Ted Grimsrud—December 19, 2022
Of all the questions I have related to Christianity, I suspect that the question of whether Jesus’s resurrection was a historical fact may be the most vexing. To keep it simple, I’ll just say that what I am referring to is the belief that Jesus actually fully died and was buried and then, a couple of days later God raised his body from the dead and for several weeks Jesus walked on earth as a living human being. A related belief, of course, is that 40 days after he was raised, Jesus ascended to the heavens to be with God. I will focus on the resurrection here, though I find the factuality of the ascension to be a vexing question as well.
What is the problem?
On the one hand, the stories in the gospels and in Paul’s writings seem clear in reporting that Jesus was raised—and that this is a key aspect of Christian faith. The beliefs that God is victorious and that salvation is real appear to depend upon Jesus’s resurrection. Over the past 2,000 years, acceptance of Jesus’s bodily resurrection possibly has been the most non-negotiable Christian affirmation.
It is clear that something real appears to have happened. Reading the gospels carefully, we learn that Jesus’s followers were devastated when he was arrested and ultimately executed. They ran away and some even denied that they knew Jesus when they were confronted. These are the kinds of stories that seem unlikely to have been invented by later Christians as they put the disciples in a very unflattering light. Then things dramatically changed. Those people who had scattered in fear regathered and began risking their lives to proclaim that the Jesus who had been crucified was alive. This proclamation was at the core of the movement of Jesus’s followers that grew and spread in the coming years.
The historical reality of the resurrection itself may be unverifiable (no one saw it happen), but the transformation of Jesus’s followers does itself seem to be historically likely. And how could that transformation have happened without the story of Jesus being raised being true? The gospels don’t claim that anyone saw the actual event of Jesus being raised, but they do claim that many of Jesus’s followers did see the raised Jesus. That must have been why they embraced and witnessed to his teachings and way of life even at great risk to their own lives.
And yet, on the other hand, many of us find it difficult to believe that Jesus could literally have been killed and then days later restored to life.
It violates the laws of nature to think that a human being (or any other kind of animal) could fully die and then return to life. It takes a leap of illogic to accept that this one time such a thing happened. To accept, based ultimately on the authority of a tradition, not actual evidence, that something that violates the laws of nature could be true sets a dangerous precedent for allowing authority to determine other beliefs. Yet I also believe that we should not give modern scientific rationality too much authority. But the resurrection story seems so far-fetched.
An emphasis on the historical factuality of Jesus’s resurrection may have contributed to marginalizing his life and teaching. All too often in the Christian tradition (perhaps even starting with the Apostle Paul), what has seemed to matter the most has been that Jesus came back to life as a simple fact. I interpret the New Testament in general to focus much more on the content of Jesus’s message. The resurrection has weight as a vindication of that message, not as an event in and of itself.
Thus, the doctrine of the bodily resurrection has comfortably co-existed in the history of Christianity with many practices that have contradicted the message of Jesus—war, racism, patriarchy, nationalism, capitalism, and more. I believe that one of the key tests for the validity and importance of doctrinal beliefs for Christians should be that the beliefs support and empower the embodiment of Jesus’s way. Or, conversely, we could say that a key test is that said belief actually protect Christians from various forms of idolatry—including warism, nationalism, exclusivism, and other ways that the Powers separate people from the love of God.
I don’t know how to resolve this tension. One person I know has worked at finding tiny cracks in the gospel accounts that allow them to be read in a way that allows us to understand that Jesus did not literally die until about 40 days after the crucifixion. This explanation actually is not as far-fetched as it might seem, but I think in the end it distorts key aspects of the story. For the story itself, even if it does not seem tenable historically, it seems important that Jesus actually died on the cross. So, I conclude with the sense that the best I can do is remain agnostic about the historical facticity and focus on the importance of the story—that “story truth” is more in line with the content of the gospel of Jesus than “factual truth.”
I found my thinking crystallized when I recently read John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter”—and found myself reacting negatively to it. This is the first stanza:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
Maybe I’m misreading, but I understand Updike to be making two key assertions: (1) Jesus’s resurrection, as a certain fact, was physical. His real body, reanimated, returned from the dead. (2) Upon this fact, the life of the Church depends. No factual resurrection, no Church.
