The Resurrection of Jesus: “Physical/Bodily” or “Spiritual/Mystical”?

I was recently invited to write an essay on whether the resurrection of Jesus was “physical and bodily” or “spiritual and mystical.”  The distinction is helpful: it makes clear that Christians have understood the meanings of Easter in different ways. But for more than one reason, including the common meanings of these words in modern English, I don’t like either option.

I begin with the positive – with what we can say with certainty about the meaning of Easter in the gospels and the New Testament. It is twofold: Jesus lives and is Lord.

Both convictions are grounded in experience. Some of Jesus’ followers experienced him after his death as a figure of the present, not just of the past. And they experienced him as a divine reality, now “one with God” and “at the right hand of God.”

Many of these experiences were visions. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, described three times in Acts 9, 22, and 26, and referred to by Paul in Galatians 1, was clearly a vision. It happened a few years – three to five – after the death of Jesus.

In I Corinthians 15, Paul refers to his experience as belonging in a list of other visions of Jesus – to Peter, the twelve disciples (though obviously not to Judas), James, and five hundred people at the same time.

Visions are about “seeing,” as the word implies. Often visions involve seeing and hearing a person in bodily form and can even include tactility – a sense of touching or being embraced.

But visions do not always include seeing a bodily form. As Acts describes Paul’s vision of the risen Christ, Paul saw a brilliant light, but not a bodily form. Then a voice identified the brilliant light as Jesus. Yet Paul can say, as he does I Corinthians 9.1, “I have seen the Lord.”

In addition to visions of Jesus, I think there were non-visionary experiences – of the same presence and power that his followers had known in Jesus during his historical life. “The Spirit of the Lord” was upon him, as the gospels put it – and his followers continued to experience the same Spirit after his death.

And there was something about these experiences that led to the second meaning of Easter in the gospels and the New Testament. Not only that Jesus lives, that he is a figure of the present and not just of the past, but that he is “Lord” –a divine reality, one with God and having the qualities of God, at “the right hand of God.”

So Paul refers to the risen Jesus in Acts and his letters: Jesus is Lord. So also in the story of Thomas in John 20. When Jesus appears to him, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” In both Matthew 28 and Luke 24, we are told that his followers “worshipped” the risen Jesus.

This second meaning of Easter distinguishes experiences of Jesus from other experiences of somebody who has died. Studies suggest that about half of surviving spouses will have at least one vivid experience of their deceased spouse. But if they do, they do not exclaim “My Lord and my God,” as if their spouse is now Lord and one with God. But there was something about the experiences of Jesus after his death that led to this exclamation. They were “numinous” experiences – experiences of the sacred – and not just “ghostly” experiences of a dead person.

A Physical/Bodily Resurrection?

Because of the common meaning of “physical/bodily” in modern English, I do not think the resurrection of Jesus means this. Physical/ bodily means fleshly, molecular, protoplasmic, corpuscular existence.

But the risen Jesus is not in this sense a physical/bodily reality. The resurrection stories in the New Testament make that clear. The risen Jesus appears in a locked room (John 20). He journeys with two of his followers for a couple of hours and is not recognized – and when he is recognized, he vanishes (Luke 24). He appears in both Jerusalem (Luke and John) and Galilee (Matthew and John). He appears to Stephen in his dying moments (Acts 7). He appears to Paul in or near Damascus as a brilliant light (Acts 9). He appears to the author of Revelation on an island off the coast of Turkey in the late 90s of the first century (Rev. 1).

These texts are not about Jesus being restored to his previous life as a physical being. If such events happen, they are resuscitations: resuscitated persons resume the finite physical life they had before, and will die again someday. Whatever affirming the resurrection of Jesus means, it does not mean this.

Moreover, what would it mean to say that the risen Jesus is a physical/bodily reality? That he continues to be a molecular, protoplasmic, corpuscular being existing somewhere? Does that make any sense? How can the risen and living Jesus be all around us and with us, present everywhere, if he is bodily and physical?

A Mystical/Spiritual Resurrection?

I also decline this option because of the widespread associations of these words in modern English. To call something “mystical” or to say “sounds like mysticism” commonly means that you don’t need to take it seriously.

And given the modern world-view in which the physical and material are assigned a greater reality than “the spiritual,” to speak of the resurrection of Jesus as “spiritual” assigns it a lesser and commonly unimportant significance. It’s “just spiritual” not really real.

This is unfortunate, for the ancient meanings of “mystical” and “spiritual” suggest a reality that is more important, more significant, than the space-time world of our ordinary everyday experience.

In the pre-modern meanings of “spiritual” and “mystical,” the resurrection of Jesus was both: the spiritual is about “the really real” and the mystical is about knowing, experiencing, “the really real.”

The central meaning of Easter is not about whether something happened to the corpse of Jesus. Its central meanings are that Jesus continues to be known and that he is Lord. The tomb couldn’t hold him. He’s loose in the world. He’s still here. He’s still recruiting for the kingdom of God.

50 Comments

50 Comments

  1. I find this post (and the one previous to it about Easter) completely baffling. In full disclosure, I am an atheist who grew up with a conservative understanding of Christianity (supernatural theism, Jesus as the substitutionary sacrifice, etc…). Perhaps that background prevents me from “getting” what Dr. Borg is saying.

