Monday, July 29, 2019

You Ought To Believe In A Real Absence

Roman Catholics (and others) often criticize those who don't believe in a physical presence of Christ in the eucharist by referring to that view as "the real absence", in contrast to the real presence. They often act as though the phrase "real absence" does so much heavy lifting that they don't need to do much beyond applying that label to their opponents' view. But there's nothing wrong with absence in this context, and it actually makes a lot more sense than the alternative.

For one thing, the original backdrop to the eucharist involved the absence of a physical presence in the Passover elements:

"That the bread 'is' his body means that it 'represents' it; we should interpret his words here no more literally than the disciples would have taken the normal words of the Passover liturgy, related to Deuteronomy 16:3 (cf. Stauffer 1960:117): 'This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate when they came from the land of Egypt.' (By no stretch of the imagination did anyone suppose that they were re-eating the very bread the Israelites had eaten in the wilderness.) Those who ate of this bread participated by commemoration in Jesus' affliction in the same manner that those who ate the Passover commemorated in the deliverance of their ancestors....M. Pesah. 10:6 uses the Passover wine as a metaphor for the blood of the covenant in Ex. 24:8" (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 631, n. 27 on 631)

Secondly, Biblical precedent gives us reason to conclude that no physical transformation has occurred if there's an absence of physical evidence of such a transformation. For example, in John 2, Jesus didn't change the water into wine under the appearance of remaining water. He didn't heal lepers and blind men under the appearance of their remaining leprous and blind. Physical miracles produced the sort of corresponding physical evidence you'd expect. The absence of such evidence in the context of the eucharist is most reasonably taken as implying the absence of such a physical transformation.

Lastly, scripture teaches us that Jesus is to be absent for a while (Matthew 24:23-27, Mark 14:7, John 14:2-3, 14:28, Acts 1:11, 3:21). He's still spiritually present, and you have to allow for exceptions to the generalities in the passages I just cited (e.g., Jesus' appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, which seems to have been a physical appearance, like the other resurrection appearances). But a belief in Jesus' physical presence in the eucharist would have him physically present frequently, if not all of the time or the large majority of the time.

When discussing the eucharist, Paul refers to how it proclaims Jesus' death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). That sort of language makes more sense if Jesus is physically absent, but will return physically in the future. It makes less sense if he's continually physically present, but will also come physically in some other sense in the future. Much the same can be said about Paul's comments on being "absent from the Lord" in 2 Corinthians 5:6 (see, also, Philippians 1:23, 1 Thessalonians 4:17).

An especially significant passage in this context is Mark 14:7. The surrounding context involves the Passover and the Last Supper. Jesus is anointed by a woman and makes the comment in verse 7 about how they won't always have him around to do good to him as that woman did, whereas they'll always have the poor around to do good to them. The passage refers to how the woman has anointed his body, and he refers to how she's prepared him for burial. The focus is on the physical, especially Jesus' body. What comes between Mark 14:7 and the burial? The events commemorated in communion. So, those events are included in how the woman has done good to Jesus. In fact, as I've documented elsewhere, Jesus' burial was a prominent theme in early Christianity, often referred to in gospel summaries, baptism, etc. The implication of Jesus' comment in Mark 14:7 is that doing good to him bodily in that context isn't something they'll always be able to do. Yet, that's what Catholics claim to do frequently in communion. They honor Jesus' body in communion in various ways, with altars, monstrances, church services, etc., worship him in that context, and so on.

If the physical presence of Christ in the eucharist is as significant as Catholics make it out to be, and they experience it as often as they claim to, then it's harder to make sense of these New Testament references to the absence of Jesus. And keep in mind that the issue isn't whether it's possible to reconcile these passages with the Catholic view. Rather, the issue is which view makes the most sense of the evidence.

There's no shame in believing in a real absence. In fact, that view is more consistent with the original context of the eucharist, the physical evidence we have pertaining to the eucharist and how that evidence relates to the history of Biblical miracles, and the Biblical affirmation of the absence of Jesus.


  1. Excellent thoughts and a pithy title to boot.

  2. Good stuff, Jason! Although still active in the Wayback Machine, when you write like this, I wish you would've never closed your old website.

  3. Jesus was present with them, alive and in the flesh. If in fact they were then eating His body, He had led them to violate God's Law: ""For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, 'You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.' (Lev. 17:14).

    Now Jesus is a tempter of men to break God's law, and salvation is impossible.

  4. And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."- Luke 22:19

    Partaking of communion in "remembrance" of Christ would seem to presuppose Christ's physical absence.