Christian resurrection-deniers are wearisome bunch

By Stephen Rankin, Special Contributor…

Lots of good possibilities exist for serious give-and-take between believers and non-believers. I love talking to honest skeptics.

But there’s one group I admit I’ve grown weary of: Christian resurrection-deniers. Not resurrection deniers in general, but those who claim to follow Jesus, who blithely assert that thinking people simply cannot believe the hocus pocus about Jesus rising bodily from the dead. If resurrection means anything, so this line of thinking goes, it can only have metaphorical/symbolic significance.

Stephen Rankin

Let me narrow my charge a little more. A Christian struggling intellectually with belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, who honestly wants to know the truth and pursues it with transparent intensity and a willingness to learn; for this kind of Christian I have utmost respect. After all, one of the major characteristics of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection is how Jesus’ own followers doubted! But the easy, breezy, smooth-talking, read-the-latest-John Spong-Marcus Borg-Dominic Crossan-and-now-we-know-what-really-happened Christian, tries my patience mightily. A Christian who confidently denies the resurrection is an oxymoron.

I repeat: It is not argumentation, doubt or critique of the resurrection that bothers me. It is the facile dismissal—by Christians!—of a central belief of our faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, says John Polkinghorne, “is the pivot on which Christian belief turns” (The God of Hope and the End of the World, p. 76). And by “resurrection,” he does mean “bodily.”

Not resuscitation

Before going any further, let’s be clear about what the resurrection hope does not mean. It does not mean “resuscitation.” Resurrection does not mean the return of biological life to a corpse. It is not a going backward to resume an old way of life. The Gospel claim regarding the resurrection of Jesus is, in a sense, a going forward—a glimpse of the future that has come to us. It is the cause of our hope of our own resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of the New Creation.

Is this claim something that modern, thinking, enlightened people simply cannot believe? In a word, no. Double negatives don’t work very well, so let me state it positively. Intelligent, modern, well-informed, aware-of-the-issues people can and do believe in the bodily resurrection. And that’s one reason why I’ve picked John Polkinghorne as Exhibit A. Dr. Polkinghorne, as many of you know already, is a particle physicist and an Anglican priest, who gives articulate expression to belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. So let’s follow a little bit of the argument from his book.

Created and re-created

Let’s start with this conundrum about how, even in normal life, “minds” continue while the physical substrate of our bodies will change. Knowing that “we have very few atoms in our bodies today that were there even two years ago” (God of Hope, p. 105), how is it that we can have consciousness of a continuing existence? How does the “self” persist over time, when the physical stuff we’re made of changes?

Thomas Aquinas, using Aristotle’s metaphysics, taught that the soul is the form of the body. “Form” here might best be thought of as the organizing principle of the body. Dr. Polkinghorne, following research related to how information works in complex systems, suggests the analogy that information is to energy what soul is to body. Just as the information in a system is not limited to the “bits and pieces” of matter/energy making up the system, the soul—though it does not exist apart from the body—is still something distinguishable from the body. The soul (self/person) is the “information-bearing pattern of the body” (p. 106). This is a tentative answer to how a person, whose physical body is constantly changing, can persist over time. We are, as Roger Penrose once said, more than “computers made of meat.”

So, what does all this have to do with resurrection? Dr. Polkinghorne once more: “It is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern [of information] that is a human being could be held in the divine memory after that person’s death . . . It is a further coherent hope, and one for which the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the foretaste and guarantee, that God . . . will re-embody this multitude of preserved information-bearing patterns [people] in some new environment of God’s choosing” (p. 107-8). Resurrection! Bodily.

If that idea seems utterly preposterous to you, consider this. If you believe in a God strong enough and smart enough to create a universe—that is, if you are any sort of believer in a God who creates—then you already believe in a reality similar to what I just described. A God who is able to create is surely one who can re-create.

Philosophers can raise objections to this view, and my point here is not to claim proof. My point, rather, is to give an example of how some pretty smart people confidently express belief in Jesus’ resurrection while being fully engaged in modern scientific and philosophical dialogue.

Thus, the time has come for us to start ignoring those who claim that thinking, enlightened people cannot possibly believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Having doubts, raising arguments and probing our faith is totally fine with me. Presumptuous dismissal, because now we know so much better, is one of the Accuser’s wiles.

Dr. Rankin is an ordained UM elder and chaplain of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He’s also author of the book Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

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7 Comments on "Christian resurrection-deniers are wearisome bunch"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Wow! Are you all serious? Do you really think a litmus test of doctrine including resurrection will be used to gain entrance to the other side of eternity that will include a good seat? Meanwhile, God weeps at the world and the trivia we embroil ourselves in.


There is just an incompatibility in using the name "Christian" in reference to resurrection deniers. They are mutually exclusive terms – to deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to render "christianity" (lower case intended) to being just one more human philosophy destined to the scrap heap of history. Those who espouse that worldview WILL find out the truth some day….my prayer is that it is on this side of eternity.


The hypocrisy is that John Spong earned his living from a Church whose doctrine he rejects. I wonder how he could conduct services which contain the Creed that affirms belief in the Resurrection of Christ. The man is a fraud who should have had the honesty to quit his high paying job in the Episcopal Church if he rejected the fundamental teachings of the Episcopal Church, which still officially professes the Nicene Creed, which affirms the Resurrection of Christ.

Archpriest John W. Morris

keith kelly
The Scriptures are filled with a number of allegorical and mystical expressions of spiritual realities. Jonah is swallowed by a whale, earth has four corners, the sun that stops to allow a battle to continue, thus proving the sun rotates about the earth, the literal creation accounts are belied by the fossil record. The point is not that these things are "false," but that they are the best ways to explain, at various points and times, perceived realities. As Spong notes, the four gospels do not agree on the what, where and when of the resurrection event–meaning the physical resurrection… Read more »

Philosophy aside, Paul makes clear what is at stake in a claim to bodily resurrection. Read 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul makes clear that a faith without belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ (and thus also our own resurrection) is ultimately worthless. Thanks for the article!


It seems reasonable to argue that anything is possible as per this discussion. Hypothetically speaking, anything could be possible. The key question is not about the possibility, but the probability of it all things considered. Either you think God did and does intervene in this way or you don't. It is as simple as that……with a lot of implications following……..


I often wonder at the motivation of some of the louder resurrection-deniers. Who are they trying to impress/win over with their arguments?

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