Resurrection Sunday–the highest holiday in the Christian year–is just a few days away, and as we approach this most holy and magnificent of days I wanted to take a moment to address why the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation is a downright terrible metaphor for the Resurrection of Christ.
Perhaps you’ve encountered the illustration before. Jesus’ entry into the tomb is like the caterpillar entering the cocoon. His death is like the period of time the caterpillar undergoes its metamorphosis. And Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead is like the magnificent emergence of a new creature—the elegant and beautiful butterfly—from its chrysalis. The illustration seems almost tailor-made in creation. As far as I can tell it is ubiquitous. Preachers use it. Websites that document common religious imagery expound it. Christian magazines use it as a convenient pictorial illustration. In addition to all these, it is a highly convenient pedagogical metaphor, particularly for children.
But despite its convenience and ubiquity the caterpillar’s metamorphosis is wholly inadequate as an image of the resurrection because, quite frankly—and apart from the idea of disappearance and reemergence—it is precisely nothing like the resurrection.
Allow me to explain: there is both an innocent, and a more serious, reason why metamorphosis is an inadequate (if not dangerous) metaphor. The innocent reason is that in being a simple illustration of disappearance and transformation the caterpillar-to-butterfly image sidesteps a fairly important point: the caterpillar doesn’t die. It is still alive.
I suspect part of the appeal of the caterpillar-butterfly image is precisely that it sidesteps the issue of death. Death is uncomfortable. It means dying. The cessation of life. The end of a heartbeat. No more breathing. The person who is dead is gone, never to come back. The body he or she once inhabited is already undergoing the process of decay and dissolution. In time, and barring special circumstances, it will be reduced completely to dust. That is death. Death is dead leaves and rotting fruit. It is a junkyard of cars beyond repair. It is cancer, heart attacks, and strokes. Death is funerals, graveyards, and dried bones.
If we miss the whole death part then the whole resurrection part loses most of its significance. Jesus of Nazareth did not fall asleep on the cross, get wrapped in a refreshing cloth, and then revive a few days later. He didn’t enter into a kind of median state where his body was reduced to a genetic goo and then—according to the preprogrammed nature of his human-divine DNA—get reconstituted as a new, glorious human being. No, Jesus died. All that horrible stuff about death actually happened to Jesus. His heart stopped. His breathing stopped. He was pierced and stabbed through the side. He had no pulse, no life. He was dead dead dead.
Only when we have allowed ourselves to remember the horror and finality of death will we be in a position to appreciate Christ’s resurrection life. And remembering the finality of death is something we are highly reticent to do. We’ve been lying to ourselves about death for a long time. Our television and movie heroes regularly come back from the dead. In North America we have largely abandoned all our rituals for death—as if not mentioning it will make it go away. But death is horribly, immovably placed as an event in human life—the final event, our common terminus. And it is at that terminus that Jesus’ resurrection shines so startlingly. Jesus came back from death. He’s the only one in the history of humanity to perform that feat and not die again (like Lazarus). And his return to life was not zombie-life, or Frankenstein-life, but life real and full and complete with the fullness of what it means to be human.
This brings me to the more serious reason why the caterpillar-metamorphosis is a terrible image for the resurrection. Christ did not metamorphosize in the tomb. He was not transformed into a new and different being. He was brought back to life as a human being, and this fact must not be overlooked.
When we, through faith in Christ and the power of his Spirit, attain our own resurrection we will not be transformed into different kinds of beings. We will still be human. More human than we’ve ever been before, but still recognizably, intentionally, unmistakably human. We will most certainly not have wings.
And that means, by extension, that we are not like caterpillars now—struggling, inch by inch along the ground, waiting the day of our metamorphosis so that we can finally break free from the limits of our humanity. No, if the principle of the resurrection applies to the caterpillar then it applies in this way: when the caterpillar is resurrected it is still a caterpillar. Its caterpillar-iness is a good, created by God. Likewise, our humanity is a good, created and instituted by God.
And this, to be explicit, is the more serious danger of the metamorphosis metaphor: that it creates in us, however subtly, an idea of discontentedness with our humanity. As if what we are truly longing for is the day when we are butterflies, and not for the day when, like Christ, we will be fully human. Full humanity is the goal and purpose of our creation—it is the very thing for which we are each fearfully and wonderfully made.
Death is real, resurrection is real, and humanity matters. The caterpillar-to-butterfly is a magnificent transformation in creation, but it is an inadequate illustration for the great truth of the Christian faith. In its place, this Resurrection season, I suggest spending some time reflecting on death. Go take a walk through a graveyard, or look at pictures of loved ones who are no longer with us. Take honest and sincere stock of the reality of death, so that you can appreciate the miracle of Christ’s life all the more.