What’s a progressive to do about the resurrection? For years, the resurrection of Jesus has been a personal as well as theological and spiritual issue for me. Over the years, my recently-deceased brother regularly asked me, “Can I be a Christian if I don’t believe in the resurrection?” This was a tough question for my brother Bill, who was raised, like me, in a conservative congregation where salvation was related to orthodoxy, a clear set of beliefs defining the boundaries of faithful and unfaithful, saved and unsaved. If you didn’t believe in doctrines like the resurrection, literally a bodily resurrection, you would forfeit that same resurrection in the afterlife.
Now, many of us struggle with the resurrection of Jesus. We proclaim, “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!” on Easter morning, but have difficulty preaching or believing in a literal physical flesh and bones resurrection. Many of us also struggle with inadequate progressive explanations, such as John Dominic Crossan’s denial of the first century Christian resurrection experience. Truly, a metaphor can’t save us, nor can a parable, unless it is grounded in some sort of lived experience.
I believe that resurrection happened and still happens, especially when we need it most. I trust the experiences and accounts of Jesus’ first disciples, both women and men. I affirm Paul’s mystical experience on the road to Damascus. You don’t risk your life for a falsehood or a made up story. Something life-transforming happened, something that transformed Jesus’ first followers – from fearful hiding to courageous proclamation, from denial to affirmation, from scarcity thinking to abundant life. This something can’t be pinned down, but it can transform us.
I must admit that resurrection, then and now, remains a mystery – it can’t be defined in terms of literal flesh and bones or explained away as metaphor; nor is it helpful to speak of the pre-resurrection and post-resurrection Jesus. Jesus is a whole person reality, resurrection as rebirth and healing power characterized his teaching, healing, and hospitality. Resurrection on Easter morning was a continuation and affirmation of Jesus’ ministry, a divine “yes” that was larger than life and larger than flesh and bones. Neither literalistic denial nor absolutist creeds can encompass this reality.
I see resurrection as holistic in nature, reflecting the whole-person nature of Shalom revealed in Jesus’ healing, teaching, and hospitality. Resurrection involved more than just a body; it involves spiritual, physical, relational, and political wholeness. The birth of the Christian movement emerged from experiences of this wholeness, first on Easter and then in the continuing healing and transforming power of Jesus within the Christian community and the larger world.
Sometimes, we progressives have been too modest in our beliefs. We have not expected enough of God or of ourselves. Despite the eclipse of modern rationalism and its denial of mysticism and miracle, we have often still limited the nature of reality to our understanding of “natural” causes. If recent findings in cosmology, biology, and physics reveal anything, it is that the world is more remarkable than we imagine. We live in a world of miracle and wonder, not necessarily “supernatural” miracles, but naturalistic revelations of power and presence more than we have previously imagined. In a world of possible parallel universes, we have to think big when we ponder the human adventure. Complementary medicine has shown us that we need to re-imagine the body in terms of energy and spirit in which spirit is embodied and body inspired. A living, energetic, relational “nature” is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts, filled with realities that provoke “radical amazement?”
Could it be that the resurrection body was an energetic body, not a spirit, not literal flesh and bones, but a highly-charged center of experience encompassing the whole of Jesus’ life, and able to transcend the everyday laws of space and time. This is not a supernatural anomaly but revelatory of the deepest energies of nature, the energies of God moving through us and all things.
So, what should I have said to my brother? My words, then and now, were those of hope, and I hope my brother believed them – “you don’t have to believe in a literal revelation to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus’ revelation defies any category of literalism, orthodoxy, or reductionism. Jesus is alive whenever we choose life, whenever we launch out in the deep, whenever we believe more rather than less.” But, more than that, resurrection happens even when we can’t believe or turn away from God. God is faithful, God’s mercies are new every morning, for “believer” and “non-believer” alike.
A resurrected Jesus doesn’t punish, compete, or exclude. Resurrection as the embodiment of Shalom is for everyone, not just believers. I suspect resurrection is waiting especially for agnostics, doubters, and people who have been driven from faith as a result of the traumas and tragedies of life. Resurrection gives life, healing, and courage when we need it most, and always when we least expect it. Resurrection gives us hope that abundant life is our legacy now and forever more.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed will be released in May 2011. He can be reached for lectures, seminars, and retreats at firstname.lastname@example.org