The Resurrection: Real or Imagined?

Did Paul see a physically resurrected man or did he hallucinate some sort of spirit? What does the bible say?

Paul describes his encounter with the risen Jesus in his letter to cultists in Galatia:

For I did not receive it (the gospel) from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ… God was pleased to reveal his Son in me… (Galatians 1.12 & 15)

‘Revelation, revealed, in me’: there’s no physically resurrected body here.

In his letter to the little community in Corinth, Paul tells us explicitly that Jesus was raised as a ‘life giving spirit’ (1 Corinthians 15.45). Whatever this means, this is how Paul experienced the risen Christ. Nowhere in his letters does he claim to have seen a man who has physically risen from the dead. Even in the legend created around Paul’s mystical revelations decades later, there’s no physical Jesus: a bright light and disembodied voice is what Luke comes up with.

Why does this matter? Well, for a start, Paul’s is the only first hand account of an encounter with the risen Jesus we have. And it was of an entirely ‘spiritual’ nature. Second, Paul assumes that those who ‘saw’ the risen Jesus had exactly the same sort of experience he did. He says in 1 Corinthians 15.5-8,

…(the Risen Jesus) appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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.

Paul makes no distinction between the way he experienced the risen Jesus, as a life giving Spirit, and the way these others did. His persistent use of ‘appeared to’ also underlines the mystical nature of these encounters; he doesn’t say Jesus ‘visited’ James or ‘spent time with’ Cephas or ‘chatted with’ the apostles over a fish supper (those legends would come later). There’s absolutely no human interaction here between these people and a real human being. No: instead, Paul says Jesus ‘appeared to’ them, as in ‘he was an apparition’.

The translation of the same passage in the King James version makes this obvious:

…he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.  And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

As for Paul, then, so for all these other sightings (we only have Paul’s word they actually took place.) They were apparitions, hallucinations, innervisions, emotional, spiritual experiences – call them what you will – ‘seen of’ others. They were not of a real man physically raised from the dead.

Why do some Christians find this so hard to accept? After all, this is much their own experience today. They may not hallucinate that Jesus is standing in front of them (assuming that’s what the ‘life giving spirit’ looked like to Paul and others) but they have an emotional experience at conversion that they credit to the presence, the spirit, of this long dead individual. If that’s how it is for converts today, why not for the original Christians? Why does there have to be physical resurrection at all?

Spoiler: there doesn’t and there wasn’t.

 

The Jesus Story v. Reality

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Whenever the Jesus story comes face to face with reality, it fails. The nativity stories, which only Matthew and Luke think to invent include, are a case in point.

  • Luke tells us the Emperor Augustus decreed there should be a census in what we now know as 4BC. He didn’t. The closest Roman census was in AD6, ten years later and it didn’t entail hordes of people trailing back to their ancestral village.
  • Matthew claims that Herod was so enraged about the birth of the ‘royal’ baby that he killed all little boys under two years old. Except he didn’t. This never happened.
  • According to the same story, a host of supernatural beings appeared announcing that a young woman who’d never had sex with a man had given birth, while a wandering star shone directly over her house.

Where in reality do these kinds of things happen? That’s right: in myths and stories. They are typical literary tropes found in fantasy fiction. The ‘miraculous’ events of the nativity are of this genre.

  • Christians who delude themselves into thinking theirs is an intellectual faith concede the nativity is mythical, its events symbolic. They’re not usually so hot on what they’re symbolic of but say the story conveys truth. Still, they insist, the rest of the Jesus story is true. Evangelicals go even further and say it’s literally true. So, Jesus walking on water really happened (or if your faith is, oxymoronically, intellectual faith, it didn’t.) After all, the illusionist Dynamo walked across the Thames a few years ago (see it here), and if he could walk on water then how much more capable of doing that was the Son of God. Except the modern illusionist‘s feat was – yes, you guessed it – an illusion. So even if Jesus did the same thing, his trick was also an illusion. Those who say the story is included in Mark and Matthew because it’s actually only a parable about faith (or something) are conceding, again, that it didn’t actually happen.
  • Likewise when Jesus turns water into wine, calms the storm, raises the dead, chats with apparitions of long dead Jewish folk-heroes and does every other ‘miracle’ he’s credited with. If they’re only symbolic then, by definition, they didn’t happen. Nor did they happen, if, as Evangelicals believe, they’re being passed off as real events. ‘Miracles’ do not happen in reality. Never have, never will. They happen only in stories.

