The Bible as Metaphor; Metaphor as Truth?: The Metaphorical Resurrection?

This post belongs to a series examining Marcus Borg’s historical-metaphorical reading of Scripture. Here we examine the potential for dialogue when there is substantial disagreement. I hold that the resurrection was physically tangible, whereas Borg argues that physicality is irrelevant in regard to the resurrection. You can read my brief intro to historical-metaphorical reading here. I have also written about how Borg’s concentration on meaning can lead to fruitful dialogue concerning the creation stories in Genesis here. Pertinent to this post on disagreement, I also have written a prologue to this series on why we should read those with whom we disagree. In the next post, I will address some final points on dialogue among disagreement.

Was Jesus’s resurrection symbolic? I would argue yes. Jesus’s resurrection stands as a symbol of a number of truths concerning the Christian life, the chief of which is that salvation is a passing from death into life. In this way, the resurrection can certainly be interpreted metaphorically. Did the resurrection actually happen in space and time? If it did not actually, literally, and physically happen, can we legitimately claim any truth for the metaphorical meanings we attach to it? This is the key question I have for Marcus Borg’s historical-metaphorical interpretation of the Easter event. Borg argues that whether the tomb was empty or not is irrelevant to the true meaning of the resurrection. I actually agree with Borg wholeheartedly on what the resurrection means for believers today. Contra to Borg’s position, my reading of the gospels and Paul suggests that we cannot claim any of these meanings firmly if Jesus has not indeed been risen from the dead physically. However, because Borg insists that Jesus’s resurrection is real — if not necessarily physical — we have much more in common than it would first seem. Dialogue is still possible.

Borg outlines a number of meanings for the resurrection in the Christian life. The two primary meanings of the resurrection is that Jesus lives and Jesus is Lord.[1] Borg further elaborates on five further meanings of the completed cross/resurrection event. Those meanings are rejection/vindication,[2] defeat of the powers,[3] revelation of the way,[4] revelation of the love of God, and a sacrifice for sin.[5]

I agree with all of the above. Borg argues that these meanings are true even when the physical/non-physical nature of the resurrection is irrelevant. Borg explains, “Whether Easter involved something remarkable happening to the physical body of Jesus is irrelevant. My argument 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.”[6]

It would perhaps be helpful to outline the three primary reasons that Borg argues that a physical resurrection is irrelevant.[7] The first that there is a significant distinction between resuscitation and resurrection. “Resuscitation is resumption of previous existence.”[8] Lazarus was resuscitated. He lived to die another day, but he still dies eventually. Resurrection is different because it is the entering into a new kind of existence. Resurrection in the context of Jesus means that death is no longer a reality for the resurrected. Borg argues that resuscitation has to happen to a physical corpse, but resurrection does not need a physical corpse. Logically, this is true, but the resurrection stories in the gospels imply some sort of physical tangibility. This point comes up again in Borg’s third point; I will address it fully there.

Borg’s second point is that the early Church’s first known discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 does not depend on a physical resurrection. Here I disagree with his interpretation of the passage. Borg notes that Paul does not mention an empty tomb. However, if Paul is talking about a physical resurrection, then it implies an empty tomb. The question is whether Paul saw the resurrection as physical. When I started writing this, I thought I was on surer footing in claiming 1 Corinthians 15 portrays the resurrection as physical. I will concede to Borg that the case is not airtight. It might come down to whether Paul was more Jew than Greek. I side with those who privilege Paul’s Jewishness. The dichotomy between physical and spiritual comes more from Greek thought than Hebrew. When Paul speaks of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, I believe he means a transition to a state where the physical loses the limitations imposed by its corruptible nature. I hold that the “spiritual” body that Paul refers to the regarding our resurrection is a physical body animated by the Holy Spirit rather than our sinful nature. It is a physicality that is drastically different from what we experience, but it is still physically tangible. This belief is also wrapped up in the theological commitments I have made and those will be discussed below.

Borg’s third point detailing the irrelevance of the physical resurrection is that resurrection stories presented in the gospels are not portraying events that could be videotaped. To make the point Borg uses the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Borg argues that the story bears all the marks of a metaphorical narrative rather than a literal one. The men do not recognize Jesus until he broke the bread and then he disappeared. Borg argues that a video camera would not have captured the men talking to Jesus. I am not so sure. Jesus is the one who picks up and broke the bread. Would a camera record the bread floating in the air? I think the story highlights that Jesus is physical in a distinctly different way than our own experience. Other Gospel stories do highlight his physicality. In the story following the Emmaus episode, Jesus appears suddenly to his disciples. He tells them to touch him and see that he is physical. He also eats a fish. Borg may discount the historical reliability of the Gospel of John, but the account of doubting Thomas in John 20 implies that the resurrected Jesus could have been videotaped. I hold that the early Church believed that Jesus’s resurrection was physical in the sense that his body was physically tangible — able to be seen, heard, touched, etc.

