposite.)

      The sixth of the thirty chapters in The Flight of Peter Fromm is “The Mustard Seed of Doubt.” Once that “mustard seed of doubt” was planted in Peter’s mind, his firm faith in God (as a transcendent reality) became weaker and weaker.

      You are quite familiar with the idea of “plausibility structure,” I assume. The main idea behind that term coined by sociologist/theologian Peter Berger is of great importance.

      If one’s plausibility structure is shaped primarily by the modern scientific worldview, then, no, the resurrection of Jesus is not understandable. But if one’s plausibility structure is shaped by belief in God and transcendence—of even a both/and joining of the latter with the former—then, I believe, the resurrection does become understandable to a large degree.

      And, please note that I do not believe in the least that the ascension of Jesus is “Jesus shooting up into heaven, like a rocket.” (On this point also I find great agreement with Wright in “The Ascension,” a subsection of "Surprised by Hope," pp. 109~117.)

      N.T. Wright is an educated man with an understanding of reality that includes, but is not limited to, the scientific worldview—and I would like to think of myself in the same way. Thus, I find his position far superior to the reductionist views presented in Gardner’s book and forwarded by most secular humanists.

  2. The first comment received, early this morning, was from local Thinking Friend Rob Carr, who is a pastor. He wrote, briefly,

    "Also recommended by NT Wright: 'The Resurrection of the Son of God.' Voluminous and scholarly.'

    He is certainly right about the latter: I have read only a small part of Wright's book on the resurrection. Published in 2003, it is 740 pages long!

  3. Not long after receiving the email with the previous comment, I was happy to get the following email message from another local Thinking Friend:

    "Thank you Leroy for this. It is helpful in my own thinking about what I believe for Easter. I can 'get' Lent but when we get to Easter, I often stumble and just hope to get through the celebrations with a good meal and a nice church service. Your discussion of other view of Easter seems to offer alternatives for me. Thanks."

  4. A third local Thinking Friend sent the following comments:

    "I like this connection of the resurrection of Jesus with the reality that human thought can transcend the empirics of reality, else there would not even be a concept of God. I wonder if any of your friends will defend a literal interpretation of resurrection?"

  5. And then about an hour ago I received the following comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "Well said, Leroy! Resurrection is not resuscitation of a corpse but entrance into God’s life, as the Apostle Paul argues in 1 Cor 15. I don’t think humanism must be secular. Humanism can embrace transcendence, as one can see in notable representatives such as Clement of Alexandria, Erasmus, and Thomas Merton."

    1. Thanks, Dr. Hinson. I certainly agree that there can be, has been, and are Christian humanists--such as those you have mentioned.

      I have also said on occasion that I like secular humanism more than I do Christian inhumanism.

  6. I was happy to receive the following comments from Thinking Friend Graham Hales in Mississippi. We were together in several graduate school seminars in the early 1960s.

    "In the Passion of the Christ, much emphasis was given to the suffering of Jesus before and on the cross. Much more emphasis on that than one finds in the Gospel records. We have so many crosses around us from the church house to diamond encrusted ones as jewelry. So many attempts to hide from the gruesome reality of the cross and its suffering.

    However, much more impactful is the resurrection. Not just a resuscitation but a rising in a new type of body, or, as Paul says, a spiritual body. That Jesus's Father broke the power of death over his son is the meaning of Easter. For, the believers at least. this is our promise. We also will rise with a new spiritual body, able to eat and be touched and to converse with our fellow believers. There is no lasting death. Awesome beyond description. Hallelujah."

  7. Here are substantial comments by local Thinking Friend Debra Sapp-Yarwood (posted with her permission):

    "I respect that you reread books you find difficult.

    "I hate false choices. That's one of the problems with our politics nowadays. Pro-life or pro-choice for example assumes you think that people on the other side are either anti-life or anti-choice. There are dozens of nuanced in-between positions that could be discerned but don't even make it into the marketplace of ideas, because people in power reduce the discussion to a false choice. Your author presents another false choice: truthful traitor or loyal liar. Sigh.

    "We all are heretics, inasmuch as we all make choices. Even the strictest Biblical literalist or Catholic traditionalist makes choices. Simply to choose one of those is to be a heretic if you ask the other.

    "Maybe the grand question at the center of our faith isn't about heresy--what we choose to believe, even about the resurrection--but instead blasphemy. I trust that I am always a heretic by someone's accounting. I choose the Great Commandment to discern whether what I'm doing/thinking might be blasphemous, and that's what's important. I try (imperfectly, you will agree) to embody all the love it implies, and reach for grace when I fall short, and keep working, also imperfectly, toward co-creating the basiliea of God. Does that make me a truthful traitor or a loyal liar? I don't think of myself as either. As you know (and have tried to dissuade) I am loyal to an imperfect but good, very good, God. Calling God 'imperfect' by tradition is heresy, but it helps me not commit blasphemy. My heresy comforts me when I see unfair and inexplicable suffering in the hospital, for example. I can love this imperfect God, whom I picture weeping with me. I love this God with all the gifts this God created in me, and love my suffering neighbor as I love myself.

    "From this lens, believing a factual accounting of the resurrection is immaterial for a truthful faith. I choose to believe it, but my faith is not superior because of that choice, nor would it falter if some archeologist produced irrefutable bones."

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share your significant thinking about these matters, Debra. I especially think what you wrote about false choices is good and important. There are, I'm sure, some things that have to be either this or that. But most of the time there are more than two choices available and it is over-simplifying to say one must choose either this or that.

      To be fair with Homer Wilson, though, he was saying the "truthful traitor or loyal liar" choice was one that preachers/pastors have to make and perhaps would not have said that was a choice that all religious/Christian believers have to make. I think that dichotomy, too, is overdrawn, but it did/does draw attention to the bind most educated preaching pastors are put in when they regularly face a rather uneducated, or even a traditional religiously educated, congregation.

      I think your paragraph about heresy and blasphemy is quite important. But at this point I don't want to get into a discussion of God's perfection of imperfection.

      Your last paragraph, certainly related to the previous one, is more pertinent to the discussion about the resurrection. If firm belief in the resurrection does not make one more loving toward suffering neighbors, then perhaps that belief is not so important. Of course, I haven't seen much evidence that denying the reality of the resurrection has made people more loving of others, and there was nothing that I saw in "The Flight of Peter Fromm" that indicated that Peter or his mentor became more loving by denying the resurrection.

      I guess my main concern is how someone can be, and remain, a person of integrity. It seems that that is what caused Peter's breakdown: his choosing to be a "loyal liar." He lost his sense of integrity. So that is perhaps the main issue I am raising with this blog article: how does a modern person celebrate Easter as a person of integrity?

  8. Christ rises in the lives of those who follow the example of Jesus. His followers are his new body raised to advance God's Cause.

    1. John, thanks for your comments. I think that your statement is entirely true. But is it the entire truth about the meaning or reality of the Resurrection? I don't think so.