Having grown up in the context of 19th liberalism Christianity, I was accustomed to hearing that the miracles performed by Jesus, and the miracles performed on Jesus (his resurrection - Jesus did not raise himself from the dead), were simply metaphors for spiritual realities, rather than physical truths. Thus, the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee was not really a physical reality, but simply a metaphor for the way in which Jesus could bring peace in the “storms of life”. One could see this if one had spiritual insight. Likewise, the story of Jesus’ resurrection was not literally true, but rather an imaginative way in which, following his gruesome death, the spirit of Jesus lived on in the hearts and minds of his followers.
The adoption of this interpretation was readily made at the end of the 19th century. A study of epistemology recognizes that each generation has a way of accepting “what everybody knows to be true”. At the end of the 19th century, the physics of Sir Isaac Newton had established scientific explanations of how and why things happen, and within this framework, there was no room for miracles.
So was the 19th century liberal interpretation of the resurrection a reasonable and acceptable way of interpreting the Gospel accounts? After decades of studying the Gospels at an academic level, I have come to the conclusion that such an interpretation is intellectually dishonest. Do the Gospels hint at the idea that we should interpret them in purely metaphorical ways as spiritually insightful people, or does that run counter to the idea that the Gospels actually put forward?
Matthew’s Gospel comes first in the cannon, though not necessarily first in chronological order. There is an empty tomb, not necessary when the “resurrection” is just a metaphor. The angel tells the women that he has risen, just as he said, which seems to point to the times Jesus spoke of his resurrection in apparently concrete ways.The women encounter the risen Jesus and clasp his feet, which is a bit too concrete an experience for a metaphorical resurrection. There is an account of the guard on the tomb being bribed to say the disciples stole the body, but this is presented as fraudulent. Why would Matthew feel the need to add this account if the resurrection was purely metaphorical? The body could still be in the tomb without that affecting a metaphorical resurrection. The disciples return to Galilee as they were told, where they see Jesus, worship him, although some doubted. What is there to doubt about a metaphorical resurrection.
On the other hand, there are some things in Matthew’s account which seem a bit “iffy”. Even in the previous chapter, which speaks of Jesus’ death, Matthew has a number of people being raised from the dead at the moment of Jesus’ death. This sounds a bit like he is tweaking his account with a few eschatological hints, meaning, that he is associating the death/resurrection of Jesus with the general resurrection of the dead, and collapsing the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we normally think of as being separated by two days, into one event. (One thinks of St Francis of Assisi - “for it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”) So does Matthew’s account of others being raised suggest that he is basically speaking about a metaphorical resurrection with a theological interpretation? Well, Matthew maintains that many people saw those others who were raised. (Matthew 27:53)
Mark’s Gospel is problematic, in that a portion of the end has been lost. The oldest manuscripts end at chapter 16 verse 8, not 18, with the women fleeing the empty tomb and telling no one. How could Mark know these things if the women told no one? Well, the original ending may have said the women told no one along the way, until they caught up with the apostles. Their account still includes an empty tomb - unnecessary for a metaphorical resurrection.
Next we have Luke’s Gospel. Again there is an empty tomb. The strange story on the Emmaus road lends itself well to a metaphorical interpretation, which intimates that Jesus can still be known in the ‘breaking of the bread’. Not a few preachers have lent on this possibility for an excellent sermon. But just when we are thinking this is a purely metaphorical resurrection, Luke continues the Emmaus Road account with an appearance of the risen Jesus, in which he says he is not a ghost, and invites them to discover he has flesh and bones. Definitely a literal resurrection!
Finally comes John’s Gospel. In what appears to be the initial final chapter (20), we have the empty tomb, the appearance of Jesus to Mary (whose name is actually Mariam, by the way), who clings to Jesus, the appearance to the apostles. As if to underline the fact Jesus’ appearance is literal, we have the story of Jesus appearing again to Thomas, who is demanding scientific proof. Chapter 21 appears to be an addition in a second edition and contains a further resurrection appearance where Jesus shares a meal with them. It is not a sacramental meal after the tradition of the last supper; it is a call to have breakfast with bread and fish. Thus, these appearances in John’s Gospel appear to be accounts intended to be taken literally.
So here is the problem for 19th century liberalism. These accounts which are supposedly just metaphors for the spiritually enlightened, about a Jesus who lives on in our hearts and minds, show a fairly clear effort to make us understand it was a literal resurrection. Metaphorical accounts for the spiritually enlightened should not be trying to do that. They would be heading in the opposite direction.