Ever since my 1999 debut in the Presbyterian Outlook, “Beyond Our Subjective Jesus,” it has been my contention that we can’t truly have union in Christ when what we really have is a fill-in-the-blank Jesus composed of nothing but words that mean whatever we want them to mean.
The same holds true for our belief in Jesus’ resurrection. (I apologize to those of you who have already moved on in their liturgical calendars. I know, I was supposed to write about this eight weeks ago, and now it’s too late to talk about Easter. But let’s talk about it anyway.)
What do we mean when we say that Jesus has risen? Do we mean that his body was restored to life and that his tomb was thereby vacated? Or do we believe that his spirit lives on, but his remains are still in the ground? Is the one belief just as valid as the other, for those who take their ordination vows seriously?
What beliefs about the Resurrection shall we accept as consistent with the Reformed tradition? Are we OK with John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus’ body was eaten by wild animals, and that the appearances of Jesus are nothing but political declarations about “authority, power, leadership, and priority” in the church?
Are we comfortable with the words of a former Presbyterian minister who stated that Mark 16 was “one damned lie after another”? What about someone who would argue that the appearances of Jesus were hallucinations produced by the guilt and grief of the disciples? Or what about Pieter Craffert’s theory that the Resurrection and the miracles of Jesus were produced by altered states of consciousness that are real, but are not to be confused with events that can be observed objectively?
Yes, the debate about the nature of a resurrected body does have its merits. One can legitimately debate whether a “spiritual” body (1 Cor 15:50-53) contradicts the notion of a tangible resurrected body (Luke 24:36-42). But if we claim that “Christ is risen” while we believe that he is still in the ground, if we claim that Jesus’ resurrection is merely a symbol, can we also say the same for his deity, then? If one is just a symbol and not a reality, then why not the other? And what happens to our claimed unity in Christ and our continuity with the apostolic faith if we take this road?
Imagine trying to decide such issues in your local Committee on Ministry! And yet, not to decide is to decide. At our next General Assembly we will have delegates who firmly believe that Jesus’ remains are still in the ground, who champion the views of literal atheists like Robert Funk and quasi-atheists like Crossan and Spong. At what point do we draw the line and state that one has departed unacceptably from the Reformed tradition?
Is there any room for the Resurrection as a symbol? Yes, but a symbol depends on the reality behind it for its power. A purely mythical resurrection has no more power to inspire us than the old Greek myth of the dying and rising Phoenix. Jesus’ resurrection, or his incarnation, can only be of value as symbols if there is a compelling reality to which they point.
If we think that all that divides us is sex, we need to go back and take a look at this article of faith that Paul declared to be “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3).
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 29 years, is adjunct professor at Morthland College, West Frankfort, Ill. and is currently seeking a call. He is author of “What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?” (Wipf & Stock, 2011).