Jesus Sees Dead People

On his blog Escaping Christian Fundamentalism, Gary Matson has been considering the origin of resurrection belief, looking particularly at the possibility that sightings of the risen Jesus as recorded in the New Testament, were visions or hallucinations.

Naturally, his resident troll, FT Bond, recently banned from the site, objected to this suggestion, even though there is very good internal evidence that this is exactly how the belief in the resurrection arose. I felt compelled to raise the matter – no pun intended – of the occasion in the gospels where Jesus himself sees long dead people, apparently and inexplicably returned from the dead. In all three synoptic gospels Jesus chats with Moses and Elijah who appear in front of him. Mark 9.2-10 relates the story, usually referred to as the Transfiguration, as follows:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”(He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” 

Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.

So what is going on here? There are three options:

1. Moses and Elijah were actually ‘resurrected’ or otherwise miraculously returned from dead.

We can safely rule out this first possibility. Two men who had been dead for centuries did not suddenly return from the dead or even from their eternal repose in the bosom of Abraham for a cameo in the Jesus story. 

2. Moses and Elijah were a vision that Jesus and his three associates experienced simultaneously.

Jesus and the three disciples experiencing the same vision simultaneously is clear evidence of shared hallucinatory experiences in the gospels. Mark and Matthew (and possibly Luke) understand the story in this way, using the term ὤφθη (ophthe) meaning ‘appeared to’ or ‘appeared in front of’; ὤφθη usually conveys the sense of ‘apparition’: something that appears that has no physical presence: a vision. The synoptic gospel writers use it almost exclusively in this sense.

3. The event is an invented story. It didn’t happen in reality. There was no hallucination, no vision. It is a fiction devised to convey a symbolic point.

The symbolism is this: Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, and in this episode are seen to give way to their superior: Jesus, God’s Chosen Son. He supersedes the old Jewish folk-heroes in every way. Most scholars, and even some conservative Christians, argue for such an interpretation. As symbolic fiction, however, the episode has little or no basis in reality.

Let’s now apply the same analysis of the options in terms of the resurrection stories:

1. Jesus really did come back to life after being dead for 36 hours.

There really is no evidence he did because a) we know this doesn’t happen and b) Paul, who wrote the only first-hand account we have of someone ‘seeing’ the risen Christ, admits it was an hallucinatory ‘revelation’.

2. The disciples had visions of the Risen Jesus similar to Paul’s and to those they are said to have in the Transfiguration story.

Significantly, both Paul and Matthew use the phrase ‘appeared to/in front of’ (ὤφθη, ophthe again) when describing sightings of the Risen Jesus. Luke does so on one occasion too. There is no distinction for the gospel writers, therefore, between the way they describe the vision of Moses and Elijah (ὤφθη, ophthe) and the way they describe Jesus ‘appearing in front of’ the disciples after his death (ὤφθη, ophthe). Moses and Elijah ‘appear to’ the disciples, then the Risen Jesus ‘appears to’ them in the same way. In this option, the Risen Jesus, like Moses and Elijah, are mere visions in people’s heads. 

3. The stories of the disciples resurrection visions are fiction: made up stories about visions, designed to convey a symbolic point. 

There is no reason to suppose that the stories of Jesus reappearing after his death are in any way different from the fiction that is the Transfiguration story. Matthew and Luke were both skilled in creating symbolic events to hammer home the significance of Jesus; the Moses/Elijah story is one such; the nativity, the temptation in the wilderness, voices from the sky, cursing of the fig tree, walking on water and healing of the blind are others. The resurrection belongs to the same category as these. It too is symbolic fiction with only a limited basis in reality. We know from Paul that some people had visions that they took to be the Risen Jesus. The resurrection narratives are the made-up stories invented to illustrate those visions.   

You pays your money, you takes your choice…




I am immortal.

My immortality is conditional;

It has to be protected.

A fatal accident could deprive me of it,

Or an illness; a virus even.

