Resurrection: Literal or Merely Symbolic?

When the New Testament speaks of the resurrection, is it speaking of a literal resurrection of the body or merely a “symbolic” resurrection?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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All four of the Gospel accounts affirm that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead (Mt. 28:6; Mk. 16:6; Lk. 24:6; Jn. 20:9). Later, the apostle Paul argues that the resurrection of Christ is the very foundation of the Christian’s faith.

“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither hath Christ been raised: and if Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, your faith also is vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we witnessed of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, neither hath Christ been raised: and if Christ hath not been raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also that are fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable” (1 Cor. 15:13-19).

If Jesus was not resurrected, our belief and our preaching are worthless. The doctrine of the resurrection is about as fundamental as it gets.

Religious Modernism

It is, then, somewhat disconcerting to learn that a recent survey found that “30 percent of ‘born again’ Christians do not believe that Jesus ‘came back to physical life after he was crucified’” (Barna Research Group).

Yet, if one were to ask many of these people whether or not they believe that Jesus Christ died and arose from the grave, they would reply: “Of course.”

The point of controversy would be how the expression “rose again” is defined. They would not subscribe to the concept that the body of Jesus actually came forth from the tomb. No, it was only in a spiritual sense that he arose.

In other words, Christ’s abiding influence was so effectual and lasting that it was as if he actually came from the grave.

And so, one may accommodatively speak of the “resurrection” of Jesus, while not believing in the reality of such at all!

This is the position that has been argued by radical modernists for a considerable period of time.

This rationalistic view of Jesus’ resurrection is absolutely void of evidence. It is grounded in the infidel’s supposition that miracles, from the nature of the case, have never occurred.

The bodily resurrection of the Savior would have been a miracle — a violation of natural law. Thus, it simply did not happen.

The Literal Resurrection Affirmed

But the evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection is overwhelming. The Lord himself declared: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Subsequently, an inspired apostle informs us: “He spoke of the temple of his body” (Jn. 2:19, 21). Raise it up ... his body. This is too plain to misunderstand.

Only a perverse mind would so twist the Scriptures as to conclude that the resurrection was merely “spiritual.” The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the best-attested fact of human history.

The A.D. 70 Heresy

We marvel at how men who profess a degree of reverence for the Bible can adopt such baseless notions. But the shocking truth is, there is a growing concept which employs a similar mode of reasoning.

This doctrine is variously known as the “A.D. 70” faction, the “realized eschatologists,” or the “Max King” sect — an appellation derived from the fact that Max King of Warren, Ohio, has been the leading influence of this relatively recent and rather novel segment of the church.

Advocates of the A.D. 70 theology deny that there will be any future resurrection of the human body. Oh, the Bible speaks of the resurrection, they concede, but the resurrection is already past.

When did it occur? In A.D. 70 when the Jewish nation fell to the Romans — that was the resurrection of the dead — so claims Max King.

It is alleged that for the first four decades of its existence, the church of Christ was buried under the oppressive force of Judaism. When Rome destroyed the Jewish regime, the church, as it were, was resurrected from the grave.

And that is the end of the resurrection matter. There will be none in the future.

King says, regarding the early Christians:

“[T]hey were still in the graves or world of Judaism, waiting for deliverance or resurrection ... until the Jewish world passed away, they were considered dead men .... They were resurrected after they overcame the world or when Judaism fell” (1971, 348).

In his more recent book, King spent some 285 pages attempting to prove that the “body” to be raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15) is not the human body and the resurrection is not a literal resurrection (1987, 381-666).

In the past century, there has not arisen a dogma more saturated with downright irrationality than the A.D. 70 theory.

The truth is, Paul shows that the future resurrection of Christians will be of the same nature as the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:15-20).

There is not a speck of practical difference between the modernistic view of resurrection and that entertained by the A.D. 70 sect.

  • Barna Research Group. July 12, 2000. “Americans’ Bible Knowledge Is In the Ballpark, But Often Off Base.” July 12, 2000. Ventura, CA.
  • King, Max R. 1971. The Spirit of Prophecy. Warren, OH: King.
  • King, Max R. 1987. The Cross and The Parousia of Christ. Warren, OH: Parkman Rd. Church of Christ.