Resurrection: Fact vs. Meaning

I used to be quite consumed by the question of the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. I read books, scoured websites, and listened to lectures from Christian apologists who assured me that the resurrection was an indisputable fact I could believe in with full confidence. This was helpful because I knew I had to believe in the resurrection to qualify for the rights and privileges of being a Christian.

Except, well, let’s just say that getting serious about scholarship and history doesn’t make it any easier to believe in the resurrection. One learns that the sciences don’t have much to say about miracles, except that they just don’t have very much to say about miracles. The selective “science” offered by Christian apologetics may be well-intended, but it does believers no favors by pretending to give them solid evidence for something that ultimately comes down to faith.

Today I’m far less concerned with proving the resurrection than I am with pondering it and feeling it. You can believe in something spectacular and impossible to your dying breath, never doubting or asking questions, but what’s the point if it doesn’t mean anything relevant or good?

So I leave the question of history and fact aside, except to say this: The best historical analysis can do (and has done, I think) is to demonstrate with some certainty that the earliest Christians really believed that Jesus had been miraculously raised from death. That’s as far as science can possibly go. To go any further and attempt to CSI the resurrection is to waste a lot of time and effort that could be redirected to more constructive questions, like “what does resurrection even mean?” The meaning of Easter as the climax of the Christian story has become far more important to me than a misguided attempt to prove it like a math problem.

Here are some brief thoughts and observations about the meaning of the resurrection that might be helpful to anyone trying to wrap their heads around it:

  • Resurrection should represent a vindication of everything Jesus taught.
    This makes good sense though it is rarely articulated. A prophet comes along and tells us what the world is like, what God is like, and how we should treat each other in light of these things. We tell him to shut up and he won’t so we kill him. If God brings that prophet back to life, the things he said will surely take on a new significance. If Jesus lives, so do his ideas! Strange then how many Christians actually devalue and diminish the teachings of Jesus precisely because of their strong focus on the resurrection.
  • Resurrection would confirm what Jesus said about the character of God.
    Furthermore, the resurrection of Jesus ought to confirm and privilege his vision of an endlessly forgiving and merciful God against any competing visions of God, even those found in scripture. 
  • Resurrection constitutes a peaceful revelation rather than a violent takeover.
    In the ancient world, by all accounts, a vindicated prophet with God on his or her side would surely be an unstoppable agent of revenge and retribution. Instead, we have a story about a prophet who comes back quietly to announce “Peace!” to his friends.
  • Resurrection would put a crack in the otherwise impenetrable strongholds of suffering and death.
    I don’t want to take this one too far. There are Christians who “claim” the power of the resurrection to ward off and deny the ongoing realities of human suffering and death. That is an unhelpful delusion. But the story of the resurrection invites us to think and hope beyond the grim inevitabilities of life as we know it, and to imagine a world that has been infiltrated by divine life and healing.
  • Resurrection makes every innocent victim the hero of their own story.
    Oh, this one is good. As suggested above, the resurrection story is about the surprising revelation of the true and peaceful character of God. In terms of anthropology and religion, this means that God looks at human violence, ritual, and scapegoating and sides with the victim rather than the perpetrator. This is the one-two punch of Good Friday and Easter: first our sinful tendency to deal with our problems by blaming and killing innocents is forever exposed by the cross, and then God vindicates the innocent one in full view of the world which hated them. The “founding myth” of all human society, the sacrificing of the innocent to purge evil, is overturned and undone.
  • Resurrection hints at a brighter future.
    For most Christians today, the major ramification of the resurrection is the promise of a glorious afterlife in heaven. As pervasive as this belief is, it is actually not an explicit aspect of the gospel resurrection stories. Jesus doesn’t come back selling tickets to heaven, he’s concerned instead with the proliferation of his teachings on earth. Elsewhere, for the apostle Paul, Easter is seen as a vindication of the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15), but even this is not about “going to heaven” in the way we think. Not all Jews believed in resurrection, but those who did saw a future for humankind here on earth, not in some far away spiritual realm. Christians would do well to embrace Easter as a beacon of hope for humanity rather some escapist fantasy. 

This list could be labeled “finding meaning in the resurrection” or even “why I believe in the resurrection.” Because I do believe it. Not with a closed-fisted certainty or a delusional superiority, but as someone who really hopes with all of my heart and mind that this is what the universe is really like.

I want to believe in this story. Not in the twisted version where a cruel God rewards a small remnant of humanity for believing in certain impossible things, but the story of heaven answering human cruelty with pardon and miraculous new life. The story where the violence of sin and religion is met with divine pardon and peace.

“Proving” the resurrection is a sticky proposition and a waste of time. This is a job for hope and imagination.


  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    I believe in the resurrection because of the impact it had on the shocked, frightened, and dispirited followers who had just seen their leader killed, all their hopes dashed, and their movement destroyed. The appearances of Jesus energized them and emboldened them beyond belief.

    Can I prove this? No. but I think it is very discernible from the texts.
    I like all your points on the meaning of the resurrection, but I think much of their power is based on the resurrection actually happening.

    • JoshWay

      I’m with you, Tim. I’m certainly not of the Marcus Borg “resurrection as a metaphor” camp. I just don’t think there’s anything magical about simply believing it as a fact. It must have meaning, and Christianity has tended to assume or ignore meaning while fighting over fact.

    • http://joshway.com/ Josh Way

      I’m with you, Tim. I’m certainly not of the Marcus Borg “resurrection is a metaphor” camp. I just don’t think there’s anything magical about simply believing it as a fact. It must have meaning, and Christianity has tended to assume or ignore meaning while fighting over fact.