But if I can avoid these, by taking all necessary precautions,

I will live forever.

Spend my life in my house,

Avoiding contact with other people,

Wearing a mask, vaccinating.

It might not be much of a life, but if it guarantees eternal life,

I willingly surrender responsibility for my own health.

This is what the government tells me;

If I do all of these things, I won’t die.

And I believe them.


I am immortal.

My immortality is conditional;

It depends on believing the right things,

And having righteousness imputed from on High.

My church tells me so;

It is what the Bible teaches.

And I believe them.

It might not be much of a life, but if it guarantees eternal life,

I willingly sacrifice my integrity on the altar of wishful thinking.


I am not immortal.

I will die. I will die of something,

Be it one of the innumerable viruses human beings are prey to,

An infection, cancer, heart attack, accident.

This is a fact.


In a little over a hundred years,

Every person alive today, the babies born last night,

Will be dead.

Every one.

Like those who have gone before.


Not one person living today was alive in 1900;

They are gone. Every one of them.

They are not in heaven, nor in hell.

They are not lying in the ground awaiting resurrection.

They are gone.


Nothing I do, nothing you do, can prevent it;

No magic formula, no amount of masking up, no perpetual hiding from life,

Will save you from death.

Come to terms with it;

Death is inevitable.

Defer it as long as you can, by all means,

But don’t think it isn’t out to get you.


You will not survive your death.

There is nothing on the other side because there is no other side;

No eternal life, no immortality.

Only arrested development allows you to think otherwise.


Live now.


Friends and family offered Jack their condolences. He and Martha had been together for forty-one years and her passing wrenched Jack from the life of comfort and security that had developed over their time together. More than half of him had died along with his wife, when he had always assumed he would be the first to go. He was the older by two years and statistically, he knew, the life expectancy of the male was lower. Maybe, he thought, living with him had taken its toll on Martha, carrying her off earlier than either of them expected. 57 wasn’t old these days.

He stood at the back of the crematorium in a daze, which was how he had been for the last week, shaking hands with all the well-intentioned relatives and acquaintances. They meant well, but their platitudes rang hollow, not because they weren’t sincere but because that was how Jack felt: hollow. Their words and gestures rattled around the empty space inside him without touching the sides, and then faded away into nothingness. ‘Good of you to come,’ he responded, the same to everyone; automatic pilot. ‘Yes, thank you. Good of you to come,’ until Alice, his sister-in-law, reached the front of the line. Where had she been when Martha had been in the hospice? he found himself thinking. Maybe she wasn’t his sister-in-law, he thought, giving her the benefit of the doubt – she’d been married to Martha’s brother George – but all the same, she was family. She should’ve put in an appearance.

‘God bless you,’ said Alice.

‘Thank you. Good of …’ He stopped, looking down at the little woman in black whose hand he held. She looked awkwardly over her shoulder to those in the line behind her who looked down at their shoes or out of the window.

‘God bless you?’ said Jack. ‘For Pete’s sake, Alice, it was a humanist service. God wasn’t invited. Martha was quite specific about that.’ And suddenly there was something there inside him after all, an echo of the past, another abandonment.

‘I thought…’ began Alice, ‘I only meant…’

‘Yes, I know what you meant,’ said Jack, ‘and I thank you for it, but not in the way you think.’ He finally let go of her hand and she moved off quickly, coughing nervously.

‘My condolences,’ said the next embarrassed mourner, shuffling forward and offering his hand. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘Don’t be,’ said Jack, his inner strength growing by the second. ‘Martha and I had a good life together. Well, I know I did. But you know something? This isn’t just the aftermath of something that happened once. I am not a footnote to… some previous life.

The man – a distant uncle perhaps – looked aghast.

