Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Resurrection: History, Faith, or What?

We have had some good conversation regarding the resurrection of Jesus, the empty tomb narratives and what not. I thought it would be fun to have an Easter Poll. Go to the sidebar. I will keep these questions up through Easter. I have tried to find questions that are straightforward and fair to the issues. But it isn't easy. I have a four different sets of poll questions on this issue. Plus I added poll questions five and six especially for non-Christian readers.

Poll questions 1-4, choose one answer
Poll questions 5-6, choose as many as are true for you.

Poll Number 1:
The resurrection of Jesus was an historical event.
  1. Yes.
  2. No.

Poll Number 2:
The Empty Tomb narratives in the gospels are more like:
  1. Reliable historical reports of an event.
  2. Creative religious legends.

Poll Number 3:
The truth of the Resurrection can be approached through historical methodology:
  1. Yes.
  2. No.

Poll Number 4:
Christianity rests on:
  1. The resurrection of Jesus as an historical event.
  2. The resurrection of Jesus as a proclamation of faith.
  3. Both.
  4. Neither.

Poll Number 5:
I am not a Christian because
  1. Christians are jerks.
  2. Christians think theirs is the only true religion.
  3. Christianity insults my intelligence.
  4. Christians insist that their myths and legends are historical facts.
  5. Christians are wrapped up in right wing politics: anti-gay, anti-choice, pro-war, etc.
  6. I am just not interested.

Poll Number 6:
I might consider Christianity if
  1. Christians behaved better.
  2. Christians valued the contributions of science.
  3. Christians valued the contributions of other faiths.
  4. Christian myths and legends could be appreciated symbolically.
  5. Christianity made the world a better place rather than a worse one.
  6. Christians were inclusive to gays, reproductive choice, against war, etc.
  7. I could find a community that respected my freedom to think and to grow.
  8. I am just not interested.


  1. This is an interesting poll and I'm gonna keep checking the results! :)

    I think you should have included Both and Neither for the question about whether the resurrection reports are more like history or more like creative legends. Any writing-down of history includes creativity, simplification, drawing connections between events and discussing what the events mean. Just read any newspaper. A bare listing of facts, on the other hand, just looks like the phone book. (And even writing a phone book involves some decision-making about categories and connections.) Really, the question would make a lot more sense if it asked "are the resurrection stories an interpretive report of history, or an interpretive report of imaginary events?" But categories for both and neither would be fine too.

  2. Good point, Heather. You sound like you're about where I'm at.

    John, this poll is a great idea. It's sure to give insight into how people are thinking.

  3. Heather! Thanks for checking in. I thought of the both/neither option for question #2. At first, the question I made the question more definitive:

    the empty tomb narratives are historical events or
    the empty tomb narratives are creative legends.

    I softened it with "more like". I wanted folks to make a choice on genre.

    Are they reporting an event or telling a spiritual story?

    From what I am reading into in your comment you would probably say "more like an historical report." Contradictions and embellishments certainly can fit into that.

    I argue that the empty tomb narratives (and the gospels as a whole) are a totally different kind of literature than anything resembling historical reportage. They weren't lying or being bad historians. They were good, creative storytellers.

    I further think that we don't get it, but they would have in the 1st and 2nd century.

    If you turn on the TV and see a huge dinosaur like monster stepping on cars and people running and screaming, your reaction isn't "Oh, the news!"

    You quickly register what genre you are in and then adapt to it to understand the story.

    You don't debate whether or not dinosaurs can grow that large or if in Japan one day one ran through Tokyo wreaking havoc.

    You don't, unless you are told that you must read the story as a news event and that the "truth" of the story depended upon this happening in real time, real place, real life.

    My sense of it is that we are missing the genre of the gospels. They give us all kinds of clues--miracles, walking on water, dying and rising--clues that were all around them in the literature.

    As I read them, they would think we were weird debating on whether these events happened. They, I think, were telling us through religious legend about the kingdom of God to which Jesus pointed, and told stories using symbols of the gods to tell us about his significance.