    Nevertheless, reading these posts makes me wonder: what is the difference between Jesus and a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr.? Both sacrificed their lives for their visions of peace and non-violent resistance to oppression. Both had followers who carried on their cause after their deaths. Both had people who came to understand what they were about after their death (in the case of MLK, racists who changed their way of thinking). Both could be called “men of God,” though obviously Jesus is thought of as much more than a man of God. But my point is, what is the difference that made people call Jesus “my Lord and my God” but not a figure like MLK? If there is no real difference and Jesus was one of many “people of God” throughout human history, would it not be correct to say that Jesus’ ideas were more important than Jesus himself? That is, isn’t it a historical accident that Jesus was called “son of God” and worshipped, but a man like MLK was “only” a “great man of God” who was praised and made a hero, but not worshipped as God? Is the reason people had visions of Jesus and worshipped Jesus and not MLK was because that’s how they communicated their transforming insights back in the early centuries of the common era?

    If I am totally off base here, then what does it mean to say that Jesus continues to “be known?” This means his ideas continue to be known, correct? Jesus doesn’t have an independent consciousness that I can communicate and “know,” right? For someone with a conservative Christian background, the way this language is used is quite confusing.

  2. Greetings:
    I am a fan of Dr. Borg’s books, that deal with the historical Jesus.
    I have some problems with the interpretation and idea that Jesus was executed. The argument on visions of the resurrection I can easily understand. Muhammad is said to have experienced an ascension into heaven; the various early Christian and Jewish apocalypses, describe visions, which often are given to holy men prior to death, or during some tribulation. Angels reveal to them secrets, and visions of the future of souls in heaven or hell. So Jesus, or an angel in the likeness of Jesus revealed things to John; appeared to people just slightly after the alleged death of Jesus. But all the canonical texts, even some un-canonical texts, even Josephus, and even the later Quran, claim that Jesus appeared alive on Sunday as a man (not a phantasm). He had his scars, he ate, he was physical. (Even the orthodox Trinitarians, combated and twisted the gospels to prove this point to docetic believers of Jesus). I conceive as Jesus as a historical mortal who like all other mortals eventually die. Unlike most scholars however, I just do not see the evidence that Jesus actually died (in the scientific sense) on the cross. Death for these people referred to living people like Lazarus, Tabitha, etc… In christian language one who is lost, who is ill, who is sleeping, who is a sinner, who has demons, who is ignorant, who is in poverty, in jail, etc….such people are as dead as Jonah was in the belly in the fish. They are in hell alive and being tormented.

  3. I am not an atheist, but I agree with Bill. It seems to me that all these visions and experiences have everything to do with what happened to the corpse. That was certainly the question in the apostles minds and in the women’s minds. Paul specifically tied his understanding of his vision to the missing corpse. It was exactly that missing corpse that made the appearances of Jesus qualitatively different from appearance of other dead loved ones who are still in their graves. As for being physical, that seems to me to be critical. Jesus did not simply die to save sinners; He died to save the whole material physical creation, from worms to aardvarks. Physical/bodily does indeed mean fleshly, molecular, protoplasmic and that is the whole glory of it. The meaning of the resurrection, at least partly, was that He united the spiritual into the physical permanently, like a husband is joined to his wife, not that He withdrew the spiritual from the physical. You seem to be interpreting the text by selection, interpreting only part of the text while ignoring the rest.

    • Jason Gosnell

      Everyone is entitled to their view. For me, I need a more rational one. Bodies don’t appear and then vanish…plus, it means that he would have to die again physically. Also, he would have to live here, hang out, sleep somewhere, etc. That’s never alluded to anywhere.

      These examples point to non-physicality, to spiritual presence, I agree with Marcus on this point:

      The mystical meaning of the resurrection, that he united spirit and body is true, but that is reading in a mystical and metaphoric sense…not a literal one. In this sense, rising from the dead is parable pointing to the oneness of spirit and matter.

      I think that some people need a literal, physical reading, but for some people this is not an option.

  4. The previous comments show that the reader is giving some serious deep thought to the subject at hand. Any lack of understanding he feels he has would probably find resolution through a bit more reading of the various views presented here. Best wishes on his quest, he seems ready!

  5. What difference would it make if an ossuary was found that undeniably contained the bones of Jesus?

    To the message of Jesus – that God is personal and present and characterized by love and grace, whose passion for us is to provide justice and compassion, generosity and hospitality, and who invites us and welcomes us and includes us without exception or exclusion – that message would neither be changed nor diminished in any way.

    Something happened on Easter morning. Until that morning, the disciples still saw the message of Jesus as an unassembled puzzle with no idea as to what image would be revealed by the completed puzzle. On Easter morning, someone had a profound comprehensive epiphany. I am not sure which person had this epiphany, but the Gospels tell us it was a woman or several women. It was as if every piece of the puzzle had been turned upside-right and sufficiently assembled that the picture could be easily discerned. After all the questions that had only received Jesus’ puzzling answers and after repeatedly hearing the puzzling parables and confounding aphorisms of Jesus, compounded by the grief and depression and repressive fear of the preceding weekend, the impact of this epiphany had to have felt like a major earthquake. The validation of this epiphany was in the universal response of the disciples and followers – each one saw the same completed puzzle and each one was transformed by what was revealed. To each person, it was as if the curtain that covered the holy of holies had been ripped in two and God was fully revealed to any who would see.

    Somehow, in those first few years, this same epiphany would happen to Paul and hundreds of others. Repeatedly, it was such a powerful experience that people were transformed. The desperation and fatalism of day-to-day living in a domination empire supported and ratified by imperial theology was replaced by the dual realization that the one true God is loving and immediate and that life did not require their participation in empire or its domination practices or its imperial theology.

  6. I’d be interested in a post from someone who agrees with Dr. Borg’s view on the resurrection. Specifically, does Jesus, in the year 2011, still possess consciousness in some unknown realm? If not, then any “a-ha” moment we have in a vision or through an experience is only related to Jesus’ ideas, not to Jesus himself. Thus, the man himself becomes irrelevant. I don’t think most Christians would agree with this version of the resurrection. Or put another way, if you could convince me that Jesus still possesses consciousness in 2011 with or without his physical body, I’d become a Christian instantly. But convincing me that his ideas are good only makes me an atheist who thinks Jesus was a wise man.

