“If… we see an account given of such miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is, is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.”
– Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
Within 10 minutes of when the human heart stops beating, the brain suffers irreversible damage. In under a half an hour, gravity forces red blood cells to seep out of the capillaries and settle into the lower parts of the body, creating the “look of death,” the strange paleness of a corpse. The lack of blood circulation creates changes in pH that cause cells to lose their integrity and break down. Anaerobic organisms from the intestines and respiratory system begin to turn the body’s proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates into organic acids and gases. This creates the “smell of death” and bloats the corpse. The pressure from the gases distend and rupture organs. Blowflies and other insects arrive within a day to lay eggs, and their maggots feed on the corpse causing the hair to fall out and skin to slip and tear in the following two days.
That this happened to Jesus of Nazareth is as certain as anything in all of history. Just as he was constrained by all other biological realities like the necessities to eat and sleep, so after his final moments, he was irrevocably overtaken by those same forces, as every other man has and will be. Jesus didn’t “rise again” because such chemical processes cannot be reversed–the personality that was Jesus vanished from this Earth the moment his brain stopped functioning, hanging on a cross sometime in the first century CE.
Arguing against Jesus’ resurrection is an absurd idea–the fields of chemistry, biology, anatomy, and physics are well established and need no further defense here. Nonetheless, it’s worth pondering how such a myth got started when Jesus’ body was buried in a tomb (I Cor. 15:3). The simplest answer is that the first Christians didn’t believe any such thing. They thought that Jesus had risen in a spiritual sense rather than the currently-accepted physical sense. If this was the case, we should expect to see Jesus’ resurrection story evolve from such humble beginnings to a much more fanciful story over time, and so we do.
After his death, it seems very likely that Jesus’ followers did go into hiding, as is maintained by all four Gospels. After all, not only does it seem unlikely that the Early Church would’ve intentionally impugned the reputations of the same leaders they venerated, but also it would’ve only been natural to hide after their leader had just been killed by the Roman authorities. In hiding, the young movement began to grapple with how to interpret their leader’s death. Then, according to the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Greek church at Corinth:
Christ appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time,* most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (I Cor. 15:5-8)
The authenticity of the passage is highly contested by scholars for a variety of reasons,** but there’s strong reason to believe that this was , if not from Paul himself, at least a very early tradition in the church, mainly because it in no way incorporates the later-Gospel stories, their order of Christ’s appearances, or the number of disciples who saw Jesus (twelve or eleven?). It’s hard to see why a interpolator wouldn’t have incorporated these elements.
Also, while Paul does not directly say that these appearances are in visions or dreams, we know that from Acts that the Early Church believed that Paul experienced a vision (9:3-6). Given the fact that the author does not distinguish Jesus’ appearance to Paul from the other appearances, it is clear that he believed these to be visions as well, which was certainly not the later Christian view represented in Luke and John.
For a movement that believed that the world was about to end within their lifetimes (Mk 9:1, 14:62; I Thess. 4:15; I Cor. 15:51), these visions confirmed their leader’s teaching that “the Kingdom of God is near.” The first recorded explanation for Jesus’ death is given by Paul.
Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. Since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come (I Cor. 15:20-23).
In other words, Jesus’ resurrection set in motion a chain of events leading to the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth.
After Peter saw Jesus (three days after his death), he began to preach about a resurrected Jesus, which caused many other people to begin to expect, and eventually see, Jesus in visions and dreams of their own (a phenomenon that Gerd Ludeman has noted is very common among believers even today, particularly visions of Mary). The tradition of not recognizing the risen Jesus (Lk 24:15-16; Jn 20:14; Jn 21:4) is also worth noticing as a brilliant psychological device. Any stranger might be the risen Lord! Paul, however, makes it clear that Jesus’ “resurrection” was a resurrection of the soul or spirit, not a physical resurrection:
How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come? How foolish! …There are heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies… The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable… it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven (I Cor. 15:35-47).
“The last Adam” (Jesus) was clearly seen by Paul as being raised in spirit only, a “life-giving spirit.” He concludes his review of Jesus’ resurrection by declaring in no uncertain terms that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God… For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable” (I Cor. 15: 50, 53). Jesus’ body was still in the grave. His soul, however, had a new body, a spiritual one with which to rule.