‘And neither are you,’ said Jack. ‘Neither is anybody.’ His voice rose uncomfortably as he took to addressing all of those who milled around or waited in line. ‘So don’t come and join me for the funeral tea at Greystones, because I won’t be there. I’ll be out discovering what comes next. And that’s what you should be doing too. So get out there… and live!’

There were tuts and gasps all round and Alice spluttered, ‘Well, really!’ but Jack didn’t hear any it. He was already on his way out, jumping into his nephew’s SAAB and giving him directions for the Outrageous night club.

Lessons from Life 12: Purpose

A few years ago I got into a ‘discussion’ with a Catholic priest who had said on his blog that there is no purpose in life without God (meaning of course his own particular brand of that particular fantasy.) I argued the opposite: that while some people found purpose wasting their lives worshipping and serving an imaginary being, others found purpose in a wide range of far more worthwhile concerns and activities.

Purpose need not be cosmic in scale nor equate with big, ambitious projects, like saving the world or other people’s souls. A purpose can be modest and parochial; it has only to be meaningful to you. I pointed out to my deluded correspondent that he, like everyone else, frequently had purposes other than a delusional pursuit of God: short term purposes like visiting the store, supporting a sports team, cultivating a garden, writing a blog…

Several scientific studies in recent years have come to the conclusion that having a purpose in life increases one’s chances of living longer. There is a clear correlation between the two. This doesn’t mean adopting a random, makeshift purpose is going to increase your chances of living longer; the purpose needs to be worked out for its own sake, and to be genuine and heartfelt. The potential to live longer is a bonus (good genes and a healthy lifestyle play their part too, of course.)

As for me, as you weren’t asking, my purpose is to enjoy life and to help others, as far as I’m able, to enjoy theirs; to enjoy my relationship with Dennis (having taken so long to be my true self!); to care for my children and grandchildren; to be with friends; and simply to be, here and now. Whether these will help me live to a ripe old age or not, I really don’t care. They give my life meaning and make it feel worthwhile, and that’s all that matters. No God necessary.

What I learnt in Sunday School

I was expelled from Sunday School when I was 8.

My parents had moved from one side of town to the other and I had likewise changed Sunday Schools. Neither my mum nor dad was a church-goer. I suspect I was packed off to Sunday School each week to give them both an hour’s break from at least one of their offspring.

I quite liked my original Sunday School. It was run by two ladies who seemed positively ancient, Victorian refugees in the Swinging Sixties (not that there was much swinging in the northern English town in which I lived.) They had us sing a lot of songs about Jesus and we stuck pictures of him in an exercise book. These two activities were acceptable in my sight, not because of their Jesus content but because I rather liked singing and sticking things in books.

The new Sunday School had none of these moderately pleasurable activities. Instead, it focused, week after week, on hammering home to little groups of 7 and 8 year olds that Jesus had died for them on a cross and had then come back to life. This, an earnest young woman or frightening older man would tell us, was for real. Now, while I watched Doctor Who on TV (the original) and read Superman comics, I was under no illusion that these were in any way real. I knew they weren’t, and I also knew that the equally far-fetched Jesus story was also made-up. And it wasn’t anywhere near as good.

Despite what the earnest young woman and the older man told us, my undeveloped 8 year old brain just couldn’t accept the weird story of a man who came back to life to save me from something they were calling ‘sin’. Sin, they explained, was all the bad things I’d done that upset God. Now, if I was honest, I did occasionally do things that upset my mum – I once peed up against the wall in the back lane and that upset her a lot – but I couldn’t really see how anything I did could upset God so much he’d need to send his son to die on a cross ‘in my place’. None of it made any sense.

I took to asking the earnest young woman questions about it, not out of a need to know, as I recall, but out of mischief; I seemed to know intuitively that she wouldn’t know the answers. Why did God get upset? How did Jesus dying make him happy again? What had it anything to do with me when it all such a long time ago? (I knew it was a very long time ago because we’d learnt all about the Romans in real school.) 