    • Dear Bill,

      When you say that if anyone could convince you that Jesus had a consciousness in 2011 then you would become a Christian instantly, I wonder how that could be. I doubt that some kind of objective/physical proof could be presented to you that you would believe. I also doubt that if you had what you thought might be a real proof, that you would accept it in the end. I wonder if that kind of proof is even possible in your understanding of the physical world. The gospels give many supposedly real proofs of Jesus, but it seems you reject those as being possible. How then could one be presented now? I would guess that Jesus might repeat the parable of Lazarus and the rich man as a response.

  7. I can’t agree with Bill more. There is an integrity to his position that I respect. For me, it was a “mystical experience” that convinced me He is still alive. I am not sure that any direct experience with Jesus could be other than “mystical” even if it were sitting around a campfire eating fish; an encounter with a formerly dead person is by definition mystical. I would say, Bill, that only Jesus Himself can convince you that He still has consciousness. I would also say that from my present perspective I believe there is a strong enough logical case for His being alive that I think I could talk my old self into it, but I realize that must sound a bit weak. The point being that becoming a Christian did not make me less committed to logic and the intellect than I was before.
    It does seem to me, Doug, that finding the bones of Jesus would entirely alter His message in the way Bill described. He would go from God to being a very wise man and that is a big enough difference that it would lose me. Very wise men are not uncommon. If that is all He is, I wouldn’t need Him anymore.

    • Bill, Faith in the continued consciousness of the exalted Christ is not something one can come to through the efforts of Modern logic and reason. Maybe you can get close, but to reach this we come to reason’s end and then have to take a leap of faith. In my own journey many people gave me some decent books on why faith is logical and I should believe. Several contained several compelling arguments, yet none were compelling. Apologetics is for the believer, not the unbeliever. No matter the answer, no matter the argument, no matter how well formed and valid the proof/derivation will always be lacking in a truly logical sense.

  8. I think that Dr. Borg puts the case clearly and defends it well. The Resurrection of Jesus is about our experience of Jesus as (a) still “with us” and (b) as revealing God to us in a very intimate and powerful way. Or, as Dr. Borg puts it “Jesus lives and Jesus is Lord.” Given these facts the empty tomb is irrelevant indeed.

    I think, however, that we can show the empty tomb to be irrelevant on other grounds. Suppose that Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden was shown to have a virgin birth, to walk on the sea, and to physically rise up from the grave. We would call Bin Laden or Hitler the “face of God”? Would we say such a fiend was “one with the Father”? Could we make these monsters our “Lord”?

    In other words, the supposedly Supernatural episodes in the life of Jesus are not meaningful apart from the message he taught, lived, and demonstrated.

    We Christians believe that Jesus incarnates God because of who he was, how he lived, what he said, and what he did … not because of some “weird” miracles that were supposed to have happened to him.

    As to how does Jesus differ from King, Gandhi, etc: I think Dr. Borg would say, and I would agree with this, that he differs only in degree and not in Kind. Insofar as King, Gandhi, St. Francis, Buddha, or whoever, incarnates justice, love, compassion, inclusion, and peace such a person is also an incarnation of God.

  9. If one were to seek the truth to this answer, I would imagine the most reliable source to find the answer would be the Bible itself. Whether or not one agrees with what the Bible says is another discussion, but should not a Christian base his argument on this topic (and any other theological question) by looking to the Bible for the answer?

    In Matthew 28, Mary Magdalene and Mary approach the tomb but are told by an angel that Jesus was not there. In verse 6 the angel says, “He is not here; for He is risen. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.” This clearly implies the women entered the tomb and did not see the body of Jesus. But let’s let scripture interpret scripture. In Mark 16, we have the same story and verses 5-6 read “And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.” Furthermore, in Luke 24 we again have the same story and verse 3 reads, “Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” Later in verse 12, Peter runs to the tomb upon hearing the news, “But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.”

    A plain reading these Gospels show that the Bible unequivocally states that the body was not present on the third day. I would imagine there could be 4 explanations: (1) Jesus was not dead, got up, rolled away the huge burial stone, and left while avoiding the guard specifically set to secure the tomb (Matt. 27: 65-66) (I would say not likely since I believe Roman guards suffered the penalty of death for failing their duty and if Christ did not die there is no sacrifice), (2) that His followers stole his body (not likely since the tomb was under secure guard, the disciples unaware of the plan and would not have died horrific deaths that they suffered according to Church tradition for a lie), (3) that someone was given permission by Pilate / the Romans to remove the body secretly or removed by the enemies of Jesus (again, not likely since Pilate agreed to guard the tomb upon the request of Jesus’s enemies b/c they feared that if Jesus might fulfill his promise to rise after three days), or (4) that the body of Christ was resurrected.

    If one accepts the Bible as true, then I fail to see how there is any argument on this subject. If one does not accept the Bible as true, then we are all subject to whichever parts of the Bible we want to believe or whatever faith / truth we subjectively believe in and if there is no truth, the a discussion about this topic is about as productive as shouting into the wind.

  10. Dr. Borg, I have long admired your work and have read several of your books. Your work provides a credible alternative to the literalistic, more fundamentalist approach to the Bible and religion.

    I do have two questions that I have never been able to resolve over the years. I would appreciate your responding directly to it if you can spare the time. You have characterized the early followers of Jesus as having experienced his resurrection by way of vision or apparition, as well as a non-visionary sense of his ongoing presence. I would like to accept that, except that I have never heard of a vision or apparition happening to more than one person at a time. It is normally a very individualistic experience. Yet in the resurrection stories and even in Paul’s account in I Corinthians 15, we find it reported that multiple people saw Jesus at the same time…from the disciples in the upper room to the breakfast at the seashore to the five hundred who experienced him just before his ascension.

