The Resurrection of Jesus: Story… or True Story?

Years ago, as part of my process for ordination, I was being interviewed by a committee. My interlocutors and I were talking about the resurrection of Jesus. One of them asked me, “How do you see resurrections in your own life?” It wasn’t a bad question, and I know the person who asked it meant well, but I balked at the way it was framed.

At the risk of irritating my committee (several members of which were, I think, already irritated with me), I replied that I don’t understand the resurrection of Jesus primarily as a metaphor. It is not just a story that we apply figuratively to various aspects of our lives. It is an event in history that has real implications for this life and our eternal lives. A couple of my committee members looked at me with a quizzical, pitying expression. It was like that of someone regarding a child who hasn’t yet learned basic manners and is about to get spanked on the hand.

ResurrectionSo perhaps that wasn’t my most politically astute moment. In retrospect, however, I’m not sure I could have given an honest answer that was much different. If I simply understand the resurrection as a metaphor, I might apply it to all kinds of “new beginning” moments in my life. For example, if I go through a particularly rough patch in my life and then come out of it with a renewed sense of identity and purpose, I might liken this to a “resurrection.” In this scenario, the resurrection stories of Jesus form an interpretive backdrop against which I can understand the events of my life. I suppose there’s nothing too terribly wrong with this sort of thing. It just doesn’t go far enough.


Think of it this way: Imagine I wrote a story about how I discovered cold fusion, an inexhaustible source of power that could change the world. If I were a good writer of narratives, the readers could see aspects of their own lives in the story. In this sense, the story might be compelling because it would help them to think in new ways about themselves and the world around them.

What if this were a true story, though? Now we have a whole different ballgame. I’ve not just written a story. I’ve written about an actual event that will affect the lives of countless men and women for ages to come. In one scenario I’ve written a story about a source of power, and readers can relate the story to certain aspects of their lives. In the second scenario, I’ve told you about something so important that the world will never be the same again.

We can think of the resurrection of Jesus in the same way. Is it simply a story, or is it a true story? If it’s simply a story, it might help us to reflect on our lives in the same way as any other compelling piece of literature. Depending upon what kinds of things we like and our values, we might find a compelling narrative that illuminates our lives in, say, Macbeth, Fahrenheit 451, or Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Narratives can be powerful and can in important ways help to shape our worldview. In that sense, the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are no different.

If the resurrection of Jesus is a true story, however, it doesn’t just shine light on various aspects of our lives. Rather, it changes our lives forever. It is a demonstration of the real power of God over sin and death. In the resurrection of Jesus, God was actively at work bringing life out of death and victory out of defeat. In the same way, God can work in my life and your life, bringing joy out of sorrow and praise out of lament. That joy and praise, moreover, are not just for today or for a certain season of our lives. They are for eternity, because just as Christ has been raised from the dead, so will all who believe in him.

Paul puts it this way: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:11, NRSV). God will give life to your mortal body. What does this mean? It means that the Spirit of God will come into our lives in the present, bringing our hearts into alignment with God’s heart. It also means that after these mortal bodies have failed, God will breathe life into us again. “We will not all die,” says Paul, “but we will all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51).

For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:43-46).

Thanks be to God, indeed. The resurrection of Jesus is not just a story. It is a true story. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to us, right here and now, this very day. That power will change your life forever. On Sunday, then, when you hear the reading of the Easter story, listen with an awareness that the tomb really is empty, Christ really is alive, and death really has died. The power of the Gospel is not just in the story, but in the reality of the God who called that story into being.

13 thoughts on “The Resurrection of Jesus: Story… or True Story?

  1. Another excellent post, Dr. Watson. I’ll be coming up on those questions for standing before long myself.
    One of the things I have been struck with during this season of Lent-Easter has been the radical physicality of the Incarnation (I shared this in my Maundy Thursday message). Part of my “United Experience” has been a pulling me back into affirming a real resurrection. This wasn’t because I had moved away from it, but the centrality of the real, physical resurrection of Jesus is the very foundation of everything.

  2. This brought to mind an excellent reason why we should all be organ donors, if we are eligible to do so. Thus others may live on or have a higher quality of life after our passing.
    If we have helped others, listened to others and cared about others, we will live on in the memories of those who knew us.
    If, on the other hand, if we were arrogant, uncaring, cruel and ignored the plight of others, that, too, will live on in the memories that others have of us, when we are no longer living.

  3. As a former agnostic, I understand why it might be necessary for you to step back and explain this to “outsiders,” if you will. But it concerns me that you have to step back and remind your own church. Glad you are doing it, but it shouldn’t need doing. Kind of alarming that it does.

    • I do believe and have always believed. But it’s good to be encouraged from time to time. “All this stuff is really true!” Even the most faithful of us can enter patches of doubt and discouragement–I know I do.

  4. Your experience with the ordination interviewers is nearly identical to mine. One interviewer strongly objected to my insistence that Jesus was more than a moral teacher, but that he was God incarnate whose innocent death and bodily resurrection are the foundation of ultimate hope of the world. I’m thankful that my education at United prepared me to stand clearly in that truth!

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