Reflections on Easter

Today I read a poll of American Christians about the resurrection of Jesus. It reported that more than 90% of American Christians say that the resurrection of Jesus matters greatly to them. I agree – without the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity makes no important sense.

But I was disappointed because the poll reported that these Christians responded with “Yes” to the question whether Jesus’ resurrection was “physical” and “bodily.” I think that way of understanding Easter is a distraction.

To think that Easter intrinsically involves the transformation of Jesus’ corpse turns it into an utterly spectacular event that happened once upon a time long ago. This emphasis most often goes with the message that death is not the end for us, at least for those of us who believe in Jesus. As commonly understood, Easter it is about the promise of an afterlife.

But Easter is not primarily about Jesus’ triumph over death and a future for us beyond death. Rather, the meanings of the Easter stories in the gospels and the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection in the rest of the New Testament are much more significant. Moreover, their meanings are not dependent upon whether a spectacular miracle happened to the physical body of Jesus.

In the gospels and the New Testament as a whole, the meaning of Easter is twofold. First, Jesus lives; and second, Jesus is Lord. Both convictions flow out of his followers’ experiences of him after his death.

I begin with the first. Some of his followers had experiences him as a living reality of the present, not just as a figure of the past. Some of these experiences were visions. The best-known is Paul’s vision on “the road to Damascus.” It happened a few years after the traditional Christian chronology of forty days of appearances between Easter and Ascension Day, often understood as the day that Jesus’ body ascended into heaven, thus ending his bodily appearances. Paul experienced Jesus, though not as a physical bodily reality. It happened in a vision. And in I Corinthians 15.3-8, his language is most naturally understood to mean that the experiences of Peter and Jesus’ other disciples, and others as well, were visions. He uses the same language to refer to their experience as he does for his own: Jesus “appeared” to them – and to Paul.

To those who might say, “You mean these were only visions?”, I respond: anybody who has ever had a vision would not say “It was no big deal – it was only a vision.” Of course, some visions are hallucinations, an encounter with something that is not real. When this is the case, they are most often dysfunctional. But some visions carry a deep sense of an encounter with reality, and they are life-changing and not dysfunctional at all. For Jesus’ followers, their visions led to the conviction: Jesus lives – he is a present reality, not just a much-beloved figure of the past.

In addition to visions, I think his followers experienced him after his death in other ways. They continued to experience the same Spirit – the Spirit of God – they had known in and around him during his historical lifetime. This is the central meaning of Pentecost: the Spirit that had been present in Jesus returned to his community of followers. They also continued to experience the same power they had known in Jesus: the power to heal, change lives, and create a new form of community. They spoke of life “in Christ,” in the living Jesus.

That’s the first conviction: “Jesus lives.” He is not simply dead and gone. The second conviction is equally important: not just “Jesus lives,” but also “Jesus is Lord.” Experiences of Jesus after his death were not the same kind of experience that a good number of people have of somebody who has died. Surveys suggest that about half of surviving spouses have at least one vivid experience of their deceased spouse. And, of course, there have been many Elvis sightings. But these experiences do not lead to the conviction that the deceased spouse (or Elvis) is “Lord.”

There was something about the post-death experiences of Jesus that did lead to this conviction. In language from the New Testament, God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, has raised Jesus to God’s right hand, has made Jesus one with God. This meaning is expressed in John’s gospel when the risen Jesus appears to Thomas. Thomas does not simply say, “You’re alive,” but exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

So it was for early Christians. “Jesus is Lord” is the constant affirmation of the New Testament. It has even been called the earliest Christian creed. “Jesus is Lord” – and the lords of this world are not. Indeed, the lords of this world crucified him, publicly executed him to make a statement: “This is what we do to those who oppose us.” But God has vindicated Jesus, said “Yes” to Jesus and “No” to the powers that killed him.

Consider the earliest story of Easter in the New Testament. Though Paul’s seven genuine letters from the 50s are earlier than the gospels and refer to the resurrection, he does not tell the story of Easter. The first Easter narrative is the climax and end of Mark’s gospel, written around the year 70, forty years after the end of Jesus’ historical life.

