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.