July 30, 2004
Ya gotta know the rules

The belief that the Resurrection was a "spiritual event" rather than a physical one seems to be remarkably common. According to The Barna Group, even some 30% of "born again" Christians hold the attitude.

I never really understood why a spiritual resurrection was easier to swallow than a physical one. I remember reading Bruce Bawer describe his "relief" when he discovered he didn't have to believe in the bodily resurrection to be an Episcopalian. (I know some Episcopalians who'd disagree, but let's not go there.) From my point of view, believing in a loving God is the big chasm to cross; once you've done that, what's the big problem with one guy rising from the dead?

Today Jennifer linked to a chapter by her controversial bishop explaining why he doesn't believe in the bodily resurrection, as well as his Adoptionist view of Jesus' divinity. Regarding the resurrection, here's the key graph:

I affirm resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus. Godís Essence cannot be killed, buried or kept from being active in creation and history. God is from everlasting to everlasting. But, resurrection, including that of Jesus, does not occur through bodily resuscitation. God does not work this way. The issue is not the absence of Godís power but Godís own ďselfĒ limiting role of revelation in history. God works within the boundaries God has established. And while I do not pretend to know the limits of these boundaries and realize that we all see but through a glass darkly, I am certain that the miracle of resurrection, pre-eminently that of Jesus, is not tied to bodily resuscitation. The linking of resurrection with bodily resuscitation is to make a literal religious proposition of a metaphorical, symbolic expression of Truth itself. This is the kind of idolatry from which I dissent.

One of the lines of fundamentalist argument that irritate me the most is, "God has to follow the rules!" This is usually applied to substitutional atonement; God established this system of blood sacrifice in the Old Testament, so the substitution was how he managed to pull off forgiveness without breaking his prescious rules. It can also apply to particular formulas for salvation, and of the afterlife.

Sprague, later in the chapter, objects to the substitutional atonement theory as being unworthy of a loving God. I tend to agree, but he doesn't seem to realize the way he mirrors it. He has God binding himself to the rules with which we are more familiar: that dead men don't get up, that the sick and the lame are stuck that way until medicine cures them (if it ever does), that God doesn't walk around among us. Those rules may seem less alien than weird blood-sacrifice rituals, but when you think about it, they aren't any less cruel. That a loving God should adhere to them at all places and times, come hell or high water (literally!), requires an explanation as much as the fundamentalist version does.

This is part of the mystery of evil that no one can fully answer, of course. But it is peculiar that the bishop seems oblivious to the whole thing.

Posted by Camassia at July 30, 2004 07:28 PM | TrackBack

The irony is that Christians do not believe in a resuscitated Jesus. That's - what do you call it- a straw man argument. A resuscitated Jesus would be something like out of the TV show ER or the movie Flatliners. Resurrection involves transformation, glorification. I Cor. 15!

Posted by: Jennifer on July 30, 2004 09:15 PM

"I never really understood why a spiritual resurrection was easier to swallow than a physical one." I may be an idiot, but I've always thought it has something to do with the fact that a man who's been dead for three days rising from the dead to live again is harder to swallow than a dead man just staying dead like pretty much all dead men do. =)

Jen's mention of 1 Corinthians 15 is vital. Paul says that the belief in a literal resurrection is of "first importance." "Otherwise," he says, "you have believed in vain." In other words, you're free to believe whatever you want about the resurrection, but unless you believe it was literal, you don't believe the Gospel, at least the Gospel as Paul preached it. I'm not trying to be divisive here; I'm just trying to take the words of Scripture at face-value.

(Great catch on Sprague's falling into his own trap, by the way!)

Posted by: Daniel on July 31, 2004 11:09 PM

"We cannot say: God is thus and so, therefore he cannot do this or that. We must say: God does this, and in so doing reveals who he is. It is humanly impossible to judge the Revelation. All we can do is recognize it as a fact, and accept it, and judge the world and man from its standpoint. This then, is the basic fact of Christianity: God himself entered the world. But how? ...in the form of humility."
--Romano Guardini, "Power and Responsibility"

I guess that is what is meant by faith? It covers the Resurrection for me.

Posted by: Rob on August 1, 2004 07:27 AM

Daniel, I didn't mean I don't understand why it's hard to believe that a dead guy would get up. I mean I don't understand why it's easier to believe this would happen 'spiritually' instead of physically. If something actually happened, and it wasn't just group psychology, then God must have acted somehow upon the world, and whether that was a physical or mental action doesn't seem to me to make much difference. And if it was just group psychology, why does this say anything about God?

I think the point about transfiguration is a good one. Sprague mentions the fact that the apostles don't recognize Jesus as a reason to doubt the resurrection narratives, without seeming to see the point of the change. Overall, he doesn't seem to have much of a sense of eschatology, so I guess it's not surprising that he sees the physical resurrection as unnecessary.

Posted by: Camassia on August 1, 2004 09:42 AM

The good (thankfully retired) bishop's column adds support to Alan Bloom's claim that gnosticism is the true American religion, and it provides another case study for Philip Lee's Against the Protestant Gnostics. Alas, there are no new heresies, only new (re)incarnations of the most ancient controversies. Disdain for the body with into which we were created is one of the oldest misunderstandings that the Church confronted. Why anyone would want or eagerly anticipating disembodiment is beyond me. We need bodies to be present to one another. Of course, we don't need the bodies in the shapes and configurations we have now. (Look, Jesus moved through walls with his resurrected body, but that didn't make him a disembodied spirit. He ate fish, after all, and walked down a road.) It's simply sloppy (and likely lazy) thinking that calmly dismisses a key portion of the scripture and creeds around which the Church hovers.

A gratuituous aside: The irony is that many of the same people (and here I can't say whether the bishop is in the same boat) who are happy to leave the body behind when they enter the Kingdom of God (another metaphor, I suppose) are the same ones promoting normless, hedonistic, body-centered lives in this world.

Posted by: Dwight on August 5, 2004 06:05 AM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?