During my recent sabbatical, I was taking a course at the Center for Science and Religion in Berkeley, California. The professor, a professional scientist and devout Christian, began one lecture with the question: “How many of you believe in the resurrection of Christ?”
A student asked: “What do you mean by that? That’s a very complicated question!”
“No, it isn’t!” the professor replied. “At the level of physical science it’s very straightforward. Did Christ’s body decay or not?”
Of the twenty people in class only three hands were raised when the question was asked: “Do you believe there was an empty tomb?”
The student who had earlier suggested that the question was too complex for a clear answer, spoke up and said: “I believe in the resurrection, but I believe that it was a symbolic event. An empty tomb or a decaying body are, in the end, irrelevant to the real meaning of the resurrection?”
The professor then turned towards me and said: “You believe that it was a real physical event. Why?”
A good question, indeed. Like the student who didn’t believe in an empty tomb, I too believe that the resurrection is highly symbolic. Its deep meaning goes far beyond the literal fact of a dead body being brought to life. To reduce it’s meaning only to this literalness is to miss much of what the resurrection is about. Conversely, however, to cut it off from this literal fact (the real physical transformation of a once dead corpse) is to rob it of just as much meaning … and perhaps of all its credibility! For the resurrection of Christ to have meaning it must, among other things, have been a brute physical fact. There needs to be an empty tomb and a dead body returned to life. Why?
Because that is what the word incarnation means. To believe in the incarnation and not to believe in the radically physical character of the resurrection is a contradiction. The word was made flesh. This term connotes many things but it always implies something that is radically physical, tangible, touchable (like the old definition of matter as “something extended in space and having weight”). When we say the creed and say “the word was made flesh”, the implied corollary is “and it was extended in space and had weight, it was radically physical.”
Hence to believe in the incarnation is to believe that God was born in real physical flesh, lived in real physical flesh, died in real physical flesh, and rose in real physical flesh. To believe that the resurrection was only an event in the faith consciousness of the disciples, however real and radical that may be conceived, is to rob the incarnation of its radical physical character and to fall into the oldest form of dualism that exists, namely, to value the non-physical and to denigrate the physical.
Beyond this dualism such a belief also severely impoverishes the meaning of the resurrection. If the resurrection is only a symbolic event then it is also only an anthropological one and not too a cosmic one. That’s a fancy way of saying that it’s then an event only about human consciousness and not also about the cosmos.
But Christ’s resurrection isn’t just something radically new in terms of human consciousness; it is also something that is radically new in terms of atoms and molecules. The resurrection rearranged hearts and minds. It also rearranged atoms! Until Christ’s resurrection, dead bodies did not come back to life! When his did there was something radically new not just at the level of faith but also at the level of atoms, molecules, and planets. Christ’s resurrection, precisely because of its brute physicalness, offers new hope to atoms as well as to people.
I believe that Christ was raised from the dead, literally. I believe too that this event was, as the rich insights within contemporary theology point out, highly symbolic. It was an event of faith, of a changed consciousness, of new hope that empowers a new charity. But it was also an event of changed atoms and of a changed dead body. It was radically physical, just are all other events that are part of the incarnation – a word which means “God in carnality”.