There’s been a recent debate on twitter over the question of whether one must believe in the physical resurrection in order to be a Christian.
The responses have ranged from the extreme
The teaching that Jesus is not risen bodily from the dead is from the spirit of Antichrist. It is damnable heresy, and merits excommunication from the visible church absent repentance, for which we pray. A church that teaches this heresy is a Synagogue of Satan. A pastor who preaches it is Antichrist.
To the more mild rebuke
Folks are debating whether the literal resurrection of Christ is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. Beloved, if you don’t believe in the physical resurrection of Christ you’re not a Christian, you’ve adopting another faith.
If you look on Twitter for literal resurrection, physical resurrection and bodily resurrection you can find and endless number of posts making a similar point. Along with the assertion that is this is indeed the consensus of Christian faith.
The nature of the actual physical bodily Resurrection is one of airtight ecumenical consensus…every creed, confessional document is unanimous. It’s basic Christianity, a true, undisputed boundary.
And if you feel there is a case to be made, either way, martial those arguments beyond simply “what the church teaches” or the “creeds teach.” And create a space for folks to consider such arguments instead of excommunicating one another. It reminds me of the poem
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !
From the poem ” Outwitted”
In that spirit, I’d like to offer 12 theses on why I believe in the resurrection but why I don’t believe it was a physical or a bodily resurrection.
1) The scientific method gives us coherent working account of the world. Theology and other forms of discourse can go beyond science and draw from more resources, but they should not contradict our knowledge of the world gained from the sciences.
2) Death involves the end of consciousness. There is nothing in our knowledge of biology that suggests this can be undone. As one conservative pastor wrote on Twitter “Resurrection is absolutely a violation of natural law & basic biology & science.”
3) A good doctrine illuminates the world we live in, sheds light on it. CS Lewis writes that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. “
4) But a physical resurrection requires us to ignore what we know of the world through the sciences. It doesn’t so much as illuminate the world as fly in the face of it. As a one time event, it is not a pattern subject to natural laws and ongoing confirmation and in fact require them to be overturned.
5) That does not mean there was no physical resurrection. But it would be outside the realm those ways in which we gain knowledge so it should not form the content of our theology, which is derived by what is knowable. It doubly should not be a requirement for admittance to the Christian community.
6) There is more to our world than can be known which is why theology should be humble and realize that it’s vocation is more limited than it has often been asserted.
7) If resurrection is to be a part of Christian doctrine, it should reflect on the world as it presents itself to us, through our best methods.
8) There are forms of resurrection that could reflect the world as we know it. Theophanies and visions as described by Paul in Galatians 1:12-17 and 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 have marked the human experience throughout time. The encounter with the Risen Christ fits that pattern.
9) Experiencing the presence of Christ, which the early church did, indicates how the dead are not forgotten but live on and continue to impact us. Their words continue to shape us, and there are occasions where it almost feels as if they are here now. Everyone has experienced this.
10) There are events and people that bring those past to mind. The story of the disciples meeting Christ in the breaking of bread together in Luke 24:30-32. The shared meal and the church itself, which is a living testimony to Christ, can continue to produce this experience today. We’re not so far removed from Jesus that we too can’t experience the risen Christ.
11) Ideals themselves outlast a person. They cannot be killed by empires, they cannot be killed by removing an offending person, they rise up again and again. Jesus spoke for those on the bottom of a society and as long as there are societies with some folks on top and some folks on the bottom, the ideals of Jesus will find expression again and again.
12) And then there is objective immortality, a life lived, can never be undone. A life, whether long or brief, shapes any future world and its possibilities, which God uses in the creation of the new to the degree that the past can be carried into the future.
13) The life of Jesus, God continues to draw from, in building a shared world. And God uses Martin Luther King’s life. And God uses anyone who had a glimpse of a new world and sought to build it.
14) If this sounds esoteric, think of every individual that has shaped you including those who have since passed. Then consider everyone who has shaped them and through them, shaped you and on and on. Because you are also impacting others.
I could give famous examples from Plato on wards, but let me instead mention Dr Gerry Finn whose work on the Montana Advisory Council in the 1970’s and with the Department of Family Services prior to that, impacted my adoptive father in his work as a social worker and child advocate and from there impacted my sense of vocation.
I mention her, because no one outside of a few family members know who she is. She won’t be immortalized in books and she passed away over 30 years ago but her impact lives on. Not only in my life through my dad but in the thousands of children, co workers, and other lives she touches, including the very shaping of the Montana constitution. Anything worth committing yourself to lives on beyond your time span.
15) I can’t vouch for subjective immortality. I assume when I’m dead, that is it, in terms of my personal experiences. But the objective immortality that I’m describing, where our impacts continue after us, infuses our temporal existence with the eternal and our lives eternally matter to God.
This was the fate of Jesus, the fate of you and me, and generations after us. Christian faith gives us language to speak of this fact, not to deny our mortality, but rather to dignify it and give us a hope in the future.
16) And that to me is the Good News. That from a Native American who walked these plains 10,000 years ago to anyone reading this article today to the billions who have lived and will live on this earth after us, they eternally matter, in whatever world there is to come and to God..
17) This can seem small to those who promise an afterlife. But I think such a description has the benefit of being the case, being demonstrable and addressing the issue of meaning, which I am convinced is a key fear that lurks over death. To address this, is not to deny our mortality but it is to rob it of its the sting and its power over us.
18) Resurrection in such an account describes an ongoing process that illuminates our experience of this world and gives a language to describe it. So resurrection for me, should be central to an account of Christian faith. Calling it spiritual makes it no less real.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings
I’ve included a picture of Dr Gerry Finn and my adoptive father, Clark Welch. I only met her as a kid but I could see the impact their relationship had on each other. And I remember the news articles and clippings she would send to Clark on the issues of the day, especially as they related to children and the discussions they would have.