In Mark’s story of the first Easter, three women followers of Jesus go to his tomb on Easter morning in order to anoint his body. They expect his body to be there. Instead, they discover that the tomb was empty. Then an angel asks them why they seek the living among the dead and proclaims that he is not here – he is risen. The risen Jesus does not appear in Mark’s gospel. Instead, the angel promises the women that they will see him in Galilee – where the story began.

What does this story mean? Is it meant to report a spectacular miracle, maybe the most spectacular miracle ever? That God literally raised Jesus from the dead in physical bodily form? And if so, what does that mean for us? That death is not the end, and that God has shown us through Jesus the way to everlasting life?

Or does it mean something else and more? Set aside the question of whether the tomb was really empty. Believe whatever you want about that. And hear Mark’s Easter story as a parable of the resurrection. Think about what parables are.

Parables are meaningful, meaning-filled, truthful and truth-filled, independently of their literal factuality. I don’t know any Christian who insists that there really had to be a good Samaritan who acted the way he did, or else that story is false. So also I don’t know any Christian who insists that there must have been a father who received his prodigal son in the way narrated in that parable, or else the story isn’t truth-filled. Parables are about meaning. To confuse them with factual reporting is to miss their point.

As a parable of the resurrection, what does Mark’s story of the empty tomb mean? And the story of the empty tomb is found not only in Mark, but in the later gospels in the New Testament.

You won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead. He is still with us.

The powers killed him – but they couldn’t stop him. They crucified him and buried him in a rich man’s tomb. But imperial execution and a tomb couldn’t hold him.

He’s still loose in the world. He’s still out there, still here, still recruiting people to share his passion for the Kingdom of God – a transformed world here and now. It’s not over.

Easter is about all of this. To reduce it to a spectacular miracle a long time ago and a hope for an afterlife is to diminish it and domesticate it. It is not about heaven. It is about the transformation of this world. Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world. Easter is about God’s “Yes” to what we see in Jesus. Easter is not about believing in a spectacular long ago event, but about participating in what we see in Jesus. Crucifixion and the tomb didn’t stop him. Easter is about saying “Yes” to the passion of Jesus. He’s still here, still recruiting.

29 Comments

29 Comments

  1. Gun-Britt Karlsson

    Thank you Marcus for this Easter message! Looking forward to listen to you in real life in November in Stockholm in Sweden!

  2. Marcus:
    I am going through a spiritual conversion of my own, so to speak, having engaged, for the past few years, in Women’s Bible Study in a strict, bible-based church which is Fundamentalist/Evangelical to the nth degree. While I have benefited in many ways (serious bible study, community interaction, etc.), I am very conflicted because I do not endorse or believe many of the things that are taught, especially in the “it’s my way or the highway” manner typical of fundamentalism. My “spiritual barometer/the God in me” tells me that there are untruths and perversions of facts, and frankly, that inner voice has started screaming vs. whispering. I started to explore via the Internet what I might be (not that I need a label but sometimes it helps) and I stumbled upon (or was led to, depending on how you look at it) the Progressive Christianity website, and bingo, things started to make sense for me. I am checking out a few progressive churches in my area (Orange County, CA) and someone there recently suggested I read some of your books. I have to say, I very thankful for that recommendation. Thank you for some brilliant writings and a fresh look at Christianity, the Bible, Jesus, religious history, etc. And, thank you for the comfort that this new way of looking at things does not suggest, as some might think, a lack of faith and a weakening of the human/God relationship, but simply a new perspective that can greatly deepen the relationship. I hope I sit next to you on a plane one day (ha-ha — I know how you love that.)

    • I can so relate to your story, and as well as you I am grateful to find Marcus Borg and his teachings. There are so many like me and you out there, keep on asking, seeking and knocking!
      God Bless us all!