Sometimes the young woman would ignore my questions. Other times she would attempt an answer, but these made so little sense that I took to behaving very badly, disrupting the little group whenever I could with silly horse play. She retaliated, eventually, by bringing in the frightening older man to tell me off. To no avail. I still couldn’t take any of it seriously, and continued to play up.

Before long, my parents received a letter in the post, informing them it would be better if I didn’t attend Sunday School any more. They seemed disappointed – they’d be losing their hour’s peace – but not particularly surprised.

The point of my telling this story is that I wish I had listened to my 8 year old self. He seemed to know instinctively that all this Jesus talk – this Christian ideology – was nonsensical. I didn’t listen, however, and ended up, after joining a particularly evangelical YMCA in my teens, falling for it hook, line and sinker. I seem to remember that a sexy young American evangelist played a part in my conversion. (Plus, he had stickers! See above.)

Evangelicalism consumed my life from that point on, influencing crucial life choices and leading me to suppress who I really was. It would take me thirty years to break the chains and escape. 

Lessons from Life 11: People first

I have learnt over the course of my life to reject ideologies and ‘principles’ that take precedence over people. Political, epistemological and religious ideologies that are only interested in their own perpetuation and not about improving the lot of the maximum number of individuals have no intrinsic value. Consequently, and as Paul Simon once put it, I stand alone without beliefs. Largely so, anyway, though of course no one is entirely without belief; what I mean is that I don’t subscribe to any particular ideology.

While politically left of centre, I can’t honestly say I’m a socialist, never mind a communist. Those packages don’t interest me; they have caused, in their own way, too much damage for those they claim to champion. I don’t stand to the right either. As a slogan that was around in my formative years said, society is about ‘people, not profits’. And there is such a thing as society, despite Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous declaration that there isn’t.

Similarly, and in spite of its claims, Christianity does not put people first. They come a long way behind the ideology’s central preoccupations: defending indefensible doctrine, preserving the honour of imaginary beings and, impossibly, having a ‘relationship’ with them. As Richard Dawkins first pointed out in his 1991 essay, ‘Viruses of the Mind’, religion behaves like a contagion that is only interested in spreading itself. It has a willing and effective transmission system in those already infected and has no time for those in whom a new infection doesn’t take. As it has done from the beginning, those who suffer from the virus immediately take to demonising those who are able to resist it. Religion, despite its fine talk about loving neighbours, always creates division and strife: Us and Them, them being the lost, the obstinate, the apostate and, worst of all, the degenerate. Here’s how the strident but tawdry Reformation Charlotte Christian blog referred recently to LGBT people, who, damn them, just won’t leave their deviant ways and let the virus in: 

Of course, nobody – literally, nobody – can walk away from the Scriptures and come away with the understanding that God is fine with men committing shameless acts with men and women giving up the natural relations for those that are contrary to nature (Romans 1:26-27). This is nothing more than an assault on God’s design for humanity by those who hate God and seek to justify their wickedness. But God has words for them – and he will not be mocked.

An ideology that views other people like this is not one worthy of anyone’s time or attention. It is an ideology for those unable to reason for themselves, who have a pathological need to feel ‘righteously’ superior, a condition achieved, despite what its founder may have said, by disparaging others. It needs to be allowed to die like the nasty infection it is. Christianity isn’t, of course, the only virus of this sort; all those that think more of supernatural beings and exclusionary condemnatory ‘principles’ than they do of real people are equally unhealthy. Like every cult leader before and since, the founders of both Christianity and Islam are made to insist that you love them much more than you love your parents, your children or anyone else. How’s that for wickedness?

If Onlys


If Grace hadn’t gone to the dance that night, she’d never have met Johnny.

If she’d never met Johnny, then they wouldn’t have married.

And if they hadn’t married, they would never have had Jean.

If her parents hadn’t then moved to Chester, Jean would never have met Graham.

If Jean had never met Graham, she would never have married him.

If she’d listened to her mother, she wouldn’t have married him.

