Refuting the “Real Absence” Anti-Transubstantiation Argument

In John 6, Jesus asserts his real, true and substantial presence in the Holy Eucharist

Juan de Juanes, "The Last Supper," ca. 1562
Juan de Juanes, "The Last Supper," ca. 1562 (photo: Public Domain)

Protestant apologist Jason Engwer, in his online article, “You Ought To Believe In A Real Absence,” wrote:

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. ... But there’s nothing wrong with absence in this context, and it actually makes a lot more sense than the alternative.

The problem with this commentary is what Jesus taught in his great eucharistic discourse recorded in John Chapter 6. Was Jesus teaching only that “bread of life” was simply metaphor for belief in him and that there is no physical and sacramental substantial bodily presence in the Eucharist?

No; as I demonstrated in that article, both things are true: He used a metaphor for belief and faith in him (“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst”: Jn 6:35, RSV), but also made it clear that he was talking about his literal Body and Blood (in a supernatural sacramental sense; not the “cannibalistic” sense):

  • John 6:51 (RSV) ... the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.
  • John 6:54 ... he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, ... (cf. 6:56: “... abides in me ...”)

Five Senses of Presence

This is category confusion on Jason’s part. There are five senses in which we can refer to Jesus being “present” with us on earth:

First, his time spent on earth as a physical man, for about 33 years, from his birth to his crucifixion, resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, and ascension [physical].

Second the indwelling: an attribute he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the same Last Supper Discourse (John 14-17) Jesus referred to he himself (and God the Father) being “in” us [non-material/as a spirit]:

  • John 14:18 ... I will come to you. (cf.  14:16-17)
  • John 14:20 ... I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
  • John 14:23 ... my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
  • John 15:5 ... He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit ...
  • John 17:23 I in them, and thou in me, ...

Third, in the sense that he is (as God) omnipresent [non-material/as a spirit]:

  • Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
  • Matthew 28:20 ...  I am with you always, to the close of the age.
  • Ephesians 1:22-23 … the church, [23] which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.
  • Colossians 3:11 … Christ is all, and in all.

Fourth, supernatural eucharistic presence: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity [spiritual and sacramentally/miraculously physical and substantial].

Fifth, after his return to earth as a physical man[-God] with a glorified body at the Second Coming [physical].

Specific Arguments

Now let’s look at some of Jason’s specific arguments:

  • 1 Corinthians 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

This is clearly referring to the Second Coming, or #5 above. So we can speak in terms of that being in the future, and his time living and teaching on the earth being in the past, while the senses of presence #2-4 are ongoing in the interim period. No contradiction! 

Paul’s being “absent from the Lord” or “away from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6, RSV) is a sixth kind of presence of Jesus: not on earth but in heaven. It’s clearly what Paul is referring to here and in 5:8: “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” We also know this from context. Verse 5:10 refers to appearing before “the judgment seat of Christ.” This simply has nothing to do with eucharistic presence at all.

Philippians 1:23 is in the same sense: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” He’s talking about being in heaven with God, like he did in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” First Thessalonians refers to the time of the Second Coming and being with Jesus thereafter. It’s all irrelevant to the matter of eucharistic presence.

Real Substantial Eucharistic Presence, on the other hand, is referred to in the following passages:

  • 1 Corinthians 10:16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
  • 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

The Lutheran Book of Concord (Article VII) refers to both passages:

He who eats this bread eats the body of Christ, which also the chief ancient teachers of the Church, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Leo I, Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine, unanimously testify.
We believe, teach, and confess that not only the true believers [in Christ] and the worthy, but also the unworthy and unbelievers, receive the true body and blood of Christ; however, not for life and consolation, but for judgment and condemnation, if they are not converted and do not repent, 1 Corinthians 11:27-29.