What if… the resurrection really happened?

Smith

The Christian faith rests entirely on the resurrection of Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.17 & 19:

…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Of course neither Jesus nor Paul’s invention, the Christ, were raised from the dead; those encounters with him, described in the gospels are, like Paul’s, visions and sensations of his presence (later ‘the Holy Spirit’) embroidered in the 40 or more years between when they occurred and when they were recorded.

Let’s though, suppose that Jesus really did rise from the dead and work backwards from there. What difference did it make? More specifically, what does the bible say were the results and consequences of Jesus being raised?

The Coming of the Kingdom

According to the New Testament (Matthew 25.34; Romans 15.12; Revelation 20.4-6), the resurrection was a clear sign that Yahweh’s Kingdom was finally arriving on Earth.

Was God’s wonderful reign established here on Earth back in the first century? Were all wrongs righted, the social order inverted, and war and suffering abolished (Mark 10.31; Matt 5.2-11; Rev 21.4)? New Testament writers believed that following the resurrection, all of this would be happening –

in reality, none of it happened; not then and not since.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Did Jesus’ resurrection result in even more people rising from the dead? Paul said it would; he said Jesus was the ‘first fruits’, meaning the first of many, with others following him in being raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15.20-21). Has any ordinary person – anybody at all – ever returned from the dead, long after they passed away? Not one; never mind the hundreds or thousands Paul and other early cultists had in mind. No Pope, no shining example of Christian piety, no activist or worker in the Lord’s vineyard has ever been resurrected during Christianity’s entire history. The dead have always remained stubbornly dead.

So no, this didn’t happen either.

After-life in Heaven

Did the resurrection result in people going to heaven after they died? This seems to be the view held by many Christians today. Unfortunately, it is not what the New Testament offers. Its writers believed that the Kingdom of Heaven would be coming to Earth in their very near future, not that ordinary mortals would invade God’s home post-mortem. Granted there are traces of this view emerging in the later books of the New Testament (given the failure of earlier predictions about the Kingdom coming to the Earth), but it is not what the founders of Christianity believed and hoped for.

In any case, who has ever died, again from the billions who have lived, and gone to heaven? No-one. Predictably, Christians now say that this transition won’t happen until the final judgement, scheduled for some unspecified time in the future (looks like God is as limited by time as we are.) That’s Christianity for you: always winter but never Christmas, everything in an ever-distant future.

No-one has gone to heaven as a result of the resurrection and no-one ever will.

New Creatures

Did the resurrection result in those who believed becoming ‘new creatures’? Paul said it would (2 Corinthians 5.17). He also said members of the new cult would be loving, forgiving and non-judgemental (1 Cor 5.12 & 13.14). There’s no evidence, from his letters, that they were, nor is there evidence from the long and often cruel history of the church. Christians today don’t always radiate loving-kindness either. Those who are caring and gentle before they become Christians remain so; those who are self-gratifying, vindictive or exploitative find a new context in which to be so. As I’ve said before, religion is like excess alcohol; it exaggerates the essential characteristics of a person, for good or for bad.

What it doesn’t do is make shiny ‘new creatures’.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Perhaps that nothing went to plan in post-resurrection Christianity. The promised results all failed to materialise. If the effects of the resurrection were and are not what they should have been, what does this say about their supposed cause?

If a storm is forecast and yet, when the time comes, there is no rain, wind or damage, wouldn’t we say that there was no storm?

If a woman said she was pregnant but during the ensuing nine months there was no physical evidence of pregnancy and ultimately no baby, wouldn’t we say she wasn’t pregnant at all?

If God’s Kingdom on Earth, brand new creatures, the resurrection of ordinary believers, the final judgement and eternal life in heaven failed to materialise, wouldn’t we say there can have been no resurrection? The supposed causal event of all these non-effects really can’t have happened. Jesus died and like all dead people stayed dead. The visions, dreams and imaginings of his early followers gave rise to a cult in his name, one that, ultimately failed on all levels to deliver what it promised.

There was no resurrection.

 

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Young men’s visions, old men’s dreams

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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.

 

The Resurrection Explained

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The earliest reference to Jesus being raised from the dead appears in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: 

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers (Corinthians 15.3-6).

Scholars are generally agreed that Paul is quoting from a very early creed, created within a few years of Jesus’ death. Ftbond, a commenter on Escaping Christian Fundamentalism, asks that if this creed was in existence

within a year or two or three after Jesus crucifixion (and, obviously, claimed resurrection), then one must ask: What was so important, so astounding, so amazing, so desirable, so attractive, so encaptivating (sic) and charismatic about that person that anyone would think him to be a “candidate” for resurrection in the first place?

It seems to me all of these questions and attendant adjectives are irrelevant and that ftbond is looking at the resurrection claims the wrong way round.

