I listened to a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris in Vancouver on June 23, 2018, where Harris asked this seemingly simple question (which had been previously asked of Peterson):
“Was Jesus literally resurrected?”
Peterson said it would take him 40 hours to answer that question. Harris offered his own succinct answer:
“Almost certainly not.”
Harris was being generous, noting that nearly anything is possible, even if it has an infinitesimally small probability. But it is clear that he thinks that Jesus did not literally physically resurrect from the dead, his body did not die, go into the tomb, and then come back to life three days later. It did not literally physically happen. We can be almost 100% sure of that.
Such a literal physical resurrection flies in the face of everything we’ve learned and know about life and death, biology, the ecosystem, nature, etc. Organisms that die do not come back to life, and there seems to be nothing on Earth or in heaven that will change that natural order of things, or reverse it. Believing that they do, or at least that Jesus did, creates such a conflict of reason that it shatters all belief in any kind of consistent reality. It is things like this that make religion, and particularly Christianity in this case, look absurd.
However, what Harris doesn’t seem to grant, and which is where Peterson wants to take such a conversation, is that there is a very long history of beliefs, traditions, history, rituals, mythologies, and archetypes of resurrection throughout history (see here, here, and here, not to mention ideas such as rebirth and reincarnation, which I think are very much related). And these stretch to many millennia before Jesus ever walked the earth. The idea of resurrection, of dying and rising gods, is embedded in the cultural psyche of many civilizations, and perhaps even in our human biology.
I think Peterson could have answered the “literal” portion of the question easily, as Harris did, but then pointed out that there are much deeper questions about resurrection in general, and specifically in the life of Jesus, which cannot be so easily answered, and those that think they can are fooling themselves.
So then the question becomes, if resurrection is not referring to a literal physical resurrection, the reanimation of a corpse, then what on Earth is it referring to? What meaning could it possibly have? What truth does it contain? What are these stories and myths trying to teach us? What are they trying to communicate in their allegories? What could they possibly mean? Is there any truth in them that is real, factual, physical?
This is what Peterson wants to take 40 hours to discuss, and I think it should be discussed. For resurrection has had such a persistent existence in our collective consciousness (and perhaps unconscious) for so long, even long before Jesus, that there seems to be something significant in it, something deeply true, something that perhaps goes far deeper than any “literal” understanding of resurrection. It’s an archetype, and as an archetype it is pointing to a large pattern of reality that is part of who we are, and so it should not be ignored or explained away.
I’ve shared my thoughts about resurrection before, and you can see those articles listed under the topic in my new Topical Guide. There are many deeper, symbolic, metaphorical, mystical, figurative, and yet still very real and even physical ways that we may consider the meaning of resurrection, without resorting to the literal unscientific construction of a human body that dies, and then rises again a few days later. When we believe spiritual realities in a superficial literal way, I think we may do damage to them, and to ourselves, believing in fables; perhaps it is this kind of thing that the Apostle Paul warned against (see 1 Timothy 4:7; 2 Timothy 4:4). This, I think, is also what concerns people like Sam Harris. The literal interpretation must go.
If there is something real and significant to be learned in the archetype of resurrection, and I very much think there is, then it will take more work from us to really explore it and consider what it might be trying to say. We may even need to dive deep into our spiritual nature to understand it. If I had to boil it down to a short expression of what I think resurrection means, it would probably be something like this:
Resurrection is the eternal dying and rebirth of life and creation throughout the world and cosmos; nature’s construction of forms and their eventual dissolution to be replaced by new forms continually; the infinite recycling of nature’s resources into and out of things, beings, structures; the life that always arises after death, both during life (as in ego death, or the many other ways the person we think we are must “die” and be “reborn” throughout life) and after life (in the formation of new life); the recognition of the inseparable nonduality of spirit and matter, of subject and object, of mind and body, coming to the realization of this oneness that is the Ground of Being in Reality, that Nature is one interconnected Whole, and we are That.
