Resurrection: “Metaphorical” or “Literal”

By Thomas Lambrecht –

In the midst of our denomination’s controversy over marriage and sexuality, it is easy to forget there are issues of even greater weight that divide The United Methodist Church. One of those is our understanding of the resurrection – both the resurrection of Jesus and our own.

Last spring, a United Methodist elder in Colorado, the Rev. Roger Wolsey, wrote a blog post denying many of the cardinal tenets of orthodox Christianity. Among his statements were these: “Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. … Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one (Paul and many of the early disciples encountered a spiritually risen Christ).”

In a recent Twitter exchange, the Rev. Dr. Mark Holland, the new executive director of Mainstream UMC (an organization formed to promote the One Church Plan), was asked, “Do you believe in the bodily resurrection?” His response was, “Yes. Metaphorically. 1 Cor. 15:44 ‘…it is raised a spiritual body.'” He went on to say, “The truth of the Gospel does not hinge on whether you and I read this literally or spiritually. Let’s just live into the mystery.”

Let me hasten to say I am not trying to cast aspersions on these two individuals, nor am I trying to malign the centrist movement of our church. Personally, I know a number of clergy who identify with Mainstream UMC who do believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in what I would call a literal way. I acknowledge that Twitter is not a good place to engage in theological discussion, and I concede the shortcomings of words like “literal,” “metaphorical,” and “physical.”

The fact remains, however, our competing visions of divine resurrection – often found in differences between those in the pews and those in the pulpits – are among the most cataclysmic fissures within our denomination. “It’s Friday,” the great African American preacher S.M. Lockridge (1913-2000) used to say, “but Sunday’s coming.” That is the crux of our faith – our blessed hope. It cuts right to the core issues of the faith.

Is Jesus Christ God? Is there such a thing as the Trinity? Did Jesus’ death bring about salvation for all who believe? It might shock grassroots church members to find out that there are many United Methodist clergy who would not give an orthodox response to the above questions and others.

Did Jesus rise from the grave on Easter Sunday with a body that was just as real and physical as the body that was laid in that grave on Good Friday (albeit transformed into what the biblical writers would call a “resurrection body”)? The resurrection is the lynchpin on which the whole Gospel depends.

Paul writes in I Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (vs. 14-15, 17). Peter made the resurrection the heart of his Pentecost Day sermon. “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him… God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:24, 32).

The resurrection is God’s assurance that Christ’s death really did atone for the sins of the world. Without the resurrection, we have no way of knowing whether God’s plan really worked! And the resurrection was the fulfillment of the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3-4) – a matter of “first importance.” To take away the physical resurrection is to gut the Gospel of its power. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know … his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand…” (Ephesians 1:18-9). If there was no power in Christ’s resurrection, there is no power available to us today as believers in Christ. And Christ’s resurrection served as the “firstfruits” guaranteeing our future resurrection (I Corinthians 15:20-23). If he did not physically rise, neither will we.

Was Jesus’ resurrection “metaphorical” or “literal?” Was his resurrection body “spiritual” or “physical?”

When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus (and in other appearances to Paul), Jesus probably did not have a physical body, since that body had already ascended into heaven. But Paul makes the claim that Jesus appeared to 500 of the disciples, including the Twelve, Peter, and James, before his ascension (I Corinthians 15:5-7). And Luke portrays Jesus’ resurrection body as a physical one. Jesus invited his disciples to “touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” In addition, “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence” (Luke 24:39, 42-43).

Our doctrinal standards guide us in how we are to understand these scriptures. “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day” (Articles of Religion, Article III). There is no question that the teaching of the church is that Jesus “literally” or “physically” rose from the dead with a real body that had flesh and bones. Yes, that body could appear and disappear at the drop of a hat and enter through locked doors, but it was a real body, just the same.

Friends, as we consider the future of our denomination, we must acknowledge that there are issues of even greater significance than marriage and sexuality that divide us. While not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally, surely Christ’s resurrection (and ours) is one of those that is. I am concerned about our church ratifying a theological framework that justifies turning physical reality into metaphor. We must not gut United Methodism’s historical understanding of the gospel of its power to transform our lives and our world.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He also served as a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.

