Why the Question of the "Reality" of Jesus' Resurrection Misses the Point
Awhile back on his Beliefnet blog, Tony Jones posted a short essay called: “Why it Matters that Jesus REALLY Rose”. Contrasting his self to Marcus Borg who denies the reality of Jesus’ physical, historic resurrection, Jones affirms his “belief in the actual, physical, historic resurrection of Jesus [bold in the original].” Thus, in an important sense, Jones is positioning his argument neatly within the liberal-conservative debate. It is a debate that hinges on the rather arbitrary idea that some words have literal meanings that point to real things and some words have metaphorical meanings that are more ambiguous and don’t correspond to real things. I wonder: which words are which? And how does one determine the difference between the two kinds of words—literal and metaphorical?
Tony goes on to explain his position regarding the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus like this:
Although Jones doesn’t define what he means by “real,” a lot hinges on this notion. It’s commonsense to know what “real” is, some might say. But I’m not so sure about that. Or at least, I’m not one to rely on some supposed special power that people call “commonsense” to get me through the day; I prefer to reflect on tradition rather than just accept it whole turkey. And accepting some notion, like “real,” on the grounds that it is “commonsense” is just such a tradition I wish to rethink.
“Real” has a history. Did you know that? I poked around in the Oxford English Dictionary and found out that the word real was invented during the 1400s. The word “objective” was invented later that same century. So in this sense, it is anachronistic for Jones to describe Jesus’ resurrection as “real.” But even more important, I think, is this question: Why does Jones’ faith in Jesus’ resurrection depend so much on a word invented in the 15th century? Should it be?
Whether we describe Jesus’ resurrection in terms of “real” or not, I’m willing to bet, makes little difference in regards to the transcendent God of Israel. At the same time, as I alluded to earlier, Jones’ interpretational alignment with theological conservatism on this matter does indeed make a difference. I would prefer to see Jones extricate himself from this conservative-liberal debate about the supposed realness or metaphoricalness of the resurrection story. Why? Because it misses the point.
What is the point? Following other more consistent theological thinkers like James K. A. Smith offers an alternative response (a third way) to the conservative-liberal debate. As Smith puts it: “Even if we are confronted with the physical and historical evidence of the resurrection—even if we witnessed the resurrection firsthand—what exactly this mean would require interpretation. Only by interpreting the resurrection of Jesus does one see that it confirms that he is the Son of God (Rom. 1:4)” (Smith, 49). In other words, in contrast to Jones’ argument, the resurrection is not self-evidently real. Not everyone that I or Jones or others encounter immediately accepts the rationality of the gospel, as the New Atheists make amply clear. To be able to see, to interpret well, are matters of “grace gifts that attend redemption and regeneration (Rom. 1:18-31; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:15; Eph. 4:17-18)” (Smith, 49).
So, it is not a matter of literal or metaphorical, conservative or liberal, real or fake—rather, it is ultimately a matter of interpretation. We “can properly confess that we know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, but such knowledge rests on the gift of (particular, special) revelation, is not universally objective or demonstrable, and remains a matter of interpretation and perspective (with a significant appreciation for the role of the Spirit’s regeneration and illumination as a condition for knowledge). We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity” (Smith, 121).