As always, Easter is an opportunity to engage with the meaning and credibility of the church’s claims about the resurrection. We are used to highly disputed interpretations of the resurrection narratives. Appeals are often made to the distinction between ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’. I have often wondered why this distinction, which illuminates so little, carries so much currency in the UCA and other mainline denominations.
Certainly, the distinction will be helpful to those anxious about fundamentalism. I suggest another reason for its deep resonance. It is a by-product of a view of the relationship between language and reality embedded in the intellectual currents of the 1960s. This, of course, was a pivotal period for the UCA’s demographic and has deeply shaped the UCA’s culture. A rhetoric was fostered of something being only a metaphor. The idea grew that this was the appropriate category for theological language: it’s only metaphorical and therefore at least once remove from the truth.
Contemporary reflection on language and truth offers quite different options. For starters, language does not divide neatly between literal and metaphorical. Even if it did, the distinction between literal and metaphorical language is not between more and less certain ways of telling the truth. They are simply two ways – among many others – of using language to depict reality, each with its own possibilities and limitations.
Metaphors are a particular way of telling the truth, not of avoiding it. The fact that biblical and theological language happily employs metaphor, analogy, parable, and narrative should never be used as a reason for Christians to hesitate to make truth claims. Conversely, the literalness of literal language does not guarantee its truthfulness. After all, it is possible to use language literally, but in order to tell lies.
What then of the resurrection narratives? If the binary between literal and metaphorical breaks down anywhere, it is there. They are a mixture of history, imagination, speculation, literary artistry, and doctrine. The truth they tell cannot be isolated by distilling the supposedly more reliable element. It lies in the narratives themselves.
So, what is being affirmed in the claim that Jesus was raised? Uniting the multiplicity of their meanings is the conviction that Jesus had been vindicated by God. This meaning is articulated across the New Testament. At Pentecost, for instance, Peter highlights the resurrection as God’s reversal of the human rejection of Jesus: “this man…you crucified and killed…. But God raised him up.” (Acts 2: 23-24)
Many dismiss early resurrection belief as wish fulfilment or as a ‘metaphor’ for the disciples’ ‘spiritual’ experience. The arguments and counter-arguments are well-trodden. The modern Western preoccupation with the alleged credulity of belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection has obscured two other serious challenges to Christianity’s credibility if Jesus was not raised and therefore vindicated.
First, a question is placed over Jesus’ life. At the time of his death Jesus had changed nothing. The temple was still in place. The Romans still ruled. The poor were still poor. He had strikingly failed to foster a resilient faith amongst his disciples. When he set out for Jerusalem he was not pursuing a deeper experience of the ‘Sacred’; nor was he anxiously wondering whether the ‘Divine’ or ‘G*D’ ‘existed’. He proceeded with a deeply rooted trust in the God of Israel whom he addressed as ‘Father’, and from whom he hoped for vindication. If he was not vindicated, then it is not just, as Paul says, our faith which is in vain, but also that Jesus’ life was in vain. His teaching was just another messianic stab in the dark. His healings were those of just another faith-healer but not the kingdom breaking in. The God whose overturning of the world’s injustices he had confidently predicted was silent.
Secondly, even if we accept the resurrection as the vindication of Jesus, does there not remain a pressing question about the credibility of Jesus’ God? The problem is that the resurrection is all God did. In the face of the kind of hope that Jesus placed in God, the resurrection is actually a fairly modest act. Did Jesus not point to a reign of God involving something more comprehensive than his own resurrection? Did he not point to a new age and an overturning of the world’s disorder?
Convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, this tension was not lost on the first Christians: they spoke of the first fruits of a salvation awaiting fulfilment. This often translates into an impatience for our own personal salvation. But should it not also produce an agitation and impatience for God’s promised reign so that the injustices and evils of history are overturned? New Testament scholar, Dale Allison, says: “God cannot be thought good in any authentic sense of that word if the world as it is, this desert in which so many briefly live, suffer, die and are forgotten, is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.”
We might wish that God had done more than raise Jesus. But nor should we diminish the resurrection by reducing it to either a metaphor of spiritual experience or the security of our place in heaven. It is the revelation of God’s justice. It is what allows Christians to say God is good. We can fully enter the hope it fosters. But if it is this hope in this God, then alongside the joy of Easter Day will be a deeply Christian agitation and impatience especially attuned to the cries of the neighbours, strangers and enemies with whom we share this disordered world. And hearing those cries, our lives, in both word and deed, will echo Paul, “Maranatha”: Come Lord Jesus.
Rev Dr Geoff Thompson
Co-ordinator of Studies: Systematic Theology, CTM
A longer version of this article is available on Geoff’s blog: http://xenizonta.blogspot.com.au