    How could Jesus’ resurrection be experienced as an apparition or vision by 12 to 500 people at a time? Or are we to simply see those stories as parables or metaphoric in nature?

    My other question has to do with Jesus post-resurrection consciousness. Do you see Jesus as a conscious being today in the 21st century? Or are you uncertain as to his exact state of being after dying? I know that you believe that we do not die into nothingness, but that we “die into God.” But you seem to consider the nature of one’s after-life a matter of mystery which we can safetly entrust into God’s hands. Is that how you consider Jesus’ after-life as well?

    • Thanks for your comments and your questions. More than one thing to say.

      1. I begin with “collective” visions – that is, what do we make of “visions” that several people are reported to experience together? Such visions are reported and not just in the New Testament. Perhaps the best-known 20th century reports that many Christians have heard about are collective visions of Mary at Fatima in Portugal in the early part of the century, where allegedly thousands experience the same vision; and the appearances of Mary to a group of young people in the old Yugoslavia in the 1980s. I don’t know what to make of these reports – do things like this REALLY happen? My point is more modest: collective visions are part of the history of religious experience.

      2. I think we will never go wrong treating the Easter stories as parabolic. Doing so does not require denying that “they happened.” But it shifts the interpretive vantage point: the point is the meaning of the story, just as the point of a parable is its meaning.

      3. RE Jesus’ “post-resurrection consciousness” or state of being. I interpret this question to mean something like, “Does Jesus still exist somewhere, with ‘where’ not necessarily meaning somewhere in the space-time world of matter and energy?” I have no clue.

      What I am sure about is that the early followers of Jesus, and a significant percentage of Christians throughout the centuries, had and continue to have experiences that convincingly seem to them to be experiences of Jesus. He is a figure of the present and not just of the past. For me, the question is whether this means Jesus “exists” somewhere.

      To suggest an analogy that may or may not be illuminating. People in India have had and continue to have experiences of Lord Krishna. So does this mean that Lord Krishna “exists” somewhere? Or is “Lord Krishna” one of the cultural forms in which the sacred becomes manifest? To introduce a philosophical term: is there an ontological difference between experiences of the risen Jesus and experiences of Lord Krishna? Does one exist and the other not? Or are both ways the sacred continues to be experienced? I don’t know how to sort this question out, and am content to affirm “ontological humility” about such matters. I think we best understand the language of religion when we keep it as close as possible to the language of experience. I conclude by emphasizing an earlier statement: Jesus’ followers had experiences of him after his death, and these experiences continue to this day. What that means ontologically, I do not know.

  11. I appreciate very much your reply and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly you responded. I am a newly retired hospital chaplain and sense when someone takes the time to care as you do. Your manifold reply was both informative and helpful. I have long struggled with the thorniest theological and theodicy-related questions (chaplains run into the latter frequently) and have pretty much concluded that such questions are largely unanswerable. But one thing is real to me…and that is the reality of how people, expecially ones in crisis, experience the power of God’s presence. I often experienced that presence at the holy ground of the patient’s room and in the uncanny way I repeatedly found myself in the right place at the right time.

    You are right that experience is at the defining crux of spirituality and that certainly religious symbols play a sacramental part in that, including the symbol of Jesus…or even Krishna. God is at work in many arenas outside of Christianity, I am convinced. So it matters little, as you say, as to the ontological state of deceased spiritual figures. I too am content to say that they do not die into nothingness. They die into God. Thank-you again for your gracious reply.

    Chaplain Bob Engstrom

  12. Frank McKibben

    Reading the comments and seeing Marcus Borg on various documentaries, lets me know that Paul was right when he stated that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God and God has given the foolishness of what is preached to confound the wise (I Corinthians chapters 1-4). Scholars seem to have trouble with very basic Biblical statements and would rather come up with their hypothesis of what is meant instead of believing the text. Jesus thanked the Father that the knowledge about His Kingdom was hidden from the wise and prudent and given instead to babes (Matthew 11). Jesus appeared in flesh and bone in front of his disciples (Luke). He was not a ghost. When He ascended, He poured out his spirit upon all flesh so that they would learn the truth. He promised the disciples that if he did not go the Spirit would not come. He fulfilled Joel according to what Peter preached in Acts.

  13. Barry Chitwood

    I believe that, in some form still unknown to us, Jesus exists. I also believe in the empty tomb. When my father lay dying in a coma in 1989, he came to me in a vision and told me that I had to let him go. Months later, he appeared to me in a vivid dream and we embraced each other. Yes, there are many things we will not understand until that day when we stand before God.

  14. Thank you for your thoughts… I appreciate the dialogue…. I think there is a passage that is often not looked at in this discussion, however would be good to meditate upon…. ACTS 2:29-34….

    Paraphrased….. Davids tomb was with them to that day (1st cent), David had a promise he held on to that one of his descendants would be on his throne. He spoke of the resurrection of Christ…. that Christ’s body would not be abandoned to the grave, nor that Christ’s body would see decay. God raised this Jesus to life…. we all know that!! Jesus has been exalted to the ultimate position of authority under God himself. Jesus has received from God His manifested presence, and Christ has now poured out the manifested presence of God which is what you see and hear now……. When the crowd in Jerusalem heard this heard this they were cut to the heart….

    I am not sure of the nature of body of resurrected Christ, there seems to be fairly good evidence it was not flesh and bone!! However one thing I feel quite sure about……. The physical body was not left to decay in the grave!!