  3. As a graduate of two fundamental bible colleges, I too went through a “reawakening.” In school and in those churches, you weren’t allowed to express those doubts or questions, but they kept popping up. (Well, you could, but then were thrown out.) I almost gave up on Christianity, Jesus and the Bible. In reading the books “The First Paul” and “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time,” I woke up again. He is real and never left us! Why was this knowledge hidden from us???

  4. You are a really intelligent guy, and I appreciate that in other believers. But this seems a kinda lazy assessment of a false dichotomy. For some reason, you are saying it’s as if one can either believe that Christ was risen bodily and Easter is about “believing in a spectacular event long ago”, or that he was risen only spiritually and Easter is really about believing Jesus is alive and Lord. What is ignored here is the belief that Christ was resurrected physically and that He is still active and alive and Lord and spiritually present in the world. In Scripture, the risen Jesus eats physical food, people touch him and take hold of him, and he shows the scars in his hands and feet (Luke 24, John 20, Matthew 28). Nothing about the Scriptural accounts denote this event as being a parable, so your comparison to the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son stories are not quite followable. Jesus’ own words in Luke 24:39 are: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” I just don’t see any particular reason for trying to combat that and say the tomb was not empty. And while I empathize with the brother Paul L. above in his difficulties with dogmatic churchgoers, the knowledge was never “hidden” from us. There is no need for a fresh perspective on Jesus…just the original one from His Word.

  5. I like the bodily resurrection. I mean, the guy chows down on fish! THAT’s physical!

    • Yes, this element is there but What type of body??? Read Paul’s description and look at the actual events that happened.

      We all know about the “doubting Thomas scene”, but often miss that this only happened because He (in a new body form) went “through the walls” into a closed room to meet a scared group of people. Also note that no one, though with Him day and night, recognized Him, until He initiated an action-ate your fish or as Jordon noted -touch my scars etc. I too believe that there was more than the the concept of His spirit living on in us, after His example, but when you read the actual text, this was not a revived corpse. Remember, we have no original manuscripts and “His word” was not written in English.

      What was often hidden (especially from the pulpit) was the historical and social background of the times and the history of the actual manuscripts, which form our English translations. Once looked at, a lot of the textual problems and blind doctrinal fights disappear. As noted in these books and others Faith is in Him, not intellectual and emotional acceptance of your church’s creed, which changes.

  6. As I understand it, the original gnostics who denied the physical resurrection did so because they despised the material as inferior to the spiritual. There are so many gnostic influences that have endured among fundamentalists that still do harm (their view of sexuality as intrinsically unclean, for example) but the gnostic influence in liberal circles is equally harmful. There was good reason the ancient church rejected gnosticism. I feel, Dr. Borg, that you are more sympathetic with the gnostic viewpoint than with anything that has since been called Christian. Is this a mistake on my part?

  7. It is impossible to physically resurrect a body that has been dead for as long as was the body of Jesus. It cannot happen and it has never happened.

    If the tomb was empty, it only means that the body of Jesus was taken. The Romans or Temple authorities (or both) could have felt it necessary. The logic is easy to understand – consider the burial at sea of Osama bin Laden by the United States government. In the case of Jesus; burying the body of a crucified criminal was highly unusual – to the point of arousing official suspicions. For the execution to be fully effective, Jesus must completely and forever disappear. The decision to steal the body must have been long and contentious. The body was taken so close to the time of the arrival of the women, that the tomb was not re-sealed.

    Whoever stole the body of Jesus made a huge fatal mistake – in the disciples, they were messing with the wrong people. Somehow, this final insult to Jesus by the Empire or the Temple authorities (or both) initiated a most unusal response – a response that did not include anger or revenge. Yet, it was a response that defied and opposed the Roman and Temple Empires in ways unexpected and for which neither was prepared.

    Easter is about an epiphany.

    Easter is when the disciples decided to walk the path and continue the journey and extend and expand the lessons that they had learned from Jesus. In this way, the life and message and purpose of Jesus was resurrected. In this way, the life and future of the disciples was resurrected from death by despair and fear.

    In receiving and embracing and living and sharing the Good News, we participate in the continuing resurrection and transformation of all disciples.