Comments

  1. Ben Witherington says:

    Hi Tom: A point to support your argument, the Greek psuchikos soma is contrasted with pneumatikos soma, and just as the former phrase does not mean ‘a body made out of soul’ nor does the latter phrase mean a body made out of spirit=non-material stuff. Adjectives with an -ikos ending refer in this case to what empowers the body— so a psuchikos soma is a body enlivened by life breath (not soul in any case), and a pneumatikos soma means a body enlivened by God’s Spirit. In neither case is the body which is envisioned non-material. Indeed, to early Jews who believed in the resurrection the idea of a spiritual body would be as much of an oxymoron as ‘Microsoft Works’
    In short, the belief of Paul and Jesus was in resurrection, which meant something that involved a material body. While the body as we now have it is ‘flesh and blood’ and cannot inherit the kingdom, the future resurrection body which is immortal will be just as tangible as Jesus’ res. body was….

    Blessings

    • It is so encouraging to see a response on here from an acclaimed scholar (and servant of the church), Dr. Witherington. (Thank you, sir!)

      Sadly, his post (and its content/teaching) is a painful reminder of how seldom we are given this kind of careful exposition and application of scripture by the pastors and bishops of our church. I sometimes cringe at the awful preaching and teaching I hear (at Annual Conference and District Meetings) that come to conclusions that are the antithesis of what the scripture passage is saying!

      And many of our churches have been putting up with this kind of preaching and teaching for decades – so it’s no wonder that our people are theologically shallow and spiritually lost.

      This is one of the main reasons I look forward to an “amicable separation” solution to our turmoil – with the goal of helping our churches return once more to theologically rich preaching and teaching which leads to “spreading scriptural holiness across the land.”

  2. A Retired U.M. Pastor says:

    I want to thank you, Pastor Lambrecht, for widening the field of discussion beyond simply the issue of sexuality. The United Methodist Church has allowed the clergy to stray so far from our core beliefs, it is no wonder we suffer from a lack of understanding of the power of God to transform lives. It is beyond time for the laity to expect, and hear, from the pulpit on Easter, and throughout the year, of the bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We confessed this as we joined the UMC. We deserve nothing less than Bishops who will send pastors who can honestly preach what we have confessed to be our Faith. Let us have honesty – look me in the eyes honesty. If the early Church had muddled around with: “it could be this…it could be that…”, the transforming work of Jesus Christ would never have made it out of the first century that followed His Resurrection.

  3. Thanks for this post. I’ve been amazed and distressed over the last 20 years that the UMC seems to be okay with all sorts of unorthodox doctrinal heresies such as you discuss here. To me, these are the “major” issues we should and, arguably, need to divide over. If we get the “majors” right, the “minor” issues (like the non-sequitor question of whether or not the Bible calls same-sex behavior sin) tend to resolve themselves.

    I know that most laity would be shocked to know that perhaps the majority of our clergy do not believe in the physical resurrection. I know this because I have had many incredulous reactions when I’ve explained what progressive and liberal theologians believe (i.e., the beliefs of who control the UMC bureaucracy) and what is being taught in most of our seminaries. The most typical response I get is, “That can’t possibly be true. If you don’t believe in the physical resurrection or that Jesus really is the Son of God, then what’s the point of claiming to be a Christian?”

  4. Jef Stemple says:

    Thanks, Tom, for rightly pointing out that the coming schism in United Methodism is about far more than marriage and human sexuality. Several years ago a United Methodist district superintendent tried to show me the error of my way by trying to convince me that Jesus’ resurrection was a spiritual event and not a physical one. In a condescending, deprecating tone he told me that if anyone had a camera at the time of Jesus’ resurrection, it would have been a waste of time to take a picture of his resurrection body because it would not develop on film. Such a divide cannot be breached within Jesus’ church!

  5. Plus, was the experience of Thomas, below, metaphorical or literal? With faith and belief as the bedrocks of Christianity, I must believe what Thomas experienced, as Jesus pointed out, without being there or photo sorts of evidence to view 2,000 years later. Simply put, those who do not believe this are not Christians. Liberals are often offended by these “clobber verses”. When they refute, reject, or disagree with Scripture, they accuse those referencing such Scripture as being offensive. Unfortunately, orthodox folks are too often intimidated into silence by this tactic. Thank you, Tom, for always using Scripture as the basis of your commentary. Keep up the good work at Good News.

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+20%3A27&version=NIV

  6. It’s not just the physical resurrection of Jesus that progressives deny. They also deny the virgin birth and that the blood sacrifice of Jesus was the propitiation of our sins. Many deny that Jesus is God made flesh and the miracles that he did. Ever why the gospels are now dated til after 70 AD? It is because he accurately predicted the destruction of Jerusalem in 67 AD and if they cannot accept that, therefore the gospels are now dated later so that the writers could “create” this prophecy and deny that Jesus could see the future.
    This is a battle for the soul of Christianity and the UM church. If we surrender it to those who believe only in what they can see and prove or what is rational to them, then we allow God to be a creation of humans and not a divine supernatural power.