If I had to state it from a more theistic vantage point, relating it as closely to Jesus as possible, I would put it like this. When we realize our Oneness in God as Jesus did, we realize that even though this body returns to the dust of the Earth from which it came (“Adam”), new Life will arise from the very same dust, and this will also be One in God. It will likewise be Life. It will likewise be an expression of God, a manifestation of God, an emanation of God, a Child of God, not separate from God, but a reflection of God in God. When we transcend ego, this illusory “separate self,” and identify our true Self with and in God and all of Reality/Nature, then it is our very Divine Self, the Self of God, that resurrects in all of Life eternally. That is the God that resurrects, not any particular individual “separate self.” We are that God that resurrects, that has resurrected even in the Life we now currently enjoy in this mind/body, here and now, and we can come to realize this directly while we live, even as Jesus did, and as many other saints and sages have so realized. We can come to know and identify ourselves with the ground of all reality, that which includes all of the cosmos and universe, and this is Eternal. And this deep knowing, this identification, is resurrection, for we have realized we are One in God, Nature, Reality, the Cosmos, and always have been, and we (God) will continue to live and manifest our Self throughout all eternity. The Divine “I” will return, again, and again, and again, in each and every lifeform and creation that ever emerges in the universe.
Albert Einstein once intuited:
A human being is a spatially and temporally limited piece of the whole, what we call the “Universe.” He experiences himself and his feelings as separate from the rest, an optical illusion of his consciousness. The quest for liberation from this bondage is the only object of true religion. Not nurturing the illusion but only overcoming it gives us the attainable measure of inner peace.
We feel that we are a limited finite part of the whole that this this universe, usually feeling that we are living in this universe rather than being a part of this universe. We feel ourselves as completely separated from all the rest of nature, other beings, the world, and the cosmos. We feel like we are in nature, not a part of nature. We feel like we are in the world, not a part of the world. We feel like we came from God, but are not a part of God. But this is the “illusion” that Einstein notes in the quote. This persistent perception and feeling of being separate from the whole is not real at a higher level of perception and understanding. We are not, ultimately, as we typically appear to ourselves in our everday consciousness. The perception of being a “separate self” emerges in consciousness early in our childhood and grows throughout our adolescence, and it is the goal of all true religion and spirituality, and even of true science and philosophy, to help us transcend this limited conception of our self, to make the quantum leap of selfhood from being only this particular body/mind to being the Self of the whole universe, which is God.
We are not only in nature, but we are Nature. We are not only in the world, but we are the World. We are not only from God, but we are God, a “god” in God. We are the Whole, manifesting in each and every part of the Whole, and we are never, ever, ever separate from it, nor could we ever be separate from it. It’s impossible to truly separate ourselves from it (compare Romans 8:38-39). Our “separate self” egoic consciousness, our psychological “self,” and what we see as our particular body/mind, is a finite dualistic reflection of a nondualistic One Infinite Being. What we see “out there” is not separate from us, but is our Self manifesting in duality, emerging in multiplicity, in diversity. The Self is manifesting in me, and it is manifesting in you. It is manifesting in all things, forms, shapes, structures, inventions, creations, art, literature, invention, life, being, relationships, love. We are the Self reflecting itself in itself, like mirrors reflecting mirrors. In the consciousness that arises in our particular body/brain, the Self comes to know itself deeper and deeper simply by looking out onto the world, and especially so when it participates in the Life of the world, and ultimately when it realizes that it is its Self. When this shift takes place, we are no longer truly separate from anything, but we all belong to the very same Self, the same Body, that we call the Cosmos and Reality, Nature and God, the Father and Brahman, Buddha and Dharmakaya, the Tao. This is the pinnacle of Love, of Peace, of Liberation, of Salvation, of Awakening to our true Divine Nature. This is realizing Christ in us (Galatians 2:20). This is Resurrection.
Being an archetype, the truth of resurrection may be found on many different levels, and I believe it is in perfect harmony with the nature of reality and science. But it goes far deeper than surface-level literal interpretations.