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 disciples who doubted the Resurrection

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

Matthew 28.17

On his Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog recently, Gary Matson looked at this verse in which the remaining disciples supposedly encounter the risen Jesus. Gary discussed why they should have doubted what they are reported as witnessing, concluding that what they were actually ‘seeing’ was a ghost. A commenter called Rachel, who has also commented here, objected, arguing that the verse didn’t mean what it actually says. I responded with the following:

Well, let’s not, Rachel, accept what the text actually says. Let’s impose our own meaning that fits with what we want to believe. Then we can insist that none of the 11 doubted, even though the text clearly states they did. Let’s supplement that particular sleight of hand with the unproven myth that all the disciples except one subsequently died for their faith (even though there’s no evidence they did and even though we know nothing about the actual beliefs of the few who may have been martyred and even though zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus) and, hey presto, Gary’s hypothesis is disproved.

Except, of course, it isn’t. The resurrection accounts were written 40 years or more after the supposed event by people who weren’t there; and yet still they preserve the inconvenient fact that some of the disciples remained unconvinced by the visions and apparitions others of their number thought they’d experienced.

Rachel came back with this (my responses are in red with additional comments in blue).

Neil, you write the following as if you know for a fact (100%) that “there’s no evidence” — “(even though there’s no evidence they did and even though we know nothing about the actual beliefs of the few who may have been martyred and even though zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus)”

If I understand Rachel here, she isn’t happy I can’t prove a negative. However, if there’s no evidence, there’s no evidence. This in itself is a fact.

Neil, none of the 11 apostles/disciples of Jesus lied and died and convinced their families and loved ones to die for a fictional character. Unlike you and Gary, they literally saw the resurrected Jesus (that was enough evidence for them) and they spread the gospel (the good news of the Promised Messiah and that in Him the Old Testament pointed)

You’re right, Rachel, we have no evidence that any of them did any of this. This was the point I was making: there is no historical evidence whatsoever that indicates 10 of the 11 died for their belief in the resurrection. With the exception of James we simply don’t know how, when or why they died. I’m sorry you were unable to grasp this point.

Neither is there evidence ‘they literally saw the resurrected Jesus’. In fact, the only evidence there is, in the gospels, is sketchy, inconsistent and strongly suggestive of visions and apparitions, as Gary suggests. The only eye-witness report we have of the resurrected Jesus, that of Paul, is precisely of this nature, with Paul claiming the other sightings of Jesus were the same as his.

You say that “zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus.” Care to give me examples of Christian Zealots today “prepared to die for the risen Jesus” sight unseen?

Are you really questioning whether zealots today are prepared to die for a character they’ve never actually seen? A simple Google search brings up numerous Christian sites, either celebrating or lamenting this very fact. Here’s one to start you off: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/11-christians-killed-every-day-for-their-decision-to-follow-jesus/

And like Gary, there you go saying: “we know nothing!” Okay, I will agree with you and Gary, both of you have convinced me totally -— you guys know nothing! You will no longer get any argument from me! You guys know nothing! I am now fully convinced by your: “We (Gary and Neil) don’t know” true statement.

While I didn’t point it out to her, Rachel here assumes that acknowledging ‘there is no evidence for..’ means the same as ‘we know nothing’. A very basic and disingenuous error.

Ironic isn’t it, Neil, you do not believe the New Testament accounts as historical events, and yet you like Gary proceed to prove your case by using “fictional” accounts! Go figure!

Gary and I look at the texts as they are and draw our conclusions accordingly. We, like many others outside the evangelical bubble, acknowledge that the gospels are literary creations and as such are historically unreliable. The evidence they present for an actual, physical resurrection is weak, inconclusive and distorted beyond recognition by an agenda intended to promote belief – as they themselves admit.

You, on the other hand, argue entirely from a position of faith, which prevents you from seeing what is actually there, making you dismissive of external evidence and compelling you to supplement your arguments with assumptions (for example, that most of the disciples died for their belief in the resurrection.) It also prompts you to add unnecessary ad hominem insults. I’m sure Gary is as glad as I am that you’re slinking away in defeat.

Some of the disciples doubted that what they were seeing – apparition? bright light? hallucination? – was really Jesus returned from the dead. It may be the case that this detail was included by the creator of Matthew’s gospel, 50 years after the event it describes, to disparage the favoured disciples of other early Christian communities. The disciples they looked to weren’t as good as those of Matthew’s cultists because they doubted. Who knows. Whatever the reason for including it, the verse is awkward and embarrassing for believers today. How to explain it (away)? Even some of those who ‘saw’ the risen Jesus weren’t convinced it was him. They were right. It wasn’t.

 

Young men’s visions, old men’s dreams

Stephen4

In Acts 2.17, Luke (mis)quotes a prophecy from Joel 2.28:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.

I was always taught that the Acts version was a prophecy in its own right, predicting what would happen in the very last days before Jesus returned, some time in the future (his future, though maybe not ours.) But it isn’t. Luke, or whoever wrote Acts, is claiming the fulfilment of the prophecy in his own time. He’s not saying,’ this is what will happen at some point in the next few millennia.’ He’s declaring – or he’s making Peter declare – ‘this is what’s happening right now.’ Luke, like all members of the cult in its early days, believed the last days had arrived; God was about to impose his Kingdom on the Earth, in a display of power and glory (Luke 21.27).

The dreams and visions of which Luke speaks were, he believed, happening then, as he was writing. To prove it, he relates numerous dreams and visions in Acts; Stephen’s vision of God and Jesus; Paul’s ‘sighting’ of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and Peter’s encounter with, erm… a table-cloth to name only a few. Elsewhere, Paul himself refers obliquely the innervision that led to his conversion (Galatians 1.16) and recounts his ‘visit’ to ‘the third heaven’ (2 Corinthians 12.2); he’s kind of embarrassed about this one though – as well he might be – and relates it in the third person.

Luke knows that the new cult is built on dreams and visions. He believes such hallucinations are genuine revelations from God himself. Moreover, Luke tells his readers explicitly and directly in Acts 2.17 that such visions and dreams were how the cult’s founders experienced the risen Jesus. How do we know this is what he means? Because he puts the quotation about young men having visions and old men dreaming dreams into the mouth of Peter. That’s the disciple Peter whom the gospels tell us was one of the first to experience the risen lord. Luke has Peter reveal the nature of that experience. ‘This is how it was for me,’ he confesses. ‘I had a god-given vision, just as the scriptures promise.’

Luke is proud of the fact that the new faith is based on young men’s visions and old men’s dreams. Proud enough to include it in Acts 2.17 and proud enough to make Peter of all people declare it. Christianity owes its existence to these hallucinations and delusions, nothing more.