But if Jean hadn’t married Graham, they would never have had Paul.

If Graham hadn’t married Jean, he couldn’t have left her, and Paul, for Samantha.

If Graham and Jean hadn’t had Paul, then he wouldn’t, later, have gone to the party where he met Anne.

If he hadn’t have met Anne, he couldn’t have married her.

If he hadn’t married her, he might have been happy.

But if he hadn’t married Anne, they wouldn’t have had Tom and Katherine.

And Tom and Katherine wouldn’t have produced Holly and Laurel and John.

If only, he thinks – Paul thinks – if only all of these if’s hadn’t come to pass. If only Grace hadn’t gone to the dance; if only she hadn’t met Johnny; if only they hadn’t married; if only they hadn’t had Jean; if only Jean hadn’t met Graham; if only she’d listened to her mother; if only Jean and Graham hadn’t got married; if only they hadn’t had Paul… then he, Paul wouldn’t exist. And if that were so, he sometimes thinks, things might somehow be have been better. Not for Tom and Katherine, Holly, Laurel and Mark obviously, because they wouldn’t exist. But then, they’d never know. That’s the trouble with if onlys.


If only the Colonel hadn’t taken power, then the rebels might not have started the war.

If the rebels hadn’t started the war, the Colonel might not have retaliated with such ferocity.

If only he had not retaliated, the people might not have found themselves in the incessant cross-fire.

If the people had not found themselves in the cross-fire, then surely, not as many of them would have been killed.

If only Alya hadn’t thought she could reach the market before the next air strike.

If only the air strike had started after she had reached the rubble on the other side of the street.

If only Alya had survived the air strike, then she would have had the chance to study, once the fighting had finally stopped.

If she had survived the strike, she would, eventually, have married Malik.

If she had married Malik they would have produced Tariq and Kaley.

And they would have produced Hanah and Leila and Jamil.

If only Alya had survived the air strike.

But she did not.

That’s the trouble with if onlys.


Lessons from Life 10: Probably

Death and taxes aside, nothing is certain. It isn’t certain there’s no God and no after-life. It isn’t certain that we’ll enjoy the average life expectancy or even that we’ll still be here this time tomorrow. It’s possible that these things are the case. The last two scenarios may even be probable.

This is the best we can do. Statistically and on the basis of the evidence, it’s probable there is no God (or improbable that there is, if you prefer it that way round.) It’s likely, again mathematically and provided other conditions are met, that you’ll live to the average life expectancy age in the Western world (if that’s where you’re reading this.) More people live to that age and beyond than don’t. It doesn’t mean you or I will. It just makes it more likely; statistically probable. On that basis, it’s probable, but not certain, you’ll be here tomorrow.

Reality operates on probabilities. Possibilities are more of a gamble, which is not to say probabilities aren’t, but possibilities are, quite literally, chancier. That just how it is, however we might wish otherwise, however much misguided religious zealots might declare otherwise. Probably.

The Pearl: an allegory

The old man lived alone on the edge of the forest. His family had all grown and left home and his wife had died many years ago. He was used to being on his own; he liked being on his own. In his solitude he would often recall the strange wild-haired speaker of words who had visited the village when he was a youth. This speaker of words spoke of a pearl of great price that was waiting to be found, and when it was, he said, the one who sought it would know it for what it was and would abandon all else to possess it. And the old man, when he was a young man, thought he would like to own this great pearl. With it he would be rich beyond his dreams and all of his troubles would come to an end.

Hardly a day passed that he did not think about the pearl of great price. Hardly a week went by that he did not look for it, on his travels into the wide world beyond the village. He began to neglect his family and his other possessions in pursuit of the pearl but alas, after many years he still had not cast eyes upon it. There were, it was true, times when he thought he had caught a glimpse of it and even occasions when treasures of a different sort came into his possession, but these were not the great pearl. He could not rest until he had found it and so he spent years of his life looking for it.