  15. Questions. Was there anything unique about the way the crucified body was dispensed after a death or crucifixion? What would have happened had the body of Jesus been found that morning by Mary and Mary Magdalene? What was their chore? What would happen after they completed what they thought they were going to do? Who else would have come to pay homage? Did it make a difference that this particular corpse was a Jewish or Roman criminal? How long would he have remained a corpse in that tomb? Ultimately what were the customs of the time? Thank you.

  16. Jesus is the Son of God. We cannot limit the Son of God by stating he could not have risen physically and did what He did post resurrection. But, as 1 Corinthians 1:18 points out, the word of the cross is foolishness to those who do not believe.

  17. Of what “material” Jesus’ resurrected body was composed and just what type resurrection of it was is intriguing. The “body” Jesus resurrected in was not like the body of the resurrected Lazarus. Lazarus’ body suffered corruption. However, this was not the type of resurrection body discussed by Paul in I Corinthians 15. Lazarus was restored but he retained a body thereafter that would one day die, needing to be resurrected anew in the great resurrections to come. Jesus’ resurrected body was like the body Paul discusses in I Corinthians 15. Christ Jesus as the Creator of all things housed Himself upon His resurrection in a new type of body. Of what material that body is made unclear but it is a glorious thing. This new meta-physical, “spiritual” body of Christ Jesus is unbound by the physical laws and constraints of our time-space continuum. The Designer of all things, the Word of God, now walked among men, manifesting Himself in whatever way He chose for the moment. Whether He ate with them, appeared to them or showed Thomas the still-present wounds of His crucifixion — Jesus manifested Himself as King over Death, the ever-living One. Sometimes He manifested Himself in a way that it seems, that somehow He was not recognizable as the man Jesus. Later, the eyes of those he ate and spoke with were open as they realized this man was the resurrected Jesus. He appeared in overwhelming glory to Saul-turned-Paul. In John’s Revelation 1 vision of Jesus on the isle of Patmos we see a very different manifestation of Jesus. He still has this basically human-like form but holding immense power and glory — a new Man, the Son of Man, the second Adam, the Lord of All Creation has ascended back into a glory we can barely imagine.

  18. Thank you Dr Borg for sharing your thoughts here. I find them enlightening and persuasive and not at all opposed to what was transmitted by our forefathers in the faith in the New Testament. For Christians the resurrection is an absolutely real and pivotal event; and I truly find that your views do nothing but reinforce this lovingly held tenet.

  19. Laurence Anderson

    Dear Marcus, I am a fellow “Cobber”. I was first introduced with “the Heart of Christianity”, have read most books since. I would like to add a “6th interpretation”; that Jesus is present in our suffering, personal and corporate, and interprets that suffering, and I use that as a notation in my reading. What do you think of Jesus (and prayer) as a verb? I have a standard that I only “canonize” authors who haven’t written for 50 years, I make an exception for you, Kathleen Norris, Gerhardt Frost, and limited others. Thanks for your work. Loved the First Christmas, I use the second coming metaphor often. LA

  20. Christine Magrega

    I am an avid fan of yours, Marcus and was pleased to have met you at one of your all day workshops; it was July 18, 2009 in Vancouver, BC. At that time, I posed a question to you about how to help teach children ( preschool-elementary) the Heart of Christianity in the refreshing way that you present in your books. You expressed an appreciation for my question and I’m wondering now if you have considered writing a children’s curriculum or children’s book ? I am leading a weekly evening adult discussion using your book, The Heart of Christianity, and the study guide at my church (Anglican). This week we will discuss Chapter 5 and I look forward to our conversations about Jesus. Your book is provocative, insightful and a breath of fresh air for us. Thank you for your grace-filled words as we explore our Christianity.

  21. Reading the resurrection accounts leads me in the same direction as Marcus Borg. The empty tomb seems incontrovertible; but the resurrected Jesus was not a resuscitated physical body. There is much we do not understand about the material world (try quarks and gluons for a start!); how much more we should be humble about our understanding of God. The best testimony to the risen Christ is that he still changes lives today for those who commit their way to him.

  22. Rev. Barbara Muller

    Dr. Borg, First, my thanks for your thoughts shared in your books. Your work continues to be of great help to me. Having just finished your book, JESUS, I have a question regarding your helpful discussion of the Pre and Post Easter Jesus. A philosopher cleric friend says your position smacks of Nestorianism. I can’t see it because I think my friend left the meaning of language itself out of the equation. (Thanks for your book on SPEAKING CHRISTIAN.) I’m also reading Hurtado re: when Jesus was perceived as divine. It makes better sense to me that Jesus was so connected to the holy that he was/is one with God (the Holy), and his mission was to lead us to with the Way to achieve the same. Am I in error to think that because of who Jesus was he truly was one with God and consequently, the only way people could express their firsthand impression of him both before and after the Easter event was to label him Son of God? Suggestions for further reading? Again, thank you.

    • Rev. Muller, may I suggest some further reading? Try the book of John. Jesus was not one with God, He is God. He was God from the very foundations of the world! He makes it very clear who He is and that He is not “connected to the holy” in the sense of a human being connected to the supernatural. He was the Son of God from the day He was born, throughout His life, and now as He sits at the right hand of the Father. I really hope and pray that you will one day see the truth and put your faith in Him.

  23. Jesus must have looked different outside the tomb because Mary Magdalen at first thought he was the gardener and only recognised him after he called her. In the eastern religions they speak of certain “Masters” who can suddenly appear physically then just as suddenly ‘dissolve’ and disappear. Could this be a possibility? Could this be the meaning of the ‘resurrection body’? A spiritual body that can call the physical atoms to itself and become physical, at will, then relinquish the atoms also at will?