First, the creed doesn’t refer to ‘resurrection’. ‘He was raised’ is the term favoured by these earliest of Christians, one that doesn’t suggest they could only have had a reanimated corpse in mind.

There is no justification for supposing that ‘he was raised’ meant the same, either in Paul’s mind or that of the creed writers, as ‘bodily resurrection’. To assume they’re the same is to impose all the later accretions of the latter term onto the much simpler earlier one. We know Paul’s ‘risen Christ’ was a ‘revelation’ in his own head (let’s call it an hallucination) and nowhere does he suggest that Jesus was brought back to life in his old body. Paul talks only of Jesus being raised as ‘a life giving spirit’, not a ‘corrupt’ body of flesh at all (1 Corinthians 15.46).

Hallucinations of a ‘raised’ Jesus, then, long preceded the idea that he had returned in the same physical body that two days earlier had died on the cross. The notion that he was alive again resulted from the ‘visions’ – quite possibly dreams – that two or three of his early followers had. They took these visions to mean that Jesus had returned spiritually from beyond the grave.

Others came to believe in the risen Jesus, not because they personally experienced a vision or dream about him (though Paul insists there were some who did), but because of the reports of others experiencing them. Still more became believers as a result of reports of reports (of reports.) These experiences were then incorporated into creeds like the one quoted by Paul, and ultimately into the gospels when they were written 40-100 years later. By that time the original hallucinations were being worked up into real encounters with a Jesus physically resurrected in the flesh.

No-one needed to find Jesus ‘captivating’, ‘astounding’ and all those other adjectives ftbond applies to him; most converts, like Paul, would never even have met him. It is all a matter of interpretation; either a few early believers convinced themselves they’d experienced their late charismatic companion alive again, or, if he didn’t actually exist (and he is so mythic this is a possibility), they concocted a back story for their mystical experiences. The result was the creation of stories about Jesus, largely cobbled together from the ‘Scriptures’ (as Paul all but admits.)

This seems to me to be the most likely explanation of the ‘resurrection’. There is so much special pleading in the gospel accounts, so much that is clearly invented and designed to fulfil prophecy, so many inconsistencies and anomalies, that the entire enterprise smacks of imaginative invention, designed to lend credence to a few people’s innervisions.

Man imagines he sees Jesus

Congregation

Just last Friday, a pastor saw the Risen Lord.

I wonder: how different is Pastor Stovell Weems’ sighting from those of the disciples and Paul? Would you say it was just as real? Less real? Completely inauthentic? How do we decide?

For me, his encounter is every bit as real as those experienced by the disciples. I defy anyone to demonstrate otherwise.

Of course, accounts of visions, hallucinations and dreams, however old or however new, are not evidence that the resurrection really happened. Paul happily admits that his experiences were in his head (Galatians 1.16). It is entirely reasonable to conclude that Pastor Weems’ encounter with an apparition-like Risen Lord is exactly the same as Paul’s, and identical to that experienced by Mary, Peter and John in the gospels. Like theirs it’s vague – “I could sense his personality”, “I didn’t see his face” – and dream-like.

There is a difference though: the nutty pastor recounts his hallucination first-hand. The disciples’ encounters were reported third, fourth, fifth… hand, decades down the line.

 

The evidence for Christ

Christ

The evidence for Christ is not historical — it’s spiritual — and that evidence is indeed abundant for those who believe.

So says T. C Howitt, commenter on the Rational Doubt blog. And what is the ‘abundant evidence’, of which he speaks, for the existence of this spiritual being? It is, he says, ‘spiritual’. That’s quite a tautology: ‘the evidence for my fantasy is my fantasy’.

T.C. goes on to say that only those who truly believe can know that their experiences of the spiritual are real; the rest of us, he decrees, are blind. In other words, evidence that his fantasy is real is that other people have experienced versions of the same fantasy – some of them thousands of years ago. The ‘evidence’ for Christ (as opposed to Jesus) is therefore one’s own feelings plus the strange psychotic experiences Paul relates that he feels sure must be this supernatural being.

Science removes human subjectivity, as far as is possible, from its demonstration of how things are. All that Christians (and other believers in the supernatural) need do is similarly demonstrate that the spiritual realm, with its attendant beings, has an existence independent of human emotions, feelings and imagination. They could show us that, like gravity, electricity and quantum mechanics, Christ and angels, seventh heavens, demons and all manner of spiritual beings, have an existence separate from the internal, subjective experiences of human beings.

They’ve had two thousand years to do just this and still they haven’t. Why not? Because it can’t be done: Christ and his angels, God and his heaven are mythologies and, like all others, are constructs of the human mind.

 

Those resurrection experiences explained

Emmaus

Isn’t it amazing how modern Christians see Jesus in clouds (the picture in the previous post was taken from a site that genuinely believes it was Jesus in the sky – there were lots of others examples there too), on toast, in their own whipped-up emotions, through voices in their heads and as a result of inner-visions but deny that the original resurrection appearances were just the sort of thing? No, Jesus really appeared then, they say, resurrected in his damaged body – he showed Thomas the holes in his side, didn’t he?

