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Is there a group of Christians or confession that believes that Jesus was resurrected metaphorically rather than physically?

Sometimes I encountered with opinions that Jesus was resurrected in the minds of Christians and that the Church is the everlasting and immortal Christ's body. I do not know whether such beliefs actually endorsed by the Church though.

Are there any Christian beliefs about the resurrection that would parallel these cases among non-Christian beliefs?

  • The ancient pagan Proto-Indo-Europeans believed that true immortality is possible only by means of imperishable fame, so if there are poets who sing fame to you, you become immortal in a sense.
  • In more recent times the Communists often claimed that Lenin was eternally alive because he lived in their hearts (an idea which could be borrowed from a particular understanding of Christianity).

Update

From the former version of the answer by Caleb, this quote from Peter may indicate that he was one of the people who believed that the resurrection was spiritual as opposed to physical death:

1 Peter 3:18 (ESV) 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit

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The inference you made in your "update" is simply not legitimate. I didn't give context for what I was getting at with my original verse quote (hence why I removed it) but there is no way to understand Peter as believing in anything but a physical resurrection: Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. [...] he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. –  Caleb Dec 6 '12 at 10:49
    
@Caleb interesting. Did Peter believe that the spirits of non-righteous (or all mortals) go to Hades after death? –  Anixx Dec 6 '12 at 10:56
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Yes. But that's a different question and off topic for comments. I suggest you first read what he wrote, then if you have questions about what it means for Christians bring them here or if you have problems understanding his words ask on Biblical Hermeneutics. –  Caleb Dec 6 '12 at 11:49
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The rule is "no", but like every rule there are exceptions. So "yes".

It should be stressed that such views are not mainstream, majority or orthodox in any way. However there are groups that claim to be Christian and hold to a metaphorical view of Christ's resurrection. Likewise, there are groups who claim to be Christian but don't even believe that Christ existed or believe that he wasn't the Christ (God incarnate) or all sorts of other claims. Again, these are not representative of Christian theology but they do exist in the sphere of people who claim to be Christian.

The most obvious early example would be the Gnostics. Wile Gnosticism pre-dated Christianity, it was syncratistic and embraced pieces of other belief systems. It was not uncommon for Gnostic groups after the first century to claim to be Christian while dening the physical resurrection1 and other core Christian beliefs.

For the Gnostic any resurrection of the dead was excluded from the outset; the flesh or the substance is destined to perish. 'There is no resurrection of the flesh, but only of the soul', say the so-called Archonites, a late Gnostic group in Palestine. -- Kurt Rudolph2

In fact, most Christian creedal statements starting very early on specifically include a note about the resurrection specifically to counter Gnostic and other belief systems that denied this:

[...] He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, [...] -- The Nicene Creed

In modern times, similar views enjoy wide circulation, esp on the internet among all sorts of backgrounds including those with more modern culture than historic knowledge, heterodox Christians, new-age movements, and even atheists. However popular, the view tends to be vague having no concrete name or identifiable following. The concept of a metaphorical resurrection and ongoing appreciation for a long dead good-moral-teacher* are rather assimilated into some other world view and the whole thing is stamped as "Christian" in the sense that it incorporates some terminology and history from Christianity without subscribing to its primary doctrines.

The most obvious exception to this modern trend is the Jehovah Witnesses -- a well established sect with organized concrete beliefs that include a metaphorical view of Christ's resurrection. Their belief about the atonement of Christ requires that he stay physically dead: otherwise the work he accomplished in death would be un-done. While orthodox Christian belief has Christ being physically raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit, JW belief says that he was raised as a Spirit while his body stayed in the grave.

One other major group that bears mentioning because they make their stand on Christ's resurrection being metaphorical would be Baha'i Faith. They do not pretend to be Christian but do co-opt quite a lot of terminology and claim to have the proper interpretation/context3 that makes sense out of some other Christian beliefs. If you want an article showing where they are coming from, try How to understand the inner (batin) and outer (zahir) meanings of the Resurrection of Christ in order to successfully prospect and teach Evangelical Christians and other Bible-believers the Baha'i Faith.

Once you finish with that chaff, go back to Scripture and have a look at some solid ground. Here is Peter's (eyewitness) testimony:

Acts 2:29-32 (ESV)
29  “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30  Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31  he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32  This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.


  1. Check out The Treatise on the Resurrection for an early source describing Gnostic beliefs on teh resurrection. It's confusing because he claims that resurrection is not an illusion but real, but you need to understand that in context with Gnostic belief that the physical world is just at illusion that we must escape to enter the real. The article draws a one to one parallel between Jesus resurrection and ours, this resurrection being an escape from the physical into a different reality.

  2. Gnosis (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 190.

  3. http://bahai-library.com/uhj_resurrection_bible

* Gag

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Does not your first quote from Peter also point to a spuritual resurrection rather than physical? –  Anixx Dec 6 '12 at 10:24
    
@Anixx: That was a bad example because in order for it to make sense you have to trace it through a lot more passages than just that. I'll work on a different more clear reference for that doctrine of theirs. –  Caleb Dec 6 '12 at 10:26
    
by the way, what was in the original Peter's quote? Did he really write that Jesus was killed in flash but resurrected in the spirit? –  Anixx Dec 6 '12 at 10:28
    
@Anixx: Yes, the original quote from 1st Peter is legitimately talking about spiritual resurrection (something orthodox Christianity also believes in aaas well as Jesus' physical resurrection). The important difference was not in the verse (which was all I showed) but in the translation footnotes in the JW bible on this topic. –  Caleb Dec 6 '12 at 10:31
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Good answer. @Anixx, as with the other StackExchange sites, extended discussion in comments is discouraged. If you're interested in extended discussion, might I suggest using the "chat" link at the top of the page? –  David Stratton Dec 6 '12 at 12:35
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Probably the most famous modern proponent of this idea is John Dominic Crossan, a leading member of the Jesus Seminar. This liberal group promulgated exactly the theory that you describe - Jesus' resurrection was a metaphor from which the disciples took inspiration, rather than a real event. The fact that each one of his disciples took so much inspiration that they each willing undertook a martyrs death does not factor into their analyses, as it does not fit their theory.

Needless to say, most evangelicals and other conservative Christians, like myself, don't tend to think very highly of this group, despite their academic credentials.

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Did the disciples undertake the martyr deaths in hope of physical resurection? Do you think that without the resurrection of Jesus the disciples would have no incentive to die as martyrs? –  Anixx Dec 7 '12 at 15:28
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Yes - but you don't have to take my word for it. Read Hebrews 11 - they had faith in a bodily resurrection. –  Affable Geek Dec 7 '12 at 15:30
    
But nobody of them resurrected actually, yes? There still were many martyrs anyway, even after they saw that previous martyrs did not resurrect? –  Anixx Dec 7 '12 at 15:31
    
So, most Christians understand that bodily resurrection to be an event that occurs when Jesus returns. As 1 Thessalonians 5(?) says that in "the twinkling of an eye", "The dead in Christ shall be raised first." While there are miraculuous instances of immediate resurrection, those things are temporary. In the final resurrection, we will be given new, perfect bodies, not subject to death. (1 Corinthians 15) –  Affable Geek Dec 7 '12 at 15:35
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