  24. Jesus is not the reason for the season – neither for this calendar season nor for this season of your life.

    The reason for the season is Emmanuel – God with us.

    It might be acceptable to be at a party with strangers, it is good to be at a party with friends, it is better to be at a party with your loved one. Take this “with-ness” one more level – that is Emmanuel – that is God with us.

    God is always with us. So, the question really is: Am I with God in the same way that God is with me?

    Those WWJD wristbands have it right – What Would Jesus DO – not believe, not wish, not pray, not sermonize – what would Jesus DO?

    If we seriously strive to answer that question in all our actions, we will find ourselves striving to live like Jesus. Yet, such striving is inadequate. It is not that living like Jesus is not good or not good enough; it is just that there is more. That is where we find resurrection – the transformation of the human spirit. It is an earth-shaking experience. It is as if a stone has been rolled away from the entrance to our tomb. It is as if the curtain covering the Holy of Holies has been ripped asunder and we are no longer prevented from entering into that place where the immediate and tangible presence of God dwells and there we find our true and best self and find our true and best self with God.

    Your journey is not about living for Jesus or like Jesus. Your journey is about being Jesus, being Emmanuel, being “God with us,” being the Good News, being the Kingdom of God on Earth here and now.

    Merry Christmas!
    Doug.

  25. Dr. Borg,
    Right on! My brother-in-law sent my wife and I “Speaking Christian” for Christmas. We’re just getting started and I looked up this web site to become more familiar with you. We are lay people and I must say your description here, about physical/mythical Jesus, answers many questions for me and answers some questions I didn’t even know I had!
    If there are those who can’t agree or think you are off base I suggest they read Romans 8:6. When I read that last night (again) it opened me to explain some experiences I’ve had in the past few years. Jesus, though the Holy Spirit, is alive and well. He speaks to us if we are willing to stop and listen. The key is to be able to STOP. He cannot converse with us if we’re on the line with someone or something else. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom.

  26. Dear Dr Borg,
    Thank you for your books, many of which I have read and re-read.
    Please would you clarify for me why Jesus would not accept worship during his earthly life (always pointing his listeners to the Father instead), but after his resurrection it is acceptable and expected that we worship Jesus? Is Jesus seen as uniquely divine – The Son of God – only after his resurrection but not during his earthly life, and if so, how and when did this happen?
    I find I can relate and pray to God, the Father – and the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit I believe lived in Jesus as in everyone only more fully in him, but I can no longer relate to Jesus because I don’t know who he is anymore (uniquely divine or not). I am in my sixties and have until the last 10 years been very fundamental in my belief, but since believing that Jesus can’t be the only way because of the faith of millions of non-Christians, I have questioned many of the sayings attributed to Jesus, and which whilst your pre and post Jesus writings have helped clarified this for me, I now seem to question the Bible more than is good for me and this is affecting my overall relationship with God.
    I would be very grateful to receive a reply.

  27. I haved a question for everyone, does anyone have an example of a personal experience of the living Jesus. Please understand I am not being sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek. Having heard and read the expression for years, I’ve yet to have heard of a specific example or instance. I just wouold like to start the conversation. I have read dozens of books, including a few by Dr. Borg, read the Bible regularly, and constantly read theology from Karen Armstrong to David Platt. I just would like to here something solid, not a general feeling- what are we talking about to say that Jesus lives, and please not the standard vague answers. Biblically, I think it is clear that the Holy Spirit ‘”replaced” Jesus as a presence, or in other words, speculation about what kind of an existence he has, corporeal or spirit, is just that. Thanks to everyone on this blog, I find it refreshing to be able to discuss these things with each other.

  28. “But convincing me that his ideas are good only makes me an atheist who thinks Jesus was a wise man.”
    Bill Dysons

    I think this is a key point as to why the attempt to argue a Christianity not based on supernatural experience or a realm beyond our current understandings of science is difficult if not forlorn. Indeed Jesus’ message is full of wisdom but a central part of that message is the presence of God, the Kingdom of God amongst us, a limitless nature to reality. Without that we can have much succour from forgiveness and love but we could remain atheists who are wise and perhaps enlightened. Yet Jesus proclaimed God: for God to exist as a physical reality, as the grounding of all physics, not just a vague idea of goodness. That is why when we experience God and Jesus the physical resurrection that includes living in a material form but that can go infinitely beyond this is crucial I would argue. Either the universe is finite and limited or it is beyond measure, limitless, containing within it an infinite power as its source, the power we call God.

    Jeanette, I feel for you. Pray and look for God’s love in your heart and your prayers can be answered.

  29. “Either the universe is finite and limited or it is beyond measure, limitless, containing within it an infinite power as its source, the power we call God.”
    Jason
    I felt very in tune with what you said, Jason, until you got to that line. Why do you think, why do so many think it necessary, that God be contained in the universe? The first thing to notice about that is that this idea is outside the Jewish Old Testament and Christian New Testament view. It is not at home in the Bible. The essence of the Bible is that God is the Creator, the inventor of the universe, not that He is it collectively or that He emerges from its totality. That is a really alien idea to that tradition of thinking. It is a modern thing, I think, to wish the Bible were more nearly an eastern religion, but truly it is not; and it seems to me that trying to force it into an eastern mindset does violence to it. It just seems disrespectful.
    Did I perhaps misread you?