Well, okay, more enlightened Christians might say, but nonetheless Jesus conveyed to the world what God wanted us to know. He was wise and compassionate and told us how our sins could be forgiven. Except his wisdom comes directly from Jewish scriptures; he had nothing new to say. He was no more compassionate than anyone else and could in fact be an absolute s**t. He was inconsistent across the gospels about how sins were forgiven and much of his teaching in the original Gospel (Mark’s) is lifted from Paul or reflects the beliefs of the early Christ cult. Jesus the holy man is a construct – or rather a series of constructs, a literary device, not a real man.

So, okay; the nativity didn’t happen as depicted. The astounding feats attributed to Jesus didn’t happen and Jesus is whoever the various gospel writers and Paul want to make him. Nothing we’ve seen so far is factually, historically or really (as in reality) true.

But, the crucifixion and resurrection are! Oh yes. The rest is made up, but these two events most certainly are not.

  • Even though Jesus’ trial is historically inaccurate and is, as a consequence, highly implausible.
  • Even though there was no-one to record Jesus’s snappy repartee (or silence depending on which gospel you read) with Pilate or Herod.
  • Even though there was no such Roman custom as releasing a prisoner on the Passover.
  • Even though the synoptics have Jesus crucified on Friday while John says it was a Thursday.
  • Even though characters like Barabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdelene and the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ are evidently and entirely fictional.
  • Even though there was no eclipse of the sun that lasted for hours.
  • Even though there was no earthquake that shook zombies loose from their graves before Jesus had a chance to rise and shine himself.

Such things are not historical. They’re not even feasible. They did not happen in reality. Well, if not the crucifixion per se, Christians say, then definitely the resurrection: that most unlikely of all unlikely events. That really happened.

  • Even though the reports of it are completely at odds with one another.
  • Even though angels are involved once again.
  • Even though Jesus behaves entirely like a ghost, walking through closed doors, altering his appearance and vanishing at will.
  • Even though he levitates into the clouds.
  • Even though some of the disciples find it impossible to believe he’s back.
  • Even though dead people rise only in stories, myths, legends and fantasies.
  • Even though, in reality, dead people do not come back to life after three days, which is why Jesus didn’t either.

Still, I’m sure I’ll be told when I go to a carol service with my friends in a few days, that the story of Jesus’ birth, emotionally powerful as it is, is true from start to finish. Why? Because people’s capacity for believing fantasy stories knows no bounds.

Are You Born Again?

Someone handed me the above card in town yesterday. ‘Are you born again?’ No, mate, and neither are you. As Bart Ehrman shows in Jesus Interrupted, and as I’ve written about before, the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 is a literary construct (as are the gospels in general.) The pun between ‘born a second time’ and ‘born from above’ only works in the Greek, where ἄνωθεν (anothen) can mean either ‘again’ or ‘from above’ (though it’s usually the latter.) Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely Jesus spoke Greek. Here’s Ehrman:

  In the Gospel of John, chapter 3, Jesus has a famous conversation with Nicodemus in which he says, ‘You must be born again.’ The Greek word translated ‘again’ actual has two meanings: it can mean not only ‘a second time’ but also ‘from above.’ Whenever it is used elsewhere in John, it means ‘from above’ (John 19:11, 23). That is what Jesus appears to mean in John 3 when he speaks with Nicodemus: a person must be born from above in order to have eternal life in heaven above. Nicodemus misunderstands, though, and thinks Jesus intends the other meaning of the word, that he has to be born a second time. ‘How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb?’ he asks, out of some frustration. Jesus corrects him: he is not talking about a second physical birth, but a heavenly birth, from above. (Jesus Interrupted, p155)

So Nicodemus is made to misunderstand Jesus, confusing ‘born again’ with ‘born from above’, and Jesus has to tell him what a twit he is. Translators of this chapter haven’t understood the point of the story either, making Jesus say, in John 3.3, ‘you must be born again’, when the rest of the narrative makes clear he means, ‘you must be born from above’ (i.e: be renewed by God who sits in Heaven on high.) 2000 years later, Christians, thanks to these translators, still make the same mistake.

