The resurrection is not all in your head

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio. Art: Sanssouci Picture Gallery/Wikipedia
Published April 23, 2020

Every Easter, without fail, media outlets trot out someone—usually a scholar or a minister—who offers the secular world a more “believable” understanding of the resurrection of Christ. Usually this begins with a denial that something happened to Jesus’s body, because we modern people know that bodies don’t rise from the dead. Therefore, the logic goes, the resurrection of Christ must in actual fact describe something that happens to us, not something that happened to Jesus. Theology is transposed into psychology.

The Anglican Journal recently published such an article, an opinion piece by columnist and Lutheran minister Wayne Holst, right on the cusp of Easter. After writing the Journal’s editor about the piece, I was invited to offer a different perspective on the resurrection.

Joey Royal

If you haven’t read it, the Rev. Holst’s article is a representative example of a non-bodily reframing of the resurrection. One of the keywords in his piece is “confusion”; the earliest disciples were confused about the resurrection, and now Christians are equally if not more confused about it. The resurrection accounts are “myths,” Holst suggests, that give narrative shape to what is in fact a vague, shadowy, subjective experience that may or may not involve God acting supernaturally. (God’s role in all of this is rather vague.)

As a corrective to all this confusion, Holst proposes—as many have—that the resurrection is an “experiential truth.” What that means exactly he doesn’t spell out, but I presume, as I suggested above, that he believes “resurrection” happens in minds and not bodies. Why we and the earliest Christians should call this resurrection is not entirely clear. Why not call it an enlightenment or a shift in consciousness? Or else use the rich language of the Psalms to portray the ups and downs of religious experience. My point is simply that, given the options available, it seems odd that anyone should recount the implausible story of a man rising from the dead to describe “experiential truths.” Then again, Pastor Holst is continuing to “evolve” on this issue, as he says; perhaps I’ve misunderstood what he’s proposing, if in fact he is proposing anything at all. The bottom line seems to be that whatever resurrection means, it involves thoughts and feelings and collective consciousness—and not the risen Jesus bursting forth from the tomb.

Given the focus here on the impact this “experiential” view of the resurrection has on the lived experience of Christian people, it strikes me how little practical payoff it has. It all rests on the powerful experiences of Christians past and present, with (presumably) the exhortation to embrace (induce?) these kinds of experiences in one’s own life. But if there was no empty tomb, then what experiences are we talking about? A vague sense of optimism? Oprah has the market cornered on that. Expanded consciousness? Drugs and/or meditation can do that. Hope in future possibilities? Try positive thinking.

For all the talk of mystery and meaning, what a non-bodily resurrection offers is ultimately despair. It is a “gospel” emptied of good news, an exhortation to try hard so you too can have powerful, transformative experiences. Stripped bare of its extravagant rhetoric, it arrives at the same place as the so-called Prosperity Gospel. The latter says “have enough faith and God will make you rich”; the former says “have enough faith and God will make you feel good.” The difference is that one promises material comfort and the other psychological comfort. Both are religious philosophies developed by, and for, wealthy people who are searching for some way to transcend the ennui of their secular lives. Unfortunately, it’s all smoke and mirrors, destined to be discarded when disappointment inevitably arrives.

To all that I say, “No thanks.” If the dead aren’t raised, then our faith is in vain, and we may as well find another cause to which we can commit our lives. But if the dead are raised, and Jesus is the forerunner in resurrection life, then our hope is sturdy, because Jesus has defeated Satan and disarmed the powers of death and sin. That means that our bodily existence—with all the accompanying wreckage and failure and vulnerability and unrealized hopes—is caught up in, and finds ultimate meaning in, the reality of the empty tomb. Put simply, we don’t have to have powerful religious experiences, because we have new life, available now and to be completed on the Last Day.

Don’t buy the counterfeits. Christ is risen! And because of that we can rise too.

The Rt. Rev. Joey Royal is a suffragan bishop in the diocese of the Arctic. He oversees theological education for the diocese, including its theological college, the Arthur Turner Training School. He lives in Iqaluit with his wife Jennifer and son Benjamin.


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