What if we were to understand the resurrection and ascension not as the bodily translation of some individuals to another world — a mythology no longer credible to us — but as the promise of God to be permanently present, ‘bodily’ present to us, in all places and times of our world?
(Sallie McFague, ‘Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age’)
Just as my article Daring To Be a Heretical Follower of Christ proved once and for all to my detractors that I cannot possibly be called a Christian, this article too will provide much fodder for their gleeful condemnation of me. As the opening quote of this article hints, I do not believe in a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I do not believe he rose on the third day and ascended into heaven, somewhere above the clouds. As Sallie McFague says, that is a mythology that is no longer credible.
That is not to say that I do not believe in Christ’s resurrection. I thoroughly believe that Christ is not dead, but alive — that Christ is with us, even today. But I cannot fathom a resurrection that posits Jesus walking out of the tomb and later allowing the doubting disciple to caress his nail-scarred hands. It flies in the face of everything we know about the laws of nature and physics. It also flies in the face of Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 15:50 that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God! A flesh and blood Jesus would be included in that prohibition. A literal, bodily resurrection simply cannot happen.
So, what does resurrection mean? I agree with McFague. Resurrection is not about Jesus opening his eyes in the tomb, removing the Shroud of Turin, stretching out the kinks of crucifixion, frightening the women, and taking a stroll with the disciples. Resurrection means that God is with us — “permanently present… in all places and times” in our world.
Resurrection is the moment when we realize that God has fulfilled God’s promise to always be with us. Resurrection is the moment we realize that a life lived with God is a life made whole. Resurrection is the moment we realize that God has come to us, and remains with us, to give us life — life abundant.
The fully human Jesus
I have already revealed, in the aforementioned essay, that I do not believe Christ to be the bodily incarnation of God. I agree with Bishop John Shelby Spong who writes in his latest book A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born, that since God is not a being, God cannot be incarnated in any human form. God is not a father figure somewhere above the clouds coming down to rescue a “fallen” humanity in the form of a divine figure who is both human and God. No, God is the ground of our being — the ground we walk on, the air we breathe, the hand we touch, the trees we lean on in the forest, the stars in the sky, the clouds that whisk by. God is present with us, right now. God is resurrected in each moment when we are overcome by the inescapable beauty of the world and the people around us.
Don’t get me wrong. I wholeheartedly believe that Jesus was a unique human being, blessed with a level of God-consciousness that no one has possessed before or since. He was a complete human being, connected to God in a way that the rest of us — as imperfect beings who only half-express ourselves — can never be. I believe Jesus was arrested and tried for his teachings and most likely executed because the leaders of his day found his message of unconditional love and the idea that we all have a direct line to God within us — and not without us through the law — very dangerous!
We must remember that none of the crucifixion stories portrayed in the gospels are eyewitness accounts. Mark, arguably the first gospel to be written, was penned some 60 years after Jesus’ death. We must also remember that each gospel writer sought to portray Jesus in ways that fit the community to which they were writing. Mark’s Jesus is very secretive about his Messiahship, warning his disciples to keep it quiet, while John’s Jesus proclaimed quite clearly that he was “the way, the truth and the light.”
“The gospels are not photographs of events that took place in the life of Jesus,” Spong told me during a recent interview. “They are portraits painted by artists who have been under the power and influence of that Jesus. So, they are painting portrait of what humanity looks like when it’s fully alive and totally loving and having the courage to be all that life can be. To me that’s still a powerful portrait.”
It’s such a powerful portrait in fact it keeps Jesus alive, even today. It does not matter to me if Jesus ever left the tomb. It does not matter to me that Jesus’ body was likely buried in a common grave with others who were executed that day, as was common practice among the Romans. It’s not Jesus’ body that brings me to God — it is Jesus’ life — a life wholly lived, full of wasteful love given freely to even the least of these, full of the courage to taste everything life holds, even death. This is resurrection. This is the power to overcome even the stranglehold of death.
The true resurrection
The power of the Easter experience lives in this revelation. The disciples knew that even though Jesus’ body was gone, the power of his message was not. It was a message that could live on. The power of the message behind Jesus’ life and death simply had no end — it was impervious to the power of death — a death that Spong call’s “Jesus’ ultimate parable.”