  30. I agree 100% with Jason. He articulates my struggle to move beyond atheism. I experience the “holy” or the “more” when I listen to music or see a sunset or even when I attend church with family members and experience peaceful love – the love of humanity or brotherhood – for lack of a better term. Dr. Borg’s vision of Christianity seems to attempt to call this sense “God” and to link this term with Jesus by arguing that Jesus taught people how to experience “God” or the “more.” That’s all fine, but it’s way out of phase with the traditional understanding of Christianity and is really more of an enlightened atheism, as Jason calls it. It also raises the question of how the original disciples saw Jesus or how the early Christians saw Jesus. I wonder which point of view the average Christian in the 2nd or 3rd century would agree with. I wonder which point of view Paul had. “Traditional” Christianity and Dr. Borg’s interpretation are so different that I don’t think one could argue that both are correct. Or, put another way, if you asked a 2nd century Christian whether “Jesus was raised from the dead” meant his corpse came back to life due to the power of a supernatural deity or whether it was a metaphor for an enlightening truth about experiencing the “more” of life, what would he say?

  31. Steve McIntyre

    It is clear from the writings of the early Church Fathers and other witnesses to the origins of the faith (even those who opposed it and thought it an evil superstition) the first Christians believed that they must enter into the death of Christ in order to enter into his resurrection. That they accepted the resurrection of Christ as a great and holy mystery there can be no doubt, but neither is there any doubt that they accepted the bodily resurrection of Christ as a literal, physical resurrection. They accepted it as fact, not because they were stupid or naïve or deluded; but because it is necessary. They accepted the empty tomb, the resurrection of the man Jesus, the first born of the dead, as real and physical because it is the very key to the Kingdom.

    The Gnostics were the first heretics to be rejected by the early believers and their heresy was manifest in this; that they taught that only the spiritual is “real”; that everything physical and corporeal is evil and an illusion. Christianity teaches, very necessarily so, that the universe was created by God, was created “good” and is real, as Chesterton reminds us; as real as the incarnation. This is of the utmost importance because it means our suffering is real and not an illusion, but so is the joy made possible through the risen one. Though in this fallen world we will have trouble, we can take heart, for the man, the real human being; Jesus the Christ has overcome the world – in more than a metaphorical, or even a spiritual, sense.

    I look forward to hearing you speak tomorrow at the Lenten service at Calvary Church in Memphis.

  32. I’m wondering if it is time to bring some Jewish sensibility into this discussion. After all, those who witnessed the resurrection of Christ were Jewish people and they were looking at the events through Jewish eyes. For Jewish people, the concept of resurrection was most certainly a physical one.

    The Jew who most vehemently expounds the importance of the physical resurrection of Christ was one who had been a leading Pharisee of his day, and the one who – as Dr. Borg rightly indicates – saw the Risen Saviour not in physical form but in spiritual form. That Jew was the Apostle Paul who said, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has no been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14). Earlier (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) he talks of all those who witnessed this resurrection and we know from the Gospels that included eating with him and touching him. The idea of a non-corporeal resurrection would have been a foreign one to Jewish thought, and would have needed considerable explanation in the Scriptures.

    It is in the last part of 1 Corinthians, that we see the nature of the corporeal resurrection of body (1 Corinthians 42-44). I think we are confusing what corporeal means in this sense. Our current bodies are defined within three-dimensional space and tightly woven into time. Our (and Christ’s) resurrection body need not necessarily be tied into the same confines. Hence the ability to be able to do things we wouldn’t expect normal bodies to do.

    This is one possible explanation, but it is at least consistent with the full witness of Scripture. If we do not accept a corporeal resurrection, then the Scripture loses its cohesive coherency – we might as well all believe, “what is right in our own eyes” (Judges 21:25; which the Lord intended as a criticism).

  33. I must agree with Daniel. Why does anyone wish to leave the Jewish roots and context out of consideration? Doesn’t this seem suspicious to anyone else? In any other context it would be considered anti-Semitic, wouldn’t it?
    I would be interested in what your thinking is about this question, Dr. Borg.

  34. Hi Carol

    I’m not saying that the universe contains God. I did almost write that I know but perhaps that was clumsiness on my part. I am saying that there is a limitless nature to existence; at least I feel that. Perhaps that’s not a very full answer to your question. But as you asked me something I thought I’d give you a response.
    Cheers

    • Jesus was a Hillelite Jew. His statements reflect his acquaintance with at least one of the many, many rabbis Hillel trained who were scattered all over Jesus’s “neighborhood.” He swam in the mitzvot the way a fish swims in the sea — the commandments were his element and he accepted them without strain. Paul was constantly troubled by them, suffered from them and was more than glad to abandon them when he could. Jesus never would have done that.

    • Daniel, I doubt this will be seen since it is being written in late December. People probably are not prowling these comments as much. But I must agree with you say that the resurrected body of Jesus does not necessarily have to be woven into the space-time continuum that we experience with our corporeal selves. We are so caught up in our physical beings we seem completely unable to get beyond them to something more fundamental. Call it spiritual if you will but I think of it as the reality behind the reality…something like machine language to a operating system perhaps. Or the electricity in the physical computer. Something far more fundamental, or basic, or in Tillich’s language grounded that what we experience in our bodies. Materialism can’t get there but if we are sensitive and aware we know in a deep way that the More is there and God is in the More as it encompasses all-that-is. Being is very deep. God bless.

  35. For me the message is not about some resurrection but rather what Jesus was telling us in his manner of living and dying — i.e. that love must have no limits and that the answer to sin is not a human sacrifice but rather the sacrifice involved in losing selfishness and becoming a person who gives of himself for others. Way, way too much is made of Jesus as savior and not enough of what Jesus said in Matthew 25:31-46. John 3:16 replaces the mission and the person of Jesus and Jesus becomes an idol to be worshipped rather than a person to be emulated.

    • For me the resurrection is the validation of Jesus’ manner of living and dying. The meek will inherit the earth, he said, but there is no evidence, other that his resurrection, that there is any hope they will do it. Everyday the tanks go on rolling over the meek. Without the resurrection, Jesus words about how to live and die are just good ideas which we can wish were true but aren’t.