There’s even more poppycock on the back of the card. The born again, it seems, avoid sin like the plague. Sure they do. Just ask all those kids molested by priests, preachers and Christian youth workers.

So Long, Jesus – the new book is here!

My new book, marking a final farewell to Jesus and his cult, is available now from all Amazon outlets. So Long, Jesus and Other Lessons From Life collects together the religiously-themed posts that have appeared on this blog over the past three years. A great Christmas present for those of your friends who might be considering saying their own farewell to Christian mumbo jumbo. This is the book you’ve been waiting for! 

So Long, Jesus and Other Lessons From Life – get it before the rapture!

What Christian Music Tells Us About God

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Have your ever noticed how the unchanging God’s musical tastes… well, change?

In the time of David, or so we’re told in Psalm 150, he liked nothing better than the sound of lutes and harps. When monasteries were all the rage, he was pacified by the monotonous chanting (‘plainsong’) of those very same psalms. He went all highbrow a few centuries later with the likes of Bach and Handel, but found out later still that he preferred bad poetry set to rousing tunes, such as How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace (the latter by slave trader John Newton.) Not to show partiality, he’s also been known to be turned on by some good ol’ gospel music. Last night on TBN, a TV network of spectacular mindlessness, he was brought to orgasm by a third-rate hip-hop track that, like a primitive enchantment spell, repeated Jesus’s name ad infinitum. Which reminded me of a Christian rock group of that name that performed back in my youth, when God was into sub-standard glam rock. It is amazing, isn’t it, that God’s musical tastes keep pace with our own.

On the other hand, maybe it’s that we delude ourselves into thinking our changing musical preferences, be it for lutes and harps, glam rock or hip-hop (ten years past its sell-by-date), are what please the Lord. He is not a God of changing tastes but one who is a reflection of whichever culture projects its idiosyncrasies, musical or otherwise, onto their conception of him. He truly is made in our image.

Same Old Same Old

I’ve been watching a Storyville documentary on the BBC iPlayer on the phenomenon that is Hillsong Church. In case you’ve not encountered it, Hillsong is a megachurch that began in Australia in the 1980s under the auspices of a remarkably uncharismatic individual, Brian Houston. It is hip, trendy and oh so cool. Its superstar preachers minister to thousands of gullible souls in vast stadia all over the world.

The programme represented the church fairly (needless to say Hillsong disagreed), interviewing people who felt it had rescued and helped them, as well as those who believed it had taken advantage of their goodwill. In the latter category were volunteers who had given their all to an aspect of the church’s ministry – attendees are told not to be ‘stingy with God’s money’ – while its higher echelons used members’ donations to finance lavish lifestyles and thousand dollar sneakers. It covered the child sex abuse of Frank Houston, Brian’s father and minister of the Lord, and Brian’s failure to disclose it, as well as superstar preacher, Carl ‘marriage is for life’ Lentz’s extra-marital affair.

The overall impression was one of a church that doesn’t practise what it preaches, or at least what the supposed object of its worship preached; money and sex loom large. What the documentary didn’t show was Hillsong’s compromised doctrinal position, at least according to other arms of Jesus’s one true church; its failure to preach repentance, focusing instead on individual happiness and purpose.