    Dom Crossan once said to paraphrase:

    "Are we so smart that they wrote these stories literally and we take them symbolically?

    Or, are we dumb because we take the stories literally that were meant symbolically.

    I think the latter is true."

    BTW, this wasn't really a response to your comment, I just got on a roll! :)

    Glad you are here!

  4. Rev Shuck:

    You mean that in the Kingdom of God people walk on water and are resurrected?

    I'll buy that.

    By doing such things Jesus showed us quite definitively that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

    And if they understood in the 1st and 2nd C. that the Gospels were mythology, could you point me to some Early Christian Text where this was made explicit? I can't even think of any heretical texts that argue this way.

    But if I've missed something, I'd appreciate a reference to support your contention.

    (And the Gospel texts, not the OT. I think Origen wrote that the OT was to be read symbolically).

  5. At the same time, there were people who believed with utter conviction that a woman named Leda had sex with a bird (actually a god in disguise), gave birth (by hatching, no less) to Helen, who went off to Troy, sparking a war that ended up with Aeneas fleeing to Italy, and his great-great-great-etc granddaughter had sex with another god, giving birth to twin boys, who were chucked out in the woods and nursed by a wolf, then discovered and raised by a shepherd, and finally one of the boys went on to found the city of Rome.

    None of this was mythology to these folks.

    Does that mean that all these events are true?

  6. Flycandler:

    Very good point. I

    am not sure the ancients recognized the category "myth" as we do today. Rev. Shuck tells a story that they did. Perhaps the notion that the Early Christians recognized the Gospel as myth is it self a sort of myth.

    The ancients certainly didn't treat Jesus as a myth, but got into rather deep philosophical discussions about just who Christ was and what His Advent meant.

  7. Sometimes with the study of myth, we put the cart before the horse, I think. The study of myth is a perfectly lovely and useful cart. It's fascinating to examine the similarities and differences between Christianity and other things that fit the study's category of myth.

    We err when we say that just because a story fits into our category "myth"--a category WE created for ease of studying it more effectively--it must therefore be ONLY a myth. That is, it can only be a story with that form--it can't also be historical, nor have any existential importance for us.

    Leda etc. are indeed myths. I don't think they're historical and I'm not personally involved in them. The story of Jesus also fits the category of myth. I believe that story also happens to be historical, and it has a deep claim on me personally.

    And I don't have a problem with weird things happening in history. Weird things happen in history all the time. If we're going to say that God is involved at all, well, the Creator of the Universe can certainly make up weird one-time events in history if he wants to.

  8. If we're going to say that God is involved at all, well, the Creator of the Universe can certainly make up weird one-time events in history if he wants to.

    Heather, I think that whether that is true that actually depends on your conception of God.

  9. I think some of our problem here has to do with the word "myth". In everyday parlance, myth is synonymous with "lie" or "misinformation" (as in the show Mythbusters). From, say, Jung or Campbell's point of view, myth means something that is profoundly true, manifesting consciously and unconsciously, and ordering human consciousness on a fundamental level.

    So if we're saying that the resurrection is a myth, we might be merely saying that it is "factually untrue". Or we might be saying that it is "foundational, primordially meaning-making, and deeply true." But, confusingly and frustratingly, we'd be using the same word.

    I mean, poetry is often factually untrue. It is also very clearly true in many cases, powerfully explanatory, potentially life-changing, or at the very least perception-changing. But it is not "historical" in the way that John is saying the resurrection is not "historical".

    Does that even matter? Knowing that Juliet is not light breaking forth like the dawn - she is not made of photons! - do you throw down Romeo and Juliet in a huff, thinking "this says nothing about love and is factually inaccurate!!" If you do, you're sort of a doofus, honestly.

    We're given two mutually unsatisfactory categories here - "factually true" or "*just* a creative story". I'll always choose neither, heartily and assuredly. The things that make meaning of our lives, which organize our conscious experience, are almost all neither. Life is neither. Truth is neither. The resurrection is neither.

    I would also posit that the ancient understanding of the resurrection was neither, but that's another story altogether.