Given people’s propensity for seeing things that are not really there – figures in clouds, the sense of a supernatural presence (‘Mother Mary comes to me’) – isn’t it more likely the original ‘manifestations’ of the risen Lord were precisely this; the same sort of ‘sightings’ that people claim to experience today? Maybe not on toast admittedly, but in their heads, in the euphoria of shared worship, in their need for comfort? I’ve done it myself, when I was a Christian. I sensed Jesus’ presence in carefully stage-managed worship, in intense prayer, in what I took to be his response to those prayers. Of course, these were nothing more than my interpreting my own emotions as something from outside myself; an intense and reassuring self-delusion.

Is there evidence of this sort of process in the accounts of the risen Christ? Sure there is – Paul’s encounter is a vision in his head (Galatians 1.16; 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15:8), while the gospels have Jesus say that whenever two or three of his followers are gathered together, there he will be amongst them (Matthew 18.20). He cannot have meant that, long after he’d left the Earth, he’d be physically present. Rather, this is a later explanation of the intense emotion early believers felt and decided could only be Jesus’ mystical presence – his so-called holy spirit (which isn’t called ‘The Comforter’ for nothing.) They were doing what I did and what millions of Christians still do today – interpreting the feelings they shared in these worshipful contexts as visits from the risen Lord. Later, the gospel writers made Jesus ‘predict’ just such experiences and then firmed them up, so that the accounts of warm feelings and visions became, retroactively, encounters with a physically manifested person.

That’s how it happens today – a vaguely human-like shape in the clouds or on toast and warm feelings become an experience of Jesus. We readily see human form where there is none (we are psychologically primed to seek out human faces) and attribute external agency to phenomena that don’t have any. No reason to suppose it was any different back in the first century.

How the bible gets almost everything wrong: volume 3

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So there we have it. The bible is historically, scientifically, medically, morally, and psychologically inaccurate. It is a muddle of contradiction and confusion, written by pre-scientific, bronze-age tribesmen and religious zealots who made guesses about how the world worked. In almost every respect they got it wrong.

So what does this mean for the central premise of the book, its claim that the Creator of the universe, the Father of mankind speaks through it? Why should we suppose that when it gets everything else wrong, it manages to get this right?

We shouldn’t. The bible’s knowledge of God comes from the same source as the rest of its information: the wild imaginings of men who knew no better. The bible itself tell us so, many times. By its own admission, it is a catalogue of dreams, visions and inner ‘revelations’. In the New Testament alone there are at least twenty ‘meaningful’ fantasies of this sort, including the entirety of its final book, the aptly named ‘Revelation of St John’. The bible comes from an era when dreams and other subjective internal experiences were widely regarded to have significance as messages – revelations – from the gods, not the routine and not-so-routine workings of the human mind we now know them to be. Every era, before the scientific, regarded them in this way.

So Paul interpreted his psychotic episodes, depicted as a disembodied voice and bright light in Acts but far more dreamlike and hallucinatory in Paul’s own descriptions, as experiences of the risen Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 9.1 & Galatians 1.11-12) and of heaven (2 Corinthians 12.1-4). From these he built up all of his fanciful ideas of ‘the Christ’, not one of them based on anything demonstrable or real. All of them mere notions in his head, notions that others were all to willing to accept as the words of a god. After all, wasn’t that how the Almighty always communicated with mere mortals?

Still today people surrender to these ‘revelations’; Paul’s theology built on out-of-body experiences, the disciples’ grief-induced visions, John’s hallucinogenic ‘bad trip’. These are the foundation of Christianity as we have it, providing all we know of God, Christ and salvation, and all of them without any basis in reality. Some believers even claim to have the same sort of ‘revelations’ themselves; God speaking to them, Christ bathing them in light, visions of Heaven. All of these, again, entirely within their heads and no more real than the occasional appearances of my long dead grandfather in my own dreams. However much Christians might insist on a rational basis for their beliefs, it is an inescapable fact that the faith has its origins in ancient people’s dreams and hallucinations. Rationalising after the fact doesn’t alter this.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in basing my life on others’ emotionally-induced inner visions, whether those of a Paul, or a Joseph Smith or a contemporary whack-job. I don’t want to learn about the world and life from people whose understanding and knowledge derive from their sub-conscious and hallucinatory fantasy life. Give me science any day, with its attempts to minimise subjective, human biases from its exploration of how things are. Give me its discoveries that have enhanced life, however imperfectly, in the here and now. Above all, give me honest rationality over sub-conscious imaginings and psychoses.

I have no interest in a god, or a saviour, constructed from other people’s dreams, visions or hallucinations, even, or especially, when they’re recorded in that most unreliable of sources, the bible.