How like some of the early churches Paul wrote to. Churches that strayed from his personal brand of Christianity, not yet called that of course, but which he felt weren’t adhering to the ‘gospel’ he’d preached to them. They were attracted instead, he said, to the alternate versions proffered by his many rivals: Apollos (1 Corinthians 1:12), the ‘Pillars of the Church’ (Galatians 2:9), Judaisers (Galatians 2:14); ‘those who preached another Jesus’ (2 Corinthians 11:4) and the unnamed smooth-talkers of Romans 16:17-19, all of whom Paul hates with a vengeance. Who is to say their gospels were any more ‘wrong’ than the aberrant nonsense that emanated from Paul’s psychotic ‘visions’? He rails too at the excesses of those early cult communities; their stinginess (2 Corinthians 8:8-9), greediness (1 Corinthians 6:8-10), muddle-headedness (Galatians 1:6-9) and sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). I have long wondered at Paul’s stubborn insistence that these were groups of people inhabited and guided by the holy spirit, when they had, according to him, no idea how to live lives of holiness, committed to (his) sound doctrine. Any lesser man would have given up; lesser that is in obstinate arrogance. How jealous he would have been of the numbers Hillsong attracts.

All of which goes to show that, as it was in the beginning, so it would be forever more; two thousand years later, the Christian church, as typified by Hillsong, exhibits all the faults and shortcomings of its progenitors. It is exploitative, self-serving, hypocritical, while other factions object, jealously, to its doctrine and success, just like Paul with his rivals. The more things change, the more they stay the same; how very disappointingly human.

 

Goodbye, Jesus

The Jesus narrative is a made-up story, originally created by a member of one of the many branches of a first century cult centred on a supernatural being experienced in visions. We call this cult member ‘Mark’. His ‘gospel’ was not written to convert anyone – I doubt any of them were – it was written as a ‘what if?’ story for fellow cult members: ‘what if our celestial saviour had lived on Earth?’ It is made up of St Paul’s teaching, Old Testament mythology, and ideas taken from pagan dying-god myths (probably in that order). It amalgamates the cult’s rules with what cultists believed about the end of the age: that their celestial saviour would very soon be coming down to Earth to save them and annihilate their enemies.

Ten or fifteen years later, another writer took Mark’s fiction and rewrote much of it for his branch of the cult. This was a group who saw themselves as still firmly within Judaism, so ‘Matthew’ toned down Paul’s teaching, eliminating a good deal of it. He heightened Jewish teaching for his co-religionists, and created a Jesus who was a manifestation of prophecy, as he saw it, from the Jewish scriptures. This construct had no time for any magic salvation-formula; like the cult who created him, he taught obedience to Jewish Law and believed that serving others was the way to eternal life.

A few years on and a third sect found Mark and Matthew’s stories weren’t entirely to their liking. They didn’t quite get Jesus right. So they took them and altered them again. Their scribe, known now as Luke, created a third Jesus. It’s possible this sect didn’t realise the original story was fiction. There’s some evidence Luke thought Jesus had really existed, 50 years or so before he remodelled him.

Later still, the creators (plural) of a fourth gospel created a Christ totally unlike the other three. This branch of the cult had ceased to believe, perhaps because it hadn’t happened when earlier believers said it would, that the saviour would be coming through the clouds at any minute to set up God’s kingdom on Earth. That part of the original idea was dropped; this Jesus is made to preach an internalised salvation, and everlasting life in heaven is beginning to be hinted at.

And that’s it. The adventures of Jesus on Earth began as a ‘what if?’ story created for existing cult members. Other branches of the cult took it and reshaped its central character so that he suited their needs and beliefs. A real Jesus was not necessary for any of this to happen. Just as it was for Paul, whether one existed or not is immaterial,. Even if he did, we can know nothing about him. The Jesuses created by each sect is a product of what they imagined their saviour to be, just like the various Christs that are worshipped today.

So, I’m saying a final goodbye to Jesus – or rather to all the Jesuses, Christs and made-up Messiahs spawned by the visions, fantasies and fan-fiction of the first century. I don’t need them, and neither do you.

This blog will be taking a new direction in the new year. Next time, though, I hope you’ll read one of my Christmas stories, as featured on the BBC.

Stay safe. 

God’s Messenger

He was sent by his Father above to save us all. Little is known about his early years though they were traumatic from the start. He grew up in a sleepy backwater with his Earthly father, J, and mother M, only occasionally showing the promise of what was to come. As an adult, he moved into the wider world, where a band of staunch supporters gathered around him. One of these, a fiery, impetuous young man, he considered his closest friend. He also became closely associated with a remarkable woman whose first and last names began with the same letter.

