How consistent are modern views of a spiritual resurrection of Jesus with the evidence of the gospels?

One of the major fault lines within Christian Theology in recent times has been over the statement “I believe in the resurrection.”  What does it mean to claim this?[1] Many Christians would insist that this means that Jesus rose physically from the dead.  However, a number of theologians have argued that this is not necessary.  It is possible to talk of a spiritual resurrection without the need for a bodily resurrection.[2]  They insist that they remain orthodox believers.[3]  Can this be the case?  This essay will evaluate the claim by setting out the arguments in its favour and then considering the arguments against.

The basis for the argument is that if we attempt to take the Gospels as factual, historical documents, they are found wanting.  They are riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies.[4]  An alternative approach is required in order to rescue the spiritual truth of the gospels for the modern mind.[5]

Their starting point is that the Gospels were written long after Jesus’ death and were based upon oral traditions and some written collections of his sayings.[6]  The writers then filled in the detail by developing stories about his life.  So, for example, John Shelby Spong relates this to the Jewish tradition of midrash and argues that the Gospels were intended to act as commentaries on Jesus’ life, drawing upon Old Testament traditions in order to demonstrate God’s care and provision for his people.[7] 

The Resurrection itself consisted of the realisation of the disciples that Jesus’ message was true, that it was possible to live a different life and that in some sense Jesus had defeated death and lived on.[8]  This realisation started with Peter, took place in Galilee[9] and may have been accompanied by some form of grief-induced psychological phenomena, be that visions or hallucinations.[10]  Belief in the resurrection never depended upon an empty tomb. So, for example, the women were told that Jesus had risen before they were told to look at the tomb.[11]

What evidence can be produced to support this argument?  Firstly, it is claimed that post- death hallucinations were not uncommon in the ancient world.[12]  There was a general belief in the afterlife as demonstrated by religious ceremonies such as family meals with the dead.[13]

Secondly, there are clues elsewhere in the New Testament that the early Christians would have understood resurrection as a spiritual event not requiring a bodily resurrection.  When Jesus discusses resurrection with the Sadducees, he argues that those who are resurrected are like angels, not marrying.[14]  This implies spiritual beings rather than physical bodies.[15]  Jesus then goes on to refer to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as living.  There is no record of any of the patriarchs having been physically resurrected.

Thirdly, there are clues in the resurrection narratives.  For example, Matthew tells us that the crucifixion and resurrection were both accompanied by earthquakes and that the tombs emptied and the dead arose.[16]  If this is true, then there is more than one empty tomb and resurrection citing to deal with.[17]  It is more likely that Matthew is attempting to describe the events using apocalyptic language.  In other words, he has intentionally retold the story in graphic, non literal, terms.[18]

If the modernist approach is correct then whether or not each and every person involved in the telling of these narratives understood the events as non literal, we do have enough permission from within the texts to read them in this way today.  However, I would argue that they are incorrect in their hypothesis for the following reasons.

Firstly, the Gospels claim to be factual accounts based upon eyewitness reports.  This distinguishes them from non-literal genres such as midrash.  David Peterson tells us that “‘Midrashic’ approaches to the gospels have actually been severely criticised by those who are expert in Jewish rabbinic literature.”[19]  There is a significant difference in style and structure between gospel and midrash.  The latter makes a clear distinction between quotation and commentary and employs argumentation between different points of views. Gospel does not fit that genre.[20]

Matthew’s description of earthquakes and resurrections may still leave us with a problem.  However, it does not seem insurmountable to me.  It is possible to accept that apocalyptic language was used without that impinging on the historicity of the central events common to all of the gospels.  Indeed, as Tom Wright notes, Matthew would have been unlikely to have developed a story that distracted his audience away from the uniqueness of the main resurrection account.  It is highly likely that he was simply describing an event that he was aware of.  It is possible that he does that in language that emphasises the eschatological significance of the event.

Secondly, there is a strong emphasis in the gospel accounts themselves on the physical.  This occurs both in the passion narratives themselves and in the wider references within the gospels to resurrection.  Jesus combines his predictions of death with a promise of resurrection.[21]  Jesus prefigures his own resurrection with the physical raising of Lazarus,[22] the widow’s son[23] and Jairus’ daughter.[24]  His own resurrection may be seen as something more than these resuscitations but certainly not less than them.[25]

In the passion narratives themselves, the empty tomb is central to the story.  Mark’s account is much shorter than the other gospels,[26] it finishes suddenly, it includes no visual sightings of Jesus and yet, as with the other three gospels, the tomb is central and the women are instructed to look and see that Jesus is not there.[27]  Whilst the empty tomb on its own is not enough to produce faith, it is certainly the starting point.[28]  The reader is meant to ask “What has happened to the body?”  This question is then answered by the folded grave clothes –  the body has not been removed by thieves in a hurry – [29] and then by the appearances of Jesus, a man with new powers maybe to appear at will but a man all the same who eats and drinks, who can be touched.[30]

Thirdly, and in my view, critically, the gospels would have been understood as portraying a physical resurrection by their contemporary readership.  Whilst pagan traditions included meals for the dead and visions or hallucinations, these confirmed that the deceased really were dead and gone, not that they had in some sense risen.[31]  In Greek thinking, returning from the dead was neither possible nor desirable.[32]  The Gospels offer something different to pagan hope.

