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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

Let us not mock God with metaphor

It either happened, or it didn’t. There is simply no middle ground. To quote the American novelist, John Updike, “Let us not mock God with metaphor.” We’re talking, of course, about the resurrection of Jesus, his defeat of death. As an historical event it has no equal – whether we accept it or not. For those early Christians its historicity was non-negotiable, in real time and space, just outside the walls of Roman-occupied Jerusalem in the early 30’s. Very simply the Christian faith is not a timeless religion”: it stands or falls on an historical event, something which happened. No wonder Richard Dawkins seeks to discredit the historical underpinning of the resurrection of Jesus. “Presumably what happened to Jesus was what happens to all of us when we die. We decompose. Accounts of Jesus's resurrection and ascension are about as well-documented as Jack and the Beanstalk.” And yet over the years those who have sought to investigate, even discredit, Jesus’ resurrection as an event in history, have concluded that it is the only explanation which emerges from close examination. They usually write a book. The most recent I am aware of is the investigative journalist Lee Strobel who sought to debunk the resurrection of Jesus but his research led him in the opposite direction. For the Biblical witness is quite clear: the resurrection of Jesus is an event, as witnessed by at least 520 people. So just some twenty years later, the apostle Paul recounts to the church at Corinth. “(The risen Jesus) presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than five hundred of his followers all at the same time, most of them still around (although a few have since died); that he then spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent him.” (1 Corinthians 15:4-6) Clearly for the apostle the resurrection of Jesus is the irreducible centre of Christianity. “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14). In fact, if Jesus was not raised and his body just decomposed somewhere, then this apostle is under no illusion: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Moreover, the resurrection of Jesus is an affront to postmodern thinking which is not comfortable with objective facts. Here “claims to objective fact,” according to philosopher Brian Duignan, “are dismissed as naive realism.” It’s not as if it happened in my universe but not in yours. We don’t each have our own particular collection, to quote President Trump’s press secretary, of alternative facts. But can we still believe in Jesus without taking his resurrection as an event? Can we have the best of both worlds, understanding his defeat of death as a purely spiritual event (whatever that is) or a metaphor? In other words, is there a way of holding onto the Christian faith without accepting the resurrection as historical fact? So argued the 19th century German theologian, David Friedrich Strauss: “ The supernatural birth of Christ, his miracles, his resurrection and ascension, remain eternal truths, whatever doubts may be cast on their reality as historical facts.” I’ve just come across Jesus Updike’s stunning “Seven Stanzas at Easter” from an article in the New York Times. I’ve known Updike as a leading US novelist but I had no idea that he had such a robust faith in Jesus. It seems that he wrote this poem in 1960 for an arts contest at his church, which not surprisingly he won.

Let us not mock God with metaphor, Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence, Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded Credulity of earlier ages: Let us walk through the door. Updike right away makes the claim that Jesus suffered a real death, his body was drained of all life on the cross. And his resurrection victory is the only sure foundation we can build our lives upon. Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body. If the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall. Jesus, he says, rose with “hinged thumbs and toes.” A stone, textured, rough, heavy, was rolled away. A cold, valved heart regained its pulsing beat. A real angel “weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the dawn light” announced a touchable reality. For Jesus’ resurrection, as Updike understood only too well, changes everything. As NYT columnist Tish Harrison Warren observes: “If Jesus defeated death one morning in Jerusalem, then suddenly every revitalization, every new birth, every repaired relationship, every ascent from despair, every joy after grief, every recovery from addiction, every coral reef regeneration, every achievement of justice, every rediscovery of beauty, every miracle, every found hope becomes a sign of what Jesus did in history and of a promised future where all things will be made new.” Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Seven stanzas for Easter

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