Debating the Resurrection

The Rev. Hal Taussig, co-pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, says the debate about literal vs. symbolic resurrection is relatively modern. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff
The Rev. Hal Taussig, co-pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, says the debate about literal vs. symbolic resurrection is relatively modern. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff

Whether Jesus rose from the dead still confounds.

Posted: April 08, 2012

It is not easy being Christian, what with doing unto others, loving your enemies, turning the other cheek.

Yet the far greater challenge is to accept without doubt the core belief evinced in the Easter story - that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

"No doctrine of the Christian faith is so vigorously and stubbornly opposed as the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh."

That lament was voiced 1,600 years ago by St. Augustine, the great theologian of the early church. But he was a latecomer to the debate.

Just 25 years after Jesus died, Paul was already scolding skeptics. "If Christ has not been raised," he admonished followers in Corinth, "your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."

Today, from scholarly aeries to local pulpits and pews, Christians continue to struggle with the truth of the Resurrection. Ask around, and it becomes plain there is no single understanding of the mystery at the heart of the faith.

"I'm still astonished by the claim that Jesus was raised," said the Rev. Cindy Jarvis, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. "I've always wrestled with what that means."

Some Bible scholars surmise the empty-tomb story - with its intriguing variations - emerged a few decades after the Crucifixion.

In the gospel of Luke, a band of several women goes to Jesus' tomb to anoint his body and finds it empty, save for "two men in dazzling white garments."

In Mark, it's Salome and "Mary, the mother of James," who arrive to find the stone rolled away and meet a young man in a white robe inside. "Do not be alarmed," he tells them. "Jesus has been raised."

Matthew reports that when Mary Magdalen and "the other Mary" arrive, an angel descends from heaven and rolls away the stone.

And in John's gospel, Mary Magdalen alone finds the tomb empty, then runs to tell Peter and John. As they enter, she asks a "gardener" outside what he's done with Jesus' body. Only when he calls out, "Mary!" does she recognize him as Jesus.

A theory among academics is that Jesus, despite his noted debates with their rabbis, might have belonged to the Pharisee sect of Jews, who believed in bodily resurrection.

In a short-lived practice that flourished around the first century A.D., Pharisees laid the newly dead in tombs sealed with large stones. After about two years, the bones were put in boxes called ossuaries and moved to other tombs.

Still, the startling claim that Christ rose from the dead fueled the Jesus movement's claim of a divine, miracle-working founder. By the second century, converts to Christianity were reciting the short Roman Creed, antecedent to the Apostles' Creed, declaring their belief in the carnis resurrectionem and that Jesus had resurrexit a mortuis.

Whether the Easter story describes a bodily or symbolic event is a "relatively modern" debate, said the Rev. Hal Taussig, a professor of the New Testament at New York's Union Theological Seminary.

"Prior to the modernist-fundamentalist clash of the early 20th century, I don't think anyone thought of the Resurrection as literal," he said.

Despite Paul's assertion to the Corinthians that "all is in vain" if Christ did not rise from the grave, "he makes it very clear that what he's talking about is a spiritual reality - that what was risen was a spiritual body," said Taussig, also co-pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church.

Ancient philosophers, religious leaders, and the general populace "thought spirit was a substance, but just a thinner, lighter substance than ordinary substance," he said. "So if you talked about a 'spiritual body' rather than material one, they would understand and make that distinction readily."

The gospel stories of a risen Jesus who appears to the disciples as a stranger, passing through doors and disappearing once they recognize him, suggest to Taussig that their authors' understanding was "way more sophisticated" than that of modernists "who pretend this is a scientific question" and fundamentalists "who propose it literally."

"The scripture writers know neither one is right."

It was in ninth grade that Jarvis, pastor of the Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church, decided the Resurrection was nonsense "because of science." But in seminary, "there came a point where I had to claim Jesus was more than just a good person like, say, Martin Luther King."

Jarvis reasoned that if Jesus were dead and buried, "we're just following a historical figure - and this is where, for me, the Resurrection came in. For him to enter our lives, to be able to surprise us, I had to claim that he's alive."

She added, "It could all be made up. But I'll bet my life" that it is not.

Seminary training is a time when many aspiring clergy weigh the biblical account of the Resurrection against the known laws of physics, the Rev. Nelson Rivera said.

A theology professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Rivera encourages seminarians to view the Resurrection as "more than a literal vs. metaphorical understanding." Some modern theologians conceive of it as a "prolepsis," he said, "an event outside history as we know it."

"We're not talking about the resuscitation of a body. We are talking about the transformation of reality into a new creation," Rivera said. "It's hard to talk about it scientifically, because we don't know what it is."

The Rev. Kermit Newkirk, senior pastor of Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church in Logan, has never seen a need to reconcile Easter with Einstein.

"The Bible is clear," he said, "that for God, nothing is impossible."

When congregants raise questions in Bible study about the Easter story, "I tell them I believe in the totality of the physical resurrection - the body, soul, and spirit of Jesus," he said. "It's the foundation of my faith."

Depending on their denominations, many Protestants feel free to navigate their own paths of understanding.

Roman Catholics across the board are expected to accept church teachings on all theological mysteries, said the Rev. Michael Magee, professor of systematic theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.

"The Catholic Church does believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus - that he rose from the dead in the body born of Mary," he said. "But it's not in the same state as in life. It's his true body but a transformed body, freed from the limitations of time and space."

Because the self-reflective consciousness of human beings "can't be explained in purely biological terms," reason and Christian dogma both point to "a mind, a spiritual thing, responsible for the thoughts in the brain," he said. "So when the body dies, it does not kill the soul. And if God is the creator of both, he can raise them up together again."

The Rev. Dan Bodine, pastor of Community of Love Lutheran Church in Oxford, Chester County, is not searching hard for explanations.

"Every spring, there's that explosion of life that can't be totally explained," he said, and yet people rejoice in it.

Likewise, he does not know how the Resurrection happened, "so I just say, 'I don't know,' " Bodine said.

" 'I don't know' is not the same as doubt. It just means I don't have the answer."

Contact David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or

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