… acted out on the stage of history to open the eyes of those whose eyes could be opened in no other way to the meaning of Jesus as the sign of God’s love. God’s love was unconditional, a love not earned by the rigorous keeping of the law. God’s love was beyond the boundaries of righteousness, a love that demanded nothing in return. Jesus’ death… demonstrated… that it is in giving life away that we find life, it is in giving love away that we find love, it is in embracing the outcast that we find ourselves embraced as outcasts. It is a love that allowed us to stop pretending and simply to be.
GLBT Christians know this last part very well. Coming out is an experience of resurrection. We rise from the tombs where we have buried the reality of our lives — where we keep the real feelings bottled up, captive to society’s disapproval. When we finally shed those burial clothes and come out into the sunlight and realize that God is there waiting for us with open arms and a loving embrace, we know the feeling of resurrection. We are alive! We are whole beings, made in the image of the God around us, the ground of our very being. When we embrace our true selves and allow that love of God into our lives, we stop pretending and we simply become who God has called us to be!
What a powerful experience! It’s an experience not lost on the disciples, who felt their own resurrection after the death of their teacher and mentor. When they realized what Christ had done for them, the gift of love, the gift of grace and that direct, unconditional connection to God he had left for them by his life and death, they rejoiced. Their lives were resurrected — and they preached the good news to all who would hear and believe.
From this experience, I believe, sprang the stories of resurrection told and later canonized in the gospels. The story of the open tomb, of the commission to preach and teach about this amazing life and event, came from their experiences of this amazing gift of resurrection from Christ and not vice versa. The stories are metaphors, told after the fact, for how the disciples felt about their experiences with Christ. They were not literal retellings of actual historical events. Instead, they are portraits of how Christ has overcome death — how Christ continues to live in the hearts and minds of all who would follow him.
Jesus among us
I know that my words so far may be making you squirm a bit — especially if you’re the sort who likes to take the Bible literally. If you’ve made it this far you’re probably quite convinced that I am a heretic at best, and a blasphemer at worst. That’s fine. I don’t blame you, actually. A few years ago, I might have thought the same thing. My studies of the Bible during the past few years that I have spent in seminary have shown me that the Bible must be taken very seriously as a foundational document of our faith as Christians.
However, seminary has taught me the most valuable lesson that the Bible, in no way, can be taken literally as true or inerrant. Those who wrote the Bible most obviously held different views of Christ. Even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals very different views of Christ and his life. Paul’s views on Christ differ from the gospels as well, and most scholars believe that Paul never even saw the gospels or was familiar with them.
What that says to me is that the Christ experience — the Easter experience of resurrection — is so powerful, so full of life and grace, that everyone touched by it feels that personal resurrection and is compelled to share it. Paul describes it during his Damascus road experience! He was made new — his old life as a persecutor of Christians was dead; he was born again in Christ. Each of us has had our own Damascus road experience when our old lives fell away and we were born again into the newness of a life in Christ. In short — we experienced resurrection.
A literal, bodily resurrection of Christ would negate this experience for us. If Christ rose and ascended somewhere beyond the clouds, then he’s no longer here with us. He’s “up there in the sky” with God somewhere. The theistic trappings that Christianity has laid upon Christ over these thousands of years has so elevated him out of our lives we can no longer see what a gift he gave to us in the form of resurrection.
When we strip away the myth of a bodily resurrection we find underneath an incredibly powerful experience of God. We discover that God does not need to “come down” to us, but was with us all along. “The kingdom of God is within” (Luke 17:21) Jesus told us. It’s not “out there” somewhere on high, it’s not even inside Jesus — it’s within all of us. Jesus’ death demonstrates that nothing can change that — not even his death.
Because that power of resurrection lives within us we are called then to live as fully as possible — to emulate, as best we can in our own feeble way, Jesus’ call to love all that we see. As Spong writes:
My business is to live now, to love now, and to be now. As I give my life, my love, and myself away now, I hope that others can be called into deeper life, greater love, fuller being…
When we view Jesus as our primary window into God we realize that the resurrection “asserts that the essence of Jesus is the essence of God,” as Spong writes. When we enter into this relationship with God we enter into “the timelessness of God,” he says — we are “born again,” resurrected into a life with Christ — a life that death cannot even end. With Christ, God is the ground of our being — a very bodily presence that is with us every single day of our lives — lives that are full, overflowing with love, grace and abundance. Lives that are constantly touched by God’s real presence “in all places and times of our world.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.