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Decarnating Jesus

Amidst the celebration of the death of death through the victory of God in Christ that is the joy of Easter, there sometimes come discordant voices who insist on twisting the scriptures and casting aspersion on the resurrected Lord. One of those voices this Easter season is Marcus Borg, a New Testament scholar who, for many years now, has been one of the chief antagonists of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Borg has gone on the offensive against the resurrection once again this year with a post entitled: The Resurrection of Jesus: Physical/Bodily or Spiritual/Mystical? The article claims that Jesus’ resurrection should not be understood as a resurrection of the body but as a “really real” spiritual resurrection, and through mystical experience a person can come to know or experience the really real. This so-called “spiritual” resurrection is, for Borg, distinctly non-bodily:

[W]hat would it mean to say that the risen Jesus is a physical/bodily reality? That he continues to be a molecular, protoplasmic, corpuscular being existing somewhere? Does that make any sense? How can the risen and living Jesus be all around us and with us, present everywhere, if he is bodily and physical?

I intend to raise three points of response to this article – two critiquing aspects of the argument and one considering its implications.

First, the question of how Jesus can be bodily present in a place and yet “all around us and with us, present everywhere” is a relentlessly modernistic question that didn’t seem to trouble the early church and, I suspect, doesn’t trouble many post-moderns, who are often quite comfortable with mystery and tension. And the question is easily answered using the language of the New Testament authors themselves. In Acts, Jesus ascends bodily to the throne of heaven and the right hand of the Father, and there he is present, yet he sends the Holy Spirit to be his presence in the world to embolden and empower his disciples for the mission of making disciples. The New Testament affirms both the bodily nature of Christ’s resurrection and the pervasive presence of God in Christ through the Spirit. Indeed, the Spirit is even sometimes called the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9; 1 Pet 1:11). This is, of course, the kind of biblical language that led the early church fathers to begin using trinitarian language in describing the mysterious existence of the one God revealed as three persons. A truly trinitarian theology sees no problem with Christ being bodily present in heaven and yet widely present in the Spirit. Mysterious? Certainly. But neither meaningless nor contradictory.

Second, Borg insists that resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ corpse. Strangely, though, he goes on to reflect on the importance of Easter by saying that Jesus could not be held by the tomb:

The central meaning of Easter is not about whether something happened to the corpse of Jesus. Its central meanings are that Jesus continues to be known and that he is Lord. The tomb couldn’t hold him. He’s loose in the world. He’s still here. He’s still recruiting for the kingdom of God.

This is a most peculiar way of speaking. If resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ corpse, then presumably his corpse would have remained in the tomb. And would not the tomb have continued to hold him? And when his disciples began to go around saying that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had been resurrected, would not a simple inspection of the entombed corpse of Jesus put an end to all that fanciful talk. The reality is that if resurrection is not about what happened to Jesus’ corpse, then there is no resurrection. He is not Lord; the tomb has held him; he is not loose in the world; he is not here; and the kingdom of God is a farce. Borg’s argument virtually deconstructs itself.

Third, what are the implications of this allegedly non-physical resurrection? There was a common axiom among the early church fathers that provides a helpful angle into this discussion. In describing the relationship between incarnation and redemption, the fathers often said: whatever is assumed (in the incarnation) is redeemed, and whatever is not assumed is not redeemed. This is a helpful perspective for considering the implications of a non-bodily resurrection, because if the resurrection is only spiritual/mystical and not physical/bodily, if a body has not been assumed in the resurrection, then it is far from clear that redemption extends to embodied life, which is bad news for all of us who live as embodied persons. If Jesus does not assume a body in his resurrection, then it is unclear how redemption can have anything to do with us. In fact, it would seem that it does not, and we are left helpless in our sinful state. 

Further, if the resurrection is non-bodily, then it is difficult to understand why the incarnation was necessary in the first place. This point is behind the title of this post: Decarnating Jesus. If incarnation is to take on human flesh, then decarnation is to cast it off. If the resurrection and redemption are non-bodily, why did the Son of God need to take on a body in the first place? In Borg’s line of thought, the incarnation seems to be something of an add-on that doesn’t really have much to do with anything.

Also, a non-physical resurrection denigrates physicality. That is, if redemption is a purely spiritual and non-physical reality, then why should we think physicality and the physical world matter at all? Forget stewardship of creation. Forget feeding the hungry. The sooner they starve to death, the sooner they are delivered from this lowly physical state to a higher spiritual salvation.

The bodily resurrection of Christ is the ground of embodied dignity, the ground of serving and ministering to other embodied persons. The resurrection of Christ’s body is God’s declaration that bodies are important; creation is important; physicality is important and good. 

Borg’s decarnational theology is basically warmed-over gnosticism, the implications of which denigrate embodied life and undermine the goodness of God’s physical creation. This leads logically to an escapist theology in which bodily existence is bad and spirituality is good, and hope is for freedom from the former for the pure experience of the latter. The problem is that God said his physical creation was good. God imprinted embodied human beings with his own divine image. God likes bodies. And God raised Jesus’ body from the dead for our full redemption and for the full redemption of all that he made. Anything less is decarnating Jesus. 

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