Why not bodily resurrection?

April 18, 2011

Peaking inside the empty tomb. (The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.)

I’ve been reading the Huffington Post’s Christianity page for about a month, and I like it. Even though I frequently disagree with its writers and bloggers, I appreciate that a relatively mainstream news and opinion website devotes serious attention to religion, and gives actual Christians and other practitioners of religion the ability to write about their faith. By contrast, Newsweek‘s religion coverage, for example, often treats religious questions with the seriousness it would devote to extraterrestrials and U.F.O.s.

I read this opinion piece, “Is a Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Necessary for Easter to Have Validity?” by author Steve McSwain, with sympathy. As I said in a recent sermon, “Heaven is not consolation for a life poorly lived,” and if we treat it as such, life after death begins to feel like pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. It feels like wishful thinking. It feels death-denying.

As I’ve emphasized many times in sermons and on this blog, eternal life isn’t something we have to wait for. It begins now. True, we can’t experience it in all its fullness on this side of resurrection, but we experience some measure of it—by all means. I even preached a sermon on this very topic just a couple of weeks ago. McSwain says he came to this realization after reading his favorite French writer. Nevertheless, the present reality of eternal life (what theologians call “realized eschatology”) is deeply embedded in the New Testament itself—in John’s gospel and Paul’s letters especially. Both the Johannine Jesus and Paul speak of resurrection as both a metaphorical and physical event (e.g., John 11:17-27, Romans 6:1-4, Ephesians 2:5-6). The Bible isn’t either/or on the question of resurrection; it’s both/and.

While I’m sympathetic with McSwain, get a load of this paragraph, in which he gives his number one reason for denying bodily resurrection:

Maybe it’s easy for you to live in a mythical, magical world of make-believe (and, if so, so be it), but I cannot. I’ve conducted too many funerals in my lifetime, walked through too many stone-cold cemeteries and stood beside too many grieving souls (my own included) whose family members had gone the way that we all will go—the way of death—to believe anything other than death is pretty fatal and pretty final. You can pretend all you’d like that it isn’t so. Dress up the altar with lilies and sing as loud as you can “Up From the Grave He Arose.” But, one day, you’ll discover for yourself that all the pretending in the world won’t keep you from going to the grave. You will die, just as I will die.

Where to start? For one thing, please notice that this is another spin on an old prejudice of modernity, which says that people who lived a long time ago were really dumb. We’re much smarter than they are. Apparently, when the people at Lazarus’s tomb in John 11—including (how about that?) Jesus himself—weeped for their departed friend, they were unacquainted with the fact that death is “pretty fatal and pretty final.”

This is ridiculous, of course. If anything, people in antiquity were far better acquainted with the grim and painful finality of death than we moderns are. In general, we’re the ones who keep death at arm’s length. We are a death-denying culture, as I discussed in the sermon mentioned above. Ancient people, for whom death was much more commonplace, had no such luxury. My point is that people living in the first century noticed that when people died, they stayed dead. It’s true that most Jews in the time of Jesus believed in a general resurrection for the righteous at the end of history, but before Jesus none of them said that it had actually happened to anyone.

Given this fact, it’s safe to say that the disciples who proclaimed that Jesus had been resurrected—not resuscitated from death (as with Lazarus) or manifested as a ghost—were not naturally inclined to do so. Nothing in their experience or religious background prepared them for the resurrection of someone prior to the end of history.

I heard New Atheist Richard Dawkins say in an interview once that of course when charismatic leaders died in antiquity, all sorts of legends and myths sprung up about their rising from the dead, etc. It was just a normal part of life back then. (Notice, once again, the modern prejudice mentioned above.) He’s just completely wrong on the facts. These things didn’t normally happen, and when they did, no one talked about bodily resurrection.

(Someone said to me, as if to prove how gullible people are even today, “Yes, but what about Elvis?” Indeed, what about Elvis? If you read the “Elvis is alive” propaganda, no one says that he was resurrected from the dead, only that he never actually died. Not that many people believe that anyway.)

As Tim Keller points out in a recent article, there were plenty of charismatic messianic leaders around the time of Jesus who were martyred for the sake of their cause. None of these other would-be Messiahs had “resurrection myths” associated with them. So what happened? What was different about Jesus and the events surrounding his death? Since a spiritual, non-bodily understanding of life after death was the predominant belief in the Greco-Roman world of the time—that the body was a temporary evil to be endured until the soul is set free at death—why didn’t the disciples and church choose that option of belief? It would have been much easier for them. Needless to say, McSwain completely evades these questions.

I presume that McSwain would say that he believes that something happened to cause the disciples to believe in the resurrection, even if they misunderstood its meaning. He would probably say that whatever happened to Jesus was a non-physical, spiritual experience that the disciples all shared. Given that McSwain is a Christian, I also presume that he would say that God was responsible for enabling them to have this experience.

From my perspective, if you believe that God acted in this way, why is it so much more difficult to believe that Jesus’ resurrection is also at least physical? Bear in mind that when classic Christianity talks about resurrection, it means something beyond physical as we understand it: Jesus eats and drinks with his disciples and is able to be touched, but also walks through locked doors and disappears at will.

Having cleared the biggest obstacle to believing in resurrection—that God exists and created the world from nothing, that God is active in this world that he loves, that God cares about the lives of human beings—why is bodily resurrection so hard to believe in? I’m seriously asking. Because, while we’re on the subject of what’s “realistic” (according to McSwain), what’s so realistic about a merely spiritual resurrection?

What kind of life do we experience apart from the body? All our spiritual experiences in this world of time, space, and matter—including the eternal life that McSwain says that he experiences now—we experience in the body. People sometimes talk of making love and experiencing God. Or of going to the Grand Canyon at sundown and experiencing God. Or of watching their child being born and experiencing God. Each of these experiences is both profoundly physical and profoundly spiritual. And we wouldn’t have it any other way, because these experiences are good.

Even though, anthropologically, human beings are psychosomatic by definition—bodies and spirits hopelessly intertwined—and we know no life in this world apart from our bodies, somehow McSwain wants us to believe that this non-bodily eternal life is more realistic? Why?

As is often the case with people who are skeptical of Christianity, McSwain isn’t skeptical enough! Be skeptical of your skepticism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s