Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Resurrection is True

There was quite an interesting debate last week between Tony Jones and Marcus Borg regarding the nature of the resurrection of Jesus. Jones, as he often does, fired the first shot with a blog post entitled Dear Marcus Borg: Please Reconsider the Resurrection.

Actually, that's not entirely accurate. Jones' first shot really was in a casual mention during an earlier post, during which he makes the claim that Borg's view is that the resurrection "only happens in a believer's heart," rather than in any literal, material, or physical sense. Borg caught this mention and responded at some length:
[The resurrection] means at least the following. Jesus lives: he is a figure of the present who continues to be known, not just a beloved figure of the past. Jesus is Lord: God has vindicated Jesus and made him both Lord and Christ. Thus the lords of this world, including the powers that killed him and the lords of culture today, are not. Imperial execution and a rich man’s tomb could not stop him, could not hold him. He’s still around, still loose in the world, still recruiting for the kingdom of God. What he began continues. He is with us still. He is “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” 
I do not understand how this view can be construed as meaning that the resurrection happens only “in the believer’s heart.” I don’t get it.
In addition to his response above, Jones posted a bunch of quotes about why belief in the physical resurrection is important, including this one that seems best to sum up his position:
“It was not just that God defeated death, but that God did so in human flesh, and this has profound implications for flesh itself. It bursts from the tomb, the same but different: a flesh no longer made for cleaving nor for oblivion. … For a Christian, death does not even threaten the end of bodiliness, but rather becomes a physical experience/encounter with the divine.” -Elizabeth Stuart, “Queering Death”
And Borg posted his own follow-up with a very important point about Paul:
I appreciate the replies that emphasized that Paul’s use of “body” (soma in Greek) means something different from the common modern meaning of “body.” In I Corinthians 15 in which Paul not only affirms that the resurrection of Jesus as essential (……..), he also says near the end of the chapter that the resurrected body is not physical but spiritual – a glorified body. What that means I do not know – but Paul contrasts it to a body of flesh and blood. I think it is doubtful that Paul can be cited as an authority for a material physical bodily resurrection.
So, what's the issue here? First, Jones provided Borg with a great opportunity to clarify and correct what his view of the resurrection actually is. Many will still find such a viewpoint problematic, as he does affirm something other than a literal bodily resurrection. But he at least is able to say in a public real-time sort of way to a relatively younger quasi-Evangelical audience what he does and doesn't actually believe, among other things that it is more than a metaphorical heart-experience.

The series of quotes that Jones posted point to what's at stake for those who affirm a literal resurrection: it shows that God is very much concerned with redeeming physical creation in a real, tangible way. Jones also cites other concerns such as remaining in tune with "historical Christianity" and the accounts of scripture. Borg addresses the latter well enough above in his discussion of Paul, and I actually think the point he makes there helps address Jones' other concern.

It's part of Earth Science 101 that there is a cycle to creation. Plants and creatures come into being, grow, mature, and eventually die. If this death occurs naturally, it presumably will have meant that the organism was able to live a full life, using and enjoying the body they were given. But eventually, that body wears out. To put it in a slightly more crude way, it comes to the end of its usefulness. It has lived, and now it is done living. To put it in yet another way, bodies were created to die.

Oftentimes, before that cycle reaches its natural, best-case conclusion, bodies give in to other ways of death. They seemingly betray themselves by developing cancer or contracting other diseases, some cases of which are preventable according to lifestyle. And in other cases, as with Jesus, life is cut short by human cruelty. And again, in those cases, that body becomes irreparable, riddled by violence of one sort or another.

Jones and many others who believe in a literal resurrection hardly ever seem to clarify the specific metaphysics of their point of view. Jones does post one final follow-up where he talks a little more about the nature of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, but stops short of describing this new-yet-old body in which Jesus was/is dwelling. Belief in a literal resurrection insists that there really was an empty tomb, and a bodily Jesus complete with crucifixion wounds appearing to the disciples and to others, with quick caveats that this was more than a mere resuscitation. It was the same Jesus people knew from before (except when they didn't recognize him in Luke 24 and John 18, but this point gets heavily downplayed), in the same body, yet different.

I often sit with people in pastoral situations where they are struggling with disease and old age. It has been interesting to note how often they express a desire for the suffering to end. To be clear, they don't wish to miraculously become younger or healthier. They want to get out of the body in which they are trapped. They want to leave this earthly, imperfect body behind. Imagine how a resurrection promise would sound to them if we insisted that they would need to reclaim that particular body at some point, in some way. To be fair, belief in a literal resurrection would say that that body would be redeemed, without the marks of suffering...yet insistent that Jesus still carried his wounds. Almost any discussion of the resurrection--particularly where a position arguing for a literal resurrection is concerned--plays games with words and concepts in this way.

Returning to the discussion of what Paul wrote, he wrote about a new body, a "spiritual body." By nature, that term is contradictory. A "spiritual body" is neither a ghost, nor a zombie. It is a new thing that somehow retains the essence of the person, is somehow physical, but is also new and different from what came before. It is a sign of a truly transformed, redeemed being, no longer privy to or trapped by the laws of nature, the cycle of life and death, that came before. Again, to be fair, belief in a literal resurrection affirms this in some sense, but also insists that at least for Jesus, it was still the same body as before, yet different, yet the same, yet different.

I've told the story many times on this blog of one of my darkest faith moments. As it happens, that moment centered around the issue as to whether the resurrection really happened; whether this central claim in which we as Christians are meant to trust was trustworthy. My ability to trust in it came during a moment of desperation where I was pointed to a verse in Luke 24: "It is true!"

The facticity of the resurrection involves reading a scriptural tradition that is richer and more diverse than some people think. It also very much involves redemption of creation, but not by pouring new wine into old, worn-out, meant-to-die wineskins. Resurrection is about spiritual bodies; a new us, a new creation. It is true.

How is it true? At its core, the resurrection means that death is not the end. It is a natural, unavoidable stop on life's journey, at which point one body gives way to something else, a new transformed and redeemed way of being just out of reach of human conceptualization. It means that the suffering of old is past, and is completely left behind, no longer bound by the former rules.