Is the Resurrection a Parable?

“Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.” This quote (197), from J.D. Crossan’s popular book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (HarperCollins, 1995), characterizes a view which is becoming increasingly popular in our seminary programs, theological schools, and our churches. There is this funny notion that post-Enlightenment thought has rid us of any ability to rationally believe in something like “the resurrection of Jesus” and that if one believes in it, the foundations of that belief are built upon a Christianity divorced entirely from supernatural intervention. In other words, as some like Crossan have suggested, the resurrection is true, but only in the same sense that the story of The Prodigal Son is true. Resurrection

It seems to me that the most severe problem with such a conclusion is the fact that it’s becoming the normative view of many within the Emergent movement. This is not to say that all endorse such a view (there are a number of different streams within the movement), but it is to say that Crossan and, more recently, Marcus Borg (see, Jesus, HarperSanFransisco, 2006) have become the New Testament scholars placing themselves within that camp, severing the importance of the resurrection from the actuality of it and, on a grander scale, much of the Bible. In other words, these scholars–and those following after them–have built up a view of Christianity in which miracles don’t occur, God remains on the sidelines unable (or uninterested) intervening in world affairs, and the body of Jesus remains tragically in a lost grave, decayed and left to the dust of history.

While I certainly agree with Borg and Crossan (and others) that non-factuality does not demand that something is false (for example, the Prodigal Son is true, despite the fact that it’s a parable), the question set before us is not whether the resurrection can function is such a way but whether the implications of taking it in such a way change Christianity in such a way in which its definition changes so drastically that we can barely speak of “Christianity” anymore. The resurrection, contrary to Jesus’ parables, cannot be relegated to some non-factual “parable”, a non-historical “truth”, a subjective “reality.” It must, at the end of the day, be a positive affirmation of every kind of truth possible! This is, indeed, the foundation of Christian belief and if there ever was such a doctrine to be concerned about as a defining doctrine, it is this! Without it, Christianity falls.

I want to make three major criticisms of taking the resurrection in a mere parabolic sense, especially given the post-modern approach which has become so popular in religious studies across the Western world. First of all, any scholar is demonstrably wrong in the suggestion that the early Church created the resurrection as a parable. Overwhelming evidence suggests, as N.T. Wright has shown in his massive survey of the resurrection (2003, Fortress Press), that whenever resurrection was affirmed in Judaism and Christianity it was always a physical, bodily, historical event. And this is the crux of Christianity’s claims about the world: God truly, really interacts in history, then and now. We have no room for redefining the terms which are embedded in our tradition and Scripture. Secondly, the parables Jesus told were certainly hypotheticals in a way in which the resurrection was not. The Prodigal Son story could have happened; the story of the Vineyard could have happened; but what use is it to suggest the truth of a parable that couldn’t have happened?Indeed, instead of speaking of the resurrection as “the most-true parable” it becomes the “most-false parable” since its correspondence to reality is totally and completely false. The analogies fall flat and the resurrection, as an unsolvable oxymoron, is as true as affirming that in some strange reality we can believe in square circles. Physical resurrection is not resurrection at all if both those terms are said to be false. Finally, we can do without the story of the Mustard Seed; we can do without the story of the Lost Coin. But can we do without the resurrection? If it is a “parable” it is a “parable” of indispensable value, it is a “parable” which cannot be spoken of in the same category as, say, the parable of The Rich Fool. It is, at the end of the day, something which we cannot do with out. It is our destiny and our hope. It is the historical “no” to sin and death. It is God truly restoring what the world has broken and trampled over. Jesus does not remain beaten and killed and nor will we. This is what it means to say the “resurrection is true.” It is God saying “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21.5).

Listen, I have many frustrations with the current state of the Church and am certainly not one to oppose the need for change in some major ways. If I can say so, I have some Emergent tendencies (though, really I think they’re simply more global and historical…). But I have a concern that when we try and dispense with history and, most importantly the resurrection, as being foundational to Christian truth we run the risk of losing the authority of Scripture, the trustworthy nature of God’s Word, and ultimately ourselves. We’re too smart to be post-modern creatures consistently and sooner or later, while some may be able to live in a cognitive dissonance of affirming the resurrection while at the same time denying it, most can’t and I suspect that more people will dispense with it entirely. There is a great danger in the redefining of our terms. There is a greater danger in redefining the central term of our faith and our history: resurrection.