    The Good News has 3 inseparable messages:
    1) The universal accessibility of the personal and persistent unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God; and
    2) The feeding quenching clothing healing visiting welcoming compassion and the reparative rehabilitating restorative justice of the Community; and
    3) The inclusive hospitality and joyous generosity and healthy service of the Individual

    • When you start by saying that it is impossible to resurrect a body that has been dead that long then you dismiss the entire orthodox Christian tradition with a wave of the hand. It seems to me an admission that you simply don’t believe the narrative; I have no problem with people who don’t believe the narrative – they are all around – but why do you go to such lengths to redefine terms, delete or insert passages, reinterpret doctrine so as to hold on to the name “Christian”, a name which you do not seem to respect. I do have difficulty understanding or empathizing with the deliberate misuse and redefinition of language to make relatively simple meaningful assertions, like the ones I make as an orthodox traditional Christian, mean the opposite of what I mean and what nearly 2000 years of tradition mean. It is illegitimate to steal my language and make it mean what you want it to mean.

      • 1) There is no single universal absolute interpretation of the bible.

        2) The traditions and language and interpretations to which you refer are not 2000 years old.

        For example, the concept of the death of Jesus being an atoning sacrifice was formalized at the end of the 11th century. It was formulated out of the feudal paradigm that existed at that time.

        The concept of original sin was invented by Augustine in the 4th century.

        So, in any attempt to discover the theology of the 1st-century church, it is necessary to put away these intervening lenses. Since these two theological concepts arose much later, they are not part of the original understanding of the Good News. To borrow a phrase from Bro. Marcus, we have to hear the New Testament as if it were for the first time.

  8. Quick example of another “proof text” for a resurrection – note the full comments:

    Luke 24 (Note the town is about 11 km away from Jerusalem.)
    a) They didn’t recognize him until He did something.
    30: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.
    31: Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.
    b) He then disappeared and he disappeared from their sight.
    32: They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

    Also note the scene with Mary from the Tomb:
    a) No recognition until He did something.
    b) His words-”Do not touch my body” Why? It was not the same! A new type of body yes – but resurrection is not resuscitation.

  9. Thank you for this Easter message! “He lives!” is corrupted when taken literally, but when understood metaphorically, it becomes a creative power that moves tens of thousands to cry out against the injustices of society, enabling the downfall of hatred and prejudice. When we believe in a creative power that enables us to break the bonds of personal pain and know the hope of new tomorrows, then we have experienced resurrection. This when the impossible becomes the possible and when personal strength and renewal comes to us in the context of new community. This is when the traditional cry of “He lives!” is transposed into “We live!”

  10. Thank you Marcus. I thank God for your life, family and teachings.
    I agree Jesus is about something foreign to us True Life, transformation to wholeness, and encountering in the mystery of all that is that God is obsessed with showing his love and grace to us. I pray that all of us in this discussion continue to have encounters with the living Jesus. My His Holy Spirit take us all to the next place of ever increase depth in abiding with him. May his grace and compassion flow from us to all peoples especially those of any theology clinging to the hope of Christ. Jesus is alive, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is the Messiah. He knows life, we know only death. My earnest prayer is that he continues to show me what living is in the here and now. Grace and Peace to each one of you.

  11. According to Dr. Borg, Easter’s meaning can be summarized in (at least) three points:
    - You won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead. He is still with us.
    - The powers killed him – but they couldn’t stop him. They crucified him and buried him in a rich man’s tomb. But imperial execution and a tomb couldn’t hold him.
    - He’s still loose in the world. He’s still out there, still here, still recruiting people to share his passion for the Kingdom of God – a transformed world here and now. It’s not over.

    But Dr. Borg seems to mean that Jesus’ IDEAS are still with us. The powers of this world killed Jesus and his ideas. They succeeded in killing Jesus, but death couldn’t hold his IDEAS down. His IDEAS are still loose in the world. His IDEAS are still out there, still here, still recruiting people to share his passion. It’s not over because people still value his IDEAS and are transformed by these IDEAS. Jesus himself is dead and gone, but his IDEAS live on.