  36. The best advice I ever got was to follow the way and stop talking about following the way.

  37. It seems like good advice, but it would not be good for everyone. In the beginning He was the Word, not the Way. Some speak, some listen, some walk, some rest. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.

  38. “The central meaning of Easter is not about whether something happened to the corpse of Jesus. Its central meanings are that Jesus continues to be known and that he is Lord. The tomb couldn’t hold him. He’s loose in the world. He’s still here. He’s still recruiting for the kingdom of God.”

    Just two questions,

    1. What happened to the corpse of Jesus?

    2. Why the ascension – if his old body lay smoldering in the grave?

    and a few thoughts,

    The victory of Christ is inter alia nothing less that a reversal of the second law of thermodynamics – entropy itself. It is the first domino to have fallen
    which will eventually usher in the NEW. It is from this that the cosmos is groaning to be relieved. Now if God did not do it – with the body of His beloved Son, it is nothing but wishful thinking that it may happen that ALL of reality will be redeemed. Just as the atheists say it is.

    If you think it primitive and prehistoric for Christians to believe in the bodily resurrection, you might just miss the cosmic, all encompassing event for what it is – simply because it does not accord with your elevated, post-modern, peer-induced “taste”.

  39. Elwood McDowell

    Dr. Borg:

    While I am a grateful beneficiary of modern form-critical approaches to Biblical Studies, I cannot completely agree with your rejection of both the mystical/spiritual and material/physical resurrection of Jesus. As an African American adjunct professor in religious studies, it smacks of a kind of ahistorical sense of the resurrection that is not very Jewish. I don’t mean Jewish in the orthodox sense of the way that they see the idea of resurrection but Jewish in the sense of history being linear with a God who is actively engaged in history. Without a resurrection that is in some sense bodily (not a body in the exact form that we now know), the consummation of the Jewish notion that material creation is good and not a Platonic imperfect shadow of the world of ideas is left out. The thing that is so powerful about bodily resurrection is the overcoming of the fear of death itself and the idea that God is immanently involved in the material realm. These are ideas that you have yourself championed with the notion that Jesus was a revolutionary, albeit not a social revolutionary but a Godly one.

    I must partly take back the sharp edge of my above comments to also say that the normal dichotomy between the material and the spiritual does not suffice here. I appreciate very much your emphasis on that but still worry about your emphasis on the experience of Jesus as visions after the resurrection. While I lean on C. H. Dodd’s view of realized eschatology, I would also believe that futuristic eschatology is evident even in the Gospel of John. And both to me are necessary for living in the tension between the now and the not yet in a way that I cannot avoid responsibility for stands on social justice from a nonviolent perspective. I find you surprisingly orthodox in your views and hope that at some point you will be in Phoenix or Tucson when I can dialogue with you more without me rambling like this.

  40. I was rather disappointed after having recently read your book: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally. It’s not that I did not enjoy the book and your interpretations, but at some point I was sure you would address the Resurrection, which seems to me, is one of the major stumbling blocks of many Christians today. After finishing the book, my first thought was,”that’s odd”. I immediately flipped to the Subject Index, and noticed a big hole between Repentance and Revelation! It was like descending a staircase and discovering the the last step is missing. It was like the proverbial elephant in the room, except it was noticeable at first glance. Having shared your thoughts about Jesus walking on water, restoring sight to the blind, and other miracles, I was surprised there were no thoughts at all about the resurrection.

  41. Thanks to Dr. Borg and all of those who left comments. I rejected Christianity for a long time because I was only ever taught literal meanings to the events of Jesus’ life. I recently decided that I can come back to it if I accept symbolic interpretations of the resurrection, the miracles, etc. I am very glad to have stumbled upon this website today!
    I have two other ideas on the topic to share. The first is that upon the deaths of both my grandfather and then my father, I had strong experiences that their spirits visited me. At least once I had a vision of my father and was able to talk to him. I think many people could and would have these experiences, but we’re somehow taught to give them no significance, or to not see them at all. But the opposite would have been true in the time of Jesus and the apostles. They embraced their experiences.
    Also, there are theories that during the last supper, Jesus actually shared his blood and body with apostles as a means of bonding with them. He had been an Essenne (sp?) after all, and would have known all sorts of mystical “techniques.” I think it’s possible that he did share his actual blood so that he and the apostles were as close as possible and therefore they would feel his spirit after his physical death.

  42. Much of the preceding discussion of the resurrection seems to revolve around the question of the physical vs. the spiritual nature of Jesus’ post-resurrection reality. It seems to me that we might keep in mind the consistent biblical/ecclesiastical message of the divine presence and activity in the physical, the divine lived out in the physical world. The Old Testament is witness to the activity of God in human history (written and mediated through prophecy). The New Testament is witness to the presence and activity of the divine in the physical human being Jesus of Nazareth. The Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal churches, at least, maintain the same kind of idea in their understanding of the Eucharist: the divine is present and active in the physical form of bread and wine—but really there! (The specific mechanics of that presence and activity vary in the three churches, however.) How all this plays out with regard to the resurrection of the corporeal Jesus I certainly could not say. But I would hesitate to accept completely a view that saw the physical as merely a metaphor for the spiritual; or the spiritual as simply wishful thinking in the world of physical reality. We have to be cognizant of the process of the writing of the scriptures, new and old, but must, I think, maintain the premise that the divine manifests itself in the physical. Is it going too far to claim as further evidence the personal and collective experience of many that the times of deepest spirituality in life are often tied to the times of physical crisis (childbirth, illness, death)? How we understand the resurrection of Jesus, exactly, I don’t know—I struggle with it myself—but I suspect the spiritual and the physical are firmly bound together.