I have been following the recent give and take between progressive theologian, emergent blogger, author, Dr. Tony Jones and Jesus
Seminar New Testament scholar Dr. Marcus Borg. Jones, though progressive on most issues, maintains a belief in the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body. Borg, though affirming the presence of the risen Christ, evidenced even personally for him in mystical experiences, does not believe physical resurrections are possible, nor possible to believe in.
As I read their conversations, I thought of my own struggles with the question – both questions: Did Jesus rise from the dead physically? and Does it matter?
There are two problems for me that make the whole issue so difficult. First is how the New Testament itself describes Jesus’ resurrected body, and second, the scientific notion of physical vs. (vs. what? non-physical? particle vs. wave? matter vs. energy?) something else.
The Problem of the New Testament and Resurrected Bodies
The New Testament does not make the question easy nor settle
the issue. It could have just said “Jesus’ body rose from the grave” and left it at that, but the problem comes in the descriptions of that body after the resurrection. The gospels show a body that is somewhat like what we know as physical and somewhat not at all like physical bodies. First, location: where was the body on Easter? In Galilee (as Mark 16 reports, but doesn’t show, and as Matthew implies the disciples went to – but the timing isn’t specified)? On the road to Emmaus and yet also in the room where the disciples were hiding in Jerusalem? (Luke 24). At the tomb, where Mary Magdalene saw him (in John 20), or not at the tomb where Mary Magdalene didn’t find him (Mark 16).
And besides location, what kind of body was it? One that was not recognized – by either Mary Magdalene (she thought he was the gardener, even after words were exchanged – in John) or the couple on road to Emmaus who only realized him “in the breaking of the bread” just before he disappeared (Luke). He could be on that Emmaus road then (instantly? hard to know) back in Jerusalem where he appears (materializes?) in a locked room with the disciples. He has body-scars remaining from his ordeal that Thomas can see and is
invited to touch (did he then touch? or did he just believe because he had seen and been invited to touch?). He could eat fish after cooking it on the beach (in John). All of these very physical-ish appearances have continuity and discontinuity with what we understand bodies to be and to be able to do. In what sense, putting them all together, can a “physical” body do all of these things? And yet, how can a non-physical body cook, eat, bear scars or be touchable?
There is one more place in the New Testament which pushes this question even further down the rabbit hole. Paul is the one who argues most strenuously for a resurrected body. No body, no resurrection is what he argues in 1 Cor. 15. But right there, in the context of his argument, he brings up what is to him, his Ace in the hole: Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and introduces a huge conundrum. Jesus, he says, appeared first to Peter, then to James and the other disciples, and then was seen by more than 500, some of whom are still alive and available for cross-examination (so far so good; strong case for a physical body resurrection) and then he adds,
“ Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor. 15:8)
But how did the risen Jesus appear to Paul? He never claims that he saw Jesus as a physical body. He heard a voice from heaven, saw a blindingly bright light, got knocked off his horse and went temporarily blind – and that was Paul’s experience of the resurrected Jesus! That sounds powerful, but not physical-body-ish.
If that is not category-confusing enough, Paul goes one step further. He is actually able to discuss the difference between a “physical body” and a “spiritual body” (psuchikos soma and pneumatikos soma 1 Cor. 15:44). The whole debate about “physical” vs. “spiritual” body seems to come to grief right here in that line that requires that both be possible – exactly in the place where the resurrection of the body is being defended.
The Problem that Science is in a Mess
If the New Testament leaves us category-confused, can we simply appeal to science?
Raymond Tallis, retired Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and neuroscience researcher wrote in the Guardian (May 26, 2013) about the mess science is in. Here is an example (the brief article is brimming with these kinds of paragraphs):
“Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but
incomprehensible even to many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.”
Add to these conundrums, Tallis says, the inability of science to account either for consciousness or even present time, and you see how messy the mess is.
Two things are clear to me: first, the picture of the resurrected body of Jesus in the New Testament is quite complex, if not almost incoherent, if we are limited to discussing a binary either-or between physical and spiritual. Second, science is getting closer and closer to (if not already at the point of) eliminating entirely the meaningfulness of a matter vs. not-matter conception of the universe. Even particles, we hear, are more wave-like than we ever thought before. It’s almost as if particles disappear into mere relationships. This isn’t helping solve the riddle.
The question, “can such things happen?” that “modern, post-enlightenment” people used to feel smug about asking now seems to have been swept off the discussion table. But the other smugness of “the bible says” is also not possible to maintain.
So, that settles it. Right? Or not.