But once he was old, he gave up the search. Moving around was not as easy as it once was and though he had not forgotten the promise of the great pearl, he no longer believed it could be found. He doubted even that it existed and he began to curse the one who had told of it, all those years ago. So the old man lived alone, tending his crops, and fetching water from the well. He spoke when spoken to by those in the village, whenever he had cause to go there, but otherwise, he lived his life in quiet, remorseful isolation.

Until there came a time when, as the cold chill of winter crept over the land once more, he ventured into the forest to collect firewood. There was little to be had in the parts he knew well so he went deeper in, beyond the familiar sights and into the heart of the forest’s darkness. He soon became lost and casting around for a way out, he spied a light in the gloom ahead. As he stumbled towards it, the light shone more brightly, until, finally he reached a clearing in which sat a young man. Arrayed in white, his raiment shining like the sun, the young man raised dark piercing eyes and though he did not know why, the old man’s thoughts turned unbidden to the pearl for which he had once so earnestly searched. As if reading his mind, the young man rose and spoke:

‘That which you seek is here,’ he said in a voice not of this world.

‘I have sought the pearl these many years, my Lord,’ said the old man, a tear falling from his eye. ‘It is not to be found.’

‘You are wrong,’ said the young man. He was tall and dark and possessed of a presence the old man had not encountered since his youth. The boy stretched out his arm and opened his hand to reveal a glowing silver orb that seemed as if it were floating freely in the air. ‘It is here,’ he said.

The old man wiped away tears that now fell freely and stepped forward, reaching for the pearl. ‘Remember, my friend,’ warned the young man, ‘that whoever lays hold of the pearl forsakes all else.’ The old man would not have wished it other. Through the brilliance that emanated from it, he laid hold of the pearl and was, in that instant, consumed by the light. Every thought, every care, every sorrow and every regret that he had ever had was burnt away and he was transformed. No longer himself he was yet more himself than he had ever been.

While the shadows of trees filled the clearing, the darkness enveloped all. Of the old man and the young man and the pearl of great price there was no sign.

Lessons from Life 9: It’s worth the risk

Take some chances.

Life can be spent cautiously and carefully, avoiding all possible risk. To an extent we’ve all had to live this way for the past year. While this has, arguably, kept us safe, it hasn’t felt very much like living life, not in any really fulfilling way.

I’ve lived most of my life this way; risk averse, conforming to expectation and cautious to a stultifying degree. It hasn’t been until later in life, that I’ve started taking more chances, and have realised all that my ordinary little life can be.

I’m not advocating being rash, or doing things that are justifiably illegal or that would harm yourself or others (I could never smoke for this reason.) I am talking about not living life according the maybes, what ifs and possibles that are currently dictating our lives. ‘Maybe there will be a resurgence of Covid-19, possibly there will be vaccine-resistant strains, perhaps health systems will be overrun, what if I catch a virus – any virus – and be incapacitated or die.’ And maybe not.

We cannot live on the basis of such vagaries. We don’t in any other context: we don’t avoid driving because maybe this time will be the time we are involved in fatal crash; we don’t confine ourselves to our homes because the ultra-violent light outside might trigger cancer; we don’t, as Billy Joel so eloquently put it, stay far away from the door if there’s a chance of it opening up. (His ‘An Innocent Man’ is a brilliant song about daring to live.)

Every day under normal circumstances, we take calculated risks, having put in place any necessary precautions – seat belts, careful driving, sun cream or whatever – and we go out there and do things. This is how it should be.

Don’t doubt it; something will get you in the end. As Mark Twain famously put it, there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Only one of these is fatal (though the other runs a close second). Whatever we do, death cannot be avoided forever. Yet we behave as if it can. Take some chances; this is the only opportunity you’ll get to do so. Once you’re gone you can’t. I’ve not regretted a single risk I’ve taken.

They’ve made me alive.