    I don’t think that there is any supernatural deity or reality to be experienced or to witness. Rather, when we say that “Jesus lives,” it is our way of saying that we (partially) understand the vision Jesus had for humanity and that we embrace it – and that we love Jesus because his story taught us that vision and his life showed us how to carry it out. Let’s be thankful to Jesus, let’s walk in Jesus’ footsteps, but let’s not use supernatural language and confuse the issue.

    I agree with Dr. Borg’s Easter message 100% and thank him for it. But I profoundly disagree about the way he presents it. There is no need to water-down the message. Jesus died and will not rise again – but his vision for heaven on earth will always be alive in us and our descendants, his unending disciples.

  12. Marcus, I agree that the resurrection is not a resuscitation, but I bring a different logic background. In my career I have worked with many people from many different nationalities and religions. I was born to my religion and they were to theirs. If the resurrection were true, it would be a miracle which would prove that Christianity is the only true religion and the resurrection is often presented as such a proof. Isn’t it awfully suspicious that I and you were born into the only true religion and everyone else wasn’t? It’s not credible. God must be accessible to everyone, equally, and so any exclusive claim has to be suspect.

    I can quote a lot of your words: We look to Jesus as a lens to God but we don’t worship the lens. In Jesus’ life we see a person highly tuned to God and learn a lot. I like Matthew Fox’s phrase historical Jesus, cosmic Christ.

  13. Christ’s resurrection is the cornerstone of my Christian faith. Because He has risen, so will I. John rose when he was writing Revelation.

  14. Dubious pitch, I’m afraid. I am comfortable with the idea that the body of Jesus was something more than corporeal after Easter monday. That much is clear from the Bible. But the emphasis in the Bible is first and foremost on the bodily resurrection. More than just a body, yes sure, but ALSO discernible through ALL 5 senses.

    Sorry to say but the article obfuscates this plain point.

    Why not admit or deny the bodily resurrection and have done with it?

    This is certainly a case of more being less…

  15. Thank you for the timely reminder about how it is that parables are truth-full. Perhaps we might also consider these affirmations of Jesus’ living, dying, rising, ascending, & returning to be parables of our organic biology as living and dying human creatures. In the full truth of Jesus’ story, Death is not the enemy of the Son of Man, but one of the agents of his spiritual transformation into the Lord of the Dance. Thus St. Francis could later say, “Welcome Sister Death.”

  16. Hints that a physical resuscitation is NOT the same as the resurrection:

    Jesus said, “The flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63, RSV)

    Jesus said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. ” Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon and the tomb was empty Sunday morning. That’s only one full day and two nights.

    Symbolism of the tomb being empty: The religious hypocrites are compared to “white-washed tombs filled with dead men’s bones.” All accounts of the resurrection in the synoptic Gospels say that the stone was rolled away from the tomb. The stone is Christ. In other words, the corruption of the religious hypocrites (at Jesus’ time and clearly well into the future from then) will not be able to entomb the reality of Jesus.

    Jesus refers to the wounds on his hands and feet. On Sunday night, the apostles awoke to the reality that Jesus was the SUFFERING Messiah, not “the one to redeem Israel.”

    The flesh and bones that Jesus referred to was the flesh and bones of the risen body of apostles. This is the body that died Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane (they all “fell asleep”) and rose Sunday night when they came to the realization that he was the Suffering Messiah. This is the three days and three nights.

    The apostles give him broiled fish and Jesus says, “These are my words which I spoke to you.” The miracle of the loaves and fishes is about how the people were spiritually filled by Jesus’ words. THEY are spirit and life!

  17. The implied message in this essay is that life-after-death is a fiction, i.e. not the real message of Easter. Please give us an essay on immortality in Christianity. I believe that the promise of an afterlife fueled the growth of early Christianity and ever since and, according to your poll, is still deeply held. Let’s deal with this issue, without fear.

    Calling the Easter story a parable is brilliant. Many thanks!

