Does it matter if Jesus Actually Arose from the Dead?
Sunday is Easter, the Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Christians gather the first day of every week for this same celebration, but tomorrow marks the anniversary of the event. Or does it? “Not so,” some Christian authors insist, “not the anniversary of the event, simply the commemoration of your personal experience of it—whatever ‘it’ means to you.”
In The Meaning of Jesus (Harper Collins, 2000), coauthor Marcus Borg claims that the essence of Easter is that “Jesus was experienced” (p. 129). Borg asks: “Does the truth of Easter depend upon the empty tomb and appearance stories being historically factual in this objective sense?” He answers: “I see the empty tomb and whatever happened to the corpse of Jesus to be ultimately irrelevant to the truth of Easter.” Rather, Borg sees the “appearance stories” as the result of “developing tradition” and as true only as “metaphorical narratives” (p. 130).
“My argument” he continues, “is not that we know the tomb was not empty or that nothing happened to his body, but simply that it doesn’t matter. The truth of Easter, as I see it, is not at stake in this issue” (p. 131). “The truth of Easter does not depend upon something having happened to Jesus’ corpse” (p. 132). According to Borg, the Easter narratives found in each of the four gospels are meant only to stress the importance of a Christian’s continuing experience of Jesus’ influence after his death.
How discordant these words sound against the harmonious assertions of the Bible. The Apostle Paul stressed to the church at Corinth that his apostolic message hinged on the bodily resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:1-2). Paul asserts that Jesus died (verse 3). The reality of his death was confirmed by the burial of his corpse in a tomb (verse 4). Paul then asserts that Jesus arose from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy (verse 4). The confirmation of his resurrection was his physical appearance to numerous followers, in a variety of groupings, and at various times and places (verses 5-7).
The structure of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 indicates that the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection confirm that event in the same way the burial of Jesus’ body confirms his death. If the resurrection narratives are to be taken metaphorically, 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 serve only to deceive the reader. But if words ever mean what an author intends them to mean, verses 5-7 renounce any metaphorical interpretation of the resurrection narratives.
Having defended the historical death and resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle Paul then labors to say that this history is anything but ancillary to the faith. Rather, Paul continues, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (verse 14). Far from claiming that the physical resurrection of Jesus is “ultimately irrelevant” and “doesn’t matter,” the Apostle says, “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” (verses 16-17). Paul could not be more clear: Without the bodily resurrection—without “something having happened to Jesus’ corpse”—there is no Christian faith and there is no forgiveness of sin.
To the contrary, Paul proclaims that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (verse 20). Jesus does not merely live in the hearts of his followers as we continue to experience his influence in some sort of enlightened spiritual reality. Rather, Jesus broke the chains of death so as to secure the final resurrection of his people (verses 35-56). This liberation is historical and corporate, not merely metaphorical and existential.
If Christ’s resurrection is merely metaphorical, as Borg claims, what possible importance could Paul assign to a “firstfruits” aspect of Jesus’ resurrection? Paul is not doodling with words here. He is saying that Jesus, as the first one to triumph over death in the flesh, thereby secured the bodily resurrection of those who unite with him by faith (cf. Romans 8:23; Colossians 1:18; 1 Thessalonians 4:14).
The Apostle is not composing a narrative for the entertainment of the Corinthian church. He writes a letter of earnest instruction—the contents of which are ill-fitted to a metaphorical reading of the resurrection narratives. The Apostolic witness, proclaimed authoritatively less than two months after Jesus’ death (Acts 2:14-41) and in fulfillment of centuries of prophecy, asserts that Jesus physically died to pay the penalty of sin and rose bodily from the dead to secure the salvation of those who turn from their sin and trust in his provision (Acts 2:22-24, 38-40).
This good news inspires the joyful celebration of Christ’s followers worldwide. Some are singing right now. As the planet spins, we will soon have our opportunity. In the end, the song will go on for all eternity.