Fact, metaphor, and the Bible: the case of the Resurrection

“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” – St. Paul

I’m trying to get clear on the extent to which I disagree with Marcus Borg’s take on the “metaphorical” nature of the Bible, so I thought it might be useful to look at his treatment of the Resurrection of Jesus.

Borg writes that he sees the “truth of the Easter stories” as twofold:

Jesus is a figure of the present and not simply of the past. He continued to be experienced by his first followers after his death and continues to be experienced to this day. It’s not just that his memory lived on or that his spirit lived on, as we sometimes speak of the spirit of Lincoln living on. Rather, he was and is experienced as a figure of the present. In short, Jesus lives.

Not only does Jesus live, but “Jesus is Lord.” In the New Testament, this is the foundational affirmation about Jesus, and it is grounded in the Easter experience. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say more than simply that Jesus lives. It means that he has been raised to God’s right hand, where he is one with God. And to affirm that he is Lord is to deny all other lords. (Heart of Christianity, p. 54)

Borg continues:

Because I see the meaning of the Easter stories this way, I can be indifferent to the factual questions surrounding the stories. For example, was the tomb really empty? Was his corpse transformed? Did the risen Jesus really eat a fish? Did he appear to his disciples in such a visible, physical way that we could have videotaped him if we had been there?

For me, the truth of the Easter stories is not at stake in these questions. For example, the story of the empty tomb may be a metaphor of the resurrection rather than a historical report. As metaphor, it means: you won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead. As the angel in the story puts it, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The truth of the Easter stories is grounded in the ongoing experience of Jesus as a figure of the present who is one with God and therefore “Lord.”

Obviously, a lot of Christians would disagree with Borg about the relative (un)importance of the details surrounding the Resurrection. But I think his is a reasonable position for someone to take. What requires a bit more clarification, I think, is the status of the Resurrection itself. And this is where I think the opposition between “fact” and “metaphor” muddies the waters a bit.

This is because, for Christian faith, the Resurrection is a fact in the sense that it is something that happened–an event that makes a difference to the way things go for the world. But it isn’t something that can be straightforwardly described using the language and concepts drawn from our run-of-the-mill experience. The Resurrection–like the other great hinges of the Christian faith (e.g., creation and final consummation)–is rooted in a Reality that goes beyond the mundane world of space and time.

Consequently, the language we use to describe it is, of necessity, metaphorical, symbolic, even “mythical.” We see this in the NT accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus. He is “physical” in some sense, but his body also behaves in ways that are quite atypical for a physical object (changing its appearance, appearing inside locked rooms, etc.). Whatever judgments we might want to make about the factuality of these accounts, the paradoxical language points to the fact that the disciples and those to whom they handed their tradition took themselves to be dealing with a reality beyond the bounds of the ordinary. We could say the same about the other details Borg mentions (the empty tomb, the angels): they may not themselves be “factual,” but they point to a fact.

This is why talking about the Resurrection as “metaphor” could obscure some fundamental distinctions. Sometimes when people talk like this what they mean is that the stories of the Resurrection are just illustrations of some general “spiritual” truth, such as that new life comes through suffering or some such. But Christian faith stands or falls on something much more concrete and specific than that: that the man Jesus who was crucified lives on in the power of God and that this makes all the differences for our lives and for the world. As C.S. Lewis would say, it’s a myth (or metaphor) become fact.

Again, I don’t know whether or not Borg would disagree with this. But I think his discussion could’ve brought these distinctions out more clearly.

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2 thoughts on “Fact, metaphor, and the Bible: the case of the Resurrection

  1. I smell the burning fagots in Rome, Geneva, Lisbon, and Madrid.

    Be glad a bunch of un-Christians turned the Refomation into the Enlightenment.

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