Does it matter if Jesus’ resurrection was only a metaphor, David Goodwin ponders.
There are several best-selling novels based on the idea of finding proof that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Some claim finding a skeleton in a tomb. Many present the idea that he somehow escaped crucifixion and lived to a ripe old age. There is even a major school of teaching in Islam which contends that Judas was crucified instead of Jesus so he could make a getaway.
However, while it might not be too surprising that people outside the Church might discount these events as a little too hard to swallow, I was lost for words when an ordained minister told me that he didn’t think a physical resurrection was a necessary part of Christianity. He believes a spiritual resurrection is what is important and it’s easier for modern people to comprehend than a man rising from the dead. Since then, I have heard this idea in other places, most notably by Bishop Spong (a liberal theologian and retired bishop of the Episcopal Church).
This started me thinking. What would it mean for Christianity if the crucifixion and resurrection were simply metaphors, or occurred only on a spiritual level; if Jesus did not physically die and come back from the dead? Can we have a Christian faith that does not believe this happened? Does it even really matter if it happened or not? Or is it just an inspiring story—a fable—from which we can take spiritual truth?
I think it is hard to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt to the sceptical that Jesus existed, died and rose again, in the same way that it is hard to prove that Socrates was a real person. We have a lot of circumstantial evidence that a man called Jesus did exist and that he had followers who believed he was holy.* There are mentions in Roman and Jewish histories that attest to this, but ultimately the bulk of our knowledge of who Jesus was comes from the Bible.
I can understand why those outside the Church might not be willing to take this as reliable, but if we do believe the Gospels to be the recordings of Christ’s life, then we are presented with some extraordinary claims that we need to decide to accept or reject. For me, it is when I look at the details of the stories that I am convinced. Anyone who has ever tried to tell a complex lie knows that it is not in the surface story that you get caught out, but in the little details. You can make claims that sound convincing, but when they are examined more closely, they fall apart because the incidentals do not stand up.
With the Gospels, it is the major parts that are hardest to swallow. A man healing the sick and rising from the dead? Inconceivable! On the other hand, the little throwaway lines stand up remarkably well. For example, when Jesus is on the cross and his side is pierced, we are told that a mix of blood and water flows forth (John 19:34). Modern medicine tells us that, yes, this would occur if a man died under such circumstances. But this is not trumpeted as proof in the Gospels that Jesus actually did die, just reported in a matter-of-fact way that makes it all the more convincing. It is these little touches that give it the ring of truth.
Perhaps the most convincing sign we have of the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection is the dramatic change we see in the character and behaviour of the disciples. Leading up to the events of Passover we are presented with a picture of a fractious and undisciplined group. Whether they are disputing about money, or squabbling over precedence, they do not seem like the sort of people who are capable of going on to change the world.
After the crucifixion itself, we still aren’t filled with a great deal of confidence in their character. Jesus’ death is a pivotal moment for this fledgling movement, but at a time when strong leadership is required more than ever, Jesus’ right-hand man denies three times that he even knew Christ, and most of the other apostles scatter. In a bit of an ‘in your face’ to those who would seek to downplay the role of women in the early Church, it is only the female disciples who are brave enough to wait around at Jesus’ cross, and later, the tomb.
If the apostles, or the early Church, were going to lie about the events of Jesus’ ministry, then what I know about human nature tells me that they would have presented themselves in a much better light. We might have received a Hollywood version of the story, with Peter organising his own Ocean’s Eleven-style heist to bust Jesus out of jail! Instead, the candid revelations of their foibles and frailties inspire our trust and faith. If they are so honest about their failures, why would they not be about their triumphs?
Even though we get to know a fairly uninspiring bunch in the Gospels, as we read the Acts of the Apostles and learn more about the history of the early Church, we are confronted with a transformed group of people. Almost without exception, the apostles die martyrs’ deaths, executed in often horrible fashion as they refuse to renounce the name of Christ or stop spreading his message. The same Peter who denied his Lord became so committed that he refused to be executed the same way as Jesus, saying he wasn’t worthy, and was instead crucified upside down.
What could possibly change people this much? The only explanation that makes sense to me is that they witnessed something so incredible that their lives could never be the same. Their remarkable transformation is a testament to the fact that something extraordinary happened in history, and it is this that convinces me that the resurrection is more than metaphor or parable. All the struggling and striving of the early Church is inspired by the assumption that when Jesus promised he would rise again he was telling the truth: that death could not conquer him but instead was itself conquered by the Son of God.
Without a resurrection
As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, without a resurrection the witness of the disciples is all for nothing (1 Corinthians 15). Their willingness to sacrifice themselves, and their faith that Jesus was who he claimed to be, is deluded. God’s promises are broken and, like a house built on a rotten foundation, everything else we take as articles of belief fall down. Without a crucifixion, there is no atonement for our sins. Without a resurrection, there is no triumph over death or hope for eternal life.
Most importantly, though, Jesus is revealed as a charlatan—another false prophet whose grandiose claims are proved false. The Gospel goes from being a beautiful story of faith and hope to just another tragedy where another self-deluded man suffers and dies for nothing. If we do not believe that these events really occurred, then there is no point believing the rest. It is not enough to see it as an inspiring story; it is either true and wonderful, or false, and the greatest hoax ever perpetrated and a betrayal of people who deserved better.
Although I believe in a physical resurrection, my friend was right in saying that there is danger in seeing the crucifixion and resurrection as merely historical events, remarkable but existing only in the past. The truth is that they stand as hinges on which the whole of creation turns, their significance reaching forward through the centuries and impacting our lives in the here and now. On the cross, Christ died as much for my sins as he did for Peter’s. When he rose from the tomb, he defeated my death as much as that of Moses.
Two thousand years is a long time, and it is easy to feel removed from the Gospel story. But the impact of those events is still being felt today. When Jesus died and rose again it changed the world forever, and history took a different course.
The challenge is to allow it to change us. The disciples were transformed by what happened in a provincial outpost of an empire that no longer exists. The miracle of Easter is that in a different time and a different world, we can be transformed too.
*Books such as The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus by Lee Strobel and Evidence for the Historical Jesus: A Compelling Case for His Life and His Claims by Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson delve into this topic in detail.