Furthermore, it should be noted that this entire chapter comes in the context of proving the resurrection to doubters. He writes, “how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” While he mentions Jesus’ burial, he omits any reference to the empty tomb, which if he was trying to prove a physical resurrection would have been the best proof possible. We also know that Paul is in contact with Peter (Gal. 1:18), which means that if Peter had been teaching a gospel based around an empty tomb, Paul would have known, and yet still, his gospel contains no reference to it:
Brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you… For what I received [presumably from the disciples] I passed on to you: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve… (I Cor. 15:1-5).
Paul’s gospel that he “received” does not mention the first witnesses to the resurrection found in the four Gospels–the women–nor does it mention an empty tomb. Given the fact that the Gospels were not written until after Paul’s death, it cannot be claimed that Paul assumed his audience already knew this information. He is reminding them of the gospel story in the context of proving the resurrection. How would they have heard about the empty tomb except from Paul? If Peter was claiming that Jesus walked out of the tomb and down to see him, it is hardly conceivable that Paul would not have felt the need to mention that. The only explanation is that Peter and Paul both believed that Jesus’ resurrection was in a spirit only.
How did the early apostles’ message become so misunderstood? A likely explanation is that the majority of early Christians didn’t understand their message, just as most Christians today still don’t. The fact is that most people prefer the concrete over the abstract, the literal over the figurative. Probably as soon as Peter announced that Jesus had conquered the grave, stories began to circulate that mistook his (and Paul’s) spiritual resurrection as a physical one.
The first written report of a physical resurrection—chapter 16 of the gospel of Mark—has all the signs of being one of the earliest of these stories. Written around 70 CE, Mark’s account is a brief eight verses. Three women visit the tomb three days after he died to put spices on his body. They find a “young man in a white robe” at the tomb who tells them that Jesus is not there and is planning to meet them in Galilee. The women, however, “fled from the tomb” and “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (16:7-8). The ending explains why no one had ever heard this empty tomb story before. The women didn’t tell anyone!
In the context of first century Palestine, it makes perfect sense why the author places women at the tomb. He has to explain why the first (and only) witnesses to the empty tomb didn’t inform anyone. Every first century male reader would have said to himself, “Of course, women would be too afraid to say anything!” Since the women do not tell anyone, the author could not have heard of it either, which makes it clear that the story is just a literal interpretation of the apostles’ spiritual resurrection, and as Matthew and Luke’s sequels show, it turned out to be far more popular.
Matthew and Luke’s resurrection stories are clearly based word-for-word off Mark’s, but with some very important changes. Mark’s “young man” transforms into gleaming angels (Mk16:5; Mt 28:2-3; Lk 24:4) that materialize out of nowhere, for example. But most importantly both authors change Mark’s ending. Rather than not tell anyone, Matthew’s women “hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (28:8). Along the way, they just happen to run into Jesus, and Matthew’s author made sure they “clasp his feet” (28:9) to demonstrate that this was definitely not a vision.
Luke’s author similarly has the women come back and tell the disciples everything. They are skeptical (like Luke’s readers are, given the fact that they are used to the spiritual resurrection story), but the Evangelist has Peter run to the tomb himself, examining the empty linen for himself. The skeptics are ultimately set straight when Luke has Jesus appear to all the disciples at once, materializing out of thin air. Jesus then eats a fish to demonstrate that he is not a ghost or a vision. Luke’s author has him say, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (24:38-39). The author seems to almost explicitly use Jesus here to refute Paul’s notion of Jesus as a “life-giving spirit” not made of “flesh and blood.”
Someone else in the second century recognized that the endings of Matthew and Luke were at odds with Mark, so they created an alternate ending for Mark and tacked it on (16:9-20), as is admitted by almost all scholars and even stated in many Bibles. The problem is that the physical resurrection story does not really make sense. If Jesus conquered the grave physically, then what became of him? Why is he not still here? And why did he not bring in his kingdom if he returned to Earth? Mark ends with Jesus alive and walking around Galilee somewhere, waiting for disciples who don’t know he’s alive! Matthew leaves these questions up to the reader to figure out, but Luke has Jesus “ascend into heaven” (24:50). In his sequel, the book of Acts, Luke actually has Jesus ascend until “a cloud hid him from their sight”(1:9), since apparently heaven is located somewhere in the troposphere. (Next time you talk to a Christian, ask them if they believe Jesus is hiding in the outer-atmosphere somewhere waiting to return)
Luke also attempts to resolve why Jesus did not immediately establish his kingdom. In Acts 1:8, Luke has Jesus tell us that “it is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (1:7). An unsatisfactory answer to be sure, but Luke presumably figured that an unsatisfactory answer from the mouth of Jesus was better than no answer at all. No explanation is needed, however, if you understand the resurrection as visions and dreams. Paul clearly does not think Jesus got up out of his tomb and walked over to Damascus to speak with him (Gal. 1:15-16).