  7. The quiet watershed event was the 2003 decision of the North Central College of Bishops to dismiss complaints against Bishop Sprague of Northern Illinois for his public denials of the virgin birth, resurrection, atoning death and second coming of Christ, plus explicit rejection of Jesus as the only Savior and Lord. Aiming fire primarily at those impertinent enough to file the complaints over Sprague writings and public speaking (at Iliff), the college statement produced by Bishop Ough solemnly asserted that, when questioned, Sprague did believe in all these article of creed and faith, just not in a ‘Neo-literalist’ way. Centrist UM leadership presses the case that homosexuality issues are secondary and open to honest and wildly different interpretations, unlike primary articles of faith where clear historical consensus on interpretation must hold. Having set a precedent by which the deity of Christ, salvation by the cross and the resurrection are debatable (“On the third day he rose from the dead which, being interpreted, is that on the third day he was not raised from the dead)…that is where the much deeper collision will come.

  8. David Livingston says:

    Tom,
    I trust that Steve Beard reported back to you on his email exchange with Rev. Holland and that Mark shared with him that the Twitter exchange didn’t adequately express his views. It’s unfortunate that you chose to take him out of context. I don’t think that further the conversation.

    • Thank you for your comment, David. Yes, we did verify with Mark Holland that he did author the tweets in question. And I did acknowledge in the commentary that Twitter is not the optimal place to have a theological discussion. My purpose was not to criticize Mark (as I mentioned in the article), but to demonstrate that we have a diversity of theological views apart from issues related to LGBTQ persons. Those other theological issues are not on display much in a public way, but they underlie the division that exists within our denomination. I was simply trying to illustrate that our division is about more than sexuality and marriage, but encompasses deeper core theological issues, as well. Further, I don’t believe I took Mark’s comments out of context. I tried to be faithful to his meaning.
      Tom Lambrecht

      • David Livingston says:

        Just to be clear, then, you intentionally took what you and Mark both understand is a poor medium for communicating deep theology and used it to demonstrate differences in theology. As I think the other comments here indicate that’s a very effective way to get your base riled up. It’s not nearly as effective in communicating truth or fostering conversation.

  9. It seems pastors and scholars want to discover something new in order to make a name for themselves. It seems like periodically an author and publisher issue a new version of the bible as well. It’s difficult to profit off of the 400 year old KJV since it is public domain. Likewise it’s difficult for a scholar or pastor to teach the same thing that John Wesley and so many other Methodists have taught for centuries. Is the first job of the Methodist to lead people to salvation from sin? If other goals are accomplished that are often more tangible but fall short of salvation then the Methodist has failed in the most important one. To feed and clothe the poor is a great cause, but if these same people are never saved spiritually then the worldly ways and means they receive while good are not achieving the most permanent and most precious gift which is full reconciliation to God by the grace and atonement of Jesus. To change the message for ones own profit, glory or professional recognition instead of bringing every soul to a fulfilling relationship with God and a life of Methodism or Holiness short changes the lost and in fact leads the lost astray. It also leads the leaders astray. The devil is very tricky and if the clergy can be led astray leading the laypersons astray as well then that is a very leveraged way for the enemy to achieve the goal of people becoming separated from God. In the Garden the serpent first convinced Eve to break the commandment, then she convinced Adam to. There is scale in using one human to lead another one astray. In that case two humans separated themselves from God but only one had to be sold on the idea from the serpent. Imagine a leader who could sell a whole congregation to go astray. All that must happen is for a leader to become convinced usually through the sin of pride that their new understanding is correct while previous understanding is incorrect. Eves new understanding about the fruit was correct according to her and Adams understanding of the fruit given to him previously was incorrect according to her. Imagine if Eve believed in Adams relayed commandment to her. Imagine if Adam had trusted God instead of Eves “new and improved” understanding. Perhaps we ought to just trust that the word of God is good and reliable and use it like Jesus did to avoid the devils temptation. Do we get so hungry that we are willing to trade our birthright for stew, do we get so hungry we are willing Trade the word of God for bread alone?

  10. Robert A Combes says:

    having read this article and subsequent comments I was reminded of C S Lewis’s 23rd Screwtape letter to Wormwood, remember the devil was present at the last Passover meal w/ Jesus : John 13 26-27 (1611)
    Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread after I have dipped it.” Then He dipped the piece of bread and gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. And when Judas had taken the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.

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