Second Temple Judaism could only have read resurrection accounts as physical.[33] The dead went to Sheol, but there was the hope that at least some would experience bodily resurrection at the end of time.[34]  There was no expectation of a return to life outside of this.  Therefore the point Jesus makes about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob being “the living” is not that they have been resurrected.  No Jew would have understood Jesus this way.  Rather, because they are living, they will be resurrected in the future.[35]  It is important to note then that Jesus’ comparison with angels does not imply a spiritual resurrection; the comparison is simply in terms of function (they will not marry) not form (body or spirit).[36]

The resurrection of Jesus bodily from the dead would then have represented something familiar to the Jews.  In that respect, the empty tomb was vital.  Appearances alone would simply have conveyed the idea that Jesus had gone on to Sheol.[37] The open grave and especially the folded grave clothes told the disciples that something miraculous had happened to Jesus’ body.[38]  This combined with his bodily appearances to them in groups over meals told them that he had been resurrected. [39] This, whilst being familiar, went beyond Jewish expectations of a general resurrection.  Jesus had been resurrected, now, already, not at the end of time.[40]

So far, we have argued that the intention of the gospel writers was to provide a factual account of a bodily resurrection.  Where then does that leave us?  The reader will recall that the starting point for the modernist interpretation was that it was necessary in order to rescue the idea of the resurrection for the modern mind.  One reason for this necessity was that the Gospels could not be accepted as reliable witnesses when treated as literal accounts.  A number of scholars have undertaken significant research in order to evaluate those concerns.  Suffice it to say that there is a significant body of evidence to suggest that alleged inconsistencies can be resolved and an acceptable harmonisation of the events provided. [41]

We may conclude then that whilst many modern theologies of the resurrection have been developed in good faith with a desire to make the good news of the resurrection accessible to modern people, such attempts to revisit the resurrection story are neither necessary, nor are they compatible with the Gospel accounts. 

As Wright argues, it is only on the basis that God intervenes physically in the bodily resurrection of Jesus that we can trust him to intervene spiritually in the transformation of our lives and communities.[42]


[1]See Willi Marxsen The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, (Trans. M Kohl London: SCM, 1970), 14-16.  

[2] David Jenkins & Rebecca Jenkins, Free to Believe, (London: BBC Books 1991), 45.

[3] David Jenkins, Free to Believe, 148.

[4] It is not within the scope of this essay to discuss these alleged inconsistencies in detail, however a number of the publications listed in the bibliography do provide such a detailed discussion, see for example, George Eldon Ladd, I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton,1975).

[5] J. S. Spong, Resurrection –Myth or Reality? (San Francisco: 1994), 13. see also Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, (Trans: John Bowden, London: SCM Press Ltd 1994), 15.

[6] J. S. Spong, Resurrection –Myth or Reality? 65. States that Matthew was not written until the 80s, while  Gerd Lüdemann is adamant that none of the gospels provide eyewitness accounts: See Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, 30.

[7] J. S. Spong, Resurrection –Myth or Reality? 3-32.

[8] J. S. Spong, Resurrection –Myth or Reality? 242-259

[9] J. S. Spong, Resurrection –Myth or Reality? 197.

[10] Lane Craig says that he refers to them as hallucinations, William Lane Craig, “Opening Statement,” in Jesus’ Resurrection Fact or Figment A debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, (Edited by Paul Copan & Ronald K. Tacelli Downers Grove IL 2000), 39. Lüdemann prefers the term “visions” as a more neutral representation of his views, Gerd Lüdemann, “First Rebuttal,” in Jesus’ Resurrection Fact or Figment A debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, (Edited by Paul Copan & Ronald K. Tacelli Downers Grove IL 2000), 53.

[11] Willi Marxsen The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, 42.

[12] Gerd Lüdemann cited in NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (London: SPCK, 2003), 36.

[13] Cited in NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 421-422.

[14]  Luke 20:27-29

[15] See NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 422.

[16]  Crossan refers to this as “The Harrowing of Hell” NT Wright and John Dominic Crossan, “The Resurrection, Historical Event or Theological Explanation,  A Dialogue,” in The Resurrection of Jesus, John Dominic Crossan and NT Wright in dialogue, (Ed. Robert B Stewart, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 27.

[17] NT Wright and John Dominic Crossan, “The Resurrection, Historical Event or Theological Explanation,  A Dialogue,” 27.

[18] NT Wright and John Dominic Crossan, “The Resurrection, Historical Event or Theological Explanation,  A Dialogue,” 27.

[19] David Peterson, “Spong’s Approach,” in Resurrection Truth and Reality, (ed. Paul Barnett, Peter Jensen and David Peterson; Sydney: Aquila Press, 1994), 4.

[20] David Peterson, “Spong’s Approach,” 4.

[21] See e.g. Matthew 16:21-23 and 17:22-23

[22] John 11:1-45

[23] Luke 7:12-16

[24] Luke 8:41-56

[25] NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 443-444.

[26] Following the conventional view that Mark’s Gospel finishes at 16:8

[27] Mark 16:6

[28] NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 696.

[29] George E. Ladd, I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, (London: Hodder and Stoughton,1975), 94.

[30] George E. Ladd, I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, (London: Hodder and Stoughton,1975), 99.

[31] NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 62.

[32] NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 82.

[33] NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 127-128 and 694.

[34] NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 205-206.

[35] NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 423-426.

[36]NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 421-422.

[37] NT Wright and John Dominic Crossan, “The Resurrection, Historical Event or Theological Explanation,  A Dialogue,” 35.

[38] George E. Ladd, I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, (London: Hodder and Stoughton,1975), 94.

[39] NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 696.

[40] NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 205.

[41] See E.g. George E. Ladd, I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus,

[42] NT Wright “A Dialogue,” 23.

* This was one of my first year essays at Oak Hill Theological College in 2007.

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