Luke was given to taking the apostles’ teaching too literally. It is unclear what Paul had in mind when he called Jesus “the son of God” (Rom 1:4), but it is certain that he did not mean that Jesus’ mother was literally impregnated by God himself, a ridiculously pagan idea if there ever was one. In fact, his birth is one of the only events in Jesus’ life that Paul does mention, and he treats it as unremarkable (Gal. 4:4). Luke, on the other hand, has the Holy Spirit “come upon” Mary, “so that the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (1:35). Luke’s literal “son of God” account obviously won out over Paul’s figurative one. In light of this other obvious misinterpretation, his literal misinterpretation of Paul’s spiritual resurrection makes sense.
The resurrection story contains all the elements of legendary development with more and more elaborate details appearing over time, and it contradicts Paul’s version, which was informed directly by the disciples. Not only did Paul believe in a spiritual resurrection, but Paul’s version has Jesus appearing to the “twelve” (I Cor. 15:5), not “the eleven” as Luke does in 24:33-36, which casts doubt over the entire Judas betrayal story. Paul also disagrees with the Gospels about the order of appearances. In none of the stories is Peter the first to see the risen Jesus like Paul claims (I Cor. 15:4). All of this provides good reason not to treat the Gospels’ resurrection stories as reflective of the earliest Christian tradition regarding Jesus’ resurrection.
- Why I Accept Jesus (Just Not Into My Heart)
- How Jesus Never Claimed to Be God
- Why Jesus Didn’t Die for Claiming to Be God
*Christian scholar Raymond Brown argues that Jesus’ appearance to 500 at the same time rules out a “vision” approach, but that’s hard to rectify the fact that the author (possibly Paul) equates this event Paul’s vision. Furthermore, is it really so hard to believe that 500 religious people could have all claimed to have seen Jesus appear to them at the same time? Literally every single Sunday millions of charismatic Christians claim to have been possessed by Jesus for extended periods of time, speaking in tongues and violently convulsing. Try telling them that those experiences aren’t “real.”
**Robert Price writes, “I judge the very notion of a resurrection appearance to 500 at one time to be a late piece of apocrypha, reminiscent of the extravagances of the Acts of Pilate. If the claim of 500 witnesses were early tradition, can anyone explain its total absence from the gospel tradition?” In fact, Acts has the total number of post-Christ appearances at only 120 (1:15). Furthermore, he asks, “What was the intended function of the list? Was it a piece of apologetics trying to prove the resurrection? Or a list of credentials? …The reference to the 500 unnamed witnesses certainly implies, that the list is an apologetical device, especially with the note of most of the crowd still being available for corroboration. But the focus on community leaders seems to me to demand [the latter] view. It is therefore not unlikely that the list began as a list of credentials for Cephas, the Twelve, James, and the other apostles, but that subsequently someone, reading the list as evidence for the resurrection, inserted the reference to the 500 brethren.” As there are no documents from before the 4th century, however, any documentary proof is lost to history.
Update: I wanted to pass along a typical Christian apologist’s response to my view. The authors uncritically accept all of the New Testament as historically accurate, reject any mythical development despite clear evidence to the contrary, and entirely ignore the plain reading of I Corinthians 15. I find it funny that they write, for example, “Hallucinations do not eat. The resurrected Christ did.” Uh, yeah, that’s why the authors of Luke and John included those stories! They were trying to prove that he had physically risen. How is a story that supports an anonymous author’s theological agenda an argument for its historical accuracy! For some reason this type of reasoning appeals to even very clever Christians.
Update 2: Christian scholar Gary Habermas has a similarly inane response to my view. He writes that this is “unsupported by the psychological principles governing the appearances of hallucinations, this theory also does not coincide with the historical situation. Again, where was the actual body, and why wasn’t it produced?” First, this is the 1st century when there were no skeptics to run around checking the inane beliefs of hundreds of Jewish cults. Second, the whole point of the hallucination/dream argument is that there would’ve been no point in producing the body since no one was claiming the tomb was empty until after all the records were destroyed in the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem (70 CE). Third, how does it not accord with the “psychological principles governing hallucinations”? Hundreds of grieving, religious people primed to believe that the world was about to end and the resurrection from the dead would occur claim to see Jesus. That doesn’t surprise me even a little bit.
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