Later, Updike doubles down on the factuality of Jesus’s resurrection:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not paper-maché,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
For Updike, to think of Jesus’s resurrection as metaphorical is to “mock God.” The stone that was rolled away from the tomb when Jesus arose was “not a stone in a story.” So, it struck me that Updike denies that the story of Jesus’s resurrection is actually a story. It has a level of factuality that removes it from the metaphorical. What then is it? I don’t know.
Stories are powerful
I can’t see Jesus’s resurrection as something other than “simply” a story. To think it is more than a story is to have too weak a view of what stories are (an ironic attitude for a storyteller such as Updike to have, it seems to me). It is to imply that there is something wrong, something lacking, in stories that hard facts remedy. I think to see what the gospels (and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15) tell us about Jesus’s resurrection as something other than simply a story seems to deny the actual reality of how we know about Easter Sunday.
The gospels are collections of stories that were passed down orally for maybe around 40 years after the events they recount (recognizing the likely existence of some kind of an earlier document, called “Q” by recent scholars, that provided the core narrative shared in common by Matthew, Mark, and Luke). These stories were gathered by the gospel writers and put together in the form of four more stories, the distinctive versions in each of the gospels. Paul’s version of the Easter story, as he directly tells us, was also the result of oral tradition (1 Cor 15:3).
So, the written versions we have (and it is important to note that they differ in important ways from one another) were filtered through many retellings from the original accounts of eyewitnesses. Recognizing that ancient oral cultures apparently passed down their stories with remarkable accuracy, we recognize the distance of the events themselves from the records we have of them. In addition, we (perhaps even more importantly) recognize that these stories were passed down, written, and thus shaped for a purpose. The purpose was not Updike’s kind of facticity but persuasive, a kind of sermon to encourage people to trust in and follow Jesus.
That what we know about Jesus’s resurrection came to be recorded for sermonic and not literalistic factual purposes does not mean that the information is false. But it does mean that making its meaning dependent upon facticity as Updike seems to do (echoing the mainstream Christian tradition, for sure—my point is not about Updike per se here, but how he reflects the broader tradition and present-day piety) may end up distorting the core meaning of Jesus’s resurrection—with profoundly destructive effects for the practice the faith of Jesus’s community.
A weak kind of truth
The resurrection of Jesus, I suggest, is best seen as a weak kind of truth. It is something we choose to believe, not something that hits us over the head, as it were, with its brute factuality. It is notable that the New Testament stories seem to make of point of reporting that only believers in Jesus saw him after he rose. Typically, it appears, Christians such as Updike want something more powerful and coercive than a “mere story.” In parallel fashion, they want a God who is in control, not a God who is “merely love.” They want certainty that things will end well, not merely a sense of hope that the universe bends toward justice.
They tend to want a kind of story that they can, ultimately, control and that they can overpower others with. They want a kind of story they can turn into an enforceable boundary marker, that can serve as a line in the sand that divides true and false. That is, they want a story that isn’t just a story, a story that has more authority than a mere sermon, a story that provides certainty and security and not just tentative hopefulness.
I’m afraid that what this all comes down to is that Christians have a hard time trusting in the sufficiency of love—love that is not controlling or certain or absolutely secure; love that corresponds to the way life actually is and that empowers those who trust in it to be creative and compassionate in face of their fragility.
What if what matters most in the resurrection story are not the details about Jesus’s body, not as Updike writes, that “the molecule reknit” and “the amino acids rekindle”? What if what matters most is simply the proclamation that God vindicates Jesus’s life? Our favorable response is not then due to irrefutable scientific facts (or to fearing that otherwise “the Church will fall”) but to our desire to be part of the same story as Jesus—where enemies are loved, when the rulers of the world are named as tyrants, where sinners are forgiven.
I recognize that quite a few Christians will take exception with my argument in this post and insist that the story of Jesus’s resurrection (and Christian faith in general) must be based on actual historical events or else it can’t be true. I think that insistence ignores that the story of Jesus’s resurrection has no more inherent authority whether it actually happened or not. The only power the story has is the power gained by the assent of its listeners. That is, the actual power is only found in the power of the lives of Jesus’s followers.