  18. Prof Borg,

    Much of the Bible seems to be addressed to men (e.g., how to treat your wives) and not women. Can you refer me to an intelligent discussion/explanation of this? Thanx much!

  19. I think that rather than upholding the Easter message, it is an outright denial of the Easter message. To me if a person believes in a God who can create a universe then for such a God it would be a comparatively minor matter to restore someone to life physically even if with some additional capabilities. The Gospels uniformly refer to physical resurrection. In fact, the raising of Lazarus from the dead when he had been dead enough to be putrifying cannot be anything but physical resurrection. The raising of the young girl from the dead is another case in point. And the most powerful evidence is the complete transformation of the disciples: from abandonning and denying Jesus prior to his death and hiding and cowering in fear after his execution to complete belief and willingness to die for that belief after his resurrection. I don’t think it is remotely plausible that such a change could result from imagining that he was still alive. It isn’t even plausible today that any Christian would be willing to die for the Borg version of the Resurrection – allegorising it just saps it of any real power and removes the core of the Gospel. This postmodern version is, to use one of Jesus metaphors, a whited supulchre: beautiful on the outside, nothing living on the inside.

  20. I have heard the debate before concerning the physical resurrection of our Lord. For now I choose to believe that the resurrection was indeed physical but that the more important truth (independent from the former in my view) is that Christ lives and is Lord. At the same time, any “new birth” of a person who was dead to Christ and the new life that is lived from then onwards is as much a “resurrection”.

  21. Dr. Borg,

    I very much enjoyed the LTQ “first light” lectures, just as I did the series introduced by Tex Sample. I do, however, have a brief question. If the Letter to the Hebrews was indeed written as late as 80 or 90 AD, some ten to twenty years after the destruction of the last Temple, what need could there have been to offer what you call an “anti-Temple theology”? Hadn’t the Temple’s monopoly on expiatory and purificatory sacrifice already been broken? I realize that you are busy, but perhaps you could provide a bibliographic reference for me.

    Thank you for your scholarly wisdom and compassion.

    Sincerely,

    John Walker

  22. “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” (Matthew 19:26)

    Although Jesus was referring to salvation itself, this verse is very apropos here. I have had many a congenial discussion with people who scoff at any accounts of miracles in scripture, saying that the event had to have been a parable or the like simply because in our natural world, such a miracle is impossible. After all dead men don’t rise, right? However, the person who says this misses the entire point, that God who created the heavens and the earth by merely speaking them into existence can do anything He chooses, violating any apparent natural law simply because he is Lord and we are not. If God could fashion a human body with all its mind blowing complexity, why could He not bring one back to life? Smacks of arrogance to me.

  23. Dr. Borg,

    I enjoyed listening to you one more time at Calvary’s Lenten Preaching Series on Monday. I actually visited your site to leave you some comments on your novel which I just finished but stumbled over this blog post.

    Since it forms the basis of your talk on Monday, I decided first to tell you how much my fellow parishioners and I enjoyed it. We had driven from our parish of Church of the Epiphany in Guntersville Alabama that morning to hear you and to enjoy the waffle shop.

    Prior to following my wife’s job to Alabama, we had lived in Memphis and had been members of Calvary for over 20 years. I mentioned the series to my rector and he decided on a field trip.

    Thank you for all that you have meant to our spiritual journey.

  24. Professor Borg:

    Great message. I wish there were more like you speaking from the pulpits of the nation’s churches.

    Don

  25. Dear Dr Marcus, Iam in the process of re-reading your book I was brought up as a roman catholic which I no longer practice but am grateful to for giving me a more spiritual yearning. My search for Jesus continues and now feels more urgent, I must find out who he is amidst all the dust of add ons!!! so Iam grateful to you and so glad to have found your web site as I know this will be a great help. I have come a long journey to this point, gone through the doubts and fear of doubting (we were not allowed to doubt as children) so I was able to reason that God gave me the ability to doubt and seek the truth, whatever that turns out to be. So here I go again on an adventure thanks to you.