  10. Dr.'s Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy, have done an excellent job with thhis topic in their book, The Jesus Legend".

    For those who don't know them Dr. Boyd is best known for running off about 20% of his congregation a couple of years ago with a sermon series about keeping politics and religion seperate (Myth of a Christian Nation). Interestingly enough many conservatives refer to him as an open theist. Check out the book, (or Lord or Legend, the abridged version) see what you think.

  11. David:

    So if we're saying that the resurrection is a myth, we might be merely saying that it is "factually untrue". Or we might be saying that it is "foundational, primordially meaning-making, and deeply true."

    Either way we are saying that when I die, I am gone, caput, finito.

    And in a few hundred years, nobody will know whether I lived or not, and in a few billion years nobody will be living at all, and in a few trillion years nothing much at all will be happening in the whole universe, if the scientists can be believe.

    What then is foundationally, primordialy, meaning making, and deeply true then?

    If it is true that in the long run, we're all dead, what does anything matter?

  12. Harry:

    I don't think I'm saying that at all. That is still either/or thinking, which I am rejecting. There is nothing in what I said that necessitates that death is the end. Frankly, even if Jesus' resurrection was a bare, provable "historical fact", it would determine nothing about whether you would live after death. In fact, the overwhelming evidence is that if Jesus rose from the dead, then only Jesus has thus far. As far as we can tell, death is indeed an ending in many ways. It is also, I think, more fundamentally, a mystery.

    So what we think about death, and how we face it, is a matter of faith and courage whatever we believe about the resurrection of Jesus. If we believe it prefigures our own resurrection, that's a hope, but it can never be a fact. We still have to face death and come to terms with it, however we do that.

    I would also say, from a personal standpoint, that fear of death can't be the motivation behind how I live and make meaning. What I do, how I live, must be meaningful whether death is the end or not.

    What you're expressing is, in my (borrowed to some degree from Ernest Becker) opinion, the most fundamental aspect of being human - the paradoxical combination of self-conscious awareness and the awareness of death. Since it seems that we all do in fact die, what does anything matter? Exactly. That's the question that drives so much of human behavior, civilization, art, religion and so on.

    In short, Harry, I don't have answer for you for your question. For me, the question is "what shall I do with my life?" Caught up in that are questions like "what does/should my life mean? What do other people's lives mean, to me and to them?"

    "If it is true that in the long run, we're all dead, what does anything matter?"

    To me, in my better moments, it means that everything matters infinitely more, not less. The real me is here, my real life is right now, and the time I have to live it is limited. If there is an afterlife (which I hope for but do not see as 'fact') then it will be quite different from this life. If this life is all there is, then it is even more precious a gift, and I am even more strongly called to do something with it.

  13. Thanks all, I appreciate this discussion. I think it is helpful, for me, at least.

    I resonate with Doug and the difficulty with the word myth. I try to find something else to convey both the sense that the stories are filled with symbolism that points to religious/spiritual/archetypal language that indeed is "true."

    Here are some other options for the empty tomb narratives in particular and possibly the gospels as a whole:


    ah well.

    I do think it is important to try to find the words even though I fail, just so I don't get hung up on the wrong thing.

  14. In the Gospels you can find that Jesus promises that we might enjoy eternal life.

    "Whosoever believes in me shall not die, but have eternal life."

    Either these promises are literally true, or they are a cruel hoax.

    How can anyone tolerate being fobbed off with some symbolic interpretation of such promises. "If you live well, your good deed will live on."

    I find your personal reflections dignified and courageous. But they use the language of Existentialist philosophy, not of Christianity. (Here I point out the idea of "how I ... make meaning".)

    I, and I think you, have the luxury of leisure and ample means, to think about "what shall I do with my life." If I were not Christian, I would probably follow the example of Marcus Aurelius, a man who also had the luxury of deciding what he might do with his life. Stoicism is cold comfort, but it can inspire the courage to get up in the morning.

    But the vast majority of people in history, and most people even today do not have such a luxury. Life for them is a constant struggle simply to survive, and for what.