He performed mighty works with his miraculous powers, while all the time exemplifying meekness and humility. He opposed the forces of evil wherever he could until one fateful day, dark forces overcame him. He was killed while saving the world. After three days he rose again, through the miraculous intervention of his father, and was seen by many people. He gained in repute from that day forth and much was written about him.

His original name meant ‘God’s messenger’, but while he was with us it was changed – to Jesus.

Er, no hang on – that’s not right. It was changed to Superman. And like Jesus everything about him is complete fiction.

 

What Second Coming?

Richard Carrier notes in On the Historicity of Jesus (p560) how Paul never speaks of a ‘second coming’, prompting me to look at all the predictions of Christ’s future arrival in the New Testament. Here’s a selection of verses, some of them supposedly the words of Jesus himself, where this coming is ‘prophesied’:

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (Mark 13.26).

You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14.62).

For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24.27).

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man… they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24. 37, 39)

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of glory. (Matthew 25.31).

You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Luke 12.40).

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God (1 Thessalonians 4.16).

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5.23).

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11.26).

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord… Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James 5.7-8).

Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2.13).

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him (Revelation 1.7).

Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done (Revelation 22.12).

Isn’t this strange? None of them refer to Christ’s arrival as a ‘return’ or ‘second coming’. You’d be hard pushed to find any such ‘prophecy’ in the New Testament*. His appearance here on Earth is described as the coming of a celestial being. Even Jesus is made to talk about the manifestation of such a figure, taken by Christians to mean his own future self, as if he’s talking about someone else: the Son of Man, who hasn’t yet appeared but will do so in the near future. It’s as if the gospels’ fictional Jesus is being made to predict the arrival of the ‘real’, celestial Jesus.

More importantly, the Son of Man and Paul’s version of the same figure, the Christ, are spoken of as ‘coming’ or ‘descending’, not ‘returning’ or coming again. It’s as if Paul, the writers of the synoptic gospels, John of Patmos and other first-century Christians* didn’t believe that the Christ had already visited the Earth. They talk instead as if he’s about to arrive for the very first time. When he does, they believed, he would be coming as an avenging angel, rescuing those who believe in him – as a celestial being who carried out his salvific work in the heavenly realms (1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1.11-12 etc) – and slaughtering those who don’t. This is the apocalypse – the revealing or uncovering of the heavenly Christ for the very first time.

That Jesus will ‘return’ or make a second coming is an assumption made by later believers on the basis of verses like those above. In fact, they say no such thing. The earliest Christians wrote as if they didn’t believe their envisaged hero had ever been on Earth. For them, his one and only arrival was still to come.

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* An exception appears to be Hebrews 9.28 which says, ‘so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him’. Hebrews, however, regards the Christ only as a supernatural high priest, operating in the heavenly realms. This second appearance then can only refer to this character, who is not conceived as having had any existence here on Earth.

Will the real Jesus please stand up?: Conclusion

There will no doubt be Christians reading this blog who are keen to tell me that no-one in their right mind would believe in a made-up Jesus.

No? Yet the self-righteous are still making up Jesuses in their own image. Jesuses who bear little relation to any of those in the Bible. Jesuses that suit their own agendas: White Republican Jesus, America First Jesus, Catholic Jesus (with his heart outside his body), anti-LGBT Jesus, Evangelical Jesus, Social Justice Jesus, Prosperity Jesus, Mormon Jesus, Jehovah’s Witness Jesus, Jesus who gives glimpses of heaven, Jesus who communicates with his ‘prophets’ here on Earth… and many more.

Every single one of them is a made to order, manufactured Jesus, every single one imaginary. The Jesus worshipped by individual Christians and churches is a figment of the imagination. He may be loosely based on one of the Jesuses of the Bible (I’ll generously give them the benefit of the doubt) but he is unique to every sect and to every single person within it. Each individual sets up an altar to the idol in their head and worships him there.

Christians: your personal Saviour isn’t real. You worship a construct of your own making.

From which, two questions follow:

If no-one in their right mind would believe in an imaginary Jesus, what does this tell us about you?

Given you believe in an imaginary Jesus, why is it so difficult for you to accept that the earliest Christians did too?