It is important to note that Borg is not arguing that the earliest disciples fabricated the stories of Jesus or suffered hallucinations. He holds that they encountered the living Jesus after his death. Permit another longer quote so that Borg can express himself in his own words.

“Thus I see the post-Easter Jesus as an experiential reality. I take the phenomenology of Christian religious experience very seriously. Christians throughout the centuries have continued to experience Jesus as a living spiritual reality, a figure of the present, not simply a memory from the past. Those experiences (then and now) have taken a variety of forms. They include dramatic forms such as visions and mystical experiences, and less dramatic forms such as a sense of the presence of Jesus — whether in prayer, worship, or the eucharist, in other people, or in the dailiness of our lives. The truth of Easter is grounded in these experiences, not in what happened (or didn’t happen) on a particular Sunday almost two thousand years ago.”[9]

For Borg, the resurrection is absolutely an experienced reality, just possibly not a physically tangible reality. It is important to stress that Borg is not simply capitulating to Enlightenment ideas on this issue — although I do think he is unduly influenced by them. We hold a significant amount in common; however, the insistence on physical resurrection introduces a gulf that is tenuous to bridge.

Because Borg insists on the reality of Jesus’s resurrection in some sense, then he does have some claim to the meanings of the resurrection that he outlines. However, I think he missed one extremely important meaning. The resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of God’s re-creation of the entire created order. It is the inauguration of a new age. Here I am following N.T. Wright in his chapter in The Meaning of Jesus concerning the resurrection. Wright argues,

“The personal hope for resurrection is located within the larger hope for the renewal of all creation, for God’s new heavens and new earth. Take away the bodily resurrection, however, and what are you left with? The development of private spirituality, leading to a disembodied life after death: the denial of the goodness of creation, your own body included. If Jesus’ resurrection involved the abandoning of his body, it would make exactly the wrong metaphorical point.”[10]

To reiterate a point, I agree with Borg that Jesus’s body was not simply physically resuscitated. He was resurrected into a new reality that experiences physicality free of the limitations that we currently experience. That physical part is important. At other points of his work, Borg has argued for the goodness of God’s physical creation in Genesis. God created physical things and declared them good. Did Jesus dismiss the physical creation in a spiritual resurrection?  I do not think that at the culmination of the universe, God is going to abolish the physical in favor of a entirely spiritual existence. The new re-creation will be both physical and spiritual. The physical resurrection is the foundation for our future hope in those new heavens and new earth.

Any interpretation of the resurrection that does not include physicality potentially denigrates physicality. What Jesus assumes he glorifies in his resurrection. He took on a physical body; therefore, he glorified physicality upon being raised physically.  Borg strongly argues that Christianity is about both personal transformation and the transformation of society — making a more just and prosperous society. That just society exists in a physical space. Injustice often involves physicality. If Jesus was not raised physically, then what does that say about our own physical bodies and physical world? It suggests that they are not ultimately important. They will be superseded. The implication could then be made that we can abuse our bodies and environment. The door is not open to this possibility if Jesus was raised physically.

Risking the denigration of the physical and the foundation of hope that a physical resurrection provides are the central points of friction between Borg and myself. When I started writing this, I believed that Borg’s feelings of irrelevance over the physical resurrection would clog up any opportunities for fruitful dialogue. However, that is not really the case. Because Borg does insist on the resurrection being a reality (just not a physical one), we can have a very meaningful conversation about what the resurrection means to us in the present. For both of us, those present meanings are extremely important. But we would also have to talk about the resurrection’s meaning for the physical and the future. Here is where we would diverge. I do not feel like Borg’s interpretation protects the physical. In doing so, it compromises the foundation of hope that Christians have for the future.

We have our differences, but we share a lot in common. Borg does not believe that the resurrection was a fabrication of the original disciples to preserve power in the community. It was not a delusion or hallucination. It is a reality experienced both then and now. Borg’s interpretation runs into potential problems with physicality, but I am willing to grant that it is a Christian interpretation because he insists on the reality of the resurrection. I can join him on the pew and proclaim, “Jesus lives; Jesus is Lord!”


[1] This summary is taken from Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1999), 135-142.

[2] As in a rejection of domination systems both political and religious and a vindication of the message of Jesus.

[3] The cross and resurrection are a defeat of the powers of sin and death.

[4] The way of Jesus (salvation) is a transition from death into life.

[5] Borg is not necessarily endorsing a conservative version of penal substitution here. He is saying that the cross/resurrection means that

[6] Borg and Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 131.

[7] This summary is taken from Borg and Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 131-135.

[8] Ibid., 131.

[9] Ibid., 135.

[10] Ibid., 126.


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