    "Life sucks, then you die."

    or more poetically:

    Pozzo: (suddenly furious). Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.


    Estragon: I can't go on like this.

    Vladimir: That's what you think.

  15. Yeah, I got your resurrection and eternal life right here:

  16. I still think it's a false dichotomy, particularly when we're speaking about someone who spoke in fictitious stories to make points (parables).

    It's like saying "either the Good Samaritan did in fact literally exist or the whole story is a cruel hoax." Not at all. In this case, the existence or nonexistence of the Good Samaritan is immaterial to the message Jesus was trying to get across. The message is crucial, not the characters.

    And yes, the use of the resurrection promise to make people feel better about their mortal lives being shit (don't worry that your life sucks, because you can look forward to a better one after you die) is a common and valid criticism of Christianity as historically pushed by the church (culminating in Marx's famous "religion is the opiate of the people", literally a painkiller). By contrast, Judaism (which has the same God and is the base on which Christianity was built) is more concerned with life here and now than on eternity. And yes, the Jewish people have undergone incredible hardships and stuck by their faith, even if it doesn't necessarily promise a fabulous hereafter.

    An aside: I swear I am not making this up, I swear I swear I swear. I just noticed that my "random" word verification phrase to post this comment is:


    Who says God and Google don't have a sense of humor?

  17. By contrast, Judaism (which has the same God and is the base on which Christianity was built) is more concerned with life here and now than on eternity. And yes, the Jewish people have undergone incredible hardships and stuck by their faith, even if it doesn't necessarily promise a fabulous hereafter.

    Not to mention the fact that Judaism did not believe in an afterlife at all during its early years of existence; people were believed to have gone to Sheol when they died. The idea of an afterlife developed later on, and even in Jesus's time, not all varieties of Judaism believed in it (the Sadducees, for example). The idea that religion is all about earning a ticket to the afterlife is a misconception.

  18. So the after life is out too, even though Jesus promised it?

    What is it a parable about anyway?

    Rev. Shuck, what do you plan for your Easter Sermon?

    Jesus didn't rise from the dead, and neither will you. The whole thing was concocted to make you feel better about your life, which, lets face it sucks.

    The idea that Christianity is about somebody coming to save you is a crock.

    I can't save you, Barrack Obama can't save you, and certainly Jesus can't save you. He is dead.

    Christianity is about saving yourself. So if you husband is cheating on you, your son is smoking crack, and the finance company is going to repossess your home, suck it up. Find your own meaning in life. It is your responsiblity. Ain't nobody going to do it for you.

    Really, Rev, could you post your Easter sermon?

  19. Harry,

    You can have access to all my sermons right here on our congregation's web page


  20. Thanks, Rev.

    I read he only sermon in text, and, lo and behold, you do preach my suggestion.

    "One of the most challenging aspects of living is our fear of what could happen. Here be dragons. The Nephilim will devour us. We might get crucified. Other people won‟t like what we decide to do. We are not strong enough. Disaster will befall us. The crazy promise of the Bible is not that those things won‟t happen. They might.
    The message that the authors of the Torah and the Gospels leave us is “don‟t fight it and don‟t run from it. Live through it.” Neither YHWH nor Jesus will keep us safe.


    I look forward to the Easter sermon.

  21. That is the unfortunate result of having printed sermons on-line. Folks quote pieces of them. Ah well.

    You will find more sermons from 2007, 2006, and 2005 if you click the link including last year's Easter Sermon entitled: "What If We Found the Body of Jesus?"

    There you have it. I would ask that you not take a piece out of context, but then you will do what you will do.

  22. What a tepid faith. No room for growth, no room to explore, no room to consider all the possibilities.

    Either every single thing ever attributed to Jesus is 100% factually true, or we all may as well stay home.

    It's one of the things I love about the Presbyterian Church that (when we're being truest to our heritage) we don't limit ourselves like that.

  23. That is exactly right, Fly. And we have the freedom to be wrong. We have the freedom to risk being wrong by searching fearlessly.