The Resurrection Is Not a Metaphor

imagesNot long ago, I had the chance to interact with a college sophomore, the son of a friend of mine. The conversation turned to religion, and I asked him what his experience at college so far had done to the Christian faith with which he had been raised. Nothing good, it seemed. He said that his thinking on religion had been changing, and that he now viewed Christianity as largely well-intentioned but a mixture of myth and metaphor. A source of comfort, no doubt, but not something worth really believing in.

Hearing that, I decided to take a direct approach. I told him that my study of Christianity had actually led me in the opposite direction. I count myself as a follower of Christ because I believe that the evidence supports Christianity’s historic truth claim that Jesus rose from the dead as was predicted.  He shook his head, smiling, saying that the resurrection was never intended to be literal; it was simply a metaphor, another of the many ancient myths involving deities that die and are resurrected. 

This type of comment is the perfect place for the Columbo tactic that Greg Koukl teaches at Stand to Reason. There’s no better question than “what do you mean by that,” followed by “how did you arrive at that conclusion.” It turned out he didn’t really have an answer; he said he was still working things out. So, he invited me to tell him why he was wrong. This is what I said (in brief):

First, when we speak of a “metaphor,” we’re referring to a symbol meant to convey a thought by way of comparison, but not meant to be taken literally.  As applied to Christian truth claims, the argument that I believed he was trying to make was that the early Christians did not intend to convey that Jesus actually rose from the dead in a resurrected physical body, but that he rose spiritually, or that the memory of his good teachings lived on in his followers.  But this view cannot be squared with the historical record.

For instance, we know Paul died in the Neronian persecution around 64 A.D., and his early letters are significantly earlier, probably the 40’s and early 50’s.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, he documents the early oral creedal doctrines that arose within a few years of Jesus’ death.  In other letters also, such as Romans, Paul asserts that the resurrection was an historical event –

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sinsin accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”

                                                                                                      1 Corinthians 15:3-11. 

Paul then goes on to say: “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hopein this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15:16-19.

Paul may be mistaken, of course, but it is plain that he is not speaking metaphorically.

Paul was not alone in these views. We know that many Christians went to their death proclaiming that they had witnessed Jesus in his resurrected body.  Paul’s experience, on the other hand, was not with Jesus in bodily form; yet, Paul (and the others) consistently taught that Jesus had bodily risen. While people are willing to die for things they mistakenly believe are true, they are not willing to die for something they know to be false.  Had they intended to preach a metaphor, these first Christians would not have gone to their deaths insisting that it was instead fact. It would have been an easy enough clarification to explain that they simply viewed Jesus as an inspirational spirit who, while not actually present to them, lived on it their memories. But that was not what they had experienced, and not what they meant when they spoke of him.

 Finally, the metaphor explanation cannot make sense of the question, “What were the disciples trying to communicate?”  If they said he rose bodily as a symbol of something else, what was that something? What was the thing that the resurrection was like, that they were trying to convey? That their leader was tortured to death and remained dead, but that his memory lived on?  That he had some good ideas on how best to live, but his prediction that he would rise from the dead did not come to pass? A dead leader who cannot fulfill his promises does not inspire fervent followers, but we know for a fact that Christ did.

In sum, I said, while the early follows of Jesus may have been wrong about what they claimed, there is no way to conclude that they were speaking symbolically.

He seemed interested, or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. In any case, we kept talking, and in my next post, I’ll cover the second part of his challenge.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. mcp says:

    What do you mean by a “resurrected body”? Paul claims in Corinthians that Jesus appeared to him in the same way that he appeared to Peter and the other disciples, and yet as you say “Paul’s experience… was not with Jesus in bodily form”. Assigning meaning to visions of Jesus after his death is not really all that far removed from treating resurrection as a metaphor.

    • Al says:

      I think the point is that the writers knew how to convey their meaning. In Corinthians, Paul says that Christ appeared to him “last of all.” He does not specify that the appearance was in the exact way that he appeared to the others. In Acts, Paul is described as seeing a light and hearing a voice, and being unable to see for three days upon arising. Perhaps Jesus was there in his resurrected body, or perhaps not. Paul is apparently not reluctant to state only what he experienced. The passage goes on to explain that Jesus then appears to Ananias in a vision, and instructs him to contact Paul. Again, the writer makes clear that Jesus in that appearance is not in bodily form. This isn’t a matter of “assigning meanings” to visions but to accepting the plain meaning of the writers. Again, they may have been wrong, but there is no legitimate basis for treating their comments as if they were metaphor.

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