The Problem with a Symbolic Resurrection

Matthew Mittelberg responds to the New York Times interview, “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘A Bizarre Claim’?”

Image: Georges Rouault, Plate 3. The Crucifixion, 1936. Aquatint, roulette, and drypoint over heliogravure. Collection of Robert and Sandra Bowden.

This past Easter Sunday I read the New York Times article Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’? I felt compelled to respond because, as well-meaning as Reverend Serene Jones (president of the liberal Union Theological Seminary) may have been, she seems to have written off most of the key teachings of Christianity.

In the course of the interview, Jones indicates that the Gospels can’t be trusted and the virgin birth is a mere mythical embellishment. She expresses the belief that God is not all-powerful or all-knowing, is impotent in the face of evil and suffering, and He doesn’t heal people. Her faith fails to include an afterlife, since there’s apparently no heaven and no hell. And she trivializes the doctrine of substitutionary atonement with this misguided dagger: “The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts.”

After reading all of this, I was left wondering if there was anything of “Christianity” left!

Finally, she caps all of this off with her most outlandish idea, especially on Easter — you don’t have to believe Jesus rose from the dead in order to be a Christian. She states, “Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”

Even Jones’ non-Christian interviewer, Nicholas Kristof, hints at the absurdity of claiming to be a Christian without believing Jesus actually rose from the dead. After all, the New Testament clearly defines the essential beliefs of a true Christian in Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (emphasis mine).

Undeterred, Jones claims “For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.”

Really? Then why, some 2,000 years earlier, did the Apostle Paul write, “…if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

For the Apostle Paul, for the early church, and for Christians today, the resurrection is the central, make-or-break event of the Christian faith. Jesus performed many miracles throughout his public ministry, but the final proof of his identity as the Son of God and the Savior of the world would be his resurrection from the dead. He made this declaration many times — for example, in Matthew 17:22-23 Jesus said, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.”

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then he was not a prophet of God. In fact, he wasn’t even a good teacher — because good teachers teach true things. And as someone who worships Jesus, I would be guilty of idolatry because I would be worshipping a mere man.

And if Jesus couldn’t fulfill his promise to come back from the grave, why should I trust him in the face of my own eventual demise? If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, the Christian faith is emptied of the hope that made it so compelling in the first place. All of Christianity falls apart.

If Jesus did rise from the dead, however, it proves he was more than just a man. It provides powerful evidence that Jesus really is who he claimed to be: the Son of God who has power over life and death. It means his promises can be trusted, and we can really believe him when he says he is able to forgive our sins and give us eternal life. As Jesus said in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying.”

Jesus and Paul both made it clear: True Christians believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead.

This is a miracle, yes, but nothing that’s too difficult for God. If He is the Creator who made the entire universe out of nothing, then it makes perfect sense that He could cause a virgin birth, a miraculous healing, or even a resurrection. In fact, if He can’t do such things, in what sense is He really “God”?

But what about Reverend Jones’ claim that Christianity would be a wobbly faith if it could be disproved? My first response is: “Yes! It could be disproved if its claims are false!” That’s a good thing, because it shows it’s an actual belief in real events of history. Take away those events, and there’s nothing of substance left.

Here we come to a critical difference between Reverend Jones’ beliefs and the beliefs of Christians throughout history. In making the central teachings of the Christian faith metaphorical, she makes God into a mere symbol — a placeholder for certain values and sensibilities she considers to be desirable.

No matter how much faith one places in a symbolic God, it doesn’t make that God — or his influence — real in any meaningful sense. A metaphorical Jesus can only metaphorically save someone. As author and pastor Tim Keller has said, “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you. Strong faith in a weak branch is fatally inferior to weak faith in a strong branch.”[1]

No matter how much faith one places in a symbolic God, it doesn’t make that God — or his influence — real in any meaningful sense. A metaphorical Jesus can only metaphorically save someone.

Jesus also made it clear that it really matters what we believe about him. In John 8:24 he said, “Unless you believe that I Am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins.” We can’t simply have a sense of admiration for Jesus if we are to call ourselves Christ-followers. We must believe and follow in the way he prescribed.

Secondly, although Jesus’ resurrection could be disproven, it never has been. Skeptics have been trying for the past two millennia and have yet to succeed. The objections Reverend Jones offers in her interview are paper-thin. For example, she argues that the Gospel accounts are “all over the place,” so we can’t trust their claims about Jesus rising. In actuality, the Gospels agree on all of the central facts regarding the resurrection, while they differ in their descriptions of minor details. This is precisely what historians would expect in independent eyewitness accounts! This indicates that the Gospels are not four coordinated attempts at promoting a fictional story, but genuine records of individual perspectives on a life-changing historical event.

In contrast to these objections, when we examine the work of careful historians in this area, we find a wealth of evidence pointing to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. For instance, most historians, including many skeptics will acknowledge that Jesus:

  • Performed acts that were interpreted by those around him as miracles
  • Died on the cross
  • Was buried in a well-marked tomb
  • Went missing from that tomb three days later
  • Was seen by individuals and groups of people in a variety of settings
  • Was reported to be alive in historical records written within the lifespan of the eyewitnesses[2]

To briefly examine one of these facts, historians believe the disciples were convinced of the resurrection of Jesus because they were willing to die for their claim to have seen the risen Savior. You might say, “Well, lots of religious zealots are willing to die for their beliefs.” That’s true, but this is different, because the disciples were in a unique position of knowing whether or not their claims were true. They had walked, talked, and eaten with the risen Jesus. They touched the wounds in his side. And they were so sure of what they had experienced they were willing to endure torture and death at the hands of those who persecuted them.

The disciples certainly didn’t have a symbolic faith in a metaphorical resurrection — and neither should we.

Again, the facts I listed, among many others, are agreed upon by the majority of historians, whether Christian, Jewish, atheist, or other. What possible hypotheses could explain all of them? Hallucination by the disciples? This doesn’t explain the empty tomb, and hallucinations can’t be shared in that way. Jesus surviving the crucifixion? This is medically untenable, and doesn’t explain the disciples’ experience of seeing a triumphant Savior. The disciples stealing Jesus’ body? They had neither the means nor the motivation — and they would not have been willing to die for such trumped-up beliefs. No, there’s simply no explanation that covers all of the facts — except the resurrection itself.

Thus, we have abundant reasons to hold firmly to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and, with it, the central teachings of the Christian faith. Christ is risen indeed!



[1] Tim Keller, The Reason For God, p. 245

[2] If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at these facts, I’d recommend the groundbreaking book The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel or The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona.

Ask Away Podcast

Easter and the Resurrection

Mar 28, 2018

Jesus’ resurrection can sound crazy to skeptics and many don’t take it seriously. Does it really matter if Jesus was raised from the dead or not? What evidence is there and why is the resurrection so important? In preparation for the Easter holiday on Sunday, Vince and Jo Vitale look at the compelling evidence for the resurrection and explain why it was an event that changed everything.

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